When trying to persuade people that voluntary solutions are better, we often end up in arguments about “high-level” policies. To take one example of thousands, I have often found myself arguing with people about many, many aspects of the minimum wage. Often it feels like these debates go around in circles – opponents aren’t actually very interested in evidence, or well supported arguments on the issue at hand. I have come to believe that these “high-level” debates can often be pointless, as what drives someone to, say, ignore both theory and evidence that the minimum wage causes unemployment, isn’t a dispassionate search for the truth on this one issue, but instead “core beliefs and narratives” that inform the person’s approach to all high-level policy issues.

Worldviews are shortcuts

All people who have spent any time developing their political beliefs are guided by heuristic ideas that help them develop high-level policies without having to analyse the issue completely from scratch. These ideas create our “worldview” or “mindset”  – a set of assumptions which we use to filter and interpret our observations. As an example, someone who follows a fundamentalist Christian church is unlikely to be particularly interested in the negative human welfare outcomes of banning abortion – their core beliefs tell them in this instance that the “innocent” fetus is much more important than welfare outcomes for the “sinful” mother/parents, whereas someone without these core beliefs or indeed a different narrative will weigh the evidence differently. One can immediately perceive that a policy debate between a feminist and a Christian pastor on this issue is unlikely to be very fruitful.

Growing our movement means getting more people to agree with us on a fundamental level, rather than accepting the evidence on a couple of policies, whilst maintaining an anti-freedom worldview. As such, we need to get more people to accept the core beliefs that lead to a pro-freedom mindset and an approach to high-level policy that is more open to persuasion.

The pillars of freedom

These are the core beliefs that inform our worldview:

  1. Ethical universalism – the idea that all humans are deserving of equal ethical consideration; that humans cannot be divided into different categories where ethical calculations are concerned.
  2. Individual conscience and responsibility – that each person makes their own ethical decisions according to their own conscience and takes responsibility for those actions. Individuals are not directed by or responsible for, the decisions or actions of a wider group they might be affiliated with, unless they conscientiously act with that group.
  3. Political authority not superior to reason – that political authority is subject to our criticism and scrutiny on the basis of reason, like other ideas.
  4. Mutually beneficial exchange – the notion that trade and commerce are inherently beneficial to all parties, not a “zero sum game” with a winner and loser.
  5. The dynamic production process – The role of savings and capital goods in the current process of wealth accumulation and rising living standards in places with a sufficiently free market.

There is an extremely strong rational and evidence based case that can be made for each of these core beliefs. However, this case is not being made widely or vigorously enough.

In general, the authoritarian left accept the first one or two and reject the last three or four. The authoritarian right accept the last two and reject the first three or 2 & 3. Even many libertarians are insufficiently skeptical of authority and endorse minarchism despite accepting 1,2,4 and 5.

Below is a brief case for each concept:

1. Ethical universalism:

All humans should be treated with equal ethical consideration has become less and less controversial. Rationally, it seems like every human has a similar experience of the world and is therefore worthy of similar treatment in an ethical system. Importantly, this doctrine holds that it is illegitimate to put oneself or one’s clan, tribe, race, sect, gender or other group above any other group in terms of ethical consideration or accountability.

Ethical universalism has it’s origins in Stoicism, Buddhism and the Abrahamic religions, but was most strongly promoted when the early Christian church developed the universalist ideas in Judaism and applied them to all of humanity – these ideas were particularly popular in the Roman empire, which had already been influenced to some extent by Stoicism. Crucially, these ideas were developed and consolidated in early Christianity before it became a state religion. They influenced the Western mindset and inform all modern views of ethics and politics, although nationalist and sectarian political undercurrents (both anti-ethical universalism) are still present to some degree in mainstream western politics.

2. Individual conscience and responsibility:

Each person is responsible for their own conduct and acting according to the dictates of their own conscience. In a modern society this reflects the reality that individuals are able to survive independently of their family, clan, religious community etc. if they choose and therefore that the collective does not have control of nor responsibility for the decisions that the individual makes. Individuals decide and act.

