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Friday, October 3, 2008

Libertarian History

Intro | Pt 1: Ideas | -Pt 2: History- | Pt 3: Solutions | Conclusion

Human history is libertarian history. It is the story of the human spirit struggling and triumphing against affliction, wrath, danger, and want. Whenever mighty souls stood against injustice, intolerance, and oppression- there was liberty. Wherever enterprising minds were allowed to discover and benefit from inventive new ways to conquer scarcity and meet human needs through greater efficiency and productivity- there was liberty. Whenever people lived their lives in peace and humility, with good will and benevolence for their neighbors- there was liberty.

The history of libertarianism- like all history- is not Euro-centric. It didn't start in Greece or Jerusalem. It wasn't an American innovation or a French idea. Liberty is the naturally proper condition and social framework for human interaction. Humans, by nature, require a free society in order to flourish. Enlightened visionaries at all times and places caught glimpses of the libertarian ideal. True patriots and people of good will in all corners of the world have fought and died for liberty. Men of letters in all eras, stretching back into antiquity have articulated, defended, and contributed to libertarian thought.

Liberty in Antiquity

Depicted above is the ancient Sumerian word, "Ama-gi," written in cuneiform. It is believed to be the oldest surviving expression of the concept of liberty. It denotes liberty as it pertains to freedom from slavery. This serves to underscore that liberty is not a new idea. It is in fact, a very ancient one.

The ancient Chinese also made great contributions to libertarian thought. The Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu may be humanity's first recorded libertarian. Surprised? Many readers would be interested to know that the Tao te Ching says the following:

Why are people starving?
Because the rulers eat up the money in taxes.
Therefore the people are starving.

Why are the people rebellious?
Because the rulers interfere too much.
Therefore they are rebellious.

Lao Tzu also captured the essence of Adam Smith's "invisible hand" thousands of years before the publication of Wealth of Nations:

The Tao abides in non-action,
Yet nothing is left undone.
If kings and lords observed this,
The ten thousand things would develop naturally.

There are also some strikingly libertarian ideas in the writings of ancient Israel. Its ethnic narrative of deliverance from slavery encouraged and comforted the victims of slavery in America and their advocates, inspiring heroes like Harriet Tubman who escaped from slavery and helped rescue dozens more slaves with the help of safe houses along the "Underground Railroad."

One of the most libertarian of the ancient Israelite texts is a passage from Chapter 8 of the first book of Samuel. After the people of Israel demanded a strong, national king to replace their system of common law and local, autonomous (albeit theocratic) government, the prophet Samuel said to them:

"This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots...

And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants. And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants.

And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants."

Before concluding this section, it should be noted that ultimately, the ancient world religions generally espouse a humility, meekness, and benevolence that if strictly adhered to, would produce a society wherein no one would forcibly act to limit or violate the lives, liberties, and property of other human beings.

Liberty in Modernity

In modernity, the horrors of absolute monarchy, colossal standing armies, endless warfare, ethnic genocide, failed central planning, the slave trade, and systematic ideological indoctrination have all occurred on a scale that would have been incomprehensible to the ancients. Indeed, more blood was shed (mostly by governments) in the 20th century than all nineteen preceding centuries combined.

Yet paradoxically, liberty has also abounded in modern times. The wholesale liberation of most modern human beings from want of enough food to eat has in itself been a spectacular achievement. Notice that the few remaining areas of the world where starvation and extreme poverty still exist, are the same places that suffer the ravages of endless war, systemic government corruption, poorly-defined (or unacknowledged) rights, and the most strangling government regulations.

It is a testament to liberty that the rest of the modern world is so much more affluent than the ancient world. As Ayn Rand put it in 1966: "If you look at the world of today and if you look back at history, you will see the answer: the degree of a country's freedom is the degree of its prosperity. Another current catch-phrase is the complaint that the nations of the world are divided into 'haves' and the 'have-nots.' Observe that the 'haves' are those who have freedom, and that it is freedom that the 'have-nots' have not."

In addition to the economic prosperity of a modern world that respects private property rights in an unprecedented way, basic civil rights are understood and acknowledged in modernity like at no other time in history. Documents like the Magna Carta and United States Bill of Rights spelled out in no uncertain terms that there should be limits on power, that certain freedoms and choices are inalienable- that they cannot be taken away. The radical idea that the state is a servant of the people and the civil order- not the other way around- spread like wildfire.

From the coffee houses of France to the local assemblies of America, from the monasteries of Germany to the universities of England, people began to argue the right of the individual to his (and later her) own conscience and free choice. This idea continues to spread to every corner and culture of the world to this very day, transforming whole civilizations into flourishing, liberal (in the classical sense of that word), secular societies; and inspiring revolutions the world over, from the many countless Wars for Independence, to the French Revolution, to Gandhi's active non-violent resistance in India, to Mousavi's "Green Revolution" in Iran.


While it would be impossible in such a short space to chronicle the entire history of liberty in modern or ancient times, the important thing to remember is that liberty is not a new idea, but that over the last few centuries, both liberty and statist tyranny have advanced their ideas and agendas in unprecedented ways. At the present time, they are locked in a fierce, global confrontation. Only time will tell if the 21st century will overshadow even the darkest aspects of the 20th, or if freedom will shine forth from it like never before.

In the next section, we will examine multiple political problems faced by the modern world, and explore libertarian solutions to them all.

Intro | Pt 1: Ideas | -Pt 2: History- | Pt 3: Solutions | Conclusion