Libertarianism by Charles T. Sprading 1913
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The history of civilized man is the history of the incessant conflict between liberty and authority. Each victory for liberty marked a new step in the world's progress; so we can measure the advance of civilization by the amount of freedom acquired by human institutions.
The first great struggle for liberty was in the realm of thought. The Libertarians reasoned that freedom of thought would be good for mankind; it would promote knowledge, and increased knowledge would advance civilization. But the Authoritarians protested that freedom of thought would be dangerous; that people would think wrong; that a few were divinely appointed to think for the people, that these had books which contained the whole truth, and that further search was unnecessary and forbidden. The powers of Church and State were arrayed against the Libertarians; but, after the sacrifice of many great men, freedom in thought was won.
The second momentous contest was for the liberty to speak. The enemies of liberty, those possessing power and privilege, opposed freedom of speech, just as they had opposed freedom of thought. The Church said it was perilous to permit people to speak their minds;—they might speak the truth. The State said free speech was dangerous; it was not the duty of citizens to think and speak, but to obey. After much persecution the Libertarians were victorious, although such authoritarian institutions as the Catholic Church and the Spanish and Russian States do not even now concede freedom of thought and speech.
The third contest was for liberty of the press. The same old enemies who had so much to conceal opposed it, and their repressive measures added a long list of martyrs to the cause of freedom. Like free thought and free speech, free press has proved to be a powerful factor in human progress. It still has its enemies as of old, but their number and influence are dwindling.
The fourth struggle was for the liberty of assembly. Here again Libertarians met the same old enemies using the same old arguments. The people could not be permitted to assemble freely because they might come together and discuss matters relating to Church or State or plan treason and revolution. But again liberty was victorious, and free assembly has been found to be beneficial to the people, if not to some institutions.
The fifth important contest for liberty was in the field of religion. The Libertarians argued that freedom was as necessary and desirable in religion as in other human relations; that man should be free to worship at any shrine he pleased, or at no shrine; to worship as his reason and conscience dictated, or even not to worship at all. An infallible church could never permit fallible human beings to choose their own religion, but a succession of conflicts opened the gates of religious liberty.
In these five important spheres of human action there have been, against a sea of ignorance and tradition, five great victories for freedom. Liberty, wherever applied, has proved a benefit to the race; furthermore, the most important steps in human progress would have been impossible without it; and if civilization is to advance, that advance can come only as a result of a broader and more complete freedom in all human relations. A principle that has proved its workability in five such important and vital phases of social evolution should prove desirable in all the affairs of man.
And here is the difference between the Libertarians and the Authoritarians: the latter have no confidence in liberty; they believe in compelling people to be good, assuming that people are totally depraved; the former believe in letting people be good, and maintain that humanity grows better and better as it gains more and more liberty. If Libertarians were merely to ask that liberty be tried in any one of the other fields of human expression they would meet the same opposition as their pioneer predecessors; but such is their confidence in the advantages of liberty that they demand, not that it be tried in one more instance only, but that it be universally adopted.
Their demand is for equal liberty, which denies all privileges and permits no other restrictions than those imposed by social conditions. As it is their relation to their fellowmen with which they are concerned, Libertarians seek to promote equal liberty, and not absolute liberty. "Absolute liberty" means that liberty which disregards the liberty of others. Some extreme individualists like Nietzsche believe in it; but absolute liberty, as the word implies, is unsocial, because it is unrelated. If there is an absolute, it is not a social law, for all social laws are relative. Equal liberty is bounded by the like liberty of all.
Mere equality does not imply equal liberty, however, for slaves are equal in their slavery. Equal opportunity to rob others is not equal liberty, but its violation; it abridges "liberty to possess," and the "liberty to produce and to own the product." These liberties are implied by equality of liberty, just as equal opportunity is; equal robbery or equal slavery have no relation to equal liberty, but are its opposite. There are but two positions from which to choose, equal liberty or unequal liberty. Most persons believe in liberty for themselves, but not for others. Some Christians believe in hell for others, but not for themselves. Libertarians are not like either, for they demand the same liberty for others that they ask for themselves.
Its enemies deride liberty as an abstraction. It is abstract, but so are most of the sciences. Mathematics, for instance, is abstract, but we find that this abstraction fits every concrete fact in the universe. So it is with abstract liberty. It will fit every concrete social fact; it will solve every social ill.
Liberty has its positive and its negative side—it negates authority and tyranny, but it affirms equity and justice; that is, it negates the bad and affirms the good. Destruction is necessary, but construction is equally so; it is essential to tear away the old building in order to erect the new in its place, but before consenting to its demolition the occupant may demand to know what is to take its place, and the architect should furnish him specifications of the proposed structure. There are those who are most successful in tearing down the old building, who, however, may not have the abstract idea of the new structure in their minds, while there are others who excel in building up the new. Both are essential. It is absurd to say that clearing the ground is sufficient, for tomorrow's weeds will grow where they are cleared today. How often is one superstition overthrown only to be replaced by a different one! Truth must be substituted for error,—and this is the work of the positive side of liberty. Liberty means freedom to construct the new as well as freedom to destroy the old. A society of Libertarians will destroy the old, but they will also build the new, and whatever ground they clear of weeds will be sown with seeds of progress.
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