Optimism, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Freedom

by Logan Albright

In the many debates I have engaged in on the relative merits of a free society, the most common charge that is leveled against me is that my arguments are Utopian, that they assume too positive and moral a human nature ever to succeed. "People are no good," I am chastised, "and therefore they must be controlled."

To this I always respond that, on the contrary, the success of a free society requires only that people will act in their self-interest, without assuming any implicit morality. The axiom upon which praxeology is built is that humans act to achieve goals. The moral character of these actions is not supposed to be anything in particular, and certainly not inherently altruistic.

Upon reflection however, I must confess that there is a grain of truth in these accusations. For though I do not concede that any special goodness is necessary for liberty to "work," a certain assumption of goodness does contribute to my belief that liberty is desirable in the first place.

Murray Rothbard, in a 1971 article reprinted as chapter 32 in the collection Economic Controversies, states the problem thus:
If men were like ants, there would be no interest in human freedom. If individual men, like ants, were uniform, interchangeable, devoid of specific personality traits of their own, then who would care whether they were free or not? Who, indeed, would care if they lived or died?
Here, Rothbard has encapsulated the difference between the competing ideologies of statism and libertarianism: the assumptions underlying the nature of man himself.

There has been a disturbing tendency of late for so-called libertarians to lapse into pessimism about mankind and its future. A certain elitism has been revealed in the contemptuous reference to voters in a Democracy as lazy, ignorant sheep who do not know what's good for them.

It is easy to understand why discouragement could lead people to feel this way. There is still a great deal of misery in the world, and the government is responsible for  large share of it. In the short run, it is difficult to observe any real change occurring as a result of our efforts to promote freedom.

Nevertheless, I allege that this attitude is antithetical to libertarianism at it's core. If one holds so dismal a view of humanity, why then advocate for its liberation? If voters are sheep, why should they not be fleeced?

A belief in the value of liberty has always rested on a deeper optimism about the nature of man, a belief that man deserves freedom, regardless of what he may choose to do with it. This is evident to anyone reading the great proponents of individual liberty throughout history, whose optimistic attitudes shine through even their densest tomes.

Rothbard was irrepressibly cheerful. Ayn Rand, despite her general grumpiness, had a manifestly heroic view of man. Walter Block, in a recent interview, happily acknowledged that, while he had no expectation of winning the battle for liberty in his lifetime, he was having fun waging it nevertheless. My favorite writer, G. K. Chesterton, who always possessed libertarian instincts that were unfortunately suppressed by the traditional subservience of his very English nature, was remarkable in that he could find joy in something as simple as a wooden post or a cloud of dust. Life, for these writers, was a wonderful gift, a gift which man was at least sufficiently worthy of to be allowed to enjoy it unoppressed. Every individual should be allowed to pursue his full potential without being coerced. Whether one holds this view or not is the fulcrum on which political philosophy pivots.

On the other hand, a dim and gloomy outlook on life has always been the province of the statist, dating back at least to Voltaire, whose short novel Candide mocked the idea of optimism with such verve and wit that it was scarcely able to recover. Since then, dour Malthusians, Luddites, eugenicists, and environmentalists have been wailing about the end of the world and the wickedness of our modern times, and especially of man himself, even as standards of living rise and the use of violence declines.

On the other end of the statist spectrum, we have the somber puritans, who equally wish to control the lives of their fellow man, but who justify it with appeals to religion and the avoidance of sin rather than the exaltation of live that would be more proper in the embrace of a loving god.

Lord Keynes, the patron saint of statism in the 20th century, sums up this unpleasant fatalism in his famous dictum "in the long run, we're all dead." Comedian Louis CK, by no means a libertarian, but who, given his recent comments, is hopefully headed towards a conversion, has popularly parodied this attitude by noting that "everything is wonderful and no one is happy."

It is the dismal view of man held by the statists that causes them to be statists in the first place, and this also underlies the close connection to materialism often observed among their number. If men are interchangeable bundles of chemicals, why not manipulate them like pawns on a chessboard to achieve a desired result? It is only the belief in the individual virtue and nobility of the human race that leads to a desire for freedom.

I further believe that the nobility of man is borne out by history. Stephen Pinker's wonderful study "The Better Angels of Our Natures" exhaustively catalogs all of the ways in which life is less short, brutish, and ugly than it ever has been before. Throughout the centuries, human progress towards freedom, peace and prosperity has proceeded despite the obstacles thrown in its way by tyrants. Though it may not feel like it in the present, we are vastly better off today than we ever were under Medieval feudalism or classical imperialism.

So, to return to my original point, the charge that I take rather a rosy view of mankind is not wholly unwarranted. I remain an admitted optimist. Yet, I do not view this as a weakness in my philosophy, so much as a starting point for why I bother philosophizing at all. Just as Descartes was able to verify his existence through the observation of his own doubt, I verify the value in making men free by the observation that men are worth valuing at all.

Although I still do not think a positive view of human nature is necessary to believe a free society can succeed, such a view is at least helpful in the belief that freedom is a desirable end in the first place. We libertarians should all rejoice in the beauty of life and of our fellow humans, rather than allowing temporary setbacks to drag us down into the mire of pessimism that characterizes our ideological opponents.
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Logan Albright is a writer and economist in Washington, DC.





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