3. Political authority not superior to reason:

Those with political authority are still human beings with individual conscience and responsibility. They are also subject to the same ethics as all other humans and have the same motivations as others. We must expect that those who exercise political authority will still be self-interested and prone to human flaws. As such, different methods of exercising political authority need to be evaluated both from a theoretical and an empirical basis to determine what form, if any, political authority should take.

On a theoretical basis, because political authority seeks to exempt itself from ordinary ethical rules and thereby violates ethical universality, it should be subject to extreme scrutiny and skepticism – it is not clear what basis it has to claim the right to do so, beyond “might is right”.

On an empirical basis, the history of political authority does not do it any favours, either: elites established the state in order to regularise their extortion, not to help humanity. Even modern Western democratic states still cause massive dis-utility through trade restrictions, aggressive foreign wars and taxes that would all be considered unethical under ordinary circumstances.

4. Mutually beneficial exchange:

When two people voluntarily decide to trade with each other, both parties anticipate a gain from the trade, otherwise they wouldn’t have traded. Whilst it is possible that the trading parties may not have equal information and the trade does not represent a net gain, the subjective nature of value (each person values different goods differently), as well as the benefits of specialisation give ample to reason to think that the vast majority of (voluntary) trade is genuinely mutually beneficial. Furthermore, because each person knows their own valuations of goods best, and have an incentive to gather information about the goods they trade, it is exceedingly unlikely that a third party will be able to successfully “second guess” a voluntary trade and prevent a trade that would have harmed one party. As such all attempts to interfere with trade should be treated with extreme skepticism.

5. The dynamic production process (the most complex concept):

Whilst some goods are produced merely to be consumed (like, say, wheat), there are other goods that facilitate the increased production of more goods in the future (like tractors). In this sense, some goods are factors of production that facilitate the production of new products, more products or more efficiently produced products (requiring less input goods for the same product).

The goods that produce other goods (as opposed to being directly consumable) are known as “capital goods” whilst liquid assets that are used to finance investment are known simply as “capital”.

By saving some of the product of previous labour, people can make capital goods (which are not consumable) that can then increase production in the future. This is a dynamic process that requires an appreciation of the role of time in production – something many economists and political thinkers neglect.

The advance of technology is intimately linked with the process of creating new capital goods that can produce new consumer goods. Although basic science is also important, the advances made available by scientists languish until sufficient capital can be invested in the development and testing of new production methods and machines. This process is risky and often very expensive and successful investment often requires excellent research and considerable talent.

The immense comparative wealth of contemporary humans (in the West at least) is due to this process, which is unleashed when trade and specialisation are combined with the ability to safely save and invest without fear of confiscation or destruction (private property and rule of law – conditions that have not existed in most places for most of human history).  These conditions emerged in England and the Netherlands in the 1500’s and eventually spread to encompass most of Europe, the New World and Asia.

There are alternative narratives around the wealth of the West that suggest that the West is merely a plundering colonial power and the increasing welfare of the ordinary Westerner is the result of political redistribution rather than a natural result of free market processes. These narratives cannot explain the rapid improvements in living standards in South East Asia in the second half of the 20th Century, like Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. These countries do not have colonies to exploit and most do not have any significant wealth redistribution schemes.

Bringing it all together

If someone understands and accepts all of these concepts, it’s very likely they will have a pro-freedom worldview and will tend to formulate and support voluntary solutions when talking about high-level policy problems. The first three concepts lead to support for the idea that people are autonomous, self-owning individuals deserving of ethical consideration, and are the basic ideas at the heart of the European enlightenment. The final two show that there is nothing to fear in the operation free market, which is a very counter-intuitive idea in a society where being rich is still associated with state privilege in one form or another. These are post-enlightenment ideas that were developed from the 18th to the early 20th Century by the Classical and Austrian schools of economics.