“Is there any single principle or point on which libertarians could most effectively concentrate?” Henry Hazlitt, one of the shining icons of modern Classical Liberalism, asks this question in his 1969 book, Man vs. the Welfare State. The question is found in one of the last chapters of the book, “The Task Confronting Libertarians.” The mood of the chapter is quite pessimistic. Hazlitt acknowledged that in 1969 the forces of socialism, Statism, and fascism in the US and around the world were too strong and numerous for the handful of libertarians to oppose successfully. He also acknowledged that those that were the chief victims of the government policies—the entrepreneurs and businessmen—were too “timid” (the polite word for “cowardly”) to oppose those policies. So he tried to lay out a few tactical measures.
In general, the chapter is a complete failure in its professed objective. Hazlitt, who was best known for his unsurpassed talent to give concise and clear descriptions of the way the markets work (Economics in One Lesson) or the way the welfare state works (the first 22 chapters of Man vs. the Welfare State), couldn’t think of any better advice than attacking in writing specific policy issues or calling for end of inflation. The chapter leaves the reader disappointed because it gives no clear strategy for action, just a few fragmented suggestions. After giving one the most masterful presentations of the evils of the welfare state, Hazlitt is helpless to offer solutions.
He apparently knew he hasn’t done a good job offering solutions, for in the middle of the chapter he asked the above question: “Is there any single principle or point on which libertarians could most effectively concentrate?”
The answer is as disappointing as the rest of the chapter. According to Hazlitt, libertarians just need to repeat that “government has nothing to give to anybody that it doesn’t first take from somebody else.” Then they need to repeat that in the welfare state no one pays for the education of their own children but of the children of others. And then they must repeat that you can’t get a quart out of pint jug. One short page is devoted to these, and none of them is as basic as the title of the section promises.
Apparently Hazlitt can’t come up with a single general principle on which the defense of liberty can be based. Neither can Mises, in his Human Action. The “ultimate” principle according to Mises is human action itself. Unfortunately, he doesn’t show how such an ultimate principle can be used to defend liberty. Taking human action for an ultimate principle certainly enables Mises to describe how an economy works, and to predict economic behavior. But how it can be used to defend liberty is unclear.
Both Mises and Hazlitt advise us to take apart the economic policies of governments and demonstrate their economic inefficiency. A tremendous task, as both of them acknowledge, for the number of inefficient government policies and of the rules and laws our government creates every day is beyond the ability of the handful libertarians to follow. Besides, even if we could defeat every little part of the statists’ strategy, that doesn’t give us a solution. There must be a general principle on which the defense of liberty must be based, and winning the particular battles won’t give us the general victory over Statism.
Unfortunately, Classical Liberalism has been unable to supply the defenders of liberty with that single most important general principle to use in defense of liberty. A wonderful system for describing and predicting human behavior, Classical Liberalism is quite helpless when it comes to define man as a being, and therefore quite unable to defend liberty as an inalienable right, essential and inherent to man’s very being.
Hazlitt’s title was apparently borrowed from the book of another great champion of individual liberty, Herbert Spencer—The Man vs. the State (1884). Both men believed in individual liberty; both men wrote books in defense of man against the state. Unfortunately, both men believed in the evolutionary descent of man. Because of their evolutionary faith, both men failed to see that single most important principle on which the defense of liberty must be based.
Hazlitt tried to defend liberty on the basis of an alleged “scientific” approach to life and action. Man’s liberty was to be based not on the nature of man as a moral being, neither on some transcendent principle, but on human action. Man was an animal, a blind product of blind forces, and as such any definition of him as a moral being would be impossible. If the definition of man as a moral being is impossible, then liberty cannot be defended on moral grounds.
And here Hazlitt apparently was hit by the most serious problem of all evolutionist libertarians: If liberty can’t be defended on moral grounds, then we end up defending expediency, profitability, efficiency, custom, tradition, nature . . . but not liberty. There is no defense of liberty on any other grounds except moral grounds. But for an evolutionist there is no moral ground, and therefore an evolutionist cannot find that “single most important principle” that Hazlitt was looking for.
