Today, I return to the Free Market Foundation – founded in 1975 – as its Head of Policy. Taking up the policy reins at South Africa’s second-oldest classical liberal institution – after the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), founded in 1929 – seems to me a good occasion to reflect on why I am a liberal.
I will continue to contribute to the IRR in various capacities. Relevant for Daily Friend readers is that I will retain my Thursday column for your reading pleasure.
Personal, social, political
It might be appropriate to describe me as personally conservative, socially progressive, and politically liberal.
This is to say that I live and embrace quite a conservative lifestyle. I am a teetotaller. I conserve my financial and other resources zealously. I am religious. I value cultural and linguistic bonds. Perhaps above all in this sense, I believe through-and-through that being a member of liberal civilisation in the Western tradition is an immense privilege that is to be vigorously cherished.
At the same time, I would prefer (though I would not insist upon it) for society to be progressive. It should not merely tolerate transgender individuals, immigrants, and other usually scapegoated minorities, but accept them as equal participants in social discourse and intercourse. Society should value progress for its own sake, embracing for example new AI technologies without hysterics. It should rediscover its curiosity about space and get excited about space exploration. Society should seek to break down hierarchies that do not serve any socially beneficial purpose anymore, including allowing (as we have now done in the West for decades) women who do not desire the role of homemaker to make it just as far up the professional ladder as men.
Finally, as a political liberal, I insist upon a political constitution of society that enforces, without apology, a very small set of boundaries: the first boundary is that the individual person must at all times be allowed to opt-out of any community (however defined: geographic, professional, cultural, etc.); and every community must at all times be allowed to determine its own affairs, without imposition from other communities.
Liberalism is, as the name suggests, the ideology of liberty. Many contemporary hot takes on liberalism have tried to suggest that liberalism is instead concerned with generosity, openness, respect, decency, and reason, but this is not correct. All these things do feature in liberal thought to some extent or another, but only, at best, as pillars or supports of the core concern: liberty.
As such, any true liberal is primarily concerned, when their liberal ‘hat’ is worn, with freedom. Freedom has always been a complex topic in many respects, and one of these is the question of whether freedom is an end in and of itself or a means to ends. I would say both, certainly.
I am very glad that liberal freedom ‘works’. It is a happy coincidence that where people are left free, they tend to (predictably) produce prosperity for themselves and their communities. The absence of liberal freedom has tended to produce material misery, even if spiritually (it is sometimes argued) life is more fulfilling under such circumstances.
But I am not a liberal because it ‘works’. If it did not ‘work’ – taking into account that how we define what does and does not ‘work’ depends entirely on our subjective conception of good and bad – I hope that I would still have been a liberal.
I made my bed in liberalism at a comparatively young age – when I was 19. I had had political inclinations at least since I was 14.
For those five years I vacillated between describing myself as a ‘statist’, a ‘socialist’, or a ‘progressive’. I believed, very simply, that because the state represents the single biggest concentration of resources, it is uniquely placed to solve all manner of social ills. Why leave any problem to a poor individual or community when even the poorest organ of state has infinitely more resources than the individual or community to solve the problem?
Freedom was important to me back then, but not in any fundamental sense. I subconsciously regarded freedom as synonymous with ‘fun’: The state must solve all our big problems and take care of us, but it must still allow individuals to go out, express themselves, enjoy themselves, and be ‘free’. What I meant was that the state must allow individuals to have fun.
These views were very much informed by my innate sense of individualism, something I still cling to dogmatically today. Community is a natural occurrence, but the individual is a biological reality. That the individual is the basic unit of society is not, in my mind, debatable. Communities can and always will have their own rules and cultures, but no community may deny to the individual their natural right to choose to be, or not to be, a part of said community.
This individualism crystalised in my mind when I spent grades 7 through 10 at a very conservative Christian nationalist private school. The people I met at this school – who I still value dearly – had views around race that were firmly rooted in the previous century. From the moment I was exposed to these views I felt uneasy. It did not make sense to me that, according to this approach, I had to pre-judge individuals, before I had met them or understood them, as individuals, simply on the basis of their skin colour.
But the socialist-cum-progressivist statism I adopted in response was philosophically ungrounded and purely emotional. I felt uneasy about one view and adopted what I (incorrectly) perceived to be its opposite. This progressivist mindset followed me to the University of Pretoria (UP).
My political worldview changed when I read the first chapters of the classically liberal (‘libertarian’) anarchist Murray Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty in 2013, at the UP Law Library. While Rothbard takes his liberalism to its logical conclusion of statelessness – to where I do not follow him, among some other questionable views – the foundational arguments he presented for human liberty were irresistible.
