However, as I started mapping out the essential foundations of a free society – foundations such as freedom, property, trade, justice, toleration, moral rules, incentives, rights, and limited government – it struck me that none of us really lives in a free society, and that very few of us understand it.
In the West, for example, we know the merits of democracy over dictatorship. If there were any doubts, the fall of the Berlin Wall certainly dispelled them. But our politicians seem to think that since democracy is so good, more and more decisions should be made democratically. Which means political assemblies deciding how we lead our lives and run our businesses, what we may and may not eat and drink, even what we may and may not say to others.
Even if such policies are well meant in the public interest (though as readers of my Public Choice – A Primer will know, political decisions generally serve interest groups rather than the public), they take us ambling down the Road to Serfdom. And that is possible only and precisely because our politicians, and sadly most of the rest of us – do not understand the principles underpinning a free society, and how easily freedom is toppled when those foundations are eroded.
Nor is it merely economic progress that is threatened. There is a moral loss too. As I show, the free society is not a collection of unconnected individuals: it is a complex, functioning, co-operative community based on deep values – not values that challenge other moral systems or religions, but values that support, strengthen and enhance their ability to promote social harmony.
Equality is something else that many people count as a good thing – but where again, our efforts to extend it are usually counterproductive and cause long-term damage – economic damage due to the erosion of incentives and moral damage due to the separation of responsibility, effort and reward. In everything that truly matters, greater freedom actually creates greater equality.
Building a free society is no mean feat. The institutions of today’s (relatively) free societies have been built up over hundreds, even thousands, of years, and reflect the diverse history and culture of their populations. We cannot impose some blueprint on other societies and expect things to work out well. But by helping people to understand the foundation principles that make a free society able to function, we can at least give them the underpinning upon which they can grow their own – or indeed, keep their existing freedoms alive.
Dr Eamonn Butler is Director of the Adam Smith Institute and author of Foundations of a Free Society.