Flavoured by the cost of liberty, freedom is an acquired taste - Business Day

25 June 2018 - It is property rights that "anchor human liberty in all free and open societies".

Michael Morris
Some time ago my young son informed me in a spirit almost of tolerant correction — as if this was something he sensed I hadn’t fully grasped — that "liberty is when you get law and stuff".

Admittedly, reality was not strictly the context, but rather a bewildering digital game of strategy in which I’d exhibited a disappointing inadequacy. Though based on dynastic history and its grandees, for me the game involved a too extravagant rehashing of all that in marshalling potentates and subjects towards a winning objective. Liberty was a value you could choose or disavow — and it was more likely the latter, it turned out.

"Most people don’t go for liberty," my son advised knowingly, "mainly because of the tax."

Intuitively, this seemed a jarring proposition (which I elected to keep to myself), but on reflection I recognised the testing contradiction that the taste for freedom can be spoiled by the price, which in the real world might roughly be described as "law and stuff".

Stubborn attachment to ideology — left or right — almost always incorporates a deep distrust of people and the likelihood of their making good choices for themselves. Thus, they must be content with paying to be told what to do, and to cherish the result as the fruit of their freedom.

Almost universally — and perhaps naturally — the elaboration of freedom invokes collective rather than individual interests, a pattern that ironically seems more pronounced in societies reaching their moment of freedom after a long trial of oppression, and often merely producing more of the same.

Stubborn attachment to ideology — left or right — almost always incorporates a deep distrust of people and the likelihood of their making good choices for themselves. Thus, they must be content with paying to be told what to do, and to cherish the result as the fruit of their freedom.

In SA’s case, fewer than 600,000 taxpayers out of some 30-million working-age citizens are paying ever greater amounts towards a state that spends growing sums on narrowing rather than expanding the horizons of liberty. (One consequence is a not greatly expanding tax base.)

In the fortnight that has elapsed since this column last appeared, my colleagues at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) have been challenging thinking that informs policy making guaranteed to constrain choices in ownership of property, education, mining, speech, healthcare and job hunting, among others. We have even been asked to address ourselves to Kim Kardashian’s evident temerity in straightening her daughter North West’s hair.

These, perhaps, illustrate what Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul had in mind when he argued against the consequences of the Enlightenment in his fittingly entitled Voltaire’s Bastards, saying, to quote a summary from his website, that "throughout the western world we talk endlessly of individual freedom, yet there has never before been such pressure for conformity". This, he suggests, is one of many "manifestations of our blind faith in the value of reason", which, "far from being a moral force … is no more than an administrative method".

But there is a counter, highlighted by policy analyst Marian L Tupy of Washington’s Cato Institute earlier in 2018 in a review of the work of psychologist and public intellectual Steven Pinker. In a world we may think of as bonkers and breaking apart, Pinker presents the following encapsulation of the march of reason: "Tribal warfare was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th century. The murder rate in medieval Europe was more than 30 times what it is today.

"Slavery, sadistic punishments and frivolous executions were unexceptionable features of life for millennia, then were suddenly abolished. Wars between developed countries have vanished, and even in the developing world wars kill a fraction of the numbers they did a few decades ago. Rape, hate crimes, deadly riots, child abuse — all substantially down."

Yet, as Tupy observes: "The danger lies in turning our backs on the means by which problems can be solved — reason, science, open discourse, thirst for knowledge", and this at a time when Enlightenment values "are under assault from the far left and the far right".

Fittingly, last week Tupy hosted IRR CEO Frans Cronje at the Cato Institute, an occasion Cronje used to spotlight perhaps the most critical tool of free people in the history of incremental improvement; in "law and stuff" — to borrow a phrase — it is property rights that "anchor human liberty in all free and open societies".

• Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations.

 

https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2018-06-25-michael-morris-flavoured-by-the-cost-of-liberty-freedom-is-an-acquired-taste/

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