March 30, 2021 Reading Time: 7 minutes

Freedom is declining in America and around the world. Even more alarming is how few people oppose new authoritarian measures. 

Glenn Greenwald has sounded the alarm about ongoing attempts to curtail the First Amendment. Recently Greenwald described his experience as he listened to the “tyrannical goal” expressed at a Congressional hearing: “Words cannot convey how chilling and authoritarian this all is: watching government officials, hour after hour, demand censorship of political speech and threaten punishment for failures to obey.” 

In the UK, former Supreme Court judge Jonathan Sumption has called out his government’s oppressive Covid-19 policies: 

“A society in which oppressive control of every detail of our lives is unthinkable except when it is thought to be a good idea, is not free. It is not free while the controls are in place. And it is not free after they are lifted, because the new attitude will allow the same thing to happen again whenever there is enough public support.”

Underline attitude. We are only free to the extent that we understand freedom. Widespread individual authoritarian mindsets fuel authoritarian politicians. Sumption writes, “The Prime Minister claims to believe in liberty and to find the current measures distasteful. Actions speak louder than words, and I am afraid that I do not believe him. He is too much of a populist to go against public sentiment.”

Perhaps in the past year, you found yourself overcome by the seeming long odds of restoring freedom. 

In his book Liberalism Ludwig von Mises has good news: “In a battle between force and an idea, the latter always prevails.” A bit later in Liberalism, he writes, “Against what is stupid, nonsensical, erroneous, and evil, liberalism fights with the weapons of the mind, and not with brute force and repression.”

Freedom is an idea. Freedom is never completely lost; it can lay latent, ready to be rediscovered. 

In The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek defines freedom as “the state in which a man is not subject to coercion by the arbitrary will of another or others.” Hayek defines coercion:

“Coercion occurs when one man’s actions are made to serve another man’s will, not for his own but for the other’s purpose. It is not that the coerced does not choose at all; if that were the case, we should not speak of his ‘acting.’ …Coercion implies, however, that I still choose but that my mind is made someone else’s tool, because the alternatives before me have been so manipulated that the conduct that the coercer wants me to choose becomes for me the least painful one.”

The line between authoritarianism and totalitarianism is thin. The future of liberty depends on whether individuals adopt antiauthoritarian mindsets. Cultivating mindsets that lead to a greater appreciation of individual rights and spontaneous order naturally leads to a rejection of authoritarian means and ends. 

The Mindset of Tolerance and Respect for Differences

In Liberalism, Mises reminds us, in a free society, others will “act and live” differently than we consider “proper:”  

“The propensity of our contemporaries to demand authoritarian prohibition as soon as something does not please them, and their readiness to submit to such prohibitions even when what is prohibited is quite agreeable to them shows how deeply ingrained the spirit of servility still remains within them. It will require many long years of self-education until the subject can turn himself into the citizen. A free man must be able to endure it when his fellow men act and live otherwise than he considers proper. He must free himself from the habit, just as soon as something does not please him, of calling for the police.”

It’s easy to point to cancel culture as an example of authoritarian intolerance for differences. Yet, during the pandemic, we have witnessed displays of intolerance from erstwhile champions of freedom. They supported lockdowns and disparaged those with alternative viewpoints. Even some libertarians shouted anti-vaxxer at those warning against cronyism. Invectives like “anti-vaxxer” are designed to shame and demonize those with different views and end discussion of vaccine safety issues. Yet, captured regulators and crony firms shielded from liability by government cannot establish vaccine safety.

In The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek is clear that progress depends on our respect for different opinions. “It is only because the majority opinion will always be opposed by some that our knowledge and understanding progress.” 

If not for different lockdown policies by states and countries, we would not have discovered that lockdowns do not stop a virus. If not for minority action, Hayek reveals the majority can be slow to learn: “It is always from a minority acting in ways different from what the majority would prescribe that the majority in the end learns to do better.” 

In his seminal essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society” and again in The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek explains this key insight: “The sum of the knowledge of all the individuals exists nowhere as an integrated whole.” As a consequence, individuals are free to achieve their own ends only because others are free to explore their own. Hayek explains,

“It is largely because civilization enables us constantly to profit from knowledge which we individually do not possess and because each individual’s use of his particular knowledge may serve to assist others unknown to him in achieving their ends that men as members of civilized society can pursue their individual ends so much more successfully than they could alone.”

We deny reality when we insist authoritarians have knowledge they do not possess.

When we begin to grasp how little each of us knows, we can drop to our knees in awe and wonder at how progress depends on learning from and not repressing differences.

The Mindset of Curiosity 

With tolerance and respect for differences comes the mindset of curiosity. We wonder, Why do others see the world differently than I do? 

In his book, Curious? psychology professor Todd Kashdan reports on a study by famed psychologists Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson. Curiosity is a trait highly associated with experiencing happiness and overall life fulfillment.

