The Oxygen of Liberty
This was a speech given in Prague in 2006.
Tonight we are gathered here for something that, in a rational world, wouldn’t be very important — politics. Why do I say it is really not all that important?
If I were to ask you to sit down and write down the five most important things in your life, I can assure you that politics would not be one of them. What really is important?
Perhaps it’s a walk on the beach with the person you love most in this world; or a son’s graduation, the birth of a grandchild, the joy of wonderful music, the discovery of new places, the quest for knowledge, finding a flower that you have never seen before, the satisfaction of productive work, or the thrill of scientific discovery.
The lists we would make would vary from person to person. But I think I’m on safe ground when I say that none of us would list a political campaign.
Most people instinctively dislike politics — and probably with good reason. What we see when look at it is back room deals, low ethics, big promises but poor delivery, lies, lies, lies and then to cover them up, usually more lies. The quality of people attracted to such ventures is not very high. There seems to be a direct inverse relationship between electability and decency.
When we think about those things in our lives that are important we realize there is one crucial ingredient that makes all of them possible. It doesn’t matter what you value because the inescapable nature of man is such that liberty is absolutely necessary.
And that is why we are here. We are not gathered for a campaign. We are not seeking office as much as we are seeking liberty. We do not want to achieve power as much as we wish to limit it. We are not interested in handouts, subsidies, guarantees, deals, promises, programs, bills, favors, or any of the other factors that permeate politics the world over. We are after a world where politics is reduced to the inconsequential so we can spend time pursuing higher values.
The odd thing about liberty is those who enjoy a measure of it — as all of us here do today — fail to understand its importance. Liberty is like air. You only realize its importance when you don’t have it. Over the years I have met, or known of people, who really do understand the value of human liberty and why such liberty is absolutely necessary.
I think back to a young man I met some years ago, in 1988. His name is Walter. He came to America from the old Soviet Union with his family. Walter’s father was not a man one could be proud of. Once in America it was his plan to dump his family and return to his mistress in Russia.
When Walter’s father went to the Soviet consulate to make arrangement for his return, the bureaucrats were quite joyful. They thought they could use this to show Soviet citizens how awful life was under American capitalism. They saw this as a propaganda opportunity and they wanted the entire family to return. All they could think of was the television coverage they could give as the whole family walked off the plane in Moscow.
This caused a problem for Walter’s father. He did not want his family, but he did want his mistress. So he figured he could return with the family and then leave them afterwards. He did not count on problems that immediately arose.
Daughter Natalie was 16 and she said she would never go back to Russia. This was just a rebellious teenage, that’s how the authorities looked at it. It became even more complicated when Walter, then 11-years-old, ran away from home. He vowed he would never live again under communism. Natalie was quickly ignored as everyone’s attention turned to Walter.
Russian and American bureaucrats were both quite anxious to force young Walter back to Soviet Russia. As hard as they tried he refused. He sought out other Russian expatriates who helped him. He eventually hired an attorney. Never before had US immigration had to deal with such a recalcitrant child. To make matters worse this boy applied for political asylum. And as the saying goes: the fit really hit the shan.
Can you imagine what this meant? An 11-year-old was standing up to the full power of U.S. immigration and to the Soviet Union. No matter what they promised, no matter how much they pleaded, Walter always said the same thing: “I won’t go back. Ever!”
Of course the story caught the attention of the American people. Left-wing organizations, which had always said children had the right to make decisions without their parents — such as regarding contraceptives and abortion — suddenly discovered family values. They argued Walter must be sent to Russia to preserve the integrity of the family unit.
On the Right groups that had always denied children the right to make decisions were pleading for children’s rights. All in all it exposed the inconsistencies of the Right and the Left. But one thing was clear. Walter didn’t give a damn about any of it. He just wanted to live free. It was that simple; and it was that profound.
Walter and his attorneys dragged the case out year after year. For once the slowness and ineptness of government worked to someone’s benefit. Finally the day arrived when Walter quietly turned 18-years-old. The entire case became moot and his application for asylum was accepted.
Walter was not an intellectual. But he understood something many academics still do not understand — a regime of liberty and rights is the only moral political system.
In 1989 Walter’s battle came to mind again as world events were spiraling at a speed beyond comprehension. All across Eastern Europe people were learning a lesson: No government — not even the most tyrannical — can rule people without their consent. When the people finally refuse to consent the government will lose the battle.
In Poland, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany the same thing was happening: the streets were filled with hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people all saying: “No more.” The economies of these countries, built on the impossibilities of socialism, were crumbling. The bureaucrats, at all levels, had realized how badly things had degenerated. They knew that they could not hold back the human tide that had risen against them.
Like a dam strained to its limits, cracks appeared and people, like the power of pent up water, spewed through those cracks. In Czechoslovakia the government withdrew their guards from around Western embassies. These guards were not there to protect the embassies, but to prevent people from climbing the walls and seeking asylum. The guards existed to protect the illusion that socialism creates human happiness.
Word quickly spread that the embassies were no longer guarded. Within minutes tens of thousands of people rushed the iron gates and fences. The trickle turned into a torrent. Many must have simply grabbed the opportunity without any foreknowledge. They simply climbed over seeking freedom, leaving behind everything.
As the word spread the situation spun out of control. Embassy courtyards were jammed with thousands of people and more kept coming. It was finally decided that the Czech police would return to duty. As the police started moving people panicked. It was mayhem as people rushed the fences. Those who had made it to safety were reaching over and pulling people up and over the iron fences or brick walls. The old would be lifted up by friends, relatives, even strangers and then pulled over from the other side.
I could hardly bear to watch what was happening. A crowd running as fast as they could were trying to get to the walls before the police did. I noticed one young woman. She couldn’t run as fast as the others. She cradled a small infant in her arms. Her coat was flowing behind her. She kept looking over her shoulder, her face frozen in fear. She saw the police. They were only yards back and they were getting closer.