Hazlitt didn’t understand—or refused to understand—that the problem of liberty is not ultimately an economic issue, nor a political issue, nor an intellectual issue. It is a theological issue. The problem of liberty is a problem of “choose today which god you are going to serve.” It is a problem of ultimate loyalty. Spencer, Mises, and Hazlitt dismissed any consideration of what they called “metaphysical commitment” in their studies, but there is no solution to the problem of liberty except in metaphysical—or religious, as the more proper word—commitment. Liberty is a product of faith, a faith that man is a created being, a faith in a transcendental standard for righteousness and justice given by man’s Creator.
The Declaration of Independence of the Founding Fathers of the American Republic laid it out in a very clear way: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This most important political document in all of history doesn’t base the defense of liberty on its efficiency, expediency, or reasonableness; it bases it on the transcendental origin of liberty as a right given to man as created being. Whether man ends up richer or poorer, whether his economy will be growing or not, whether the government policies will be efficient or not is of no consequence; liberty has existence outside of these considerations.
But even the words of the Declaration are grossly imprecise. There is much more to liberty than just being a human or political right. Man as created being must have liberty not just because it is his right, but because he is created in the image of God. Liberty is thus essential to his very nature; it is the very purpose of his created existence, to be free in order to be able to exhibit the glory of God in his life, his thoughts, and his actions. A person who has no right to the fruits of his labor, a person who has no right to make lawful decisions with his body, property, relations, a person who has no right to express his thoughts and to worship God according to the revelation given to him, is in a sense a non-person. They do not fulfill the chief end of their existence. They are not a full person. A full person is someone who glorifies God with all they have, all they think and speak, and all they do; a slave has no full ability to glorify God, and therefore a slave is not a complete person. Only on this foundation a “single, most important principle” is found that must be used by all libertarians in defense of liberty. Only when liberty is understood as an integral part of God’s image in man, and of God’s chief end for man’s existence, a general defense of liberty can be presented.
Hazlitt’s problem was theological and transcendental, but he sought anthropological and immanent solutions to it. That’s why he never found a solution. The answer to tyranny and slavery was to be found in the Christian religion, not in “scientific” reasoning based on unclear assumptions about the nature and origins of man. If Hazlitt—or Spencer—wanted to find the answer to his problem of “one single general principle,” he should have changed the title of his book to God vs. the Welfare State (or God vs. the State for Spencer). Since the issue of liberty is always religious, the main task confronting libertarians is not to wrest control over man’s actions and possessions from the State and give it back to man, but to change man’s loyalty, to make him refuse to be a slave to the State a become a servant of God. Control—whether physical, political, economic, etc.—is only the outcome of underlying spiritual loyalties, and libertarians will never accomplish their task if they do not seek spiritual solutions. Criticizing government policies without exposing the government as a false god, and without calling men to return to their Creator God is an exercise in futility, an example of treating the symptoms and not the cause.
This last century exposed the nakedness of socialism as an ideological, political, and social system. Socialism in all its forms—communism, fascism, the welfare state, the “third way,” Keynesianism, etc.—failed to produce the fruits it promised, and in addition to its unfulfilled promises it destroyed the economic and the cultural basis on which the Western civilization was built. It also destroyed liberty, which was a unique product of the Christian foundation of the Western civilization; individual liberty as a concept was unknown to the other civilizations in history and on earth before the West made it known.
But this last century also saw the failure of the defenders of liberty to restore the idea of individual liberty to its exalted place. However convincing their arguments were, and however unsuccessful socialism always was, the masses in the Western world demanded more socialism, and remained deaf to the logic and reason of Classical Liberalism. There is only one reason for it: The logic and reasoning of Classical Liberalism were based on a faulty presupposition. The Classical Liberals refused to accept that man is a created being, and therefore all solutions to all his problems must be found in the fact of God’s image in man. The result has been disastrous—for liberty, and for the human civilization.
It is about time for us to restore the true foundation of liberty. The “single most important general principle” on which libertarians must focus is that: God the Creator, and His image in Man as His creation. There is no solution to the problem of liberty outside of this principle.