Commentary

The Hope for Liberty

We are entering a new year, the true third millennium. Unfortunately, the prospects for liberty do not burn bright.

The presidential election was a grand disappointment. George W. Bush seems only a bit less enthusiastic about using state power than does Al Gore.

Yet one should not view this campaign in isolation. Human history is largely one of tyranny. The history of the last couple thousand years has been largely one of combatting tyranny. This process is explored by Jim Powell, the editor of Laissez-Faire Books, in “The Triumph of Liberty.” Published by the Free Press, “Triumph” documents the growth of freedom through the lives of liberty’s heroic defenders.

“Liberty is a rare and precious thing,” writes Mr. Powell. History has seen mostly war and slavery, dictatorship and serfdom. But there have always been those struggling for the right of free men and women to live in community with one another.

Progress was often slow and always difficult. But religious toleration, free speech, democracy, emancipation, and free markets gradually came.

Nevertheless, these gains remained fragile. Despite our supposedly enlightened age, “The 20th century was drenched in blood,” observes Mr. Powell. The result was the worst wars, tyrannies, and butcheries in human history. But here, too, heroic people stood, fought, and sometimes died for liberty.

Even communism eventually melted away. According to the group Freedom House, 40 percent of people now live in generally free societies.

The inefficient, stifling welfare state remains. But it, too, is staggering under the weight of its own failures. Its demise is inevitable. And then what? More struggle, if “Triumph” is any guide. The heroes of freedom span the centuries. Mr. Powell opens with the story of Marcus Tullius Cicero, the Roman statesman who battled for peace and against dictatorship. He died at the hands of an assassin.

Others who believed that individuals possess natural rights that must be respected by all people and governments include: John Locke, the British radical whose writings helped spawn the American Revolution; Thomas Paine, a leading propagandist for American liberty; and Ayn Rand, the 20th century novelist.

More obscure is John Lilburne, a 17th century Briton who criticized high taxes, conscription, political repression and religious conformity. He was beaten, imprisoned and banished for his efforts. Another Briton, Mary Wollstonecraft, lived a century later and pushed for legal equality and voting rights for women. Her short, tempestuous life ended in death during childbirth.

Toleration was an important aspect of liberty. Desiderius Erasmus, a 16th century Dutchman, railed against religious persecution in Europe, European colonialism in Latin America, unlimited monarchies, and the wars that monarchs routinely waged. Roger Williams implemented these principles in the New World, establishing the colony of Rhode Island, “the first sanctuary for religious liberty,” as Mr. Powell puts it. French philosopher Benjamin Constant pushed for a different sort of toleration -keeping the state out of “everything which does not disturb public order, everything which is purely personal such as our opinions, everything which, in giving expression to opinions, does no harm to others.”

Peace is another theme. Mr. Powell looks at Hugo Grotius, a 17th century Dutch legal scholar who promoted international law and denounced war. Almost exactly a century later lived Francisco Jose de Goya, a Spanish painter who helped depict the horrors of war.

Another hero is Richard Cobden, a 19th century British textile entrepreneur who collaborated with the equally steadfast John Bright to promote free trade and oppose imperialism.

Yale University professor William Graham Sumner battled American imperialism, particularly the war against Spain and suppression of Filipino freedom-fighters.

Mr. Powell includes Ronald Reagan, who rightly saw the Soviet Union as an evil empire. Mr. Reagan, writes Mr. Powell, “displayed the vision and courage to help make this a freer, more peaceful world.”

And Mr. Powell’s roll of defenders of liberty goes on. The British economist Adam Smith. American writers Henry David Thoreau, Booker T. Washington, and Albert Jay Nock. French economic official Anne Robert Jacques Turgot and author Claude Frederic Bastiat. German poet and dramatist Friedrich Schiller. Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. American economists George Stigler and Milton Friedman. Many of these defenders of liberty suffered for their views.

There was Samuel Adams, a sparkplug of the American Revolution. Algernon Sidney, the British philosopher of revolution executed for sedition. Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Jews destined for Nazi death camps. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who helped overturn racial discrimination in what purported to be the world’s beacon of freedom.

Unfortunately, the fight is not over. As Mr. Powell observes, “The struggle for liberty will never end.” But just as champions of freedom arose in the past, they are certain to arise in the future to defend what Mr. Powell terms “our precious legacy of liberty.”

Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is a nationally syndicated columnist.