The Hope for Liberty


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

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

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

"Liberty is a rare and precious thing," writes Mr. Powell. History has seenmostly war and slavery, dictatorship and serfdom. But there have always beenthose struggling for the right of free men and women to live in communitywith one another.

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

Nevertheless, these gains remained fragile. Despite our supposedlyenlightened age, "The 20th century was drenched in blood," observes Mr.Powell. The result was the worst wars, tyrannies, and butcheries in humanhistory. But here, too, heroic people stood, fought, and sometimes died forliberty.

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 staggeringunder the weight of its own failures. Its demise is inevitable. And thenwhat? More struggle, if "Triumph" is any guide. The heroes of freedom spanthe centuries. Mr. Powell opens with the story of Marcus Tullius Cicero, theRoman statesman who battled for peace and against dictatorship. He died atthe hands of an assassin.

Others who believed that individuals possess natural rights that must berespected by all people and governments include: John Locke, the Britishradical whose writings helped spawn the American Revolution; Thomas Paine, aleading propagandist for American liberty; and Ayn Rand, the 20th centurynovelist.

More obscure is John Lilburne, a 17th century Briton who criticized hightaxes, conscription, political repression and religious conformity. He wasbeaten, imprisoned and banished for his efforts. Another Briton, MaryWollstonecraft, lived a century later and pushed for legal equality andvoting rights for women. Her short, tempestuous life ended in death duringchildbirth.

Toleration was an important aspect of liberty. Desiderius Erasmus, a 16thcentury Dutchman, railed against religious persecution in Europe, Europeancolonialism in Latin America, unlimited monarchies, and the wars thatmonarchs routinely waged. Roger Williams implemented these principles in theNew World, establishing the colony of Rhode Island, "the first sanctuary forreligious liberty," as Mr. Powell puts it. French philosopher BenjaminConstant pushed for a different sort of toleration -keeping the state out of"everything which does not disturb public order, everything which is purelypersonal such as our opinions, everything which, in giving expression toopinions, does no harm to others."

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

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

Yale University professor William Graham Sumner battled Americanimperialism, particularly the war against Spain and suppression of Filipinofreedom-fighters.

Mr. Powell includes Ronald Reagan, who rightly saw the Soviet Union as anevil empire. Mr. Reagan, writes Mr. Powell, "displayed the vision andcourage to help make this a freer, more peaceful world."

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

There was Samuel Adams, a sparkplug of the American Revolution. AlgernonSidney, the British philosopher of revolution executed for sedition. RaoulWallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Jewsdestined for Nazi death camps. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who helpedoverturn racial discrimination in what purported to be the world's beacon offreedom.

Unfortunately, the fight is not over. As Mr. Powell observes, "The strugglefor liberty will never end." But just as champions of freedom arose in thepast, they are certain to arise in the future to defend what Mr. Powellterms "our precious legacy of liberty."