I’m often given the opportunity to speak to young interns about liberty and economics. These discussions cover a whole range of topics including anti-trust laws, private police, anti-discrimination legislation, and national defense. On some occasions, I give them Bryan Caplan’s brilliant “libertarian purity test” and pressure them to repent for their sinful, statist ways, should their score be dismal. It all makes for good fun and thoughtful dialogue.
In a recent discourse, one intern made an interesting point regarding natural law: Is it possible that sometime in the near future, we could discover a new moral precept about mankind? I immediately scoffed at the question, to my own ignorance. Thinking about it now, the query is quite legitimate.
What do I mean by this? Initially, the idea that people in the twenty first century will apply reason and discover a new moral and ethical verity to human life comes off as wishful thinking. We still look back to Plato and Aristotle as philosophical teachers. Their teachings on law, government, and human nature are still highly relevant today. The law of the Bible and Torah is still taken seriously in the modern era. Fast-forward a bit in time and you get to the writings of Thomas Aquinas, Adam Smith, John Locke, Karl Marx, and Immanuel Kant, which all still influence our discourse.
It’s hard to see how any thinkers today could provide truthful insights that haven’t already been found and pontificated upon. Many of the public intellectuals today only regurgitate the ideas of the past. Paul Krugman and his Keynesian pals harken back to the Marxist influence of Lord Keynes. The neoconservative talking heads invoke the democratic and revolutionary spirit of their forebear Leon Trotsky. Even libertarians will often make the case for the non-aggression principle based on the natural law that took centuries to find and mold into a succinct ethic.
Put in the context of philosophical history, the chances that a new moral standard will be found appear dim. A majority of people no longer care about such esoteric thinking. Their interests are far more lowbrow. Academics still toil away in their university offices, but the underlying theory behind natural law has been replaced with a kind of secular, scientism that doesn’t search for greater metaphysical truth.
The lack of meticulous searching for universal morality hasn’t stopped progressives from discovering “human rights” out of thin air. A right to housing, food, healthcare, and a cell phone are all recent developments. Where these revelations came from is hard to pinpoint; except in the far likelier case that leftists only want government to provide these goodies instead of actually doing the hard work themselves. The liberal argument for positive rights is not recognition of an existing tenet of mankind. Affirming the right to medical care would have been impossible centuries ago because of lack of doctors and medicine. Governments, or rather monarchies, could promise healthcare. But it was undeliverable by any practical standard.
To specify, just because something is a right – such as self-ownership of the body – doesn’t mean that it’s automatically protected or guaranteed. Even so, so-called “rights” that involve the taking and distribution of finite resources can’t be rights since the apparatus to fulfill such a measure is not something that can exist in isolation. And moral claims that aren’t possible in isolation certainly aren’t universal.
Progressive schemes notwithstanding, the possibility of discovering new, natural laws may not be high, but it shouldn’t be ruled out. Looking back over the twentieth century, the real defining nature of man was finally stumbled upon by several philosophers. Of course, from the libertarian perspective, you have Murray Rothbard’s judicious defense of the individual over state coercion; what he called “anarcho-capitalism.” You also have the tireless work of Ludwig von Mises who deduced a number of economic laws that are a part of reality. Then there is the true nature of intellectual “property,” which was only recently discovered by libertarian thinkers such as Stephen Kinsella and Hans-Hermann Hoppe.
Within the libertarian philosophy, there is plenty of progress to still be made. The question of children’s rights, abortion, the rights of the mentally handicapped, and euthanasia are still dividing issues within the libertarian community. The hope is that one day a consensus based on logical truth will soon settle each subject.
But even extending further from libertarianism, an important natural law was discovered just within the past two centuries. Slavery, the forced bondage of one human by another, was widely accepted and inscribed in government law up until the 19th century. Western nations eventually came to their senses and abolished the morally repugnant practice, but that didn’t stop it from existing for a millennium beforehand. In his Epistle to Philemon, the Apostle Paul urges the Colossian Church leader to receive his imprisoned slave back and treat him “as a beloved brother.” Paul doesn’t advocate the freeing of the slave Onesimus or condemn the practice at all. He only attempted to change hearts, which resulted in the eventual freeing of Onesimus.
Even someone as moralistic as Paul didn’t opine for the ending of slavery. During the time of his preaching he accepted it as a standard practice that could only be softened through compassion. It wasn’t until the 19th century that abolition became a moral movement. That was nearly six generations ago. It took that long to finally decide that forcing one man into the service of another was wrong. So there is hope that sometime in the future, another moral truth could be discovered.
There are some liberty-minded individuals who believe that technological progress will play a large role in triggering the expansion of freedom. The thought is that with the increased availability of the internet, the greater sharing of information, and the more autonomous we become with “smart” devices, we will finally discover true freedom from coercion. I’m much more hesitant about this ideal, and don’t want to rely on computer technology to guide my own reason. As Jeff Deist recently pointed out in an interview with Tom Woods, the last thirty years have seen both technological advancements along with tremendous “growth of states.” We might be able to communicate across the globe, but those conversations are monitored by government officials. So I’m in agreement with Deist who says “I am a little suspicious of people who say, now, because of technology, we’re going to be free.”
Technology or not, our aptitude for valuing liberty and natural law appears to be on the wane. Statism is a reigning ideology that holds much of the public’s approval. Can we discover new truths related to freedom? The answer is yes, but the chance that anyone will in our new age of non-intellectual materialism is much slimmer. For now, the non-aggression principle will have to be enough.
James E. Miller is editor-in-chief of the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada.
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