Kashdan writes that in the absence of curiosity, “People show an intolerance of uncertainty.” Covid-19 created tremendous uncertainty. Without curiosity, unplanned non-authoritarian ways to solve problems are met with intolerance. 

Israel Kirzner has succinctly explained why so many people ignorant of economics are primed to turn toward authoritarianism: 

“To the layman untrained in economics, the market economy presents a bewildering face. It consists of numerous individuals each intent on his own goals, giving no concern to the overall social implications of his pursuits. No central coordinating agency controls or even monitors the innumerable independent production and exchange decisions made by these countless individuals. It is no wonder that the market economy seems to be nothing but a jungle of clashing, discordant individual activities.”

In his chapter “Cosmos and Taxis” in Volume 1 of Law Legislation and Liberty, Hayek points the curious reader in a direction they may not yet have considered. Order and thus progress, Hayek explains, can be a spontaneous phenomenon that is not controlled by anyone or any group of people. There are “orderly structures which are the product of the actions of many men but not the result of human design.”

For authoritarians who are not curious, what interest could they have in Hayek’s ideas on spontaneous order? Instead, they will demand that government implement authoritarian policies, mistakenly believing as Kirzner wrote that regulations “save people from the disastrous results of their working at cross‐purposes.” Kirzner wrote his essay in the 1980s when regulators were supposedly benignly “equipped with the necessary power, knowledge, and motivation to foster harmony.”

Of course, as Kirzner explains, such regulators “are likely to block or distort the market’s own delicate discovery process.” When things go wrong, instead of questioning assumptions, many double down and blame the market. 

The Mindset of Personal Responsibility 

Blame is a habit of mind. When thinking turns toward blaming, it turns away from one’s meaningful purpose in life. Without a meaningful purpose, authoritarianism is alluring. Those who blame and eschew responsibility, Eric Hoffer explained in his seminal book The True Believer, are attracted by “the prospect of sudden and spectacular change in their conditions of life.” Hoffer wrote of human nature:

“There is in us a tendency to locate the shaping forces of our existence outside ourselves. Success and failure are unavoidably related in our minds with the state of things around us. Hence it is that people with a sense of fulfillment think it a good world and would like to conserve it as it is, while the frustrated favor radical change. The tendency to look for all causes outside ourselves persists even when it is clear that our state of being is the product of personal qualities such as ability, character, appearance, health and so on.” 

When we see the shaping forces of our life as outside ourselves, Hoffer explains, we reduce our efforts:

“People who see their lives as irremediably spoiled cannot find a worthwhile purpose in self-advancement. The prospect of an individual career cannot stir them to a mighty effort, nor can it evoke in them faith and a single-minded dedication. They look on self-interest as on something tainted and evil; something unclean and unlucky. Anything undertaken under the auspices of the self seems to them foredoomed. Nothing that has its roots and reasons in the self can be good and noble.”

In the past year, many supported authoritarian movements supporting lockdowns and other restrictive measures. Hoffer shares an insight into why: 

“Their innermost craving is for a new life—a rebirth—or, failing this, a chance to acquire new elements of pride, confidence, hope, a sense of purpose and worth by an identification with a holy cause. An active mass movement offers them opportunities for both. If they join the movement as full converts they are reborn to a new life in its close-knit collective body, or if attracted as sympathizers they find elements of pride, confidence and purpose by identifying themselves with the efforts, achievements and prospects of the movement.”

Demonstrating their identification with an authoritarian movement, people call the police against those violating masking or lockdown rules. Hoffer explains why: 

“A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people’s business. This minding of other people’s business expresses itself in gossip, snooping and meddling, and also in feverish interest in communal, national and racial affairs. In running away from ourselves we either fall on our neighbor’s shoulder or fly at his throat.”

Hoffer cautions that when hope is lost, authoritarianism grows: “One of the most potent attractions of a mass movement is its offering of a substitute for individual hope. No real content or comfort can ever arise in their minds but from hope.” 

Recently Stanford’s Scott Atlas reflected on his experience as Covid-19 Advisor to President Trump. His scientific recommendations were censored, his work misrepresented. He was shamed and ridiculed. Atlas reveals he “was and remain[s] stunned—almost frightened—at the acquiescence of the American people to such destructive, arbitrary, and wholly unscientific rules, restrictions, and mandates.” Authoritarianism will win, Atlas concludes, “unless more people begin to step up in defense of freedom of thought and speech.” 

Big tech is making it increasingly difficult to share alternative views, but the battle is not lost. We can choose to be more open in face-to-face conversations arising organically with friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues. Even in those conversations, the intolerant will ridicule you and blame you for the troubles in the world. Yet your display of genuine curiosity will evoke curiosity in others. Out of your courage to share ideas and with a mutual mindset of curiosity, freedom can be rediscovered.

Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore.

He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership, and his essays have appeared in publications such as the Foundation for Economic Education and Intellectual Takeout.

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