Tim Sturm
Tim Sturm

Liberty ... Equality ... Humility??

I was intrigued, when I found the cover of the September 11-17th issue of The Economist bearing the words "Liberty, Equality, Humility." Even better, inside was an entire thirty pages devoted to a survey of liberty and its progress over the 20th century, entitled "Freedom's Journey," and written by no less than the editor of The Economist himself, Bill Emmott. Here at last, I thought, the philosophies underpinning The Economist's muted support for free markets would be revealed, my frustrations with its inconsistent and understated approach resolved. Mr Emmott even gave a lecture on his survey in London, which I had the opportunity to attend.

However, I was immediately met by the surprising claim in the survey's opening passages that "the belief in negative liberty [is something that] The Economist has always advocated", and a complaint that, "too often of late, liberalism has been expressed as a mere plea for efficiency, a technical claim that, justified or not, appears to ignore all that is human." ("Negative liberty" is the term used for the principle of freedom from the initiation of force.) In fact, this is precisely the criticism I would have levelled at The Economist — too focused on economic outcomes, not vocal enough on liberty.

Where, for example, was The Economist's belief in "negative liberty" when the liberty of Bill Gates, or Coca-Cola, needed defending? Its anonymous writers were right there, shamelessly applauding the anti-trust bureaucrats for their violation of Gates' right to do with his own product as he saw fit. Surely this was nothing more than a plea for economic efficiency, however misguided. (Granted, even Bill Gates was guilty of not defending the liberty of Bill Gates, but that is no excuse for The Economist's lack of principle).

On plenty of other issues too, The Economist's approach vacillates disappointingly from 'liberal' to pragmatic. It supports drug legalisation, or at a minimum decriminalisation, but also compulsory retirement savings, compulsory state education, taxation, and the state monopoly over the money supply. In a survey of public health and social welfare (24/12/98), its starting point for analysis was "the most sensible way to rethink social insurance is to get away from all the ideology and instead ask, what works?" (is this not itself very particular in its ideology?), and not surprisingly concluded that "what works" is forcible cross-subsidisation and government regulation. What is all this, if not pragmatic support for mere economic efficiency?

All becomes clear however, when one discovers what is meant by "liberty, equality, humility," which is Bill Emmott's mantra for the future well-being of mankind. In particular, one might wonder how "negative liberty" is reconciled with "equality", which immediately implies the forcible redistribution of wealth.

The answer is that it requires a good deal of equivocation. Mr Emmott states: "The conflict [that] arises when equality is taken to mean equality of outcome or of circumstance ... is also true of the more realistic meaning of equality, namely equality of opportunity. But the sacrifice of liberty required to invest in mass public education, or to forbid discrimination in jobs or elsewhere on irrelevant grounds such as race or sex, is one that people, in general, have been willing to make voluntarily."

The evasion here should be self-evident. The writer is attempting to bury the ugly nature of that which is being advocated by deferring to a logical contradiction whereby the concept of voluntary action is ascribed to a collective. In fact, The Economist regularly defers to this contradiction in its interminable championing of 'democratic freedoms.' Investment in public education would not involve the sacrifice of liberty at all, were there anything voluntary about it; and one cannot be voluntarily forbidden to discriminate. The attempt to further bury the evasion with the qualification, "in general," is also of note. It is typical of the timid, vague phraseology one might recognise in The Economist whenever something important is about to be asserted.

Which is a moot point when one considers The Economist's third hope for humanity: humility.

Hope for the next century, apparently, lies in "an age of humility." This is because, "the practical case against [deeming what is best for other people's interests] is that those doing the deeming, even when well-meaning, are claiming a knowledge and certainty which they do not — and cannot — have." In other words, humility is seen as a defence against the "arrogance" of economists and politicians who claim knowledge over and above the market, and of scientists, who make incorrect judgements about the environment, about the safety of food and medicines, and so on, which are translated into legislation restricting the free market.

In one sense, this is absolutely correct. Indeed, The Economist itself once published an outstanding critique of environmentalism and the devastating effects of false scientific knowledge. ("Plenty of Doom," 20/12/97).

However, the fact that some scientific knowledge is false or incomplete, or that science can be manipulated for unscrupulous political ends, or that politicians' attempts to manipulate an economy are doomed to obvious failure, implies nothing about the potential, and the actuality, of human knowledge and certainty more generally. These facts simply emphasise that knowledge must be tested against the most rigorous standard, which is of course, reality, in accordance with our most powerful tool for comprehending the universe, logic. Indeed, it is of utmost importance that such "false certainties" are countered by emphasising the aspect of their falseness, rather than by undermining regard for the validity of reason by inferring more generally that the very possibility of certainty is somehow contradicted. Once the validity of our most vital faculty, reason, is conceded, the case for the individual is already lost — a fact, incidentally, that was not lost on Hitler, Mao, or any other despot one cares to name.

Unfortunately, Mr Emmott makes precisely this inference. He argues, "the most important knowledge that has been gained [this century] is the scope of our ignorance," and, "the striking thing ... is not how much scientists know but how little," from which he infers, "where [science] still errs is in its occasional air of certainty." Worse, he tries to find objective support for his argument by identifying the apparent shortcomings in science as a principal cause for the "puzzling" modern day phenomena of the continued success of religion and the growth of new age spiritual beliefs.

