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What Liberty Is Like and Unlike: 20 Analogies from F.A. ‘Baldy’ Harper

How can one “fight” for liberty while renouncing both lying and the coercion of others? The answer is by using reason. Fortunately, liberty has a comparative advantage in logic. Unfortunately, it can struggle for acceptance in a complex, interdependent world whose workings are not intuitively obvious, and in the face of systematic efforts to mislead people about them.

However, one corollary of liberty’s comparative advantage in logic is a comparative advantage in using analogies. That is crucial, since much of what we know is by analogy. Analogies help us to recognize the half-truths that comprise arguments for coercion, because knowing what is left out of an analysis that should be included, or what is included that should not be, reveals what a more apt analogy should highlight.

One of the best illustrations of insightful analogies for liberty I have ever read is F.A. Harper’s Liberty: A Path for its Recovery.

As a way of commemorating his February 7 birthday, let’s consider some of them below:

  1. It is, in fact, a main purpose of liberty that the blind are free to follow those who can see. The danger is that in the absence of liberty the blind may become authorized to lead those who can see—by a chain around their necks!
  2. The power of government in social affairs, much like…atomic power in the physical world, still is an untamed and unharnessed force of great danger.
  3. The only difference between the aggressive bully under anarchy and the similar acts of the dictator is its formalization into governmental authority.
  4. Liberty does not mean the right to do anything that is the product of a democratic form of government…It would be as logical to assert that liberty in the choice of a wife is assured to a person if he will put it to a vote of the community and accept their plurality decision.
  5. Being able to review a decision or to request its review, under the democratic design of government, does not assure that liberty will be protected. Reinstatement of lost liberty can be requested and refused time and time again, without end. A slave…is not considered to be free by reason of the fact that he is allowed to ask for liberty.
  6. Strange is a concept of “liberty” which allows you to be forced to pay the costs of promoting acts of which you disapprove or ideas with which you disagree…the right to be forced to bow to the dictates of others, against your wisdom and conscience.
  7. Decision by the test of dominant preference is the same operating principle as…might makes right.
  8. Variation is the seed of progress. Liberty is the soil and the climate in which the seed will sprout and grow. Human capacity for independent decisions and free choice is the husbandman who nurtures the crop during the period of its growth and harvest.
  9. For a government agency…[to] become an agency of progress…would mean allowing the individual to follow his wisdom and conscience without prohibition or penalty, providing he does not trespass on the rights of others…[but] that does not require an enactment of government. A policeman would not be very busy making people do what they want to do! For government to act in such a manner is not to govern at all.
  10. [If some] acquire their status of slavery as a result of a popular vote…Would this lessen the degree of slavery?
  11. Suppose that the master pleads innocence of slaveholding on the ground that he is spending the slave’s earnings for what he considers to be the slave’s own welfare. Would that change the degree of liberty of the slave? Is liberty to be defined in such a way as to allow me to take from you the product of your labor, so long as I claim that I shall use it for your welfare, or for the “general welfare”? Should the robbing of banks be allowable under liberty, provided the bank robbers promise to put the proceeds of the robbery to some use they claim to be worthy?
  12. The right to the product of one’s own labor…To whatever extent he is deprived of these rights, he is to that extent a slave. And he is no less a slave because of the means of depriving him of the product of his labor…as though…robbery becomes a commendable act if a large enough number of people approve of it and engage in it.
  13. The mere fact of taxes having been paid is no test of basic willingness…no evidence that a form of slavery does not exist…The fact that a slave works in his master’s field, similarly, is no evidence that slavery is not involved. The giving of one’s wallet to the hold-up robber is no evidence that the robbery did not take place.
  14. In a seriously ill society as with a seriously ill person, the choice may be between some form of early medical treatment…and the services of an undertaker.
  15. The great social problem of our age is that of designing the preventive medicine that will stop the eroding liberty in the body politic…once the disease has advanced…a bitter curative medicine is required to regain already-lost liberty.
  16. Our economy is not like a pack of wolves, which plunders but does not produce. Ours is a productive rather than a parasitic economy. The basis of a free society is the absence of parasitism.
  17. Weeds the size of sequoia trees have grown up in our vineyard of liberty, and one cannot eliminate a forest of sequoia trees by using a jack-knife at the tips of the branches.
  18. Eternal vigilance is not now enough…for the same reason that eternal vigilance of the barn door is no help after the horse has been stolen.
  19. The most efficient and best possible administration of slavery will not transform it into liberty.
  20. Is it not possible for a government…to enact all the legislation necessary to illegalize essentially all economic liberty? … All that is necessary is to frighten the subjects into submission…A horse thoroughly broken to harness seldom feels the whip.

F.A. Harper was a prime example of defending liberty in a principled way—through education, persuasion, demonstration. His powerful use of analogies was an important piece of that. Apt ones reinforce the defenses of others who share that vision, while allowing other open-minded individuals to discover it, despite the world of influences that cloud essential issues. Liberty: A Path for its Recovery concluded that “The lover of liberty will find ways to be free.” But today, many must first be brought to understand liberty far better than they do before they can love it, and well-drawn analogies are an invaluable tool for that work.

This article was originally published on FEE.org

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