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Civil Liberties vs. Economic Liberties


The commonly used political labels, Liberal and Conservative, are often described in a such a way as this: the Liberal favors civil liberties but not economic liberties, while the Conservative is vice versa. My purpose today is not to demonstrate how most people who would use these labels to describe ideologies are mostly deceiving themselves, but how both of these types of liberties cannot be fully enjoyed without the other.

This is not to say that the distinction between them is meaningless, but that having one without the other does not mean much. Let us suppose that we live in a modern European Social Democratic paradise, where we may be taxed and subsidized to death but our so called civil liberties are ostensibly protected. Are they? Consider the freedom of speech. Perhaps we can speak out about the injustices of the welfare state on street corners and be left alone, but what about beyond that? If printing presses are publicly owned am I likely to be allowed to print a leaflet espousing my unpopular views? If the lecture halls are public owned am I likely to be able to reserve it for the same purpose?

Let us consider those freedoms mentioned in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: freedom of speech, religion, assembly, press, and to petition the government for redress of grievances. If we cannot use economic resources in furtherance of these freedoms we can easily see how watered down these freedoms become. Something that also should be noted is that what is typical is that the Liberal who claims to support civil liberties is not as tolerant as he or she supposes: observe the disdain for the liberty of owning a firearm or the public practice of religion, especially within a public school (what so few seem to realize is that when the schools are publicly owned and operated with a one-size-fits-all service there will inevitably be conflicts such as these). The same goes for a conservative who will enjoy alcoholic beverages but not tolerate his neighbor enjoying substances he deems to be unacceptable. Nobody will support the owtlawing he or she thinks is acceptable, but will often not extend the same courtesy to his or her neighbor. So what we see is the equating of morals with government laws, and the only way your freedoms will be protected is if they are politically popular.

Now let us imagine being in a country in south east Asia with a rapidly growing economy due to its increased economic freedoms but still lags behind in claimed protections to civil liberties. The limits to how we may enjoy our economic freedoms should not be hard to see. Now we may perhaps have access to a printing press, but the state assumes the right to tell us what to print. Perhpas we would like to start a faith-based program to help the needy, but the state does not want competition to its authority and allegiance. Or perhaps we want to enjoy a beer, but government prefers to prohibit that. Can it still be called economic freedom if we can only enjoy it in such a way that the state approves? Again, we have the same problem.

In conclusion, we cannot take our advocacy of one of these types of freedom seriously unless we also support the other. In a natural rights view, it is from our self-ownership and ownership of justly acquired property from which all other rights extend, making them truly inseparable. Therefore, let us not confuse ourselves into thinking we can let some of our lives be regulated and left at that. As Mises said, intervention begets more intervention, and you don't want to give the state an inch unless you are comfortable with it taking everything.

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