It is painful to watch our national crisis unfold. As American cities descend into chaos, small businesses continue to collapse, and millions are thrown out of work, two lines from a poem by William Butler Yeats comes to mind:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
Worries race through one’s mind. How could things have gone so out of control so quickly? Young people just starting out in life wonder how they will get by. Parents wonder what kind of lives their children will have in such a world. Will they be able to prosper? Will they even be safe from violence? Thoughts like this can send us reeling.
But if we squarely face those fears and unflinchingly assess the situation, generalized worries give way to concrete plans. That is how despair can yield to hope, resolve, and action.
But for our assessments to be clear and our actions to be successful, they must be guided by sound principles. That is why, no matter what, the Foundation for Economic Education is committed to championing the timeless truths of economics and social philosophy and the eternal values upon which human flourishing depends.
Why? Because we have a firm conviction that these principles are the foundation—the “centre” in Yeats’s poem—that upholds civilization. When that foundation erodes, “things fall apart,” and can only be put back together anew by rediscovering and restoring those “first things.”
So now is a good time to step back from the turmoil and reflect on some of the basics that will help us make sense of it all and make things better.
The most fundamental principles of liberty can be boiled down to “Don’t hurt people and don’t take their stuff,” which is the title of a book by Matt Kibbe. This is a colloquial paraphrase of the “natural rights” of the individual described by John Locke. These individual rights are life, liberty, and property.
Every individual has the right to not be murdered, whether by a private individual or by an agent of a government.
Other factors have fanned the flames since, but the spark that ignited the current maelstrom was the death of George Floyd, who quite clearly was unjustly killed by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Such police killings have been a systematic problem, in large part because police officers have not been held accountable for them due to such policies as “qualified immunity.” Rights can only be upheld when they are enforced, so impunity is inimical to justice, and license is antithetical to liberty. When officers of the law are “above the law” and essentially bestowed a “license to kill,” rights get trampled. Such unaccountable power also tends to weaponize prejudice, including racism.
But rioters also should not be above the law or given a license to kill. At least 12 people are now dead from the riots according to this collection of news stories. Among them is David Dorn, a retired St. Louis Police captain who was gunned down when he responded to a pawnshop’s burglar alarm.
As parents have long told children, two wrongs don’t make a right. So these murders are no less heinous than, and are in no way justified by, the killing of George Floyd. True justice is individual, not collective. When a right is violated, only the specific violators are to be held accountable. Wreaking vengeance on innocent third parties, regardless of their class or identity politics status, is itself a violation of rights.
Every individual has the right to not be enslaved, wrongly incarcerated, kidnapped, or otherwise restricted in their actions, so long as those actions do not violate the equal rights of others. Truly peaceful protesters have a right not to be hauled off to jail merely for protesting. All peaceful people have a right not to be placed under house arrest or martial law. The non-peaceful actions of others do not negate that right. The existence of a virus does not negate that right. Both private citizens and government agents have a moral obligation not to deprive any person of rightful liberty. As our founder Leonard E. Read wrote:
My thesis, in simplest terms, is: Let anyone do anything he pleases, so long as it is peaceful; the role of government, then, is to keep the peace…Keeping the peace means no more than prohibiting persons from unpeaceful actions…When government goes beyond this, that is, when government prohibits peaceful actions, such prohibitions themselves are, prima facie, unpeaceful.
Every individual has the right not to be looted, whether by private individuals or by the government.
Social media now abounds with videos of rioters pillaging and vandalizing private property, especially places of business, as well as horrifying footage of assaults on individuals trying to defend their means of livelihood. As mentioned above, at least one of these assaults was lethal. The looting will prove devastating, not only to the businesses’ owners, but to the communities they serve.
Moreover, governments have deprived many individuals of their right to own effective property-protecting property: that is, a gun. This has left many at the mercy of the mob, especially business owners.
For many business owners, this wave of looting has been akin to being kicked while they were down, as businesses have already been decimated by the mass lockdowns imposed by governments in the name of the coronavirus outbreak. These forced closures represent perhaps the largest-scale violation of the right to property in American history. As a result, according to Newsweek, a recent survey of small businesses “found close to half of owners believe they will eventually be forced to close their establishments for good.” Nearly 43 million Americans have filed for unemployment during this crisis. The lockdowns have been even more devastating in poor countries.
And for what? As one columnist recently put it, “There is still not a shred of real proof that the planet’s reckless stay-at-home experiment made any difference.”
Drunk on the intellectual arrogance of the central planner, government officials have run riot over the property rights of hundreds of millions, thereby looting the livelihoods of billions.
Economics and Human Nature
In broad strokes, these are the rights that were enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. As that founding American document put it, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” Even more than that, these principles are firmly grounded in further principles of economics and human nature.
Human beings unavoidably live under conditions of scarcity. There are never enough resources to go around to satisfy everyone’s every need. That means resources (human effort and material goods) must be allocated in some way, and as economics teaches us, the optimal way of doing so is ownership: namely self-ownership (in other words the rights to life and liberty) and the ownership of external goods (the right to property). All other ways involve perverse incentives, systematic waste, and endemic conflict.
To the extent these rights are honored, individuals have every incentive to cooperate freely and harmoniously. And out of that cooperation arise amazing phenomena of spontaneous order, including market economies, flourishing cultures, dazzling technologies, and prodigious increases in living standards.
These are the principles that keep peace in the streets and put food on the table. These are the principles that secure human dignity and advance human welfare. These are the principles we have too often forgotten and must now remember.