Although he does not put it like this, what I got from Rothbard was: Who am I, as Martin, to arrogantly believe that I am (directly or through the proxy of the state) in any way entitled to anyone else’s labour, respect, or even consideration, and moreover, who am I to believe that I know better (directly or through the proxy of the state) than anyone else what is best for them?
Arrogance and hubris
This is not an insight one can unlearn. Once you recognise the arrogance and hubris of thinking that you have some unparalleled insight that enables you to direct how someone else must live or conduct themselves – usually by providing a mandate to the state – it will be difficult for you to pick that arrogance back up again. And once you recognise this arrogance and drop it, you become a liberal, whether you describe yourself as such or not.
Liberalism is the ‘radical’ notion that, agree or disagree with them, individuals, families, or voluntary communities know better what is best for them than you do. And you, your family, and other people you are associated with in a group context, know better what is best for you than anyone else.
To be clear, I am not feigning humility. I am very stubborn about my liberalism, in the sense that I (perhaps arrogantly?) believe that we must not arrogantly try to plan other people’s lives for them.
In the intervening years I have, of course, discovered more reasons to be a liberal. One of these is, as mentioned, that it in fact ‘works’. Leaving people to solve their own problems – with help voluntarily asked and voluntarily given, of course – turns out to be the most sustainable and effective way to create prosperity. Simply ask the masses of poor people who flee, year upon year, from less free states to freer states, with almost no exceptions indicating the reverse.
Another reason is that political power is inherently untrustworthy. Given the powerful nature of the state, it tends to attract those people from across society who desire the power to control society. These people are often incompetent in most respects but highly competent in manipulation and coercion, which is why the refrain, ‘you are governed by your inferiors’, is one that South Africans should take to heart.
The arrogance I mentioned above is incubated and festers in political environments. Even the most well-meaning professional politicians, particularly when they are surrounded by other politicians and experts, start to believe that they know what is best for the people ‘under’ them. They have all the data from Stats SA, all the reports from their field staff, and all the complaints and petitions from citizens at their disposal, after all. Who, better than them, knows what’s best?
Liberalism – and in particular Ludwig von Mises and FA von Hayek – offers us the insight that even with all the data, reports, complaints, and petitions imaginable at our disposal, we would be shocked to know what we do not know.
There are an infinite number of variables that go – many of them subconsciously – into every decision we make every minute of every day. These variables often cannot be reflected in data and reports and complaints and petitions. This is why no amount of research and data-gathering – short of being able to plug into and download the conscious and subconscious mind of every person – will ever enable any central planner to plan the life of an individual in a rational and efficient manner that does justice to the person’s own preferences.
The criticism of well-meaning conservatives
Well-meaning conservatives try to convince us that liberalism cannot respond to the modern-day threats to Western civilisation. They argue that a firm hand is needed in politics, not merely to solve the imminent threats but also to fix the foundations of civilisation that they claim have degenerated.
In this sense, government must among other things protect the beauty of urban spaces by strictly enforcing architectural styles that celebrate Western tradition, it must prohibit the production and consumption of pornography, and it must ensure family units stay together by making divorce significantly more difficult.
Whether this perspective – that liberalism is unable to respond to the most pressing threats and to rebuild civilisation – is right or wrong is largely irrelevant, because whatever the case, the conservative proposal is guaranteed to end in disaster. We know it will end in disaster because the very prerogatives and powers government is using today to ‘destroy’ Western civilisation are prerogatives and powers that conservatives over many centuries sought to reserve for government. And to double down on those powers, even if conservatives regain control of government for a fleeting moment, will simply be used against conservative interests in the future once more.
The powers that Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin and other populist autocrats are ostensibly using for conservative causes today will no doubt be turned against those same causes in Hungary and Russia in the not-too-distant future.
Unfortunately, conservatives (and indeed well-meaning progressives as well), in the main, have not yet learned to appreciate that political power is inherently untrustworthy. Whenever political power is attained, then the only moral thing to do with it is to impose limitations upon its use and to narrow its scope.
Individuals must always be free to make decisions regarding their own lives themselves, and if they desire to have someone else make these decisions for them, this they can arrange through private agreement. There is no need to generalise ‘ruling’ people outside of the liberal framework of non-coercion.
It is only and exclusively a liberal order that allows conservatives, progressives, and any number of other people with divergent worldviews, to live in harmony and prosper. Only those who propose to utilise coercion to realise their aims are incompatible with liberal order, and invite the defensive violence of the state.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR
If you like what you have just read, support the Daily Friend