Liberty is a demanding ideal to believe in and live by. It requires consistency of principle and acceptance of much in the actions of others that we may disagree with or even find personally repulsive.
Unfortunately, too many in our society do not sufficiently value the right of the individual to live his own life as he chooses. They wish to make others conform to their idea of presumed "just" workplace contracts and employment statuses, or to their notions of proper conduct in interpersonal relationships, or to what they consider to be rightful restrictions on people's freedom to live and work where they peacefully desire.
If a friend of freedom truly believes that each individual has a right to his life, liberty and honestly acquired property, and to peacefully go about his or her personal affairs on their own or in voluntary and mutually-agreed association with others, then he cannot accept or endorse, or even acquiesce in, any political authority abridging that person's right to do "anything that's peaceful."
Denying Freedom of Contract and Employment Status
For example, The Wall Street Journal reported on July 30, 2015 on the growing number of law suits and court decisions compelling companies to reclassify some (or many) of those they hire from independent contractor to a part-time or full-time salaried employee.
This entails the employer's obligation to pay Social Security, health care and, of course, withhold income taxes to the government from the reclassified employee's income.
The article rightly highlighted the much higher costs this will involve for, especially, smaller firms and in particular start-ups. It also detailed how this has already impacted on the ability of some such firms to raise capital or even to stay in business.
But what the article did not give enough attention to is that this reduces (and over time could threaten to abolish) the individual's personal liberty to decide how he wishes to be employed in the business of earning a living.
Many if not most of us prefer to be formal salaried employees. We have the certainty of a regular paycheck under an employment contract, along with receiving any fringe benefits that may come with this hired status.
The Benefits from Independent Contracting
But there are many who would prefer being "self-employed," because it enables them to decide on their own work times (daily and around the year) to better meet personal or family conveniences and requirements or pleasures.
And, of course, there are those who do not want a "boss" to whom they are responsible and answerable on an hourly or daily basis. They want to be their own boss, taking on one job but not another, and doing things "their own way" with some party with whom they've entered into contract who is not really concerned how the job gets done as long as it's finished on time and up to agreed expectations.
Such individuals also want the liberty and latitude to decide how to allocate their gross income and how best to meet any tax obligations without that choice being closed off due to all the various withholding taxes that come with a salaried full- or part-time job.
These court and regulatory decisions are not making "business" do the "right thing." Instead, they are anti-individual freedom restrictions – "anti-labor" interventions – on people's personal choices on how to live and work, and under what terms to freely enter into contractual arrangements.
The advocate of liberty, therefore, should strongly oppose those interventionists, collectivists and statists who presume to tell people how they may arrange their life, including in the workplace. Individuals should be free to act in ways that best reflect and fit into their own preferences, values and chosen trade-offs to achieve their goals and ends.
Gay Marriage and Freedom of Association
Another example of government interference with the freedom of association concerns commercial relationships and gay marriage. Not really that long ago homosexuality was against the law virtually everywhere in the United States. Violation of sodomy laws carried with it arrest and imprisonment. It also carried a social stigma of being against "the laws of God and nature."
At an amazingly accelerated pace of societal change, social attitudes and the law have dramatically been turned upside down. A growing number of people in American society have become either indifferent about an individual's choices concerning his or her intimate and romantic partners or consider such choices to be as natural as heterosexual attractions and relationships.
Not too surprisingly, this has led to the transformation of the law concerning marriage between individuals of the same sex. Many classical liberals and libertarians have, in my opinion rightly, hailed this as advancement in the arena of personal and social freedom in terms of a proper extension of equal and impartial treatment before the law.
Compelling or Prohibiting Peaceful Association
However, many of the advocates for legal equality for gays and lesbians wish to extend their demands beyond the equality of legal rights to a coerced imposition of their view of rightness and morality of human relationships on all in society.
In other words, it is demanded that even those who do not believe in the morality of homosexual relationships, who may hold such views on strongly believed religious or other grounds, must be made to accept, conform to and strictly obey government regulations requiring these individuals to participate in associations they would prefer to turn down.
It was against the principle of liberty for opponents of homosexual relationships to use the law to criminalize such human associations and thus threaten or apply force to make others (at least in their public conduct) conform to their value judgments concerning the "right" relationships between the sexes.
It is equally wrong for those participating in or sympathetic to the right of people to freely enter into and maintain such homosexual relationships to now turn around and use the power of the State to threaten and use legal prosecution against those who do not approve of or feel comfortable with homosexuality, and who wish only to be given the liberty to not associate personally or in a business transaction with homosexuals if they desire not to.
The friend of freedom should oppose all forms of legal discrimination and threatened prosecution based upon people's freedom to associate or not associate with others in society. The temptation to use the power of government to impose a personal belief system on all others leads not only to harm to others who are simply going about their peaceful affairs, but it necessarily divides a society along implicit battles lines for control of the government apparatus of coercion.
