Understanding Freedom

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Socialists often fall back to arguing about “the powerful” and “the weak” and exploitation to explain their philosophy. See, in their world, there are big guys and small guys, and the big guys are big because they beat up the small guys and steal their lunch money. Except when the small guys get together to make a new big guy that is supposed to beat up the other big guys on behalf of the small guys. Or something like that.

No one can ever point to the big guys. It’s either the “rich” or the “powerful” or the “strong.” At some points in history, it included the “landed” and the “educated.” In Russia, it used to include the “capable farmer.”

No one can ever point to the small guys, either. Apparently, it’s the small guys that have all the power—they create the machines, run the farms, deliver the packages, and do pretty much anything that’s useful (as opposed to the big guys, who sit around exploiting the small guys somehow.) But when you actually lay your finger on who a small guy is, it turns out they are far more powerful than even the socialist gives them credit for.

I’d like to point out what libertarians, conservatives, and pretty much anyone who doesn’t believe government is the answer sees.

See, there are no “big guys”. There are no “small guys.” There’s just “guys”—the people, including everyone from President Obama to Josef Stalin to Kim Jong Il to that bum down the street passed out in his own filth. And everyone in between.

Everyone has something. Some people have a lot of things. Some people have only a few things. But everyone has something. And as long as you have something, that’s enough to make a difference in this world. I guess we agree with socialists in this regard. “Yes, you can.” “Change starts with you.” Etc…

But where we diverge is that the natural state of man is that some few people rise to the top and continually exploit the people at the bottom. See, in the real world, the mighty fall. A lot. And hard. Where’s Microsoft today? How did Amazon take over the entire retail channel on the internet? Is Amazon going to last forever? Will it even last 10 years?

Go through the history of business, and you identify a few things. One, trends change, pretty rapidly sometimes. What worked yesterday is almost guaranteed not to work today. It doesn’t really have much to do with technology, either. The people change. The roads change. The weather changes. Our entire world is full of change in surprising and humbling ways. There are earthquakes and tsunamis and hurricanes and storms and floods and all kinds of crazy things happening all the time.

This is where your “something” enters the picture. The problem isn’t that there isn’t enough stuff in this world. There is plenty of “stuff”, no matter what “stuff” you are thinking about. There is so much stuff it is all rather confusing. It takes a real genius to put stuff in the right place to benefit people the most.

And this is the fundamental question that liberty answers. The question is simply this: “What do I do with my stuff?” The answer is, always, “Whatever benefits you the most.”

At the most basic level, this means consuming what you have. If you have doughnuts, and you’re hungry for doughnuts, eat them. Right now. Gobble gobble gobble yum yum. Now you’re happy.

But at the next level it means planning to prepare yourself for the future. Eating doughnuts might make you feel good right now, but if you have blood sugar problems, you’ll get sick after a few minutes. You might also get fat or sick after eating too many doughnuts. Whatever it is, you have to think about what you have, and what you’ll need in the future, and not just what you need right now. This is where we get the concept of rationing. People limit what they consume in their own self-interests, or rather, for their self in the future.

This is hardly the beginning. The next level involves trade. You need something that someone else has, and you have something they want, so you naturally arrange for a mutually beneficial trade. Both you and the other guy are happy, provided you weren’t lying to each other. Trade is a fundamental human right, something no government can ever regulate. Even in North Korea, people are buying and selling food and goods, despite the government’s intense effort to banish trade.

A good economic system has a strong trade system where people can trust each other. A large part of this comes from individual virtue in the aggregate. A small part comes from certain government protections and assurances. For instance, if you trade with someone who lies about what they are giving you, you can help society and yourself by punishing that man for the damages they caused by lying to you.

Next comes the concept of money, which makes a marvelous medium of exchange. With money, you can trade far more quickly and efficiently. Of course, with money comes the problems of inflation and deflation, as well as considerations of borrowing and lending, investments and returns. Now you start talking about what you have with numbers that change over time. No one can control what people use as money. They use whatever they like as long as it is good currency. Money works best when it is stable, plentiful, and divisible. It is the individual’s right to choose what they will use as money and how they will value it.

But also comes the idea of a contract. This is an agreement to trade now and in the future. Just like trading itself, contracting is a fundamental human right. No one can interfere with the contracts a person might become party to, except certain kinds of contracts that violate basic human rights. With contracts, we need ways to resolve contract disputes fairly and efficiently.

This is only the beginning. With money and trade, you can create markets, places where buyers and sellers can come together to trade rapidly and efficiently. Markets work best when you have more buyers and sellers. The more buyers and sellers that have access to the market the better off everyone is. Well, most everyone. Those that are on the losing end of the trends will find markets most horrible for business. The very markets they used to rise to power now give power to their competitors to beat them. It is in the people’s interests that markets are allowed to exist free of undue influence on any of the players. While we cannot dictate how private people use their land, we can dictate that no law can limit participation in a market, except for those people who would ruin the market for everyone.

These things are direct products of freedom, things that can only exist when people are allowed to act in their self-interest. Although powerful people will rise to the top, they do so because they are providing things people really want and need, and doing so at a more competitive price than anyone else. As long as they provide this great public service—and it is a service—they will be rich and fat and happy.

Problems arise when government picks the winners and losers in the marketplace, or even decides it wants to compete with private interests. No monopoly has ever survived without government protection of the same, at least not as long as they didn’t provide the best product for the cheapest price. Even Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and other giant corporations representing the most powerful corporations in the history of the planet in their fields will not last long if they cannot deliver superior products for an inferior price.

Socialists don’t trust the natural market forces that arise when people are truly free to choose to level the playing field. Instead, they believe that somehow, these powerful people are able to meddle with the system itself.

The idea that a powerful person or corporation is able to dictate, to the slightest degree, the individual choice and actions of the people to such a degree that they will not choose what is best for themselves is absolutely absurd. In the 80’s, we worried about subliminal messaging. We believed that people could use this to control our behavior. My oh my, how wrong we were. It simply doesn’t work.

As long as people are free to choose, the most powerful people in the world are afraid. When is the last time you’ve heard of the richest people in the world not looking with horror and disgust at the up-and-coming challengers to their supremacy? What do they do when they are challenged—reform themselves to become more competitive and productive, or turn to mommy government to protect them from the big bad mean little guys?

When you realize that the only people who cry for help from the government are the rich and powerful, and when you realize that only government can give them the protection they need by limiting the freedoms of the people, then you will see socialism for what it really is: A plan to keep the small guy small and the big guy big, exactly contrary to what it claims to be.

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