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Freeman Essay #58: “Universal Values”

I wrote this December 2000 Freeman column on my son’s, Thomas’s, first day of pre-school.  My column is below the fold.

I’m writing these words on my son’s first day at school. Well, really, today is his first day at pre-school. Thomas is only three. Nevertheless, in just a few minutes he and his mommy will walk a few blocks to the Immaculate Conception School here in Irvington, meet his teacher and classmates, and set foot for the first time in a classroom. This very day is the first of what will probably be 3,500+ days of formal education for Thomas.

He’s got a long way to go, but it can be a wonderful adventure!

What will Thomas learn? What lessons will stick? What lessons will escape him? Will his teachers—today and tomorrow—be dedicated educators or will they be dilettantes or drones? Will he be taught to think or to emote? Will he be inspired to be and to do good? Or will his head be clouded with any of the countless assortments of nonsense, superstitions, and misconceptions that are forever on the loose? What values will he encounter?

Of course, all along the way Karol and I will do our best to ensure that our son receives an excellent liberal education, just as we’ll do our best to instill in Thomas those values that we believe are necessary for him to live a full, productive, and rewarding life.

But will we actively try to ensure that Thomas eventually shares our political values? No and yes.

Parents are unlikely to meet much success if they insist that their children adopt any particular set of political values. We want our son to think for himself and to come to his political views, whatever they turn out to be, ultimately because he believes in them. Nevertheless, we’re optimistic that if Thomas is reared and educated properly, he will share our classical-liberal values.

We have good reason to be optimistic. Classical-liberal (or, if you prefer, libertarian) political values are no more than the application to society at large, and to government, of some of the most fundamental and indispensable rules that every decent person learns early in life and adheres to until death.

What are these rules? “Keep your promises.” “Tell the truth.” “Don’t take other people’s stuff.” “Don’t hit other people.”

These rules are among those that Karol and I and most other parents teach our little ones. Success and happiness are possible only for those who follow these rules. Anyone who refuses to follow them finds himself, at best, without friends and trading partners, and, possibly, in prison—or worse. Following these rules might not guarantee happiness, but you’re guaranteed to be miserable if you reject any or all of them.

To see just how fundamental each of these rules is, ask yourself if you can imagine teaching your child the opposite: “Listen up, Johnny: whenever you see something you want, just snatch it.” Or: “Jane, lying is always A-okay.” Or: “Suzie, always take maximum advantage of others; keeping promises is for suckers.” Or: “Timmy, it’s essential that you randomly strike people from time to time with your fist. That way they’ll respect you!”

Clearly, civil society is possible because almost everyone abides by these obvious rules against theft, cheating, and initiating violence.

As Karol and I teach these rules to Thomas, we will emphasize that they are universal. Everyone should follow them; there are no excuses for transgressing them. People who do transgress these rules always deserve condemnation and, in most cases, punishment. We will emphasize that these rules apply even to politicians and other government employees—from those who work in the local courthouse to those who work in the White House. These are not rules to be applied selectively.

Indeed, insisting that government officials be held to the same standards of decent, daily behavior that we teach our children is a distinguishing feature of libertarianism. Libertarians are simply more consistent than others in respecting and insisting on basic rules of decent behavior.

In this light it is interesting to read a recent observation about libertarianism by University of Virginia government professor Colin Bird. He tries his hand at explaining the increased acceptance, over the past 30 years, of libertarian ideas. In his opinion, this success results from

the fact that libertarianism was able to represent itself as the true heir to the liberal mainstream rather than as a revolutionary departure from Western political values. That is not to deny that libertarians often portrayed themselves as radical and even socially progressive: but at root libertarianism claims to be radicalizing the familiar (individualism, freedom, rights) rather than to be familiarizing the truly radical.*

* Colin Bird, The Myth of Liberal Individualism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 139.

Indeed so! Professor Bird, however, believes that radically insisting (as libertarians do) that the government be bound by all of the same basic rules of decency that bind individuals does not really render libertarians radical. As I recently wrote in this space, if by “radical” we mean consistently sticking to sound principles, then libertarians are indeed radical—and radical in a way that deserves praise.

But Professor Bird is correct that libertarians are not radical by his own implicit definition. Libertarians abhor the notion of reconstructing the world according to academic notions of how society ought to operate. The reason is that such reconstruction inevitably means that some people—those with state power—are exempted from following the basic rules of decency that we teach to our children and that all the rest of us must follow.

People empowered to do the reconstructing get to take at least some of what belongs to others and initiate coercion against those who don’t cooperate with the reconstructors. And such power means that the reconstructors do not have to deal as equals with those whom they rule; the relationship between ruler and ruled is not based on voluntary exchange and contract. It’s based on coercion. Mutually advantageous and voluntary exchanges are replaced by unilaterally advantageous threats of violence. The scope for promise-making and promise-keeping shrinks, while that of wielding coercive power expands.

Karol and I prefer a different route for our son. We will teach Thomas the basic values of respecting other people’s persons, property, dignity, and individuality. If we succeed, our son likely will lead a prosperous and fulfilling life—and he’s also likely to share his parents’ ethics.

UPDATE: I’m pleased to report that Thomas, who will turn 21 this coming June, was indeed raised as I described above.  I’m proud to report that he is a thorough-going libertarian filled with kindness and respect for others, and he has a deep understanding of – and a commitment to – the principles of a liberal, open, and peaceful society.


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