If the only way to have respected and practiced one's own belief system concerning human relationships is to forcibly impose it on everyone through political power, then societal conflict is inevitable in the quest for control of the police authority for forced collective conformity to one set of beliefs rather than another.
The right to peacefully and voluntarily choose and select with whom to associate, including in commercial affairs of the free marketplace, is the paramount rule for personal freedom and societal justice in human relationships. (See, my article, "Discrimination – Private or Political?")
Freedom to Move and the Collectivist Myth of "Our" Country
A third example concerns the freedom to live and work where an individual finds it most desirable, attractive and advantageous, as he evaluates it and decides. However, this application of freedom of association is highly controversial, not only in conservative but also in some classical liberal and libertarian circles.
It is the issue of freedom to move, the right of open migration. This idea seems so alien only because we have all become such captives of the nation-state, a belief that it is "our" country. Just as any one of us decides whom we let into our respective individual private homes, so "we" decide collectively who shall be able to enter or leave the geographical territory that is under the political jurisdiction of the particular nation-state of which we are citizens.
Before the political revolutions of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially the French Revolution of 1789, most countries were kingdoms under the power of a monarch who claimed not only control over a territory but also asserted that it was his personal property. Besides being the "owner" of all the land, resources and livestock within his domain, the human beings living on "his" land were his "subjects" whose actions, "rights," and comings and goings were, in principle, determined, permitted or forbidden at his "pleasure." This included permission to enter or leave the territories of the monarch's kingdom.
With the overthrow and then the execution of the French king, Louis XVI, in 1793, the French revolutionaries proclaimed that with the end to monarchy, the "nation" was the property of "the people," as a whole, with its administration being in the hands of those democratically elected by the citizen voters. Countries were transformed from "kingdoms" owned by monarchs to "democratic" nation-states, the property of the national collective.
Thus, the territory of the nation-state is the common property of the collective citizenry. And the state, being "the people's" representative and protector, is expected to determine and control who may enter when the "foreigner," the "alien," knocks on the door of "the people's" land.
The "guest" who is allowed in is expected to behave when he is on "our" property the way "we," as the collective host, request and require. If he is to stay in "our" country, the immigrant must speak "our" language and share all of "our" values" (in spite of the fact that "the people" themselves cannot agree about what all of those "values" and beliefs actually are).
The Freedom to Move, and Live and Work Where You Choose
The classical liberal ideal of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was that neither kings nor the collective "people" owned or controlled individuals. Each person was a free, choosing human being with inviolable rights to his life, liberty and property. These were rights every human being was declared to possess, whether or not the particular government under which he lived recognized or respected them.
Individual liberty clearly included the right to move from one place to another for any peaceful purpose, both within a particular government's jurisdiction and between nation-states. And through a good part of the nineteenth century, the ideal of a right of freedom of movement became a practical reality. (See my article, "Freedom to Move: Personal Liberty or Government Control, Part I".)
Neither a king nor "the people" as a whole owned the land, resources, livestock and other forms of physical property within any nation-state. They were (or should be, classical liberals and free-market advocates said) the private property of free individuals who had acquired it through peaceful production or honest trade.
Individuals could, certainly, bar entry into their private property by another without the owner's permission and agreement. But the citizen collective or the government could not (and should not) prohibit free entry or exit from any nation-state's jurisdiction.
If a private company wishes to offer shipboard passage from, say, Italy to the United States; if a private company, say, in New York offers dock facilities for the ship to land and for the passengers to disembark; if a private taxi service offers to transport the new immigrant arrivals to, perhaps, hotels in the city; if the hotels are willing to offer rooms to the new arrivals; if the immigrant proceeds to stay with friends or relatives, or rent his own apartment from a willing landlord; and if the immigrant finds a job at an agreed-upon wage from a willing employer . . .
If all this is the case, there is no basis consistent with individual liberty to prohibit and prevent any such person from freely entering and proceeding to live and work in the United States.
Even if the immigrant ends up living off his friends or relatives who choose to allow him to stay with them, or if he subsists on voluntary charity, or even if he makes a living by panhandling from passersby on the street in front of a store that the owner does not mind him using for that purpose, there can be no objection to his freedom to move from the "old country" to America, even if he ends up living his life as a bum.
A Long Journey to Escape the Collectivist Mindset
The collectivist mindset has been embedded in almost all of us though mandatory government education, and the mass media that echoes too many of the collectivist premises and policy perspectives of the political authority, and which envelopes our culture under the ethos of "democracy."
It will take a long time before humanity (hopefully) comes to think of "society" and "the people" as individuals in free and mutually beneficial associations and relationships with each other, regardless of who they are, how they wish to peacefully associate with others, and where they may choose to live and work.
Dr. Richard Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. He was professor of economics at Northwood University in Midland, Michigan (2009-2014). He served as president of the Foundation for Economic Education (2003-2008) and held the Ludwig von Mises Chair in Economics at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan (1988-2003).
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