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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “Individual Liberty Day”

My column for the July 24th, 2009, edition of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review imagines what would be celebrated on Individual Liberty Day. You can read my column beneath the fold.

Individual Liberty Day

Now that all the fireworks have exploded, the hot dogs have been downed, the beer gulped, the flags proudly waved and the Sousa songs sung, I pause to reflect on the meaning of Independence Day.

“What’s to reflect?” you ask. The meaning is clear: On July 4, 1776, Americans declared themselves to be independent of Great Britain.

Indeed. On that date 233 years ago, Adams, Jefferson & Co. declared themselves to be no longer subject to British sovereignty. King George was told to mind his own business.

It’s a stirring story, one for which all Americans should be proud. But political independence, as important as it might be, is not at all the same thing as liberty. And when I read the Declaration of Independence, the theme that rings through is one of liberty. King George was hated not because he was British or because he lived an ocean away; King George was hated because he routinely violated Americans’ natural rights to liberty.

Liberty means individual independence — the independence from force of each and every peaceful person.

Contrary to a common misunderstanding, individual liberty does not mean independence of the individual from society. Human beings are intensely social creatures. As such, each of us thrives by being a part of many different communities — our families, our neighborhoods, our churches, our softball teams, our college sororities. The list is long and rich.

And the standard of living that each of us enjoys is a direct result of the division of labor — a phenomenon that makes each of us dependent upon millions of other. The greater the number of persons knitted together in an economy, the greater the degree of specialization of work. The result is higher living standards.

Anyone foolish enough to make himself independent of society would be desperately lonely and poor.

Being dependent upon others through voluntary arrangements, such as those of employees and employers or customers and merchants, does not mean that any peaceable person is either privileged to use force against others or is morally obliged to submit to force imposed by others.

Too often, though, the fact that we’re social is used to imply that the individual is subordinate to the collective. It’s to this attitude that we owe today’s near-religious devotion to democracy. If a majority of voters vote for something — no matter how ill-conceived or offensive — persons who object to the election’s outcome are instructed that they must obey. “The People,” after all, are superior to the individual.

Forget the countless problems that my George Mason University colleagues James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock have uncovered with the claim that voting accurately reflects the will of the majority of people. Instead ask: What happened to the spirit of ’76 that championed the individual against the collective?

Independence really worth celebrating would be the ability of each of us, individually, to make the following sorts of choices, and to make these choices independently of any order or restrictions imposed by government:

• To choose to work at whatever wages we can negotiate, even if these are below some stipulated “minimum wage”

• To choose to install in our homes and places of business toilet-tanks of whatever size we’re willing to pay for

• To choose to install showerheads that permit as much or as little water flow as we’re willing to pay for

• To choose not to have as much as one cent of our money funneled to corporations, such as General Motors, that we do not support as consumers

• To choose to buy foreign-made goods or services without ever having to pay a special tax

• To choose to ingest whatever substances we, as adults, deem worthwhile

• To choose how much, if any, money to save for our retirement years

• To choose how much, if any, funds to give to help the poor — and to choose which charities will and will not get our money

• To choose not to support government schools

• To choose to buy only those works of art that we like, rather than have the National Endowment for the Arts make many such choices for us

• To choose the level of safety that we want in our automobiles, and not be compelled to buy that level of safety deemed appropriate by Washington.

Such choices, along with countless others, are regrettably today denied to each individual American.

I hope one day to celebrate an Independence Day on which individual liberty, rather than political independence or democracy, is the main cause for the parties and fireworks.