Are Human Beings Capable of Freedom?

Dear Dr. Hurd: I wanted to respond to your column “Is it Really the Economy, Stupid?” I agree that bad economic and governance policies are founded in bad ethics. What is troubling, and something I have been thinking about a lot, is that human civilization seems to make the same or very similar mistakes throughout history — with only minor periods where freedom prevailed.

Does this imply a cognitive limitation in the nature of our species? Or, does it mean that our cognitive progress is dependent on our social structure both for retaining prior knowledge and development beyond the current point? Sort of like bad politics leading to bad reasoning — and vice versa.

Or does it mean that because of differences in motivation, some people will pursue independent cognitive development while some are content to know only what they are told? It seems like we have the ability to pull ourselves up but for some reason we can’t sustain it.

Dr. Hurd’s reply: Liberty is possible. There’s nothing in human cognition, or human nature, to prevent it. If it were metaphysically against man’s nature to embrace and support liberty, it would never have happened — even as the exception rather than the norm.

The historical case for liberty and individual rights is overwhelming — even breathtaking. Every time freedom has been permitted to flourish, human progress has jumped by leaps and bounds. Case in point: Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome (periods of relative freedom, for those times). Case in point: The United States of America — mostly free for its first several hundred years with progress unprecedented in all of human history.

Economic freedom is no less important than personal freedom. Periods of relative or actual economic freedom have resulted in the Industrial Revolution (or the Inventive Period as Andrew Bernstein calls it), the comparatively small period of history when most of human material progress was made. Even in today’s hampered no-longer-truly-market-economy, the pockets of (relative) freedom in the technological arena have led to widespread growth and productivity with computers, smart phones, Internet businesses and the like.

The lesson is that human beings have the capacity to practice economic and personal freedom. What hasn’t yet happened is the willingness to grasp that the two things are connected: Liberty (including economic liberty) and success for life on earth.

Absent brain injury or illness, people do not possess cognitive limitations by nature. Humans are equipped with their means for survival: abstract, conceptual reasoning. Reasoning gives us science and business, the things required for a quality life on earth. Science and business require liberty to actualize what they have to offer.

Many human beings unfortunately do impose cognitive limitations on themselves — or more often, allow others to do so. In today’s society the prime “movers” of cognitive limitations are the social scientists, humanities intellectuals and others (politicians, especially those currently in power) who impose false ideas on people. The false ideas include the false belief that man’s primary purpose is to serve others rather than live a self-responsible and rewarding life; the idea that government creates economic growth, not actual producers in the marketplace; and the idea that left alone — without lots of government restrictions, controls and subsidies — human beings will perish.

None of these false beliefs are supported by the minority of periods in human history when people were left mostly free, including economically. Yet the prevailing intellectuals, talking heads, academics, media and politicians (including our current President, himself a product of academia) insist that “progress” and the road to the future consists of near-total if not total government control of everything. This is a deep and profound error in thinking. It’s not metaphysical, i.e. it’s not in the nature of man’s mind, brain or capacity to keep making this error. The fact that humans have flourished and progressed as much as they have — and in spite of all these false anti-liberty ideas throughout the centuries — is proof that there’s nothing in human nature to make this inevitable.

Man’s proper and natural state, if the proper ethics and social system were consistently adopted, is continued upward improvement. Since human society and culture boil down to individuals, we might look at society as an individual “patient.” The patient suffers from conflicting results based on faulty and flawed premises. The postmodern academics — the Obamas of the world — who we place in power to control us represent a conflict. We (i.e., most of us) want upward mobility and prosperity, both for ourselves and the world as a whole. Yet (most of us) continue to listen to these people who tell us we are our brother’s keepers, we have no real rights other than what government grants us, and we certainly lose most of our rights the extent to which we succeed and flourish materially (i.e., class warfare).

These anti-liberty, anti-Jeffersonian attitudes and beliefs (and the policies which follow) undercut and ultimately destroy the prosperity and continued upward mobility (most) of us want to see. As a society — defined as a number of individuals who embody the dominant trends — we are conflicted. We want one thing, but we refuse to adopt the ideas (the sovereignty of each individual life above the mob) to make it possible. In short, we want freedom and prosperity, but we keep electing people like Obama — or watered-down clones of him — to preach and impose on us ideas that make what we want impossible.

Time and again, human capacity and potential have triumphed against the petty and irrational dominating most of human civilization (including what passes for leadership today). This is why at root, I’m an optimist. I’m very negative about the current state of our culture, including politics; but this irrationality is so weak when compared to the unbelievable power of the human potential for thought and growth, that I know the latter will always win out — in the end, if not now. The proof of this is that human life on earth has progressed from the cave to the microchip regardless of the incredibly stupid ideas and philosophies for the most part people have let themselves accept.

When an individual seeing a psychotherapist has conflicting feelings and engages in contradictory actions, we call him disordered, dysfunctional or simply conflicted. Sooner or later, the individual must identify and correct his inconsistencies or contradictions — or else live with the consequences.

On the social level, bad ideas and policies (left uncorrected) will ultimately drive out good ones. That’s happening today. The more we allow government to hamper or restrict our economic freedom, the more problems develop — and the more there appears to be a genuine need for still more government hampering, restriction and even nationalizing. Uncorrected, it can only lead to the complete annihilation of material and intellectual progress: A communistic state run by the elitists we currently elect to office. Americans are naive to think “it can’t happen here.” Wrong principles and bad ideas lead to an awful existence. There is no geographic immunity. I’m not suggesting it’s inevitable that it happen here. But on our current course — under Obama for sure — we’re getting there. “Progressive” means progress towards something. The definition of progress under the “progressive” postmodern leftists is — well, you can see it for yourselves. More and more government, all the time. Unsustainable debt, a weakening national defense, more and more people dependent on government authorities for their livelihood, and (perhaps worst of all) a decline in excellence and innovation in favor of the mediocre and the “good enough” to just get by.

Human beings have the ability to sustain any progress they made. But they also must exercise free will. Free will is first and foremost the willingness and capacity to think, including the capacity to correct contradictions and pursue an unfettered free market, individual rights approach. In other words: The exact opposite of everything our government has been doing, particularly for the last 4-5 years.

Everything in human capacity makes unprecedented progress — as the permanent norm — eminently possible. However, nothing is inevitable. People are free to identify and practice the right course of action: liberty for all, in all areas of life. When and if this ever happens, it’s upward and onward for human life … essentially forever.



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