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Jun 1, 1978

Prima Facie Values

“Advocates of liberty should realize that in order to maximize their cause they must continually stress that non-violence is a key element to real liberty.”

“Regulation, Liberty, and Equality.” Regulation Nov./Dec. (1977): 11–15.

Many contemporary political and economic academicians are intrigued by “zero-sum” games. Such theorists insist that individuals and policy makers must make trade-offs between opposing values. Supposedly, to advocate any one doctrine necessarily diminishes the viability of other alternatives.

Liberty and equality (absolute varieties), in the abstract, represent two such zero-sum values. When government utilizes its coercive power in the name of equality (e.g., minimum wage legislation or Affirmative Action), it inhibits the capacity of individuals to make choices and act upon them (by reducing their liberty to employ workers freely). Similarly, untethered liberty (Hobbesian anarchy: the victimization of the weak by the strong) endangers basic rights such as freedom from aggression, to which we all have an equal claim at birth.

The critical insight that theorists often avoid making, however, is that the absolute pursuit of either liberty or equality ultimately endangers not only the alternative value (in zero-sum fashion) but the very value advocated itself. Overzealous egalitarian crusades, through which government attempts to level the effects of natural inequalities, generally produce tyrants who enjoy a very unequal control over power and luxuries. And pure liberty, as Camus argued, gives every member of society the “freedom to kill,” ultimately replacing the liberty of each individual with the fear of insecurity.

The relationship of liberty to equality, therefore, cannot ultimately be explained by any uncomplicated zero-sum model. Efforts to pursue either value in the extreme endanger both values. Society thus confronts the choice of blending liberty and equality in the most satisfying proportion. Individuals must periodically weigh, though, the cumulative effects of government policies in order to be certain that absolute power is not leading society towards absolute equality.

Advocates of liberty should realize that in order to maximize their cause they must continually stress that non-violence is a key element to real liberty. By advocating this single restraint on individual interaction, they can greatly diffuse criticisms that their proindividual stance is either extreme or internally inconsistent. Simultaneously, they will promote the greatest possible role for liberty in society.