Freedom Is Never Perfect – And That’s Fine

by Simon Sarevski

Read other contributions to our series on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and today’s challenges to liberalism:

The Great War ended and its last drop of blood watered the soil with opportunities for new types of totalitarian regimes. Then came the bloodiest conflict in human history, which was won by some and lost by all. But the biggest loss came in the form of the growing number of people under communist totalitarian rule.

As always, we continued doing what we do best – fighting. This time the great powers erected the Berlin Wall and fought by proxy. As a monument of two worlds divided, so similar yet so different at the same time, it stood for nearly three decades.

30 years ago the wall didn’t just fall. It was torn down, not by armies but by people. People, who figured out that after all, unlike what they were taught by the great commissar of both sides, they were much more similar than different.

The new liberal order has promised so much. In many areas, it has delivered, but in many, it failed miserably. The privatization process was especially painful in some countries, such as Russia. It wasn’t so obvious at the time that privatization’s success in the UK, for example, was caused by more than just rhetoric and goodwill. Certain institutions and a certain culture were necessary but non-existent in some parts of the world that wished to privatize.

We might not have the iron curtain separating us anymore, but we are far from living in the envisioned liberal societies. Putin started his third decade in power this year and Poland is moving ever closer to authoritarianism, while Turkey and Hungary already have a head start. China has taken many steps in this direction, playing with ideas such as the social credit system, and using modern technology to move ever closer to the ‘ideal’ of 1984’s Big Brother.

In the free world (rather, somewhat freer world), we continue to face challenges, even if they are not entirely the same. For the Left, the most striking are climate change and the growing income inequality. The grievances of the Right have already been outlined in Kai Weiss’ article.

“Satisfying the innate need for rootedness and belonging, a place we could genuinely call home” has daunted society since time immemorial. Moving across vast swaths of land is in no way unique to the modern era, as migration has occurred through all of human history. The German-speaking residents of Alsace-Lorraine can trace their ancestry to the Swiss who came after the decimation of the Thirty Years War. The potato famine of the 1840s killed more than a million people in Ireland, but that many people also emigrated at the same time. Even the USA was founded on the idea that anyone could go and live there for whatever reason. Everyone has tried in his own way to find his place in the world.

Today the only thing barring us from reaching ‘home’ are the many immigration laws in existence. The reason for the great migrations, both now and in the past, is pretty much the same – people are searching for a better living.  The causes, however, differ, as people used to flee due to persecution, and poverty (in)directly caused by it. Now, by embracing free markets and opening up to the rest of the world we’re witnessing the same process.

Increasingly these migrations are being discussed as if they were a problem. The real question that needs asking though is – What’s wrong with that? Yes, we see ghost towns all over the place, once the cornerstones of specific industries. But such places are ghost towns for a reason. In the globalized world, they’ve lost their competitive edge. As the valve stopped pumping, so did many industries.

The nature of migration has changed as well. Although easier to migrate, geographic mobility has been on the decline recently, writes Tyler Cowen in The Complacent Class. Technology has helped us find the familiar and the similar, or in essence our better matches, both romantically and socially in general. Now, high school sweethearts marry each other less often; people of more similar socio-economic backgrounds tend to cluster. This indeed leads to segregation and a split between rural and urban populations, but again, the question that must be asked is – What’s wrong with that? Aren’t we freely choosing what leads to those outcomes? At the end of the day, those people who are priced out of the now more affluent neighborhoods might not be choosing to leave, but alas, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

But there is a deeper problem with the grievances stated in Weiss’ article. By asking liberalism to answer questions such as loneliness, drug and suicide epidemics we burden liberalism with questions it should not be tasked with answering. The ‘suicide epidemic’ is too loosely called an epidemic in the first place. Even though the suicide rate has risen in absolute terms, the rise is not that dramatic. Whether right or wrong, the change in culture, making suicide more socially acceptable, has played a role, though this impact can’t ever be calculated. Nevertheless, suicide is a problem, especially among the youngest, with their rates skyrocketing since 2001. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, places the root cause in the rise of smartphones and social media, allowing the negative impact of bullying to gain strength due to its new scope in reach. Viewed this way, it is not the responsibility of liberalism to assume the burden of ensuring that psychologically bullied children do not commit suicide. Nor is it anyone else’s responsibility than the parents’ themselves.

Loneliness and drug abuse, on the other hand, it is true, are nothing more than a product of liberalism. But no society is created without a trade-off system in place. We’ve become richer than ever before, yet we didn’t opt for the 15-hour workweek hypothesized by Keynes. We’ve even gone further into working more to satisfy our needs, whatever they may be. In this day and age, this behavior is taxing, taxing in the name of loneliness and drug abuse. And again, the question that needs to be asked here is – What’s wrong with that?

The only real problem with drug abuse comes straight from the government. Mark Thornton from the Mises Institute posits four reasons, starting from the drug prohibition in the first place, setting the stage for the Iron Law of Prohibition to take place, increasing the potency of the drugs. Government interventions in the economy have exacerbated the situation, and this is exactly where liberalism has failed – we haven’t liberalized enough!

And we should. Because the superiority of the liberal idea does not rest on its faster economic growth rates, which in turn provide us with better material wellbeing. It goes deeper – its value is ethical. It’s about being free to do what uplifts our spirit, in our own way, in the pursuit of our human flourishing. One might not agree with the choices other people make and their effect on the macro-level of society. One might not even agree with the effects on the micro-level that is the family and local communities. Nevertheless, it is a folly to blame liberalism and demand answers to such questions because liberty and individual responsibility go hand in hand. Someone who freely chooses to make ‘sub-optimal’ or ‘objectively wrong’ decisions should have to pay the price.

All we have to ask of liberalism is to free our hands and not lay traps along the way so we can pursue and reach our goals, whether they be global or local.

Every period in human history has had its challenges. Our generation is no different, even if the challenges are different. We might not have the answers just yet. It might even take us longer than usual to come to answers that will satisfy us. The real difference and beauty of our time is that we live in the freest and most prosperous of all periods in history ever since we first began to walk on this pile of rock. Bathing in the freedoms and prosperity, combined with both scientific knowledge and the knowledge of our past, I’m more than confident there isn’t a question we cannot answer and crises we cannot solve.

Simon Sarevski was an intern at the Austrian Economics Center in spring 2019. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in financial management from Ss. Cyril and Methodius, Skopje and is involved with European Students for Liberty.


The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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