Foundations of a free society

By Paul Walker 26/11/2013


An interesting new book by Eamonn Butler published by the IEA in London. Butler makes the point that a free society is not a random collection of selfish individuals. It is something complex and organic, and based on deep values – not values that challenge other moral systems but values that make cooperation and social harmony possible. As Butler wrote in a previous book on Adam Smith,

He [Smith] realised that social harmony would emerge naturally as human beings struggled to find ways to live and work with each other. Freedom and self-interest need not lead to chaos, but – as if guided by an ‘invisible hand’ – would produce order and concord. They would also bring about the most efficient possible use of resources. As free people struck bargains with others – solely in order to better their own condition – the nation’s land, capital, skills, knowledge, time, enterprise and inventiveness would be drawn automatically and inevitably to the ends and purposes that people valued most highly. Thus the maintenance of a prospering social order did not require the continued supervision of kings and ministers. It would grow organically as a product of human nature. To grow best and to work most efficiently, however, it required an open, competitive marketplace, with free exchange and without coercion. It needed rules to maintain this openness, just as a fire-basket is needed to contain a fire. But those rules, the rules of justice and morality, are general and impersonal, quite unlike the specific and personal interventions of the mercantilist authorities.

And this is still a rather good summary of the basic argument in favour of a free society today. Butler argues that the essential foundations of a free society are freedom, property, trade, justice, toleration, moral rules, incentives, rights, and limited government. He also notes that none of us really lives in a free society, its a case of being more or less free and that we must be vigilant so we doesn’t end up ambling down the Road to Serfdom.

A brief summary of the book is:

  • Freedom creates prosperity. It unleashes human talent, invention and innovation, creating wealth where none existed before. Societies that have embraced freedom have made themselves rich. Those that have not have remained poor.
  • People in a free society do not become rich by exploiting others, as the elites of less-free countries do. They cannot become rich by making others poorer. They become rich only by providing others with what they want and making other people’s lives better.
  • The chief beneficiaries of the economic dynamism of free societies are the poor. Free societies are economically more equal than non-free societies. The poor in the most-free societies enjoy luxuries that were undreamed of just a few years ago, luxuries available only to the ruling elites of non-free countries.
  • International trade gives entrepreneurs new market opportunities and has helped lift more than a billion people out of abject poverty in the last twenty years. Freedom is truly one of the most benign and productive forces in human history.
  • Attempts by governments to equalise wealth or income are counter-productive. They destroy the incentives for hard work and enterprise and discourage people from building up the capital that boosts the productivity of the whole society.
  • A free society is a spontaneous society. It builds up from the actions of individuals, following the rules that promote peaceful cooperation. It is not imposed from above by political authorities.
  • Government has a very limited role in a free society. It exists to prevent harm being done to its citizens by maintaining and enforcing justice. It does not try to impose material equality and it does not prohibit activities just because some people consider them disagreeable or offensive. Leaders cannot plunder citizens for their own benefit, grant favours to their friends, or use their power against their enemies.
  • The government of a free society is constrained by the rule of law. Its laws apply to everyone equally. There must be due process of law in all cases, with fair trials and no lengthy detention without trial. People accused of offences must be treated as innocent until proved guilty, and individuals must not be harassed by being prosecuted several times for the same offence.
  • Tolerating other people’s ideas and lifestyles benefits society. Truth is not always obvious; it emerges in the battle of ideas. We cannot trust censors to suppress only wrong ideas. They may mistakenly suppress ideas and ways of acting that would greatly benefit society in the future.
  • Communications technology is making it more difficult for authoritarian governments to hide their actions from the rest of the world. As a result, more and more countries are opening up to trade and tourism, and new ideas are spreading. More people see the benefits of economic and social freedom, and are demanding them.


0 Responses to “Foundations of a free society”

  • Someone lent the author a copy of “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” didn’t they. Great wish list but given the success of China, Scandinavian capitalism, to name but two I, for one, urge the author, and Paul, to read “The Seven Cultures of Capitalism” and also scout around for the data that would back up point 5 in particular.

  • I don’t think you would call China a free society and this fact will be a problem in the future. As people become wealthier they will want that wealth to be protected against arbitrary confiscation by the government. This means placing limits on the power of the state in China, something the Chinese government will not like. Without such limits on the government its economic success will be placed in danger. The Scandinavian countries have in place, at least to same degree, the things Butler is talking about.

  • I’m beginning to think that a society based on “consensus”, of which democracy is an example, is bound to destroy itself in the end. A society which makes decisions by popular choice inevitably makes decisions based on short-term values of people of average and below average intelligence. These short-term values are likely to conflict with the longer term survival of society. Additionally, a majority decision alienates the opposing minorities, thereby making war/terrorism more likely.