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Finding Freedom in a Caged-In World 

Last updated on June 9, 2020

Humanity is in a major upheaval. The seismic shifts currently taking place in civil society are profound, fueling major collisions between the forces of political control and freedom. 

As the impact of shelter-in-place orders and business shutdowns continue to unfold, many of us find ourselves faced with a series of dilemmas amid a cascade of draconian measures and statist interdicts  

Certainly can choose to approach these with little or no critical thinking — in effect turning over control of our life decisions over to authoritarian forces. This is often referred to as the herd mentality. 

Or we can elect to think for ourselves. This involves making rational, informed decisions that allow us to live our lives in accord with our own values as long as we avoid treading on the rights of and doing harm to others. 

While the centrifugal force of COVID has led to efforts to suck us into blind compliance, the one thing we can all agree one is our common desire for a healthier, happier, safer, and more prosperous world.  

In short, we all want to live free

Freedom, The Next Chapter

A few years ago I picked up a copy of the book “Arguments For Liberty” at  Freedom Fest conference in Las Vegas. Curated and co-edited by Aaron Ross Powell, it serves as a guide for reflecting on questions like 

What’s the best political system? 

What standards should we use to decide, and why? 

Each of the nine chapters contains views from various political philosophers on political institutions and why libertarianism should be included in the discourse. While the paths they take diverge in intriguing ways, they  end up merging together with similar conclusions.   

Now a timely new sequel called Visions of Liberty has been released offering more than just an introduction to the expansive nature of political liberty. Co-edited by the aforementioned Powell who is the Director and Editor of a project of the Cato Institute and historian  Paul Matzko who is the Assistant Editor for Tech and Innovation at the Cato Institute, the book offers a in depth look of what a world of applied libertarianism looks like in practice.

The main premise of the book?  

When society is freed from the coercive and meddlesome hand of the state, people can do amazing things, all with a sense of ingenuity and compassion 

Asked about what brought them together as collaborators for this new book, Powell had this to say: 

This book came together after Paul Matzko joined the team as Technology and Innovation Editor. We wanted to bring libertarian ideas to new audiences in a new way, focusing less on the bad things the state does and more on the better world libertarians believe that greater freedom can bring about. 

He says they wanted to write a book that answered the question, “What do libertarians hope their policies can achieve?” and did so by sketching out those inspiring visions.

Aaron says he fully embraced libertarianism during college through long conversations with his friend, and now Cato Institute colleague and Free Thoughts podcast co-host, Trevor Burrus. 

“I’d long been libertarian on social issues, but Trevor convinced me of the economic half. From there, reading a great deal of libertarian (and non-libertarian) moral and political philosophy deepened my understanding of the case for liberty.” 

Adds Matzko: 

“One of the things that I talk about regularly on my podcast, Building Tomorrow, is the importance of “cosmograms,” which are the big stories we tell to make sense of the world around us. I believe that movements begin with compelling visions of what the future might be.” 

He states that Visions of Liberty is an attempt to cast this kind of vision across a wide variety of social, scientific, and policy domains.

Says Matzko: 

“I was a fairly traditional fusionist conservative all through college, but I graduated in the summer of ‘07 in the middle of the debate over comprehensive immigration reform. To my dismay, conservative talk radio helped defeat the legislation. We now know that this was an early sign of the recrudescence of ethno-nationalist populism on the Right, but at the time it pushed me to start considering myself something to be something other than a conservative or a Republican.” 

In terms of the relevancy of “Visions of Liberty” during times we are currently facing, Ross-Powell and Matzko had this to add: 

“In the middle of a pandemic and with the global economy under considerable strain, it’s difficult to be optimistic about how much better the world could be. While this wasn’t intended when we began work on the book, because nobody could’ve predicted what things would be like when it was released, we see Visions of Liberty as a counterpoint to the current attitude of doom and gloom. The world can be better—dramatically so—and we can still get there; here are ways to do it.” 

A New Normal for Freedom? 

In terms of what sorts of emerging political liberty trends they see on the horizon over the next 12-18 months as the realities of our current global pandemic begin to take shape, Ross-Powell had this to offer: 

“It’s really too early to tell. We don’t know how quickly this pandemic will end. We don’t know how quickly the economy will recover, or what it will look like when it does. We’ve seen some worrying trends related to governments claiming unwarranted or illegitimate authority, but we’ve also seen positive trends in the form of the private sector taking the lead in a lot of cases and in burdensome regulations being discarded as it becomes clear how much they stand in the way of helpful actions.” 

Matzko adds:

“We’ve seen some governments, as in the case of Hungry, use COVID-19 as an excuse for authoritarian power grabs. Other countries have proposed government-run COVID-19 tracking programs that pose serious privacy risks. Thankfully, the worst threats to civil liberty haven’t come from the US thus far, but it bears watching.”

In response to the growing numbers of global citizens concerned about how political efforts to contain COVID’s spread are an affront to personal liberties, Ross-Powell and Matzko simply note that we are in the midst of an unprecedented time, one that exposes the tensions between core libertarian ideas about the proper scope of the state and the simultaneous need for collective action to slow and limit harm from a terrible virus.

All of this according to Ross-Powell and Matzko is made more complicated by the fact that we don’t know nearly as much as we’d like about the nature of COVID-19; and that what we do know changes rapidly as we receive new information. So it’s difficult they say to get a handle on how much of the current reaction is an overreaction, how much is justified, how much is actually helpful, and so on. 

But, in general, they believe that the powers being claimed by the government during this time, and the actions it takes, need to be limited in scope and, just as importantly, limited in time. They stress the importance of not allowing the emergency powers legitimately claimed right now persist beyond the time they’re needed to combat COVID-19, 

Says Ross-Powell: 

“There will be a natural interest on the part of government to keep those powers longer than necessary. So even though libertarians can disagree about the appropriateness of current anti-COVID policies, we should all be vigilant against the state using this as an excuse to permanently expand its power.”

Returning to the book “Visions for Liberty” Matzko says that there is something in it for everyone: 

“If you think the government’s “War on Drugs” is an abomination, then come enjoy Trevor Burrus’s vision of a future with total drug legalization. If the nativist turn in immigration policy bothers you, check out Alex Nowrasteh’s fascinating alternate history of US immigration. From education to emerging tech to criminal justice, there are essays exploring how much better our world could be if we fully embraced liberty.

Concludes Aaron:

This is the book I wish I’d had as a young person first learning about libertarianism. It makes abstract political and moral ideas more concrete by offering visions of the kind of world the authors believe libertarianism can bring about. It paints an inspiring picture of the future we’re aiming to achieve.

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