His basic error here is his failure to distinguish between the stock of scientific knowledge and the processes of gaining and evaluating scientific knowledge, that is, between science and epistemology. His argument implies that there exists some minimum level of scientific development that would simply command the reversal of all irrationalism. And yet, we have seen thousands of years of obvious scientific development, but by Mr Emmott's own analysis, the popular acceptance for irrational ideas seems to have hardly abated. In truth, the phenomenon of widespread irrationalism is not an indictment of the current level of scientific development at all, but a reflection of the prevailing epistemological belief that knowledge and certainty are impossible and logic an imperfect tool for understanding the universe. Indeed, this phenomenon hardly seems "puzzling" when a magazine of the popular intellectual stature of The Economist can claim that certainty is essentially an error of hubris.

Similar themes continue in the justification for free markets:

"The liberal presumption in favour of the market, of capitalism, and indeed of freedom itself, is driven by intellectual humility: the acceptance that a process of constant experimentation, involving the freely expressed views and actions of millions of people, is likely to produce a better, more adaptable outcome than one involving a committee of economists, politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen or even journalists, drawing up a grand blueprint. This presumption is humble because it acknowledges the extent of our ignorance."

Sound familiar? It should — it is precisely the subjective, altruistic view of Freidrich A. Hayek, thoroughly demolished by Dr Larry Sechrest in Issue 28 of The Free Radical, and Lindsay Perigo in Issue 34. It should be no surprise that Mr Emmott praises Hayek's "great book", The Road to Serfdom.

Under this view, the primary justification for the free market is that it results in the best economic outcome, or in this case not even this — in Economist-speak, it is merely likely to result in the best economic outcome. It is the view that the practical concerns of the economy, or rather, the subjective concerns of the collective, take precedence over any moral rights of the individual whenever free markets are considered to fall short of those concerns. Again, the root of this collectivist 'morality' lies precisely in the conception that the most vital attribute of the individual — the capacity for knowledge, rationality and reason — is considered so fundamentally limited. This is what is so offensive about comments such as, "liberty [is] valued as a protection against ... certainty of any kind."

Mr Emmott's scepticism of knowledge also undermines any practical case that can be made for free markets, by diminishing the relevance of objective reasoning and elevating the subjective. For instance, who among the ignorant can deny the subjective requirements of the economy, such as Mr Emmott's voluntarily provided public education, or assert that the free market would better meet such 'requirements' anyway? Thus we are disempowered not only of the moral right to liberty, but also from asserting the economic case for its corollary social system: capitalism.

Mr Emmott anticipates this last criticism when he questions how the case for free markets can be made when ignorance is so pervasive, particularly, ironically enough, among economists. His answer is almost apologetic: even though The Economist advocates free markets, "humility does lie at the heart of [its] liberal philosophy."

Perhaps by this Mr Emmott is referring to the fact already alluded to that The Economist tends to lapse into equivocal phraseology as a means of absolving responsibility for asserting anything with conviction, where everything is irritatingly qualified by a "could be," "might be," or "is perhaps justified." Nevertheless, an assertion feebly made is still an assertion. This instance providing the perfect example, no amount of equivocation can conceal the self-imposed contradiction that a free market, or for that matter any other kind of social system, cannot be advocated with certainty if it bases its reasoning on the fact that nothing can be said with certainty. And more to the point, one must question whether such a craven message is likely to present any challenge to the likes of Messrs Hussein, Castro, or Blair, and their supporters.

There are other problems with the survey I could focus on, such as its explicit tolerance for envy as an approach to wealth inequality ("if those plump and prosperous types care about having more than others, why should it not be legitimate for others to care a lot about having less?"), and, in a causal analysis of financial collapses, its blurring of the distinction between actions of laissez-faire and statist intervention to support a claim of capitalism's essential instability.

There are also positives, such as the numerous titbits of useful information. An interesting statistic for instance, is the apparent number of people killed directly by governments in the 20th century: 170 million, compared with just 37 million in wars. The communist regimes of the Soviet Union and China alone were responsible for the deaths of 62 million and 35 million people respectively. And yet it is all the more perplexing in the context of such facts that a discussion of liberty should appear so utterly impassive. The Economist is outstanding as a source of international news and information, but one clearly has to be very careful with its interpretations.

However, I finish here with two final impressions of The Economist's mighty clarion call for the 21st century, humility:

Firstly, the cover of "Freedom's Journey" has a rather endearing animated depiction of Dorothy, the Tin-Man and the Scarecrow following a winding yellow brick road to a far off utopian Oz (the picture would no doubt be banned in New Zealand — the Tin-Man is smoking a cigar). Fittingly, as far as this survey goes as a defence of liberty, the lion is missing, the one that sought to discover bravery.

Secondly, a question from the back row in the closing seconds of Mr Emmott's speech: "We have a statue of liberty. What would a statue of humility look like?"

Give me The Free Radical any day.

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