My local NPR affiliate regularly asks its listeners to contribute, and read aloud on the air, an essay on the theme “This I Believe.” Coming from NPR, you can imagine which kinds of beliefs they might choose to implicitly endorse with their megaphone, and ideology aside, the whole idea has a whiff of earnest hokeyness about it. Despite this, I have been tempted to submit an essay, because I think it a very good thing to both have and articulate principled beliefs. Such an affirmation of beliefs might also make an interesting, if eccentric, way of introducing oneself to others. Ayn Rand supposedly challenged everyone to whom she was introduced, “State your principles!” I thought it might make a good topic for a debut guest column at my favorite libertarian blog, and I am grateful that my friend Peter agreed. Had it not been for his invitation, the world would have been deprived of knowing what I believe, because I doubt that Big Government Radio would have found it suitable for broadcast. I believe in freedom, in individual liberty.

I am confident that if you are reading this blog, you believe strongly in freedom too, and therefore this debut performance might be an anticlimactic exercise in preaching to the choir. But it is always useful to return to fundamentals. Of course, the fact that there are some people who believe in maximum individual liberty and autonomy (though not nearly enough, it seems) presupposes that there are others who do not, and none of us need to be convinced of this. It becomes more dismayingly obvious with every Democratic presidential debate that there are those who believe that we cannot be trusted to make decisions for ourselves, that the Federal government must decide for us. But even those seemingly anti-freedom types actually believe in freedom and individual autonomy too — but with an important caveat.

I will discuss this caveat by recalling a bit of President George W. Bush’s second inaugural address (emphasis mine):

We also hear doubts that democracy is a realistic goal for the greater Middle East, where freedom is rare. Yet it is mistaken, and condescending, to assume that whole cultures and great religions are incompatible with liberty and self-government. I believe that God has planted in every human heart the desire to live in freedom. And even when that desire is crushed by tyranny for decades, it will rise again.

Bush was derided from both left and right for this idea, and while one might take issue with parts of this quote, I believe the essence of the idea — that every human being desires freedom — is actually true, as long as we define freedom rather loosely as something like “maximum possible control over your own individual destiny.” I may be quite mistaken, but I do not believe, as some stated back then, that some people (especially in the Middle East) actually like living under dictators or kings or Supreme Leaders (or big governments?), and having the shots called for them. But if you could take the average Iraqi aside and ask privately, out of earshot of male family members, “Would you rather have maximum control over your own life, or would you rather that someone else have it?” I find it hard to believe that very many people would affirm the latter. They would, of course, prefer to control their own lives.

The problem is that many Iraqis – many Americans for that matter – want to be the strongman or dictator. They want autonomy and freedom of action for themselves but not for other people. That is the important caveat. They may want it for selfish reasons or for seemingly altruistic ones (it’s for your own good!), but that doesn’t matter, the caveat is the same either way. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren want their own freedom. They want the good life — the multiple homes, the do-nothing job with the big paycheck and excellent benefits, the ability to hop on a jet plane and travel wherever they feel like going, etc. They want those things for themselves. But as with freedom of speech, the difficult part is always wanting it for other people too, people who might use that freedom to choose differently from you.

Notice I prefaced this assertion of belief with the words, “I may be mistaken…” Herein lies another big reason why I believe in individual freedom. I am a mere mortal, I have very limited knowledge, and I do not know best! I may not even know what is best for me – though I should be free to choose for me, even to choose wrongly, and if so suffer the consequences. I certainly don’t know what is best for you, or for the other 330-odd million people in this country. Neither does Bernie or Liz. If anything, I think I could make a better claim to knowing what’s best for the average American than they could, because I am not one of a hundred senators or a few hundred tenured Harvard professors. My income is much closer to the American median, and I think I have a lifestyle which is much more similar to that of a far larger number of Americans. But even so, just because my life is outwardly similar to yours doesn’t mean I have any business telling you what choices you should make. So long as you and those you interact with are consenting adults, and your choices don’t directly harm, or involve a cost, for some third party (and yes the word “directly” does a lot of work in that sentence, but that could be the subject of another essay), then you should be free to do pretty much whatever you want.

Of course, you should also be free to experience whatever benefits or negative consequences which flow from those decisions. People must be allowed to succeed, but also to fail. The state should make no effort whatsoever to protect them from the consequences of their poor choices, because it can only do so by spending taxpayer money. Doing so also enables those poor choices, and ensures more poor choices in the future. If individuals, families, charities, private entities want to step in and help people who have made bad choices, they should be free to do so. And if government didn’t do this, they would — they always have. Conservatives are famous for taking a dim and pessimistic view of human nature, but it is really the progressives, who think that we will all let each other starve and freeze to death if the government doesn’t force us to help each other, who seem to really hate humanity.

We libertarians are often misunderstood. People think we want anarchy. No, we simply want the government to be only as big as it needs to be in order to do the thing which only it can do — to secure and protect our freedoms. People think we are antisocial, or social Darwinists. No, we want to help others, we just want to do so voluntarily, on our own terms. The government acting as a faceless wholesaler and redistributor of resources to strangers probably makes us less apt — and certainly less able — to be charitable voluntarily. Why should I give to the March of Dimes when I have already worked five months out of every twelve just to pay my federal, state, and local taxes?

The problem with writing about the blessings of liberty, or the detriments of Big Government, is knowing when to stop, because there is so much raw material available. There is plenty for future columns, if I haven’t worn out my welcome already. Thanks for letting me share my most treasured belief with you.

David Curtin

About David Curtin

David Curtin is a classical pianist and college professor who also enjoys working on old cars, landscaping with rocks, and freedom.


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