As she got nearer and nearer to freedom the people on the other side of the fence were screaming to her. They pleaded with her to run faster. They encouraged her and they reached through the fence toward her. As she got to the iron bars she did the unthinkable for a mother — at least unthinkable, until you think about it. She handed her baby over the fence to strangers. She had no assurance that she would join her child. The police were just seconds away. They could grab her and drag her off. When she handed her child over she did not know if she would ever cradle the infant again. She did know that her baby would be free. That was enough.
I am happy to say that she did make it over the fence with seconds to spare. She was reunited with her baby. But she was willing to take this chance so her child could live as a free individual.
The illusion of socialism was crumbling, the reality of its totalitarian nature was now apparent to the entire world — except for a few intellectuals.
And then the impossible happened, and it happened because of a typical bureaucratic bungle and because of the insatiable need of humans to be free. The Wall in Berlin came down.
I don’t think I have ever wept so much in my life as I did sitting in front of my television as those events unfolded. At first there was no intention of bringing down the wall. The bureaucrats were actually trying to save their system and their jobs. It was believed that if they allowed East Germans to travel to West Germany the desire for freedom would diminish. They would be able to keep their socialist system.
A committee had decided a new policy would mean East Germans could apply for an exit visa to visit West Germany. The announcement would be made that night and the visas could be applied for beginning the next morning. People would eventually be able to walk through the gate, but the wall would keep standing along with the political system it represented.
A report with this announcement was given to the government official who briefed the media on events. But no one had time to brief him on what it said. And typical of bureaucrats, the statement was several pages long. The announcement that citizens would be free to travel to the West was near the beginning of the document but the visa requirements were hidden farther down. Handed to him at the last minute the official tried to read the document as he was standing at the podium to answer questions.
He glanced at the paper and announced East Germans would be free to travel west. The press immediately started shouting questions at him, making it more difficult to read the document properly. “When will this take effect?” asked one journalist. The official looked terribly confused. He wasn’t sure. But, it appeared to him, and he responded so, it was with immediate effect.
No journalist worth his salt was waiting for the particulars. They rushed to make the announcement while this poor bureaucrat kept looking over the document trying to figure out what he was supposed to have said. As the word hit the airwaves people from all over East Berlin started celebrating. Word spread and within seconds people were rushing to the wall. The guards were getting worried. Within seconds they were surrounded by hundreds of singing, dancing people. In minutes there were thousands; then tens of thousands.
At this point the guards were in an impossible situation. Even if they opened fire on the crowd they would be overwhelmed in seconds. And it’s not easy to shoot down women, children, and the elderly — especially when they are smiling and singing. The guards kept making frantic calls to their superiors, who kept making frantic calls to their superiors, who couldn’t figure out what had happened. Finally they conceded and said: “Open the gates.”
By now an even bigger crowd was waiting on the other side to welcome the joyous visitors from the East. For the first time in decades, Germans from East and West laughed and cried and danced together. We will probably never know who started it, but someone took a hammer to that damned wall and started chipping away. And then another joined in and then another and another. Using everything they could find, a spontaneous uprising tackled that hated symbol of socialist oppression. Sliver by sliver the wall was brought down. Throughout Berlin people by the tens of thousands ripped that wall apart. At one point a hole was finally knocked through the thick concrete. We could see that people were chipping away at it from the Eastern side as well. The hole grew in size and eventually an arm reached through. From the sleeve you could see it was an East German border guard who had started dismantling the wall from his side. He just wanted to shake hands with his anonymous compatriots on the West.
I was given a small piece of the wall a few months later. I knew exactly what I would do with it. A friend was coming to visit and would be spending a few days with me in San Francisco. I had asked him to speak to a group very much like this one. At that dinner meeting I gave that piece of the Berlin Wall to Walter Polovchek.
The entire history of humankind is the history of man’s struggle for freedom. I don’t care what nation or what century, the fundamental battle was always the same. Heretics were burned at the stake because they wanted the freedom to think for themselves. Writers the world over have been imprisoned for speaking what they believe. People have risked lives and all their wealth to seek freedom. Their names have constantly changed. Their faces have been white and black and every other hue of humanity. They have been young, often very young; and they have been old. Male or female, they have always realized that without freedom they were less than human. They understood, unlike the bureaucrats, man is not a zoo animal, or a pet. He does not purr simply because you feed him. He is not clay to be moulded into some predetermined image. Man needs freedom. It is part of human nature.
Many people, especially those who are free, are unaware of how desperately people yearn for liberty. I think of an incident that happened shortly after World War II — an incident many have forgotten, but one of the most shameful acts in the history of the Western world. From the time the delusional Marxists took control of poor Russia streams of people fled to the West. Stalin considered these people traitors. This man, whose genocidal record exceeds that of Hitler, demanded of Churchill and Roosevelt that these traitors be returned to him and the West conceded. The name given this plan was Operation Keelhaul. As a high school student I read a book entitled The East Came West which told the story of Operation Keelhaul. And there was one incident, one of many unfortunately, that I will never forget.
In Northern Italy there was a contingent of several hundred Cossacks. These were not just soldiers, but entire villages of people including whole families. The British and the Americans were trying to figure out how to grab these people and force them back into Stalin’s bloody hands. They realized any show of force would bring about resistance and the Cossack men were armed. So they did what bureaucrats know how to do best — they lied.
They told the Cossack leaders the entire community would be resettled in England. The men must come with them to another camp to work out the details. With this false promise of freedom, the men happily went with the Allied forces. Once the men were out of the village the troops and their vehicles started down the road to arrest the woman and the children. The troops were quickly spotted and the remaining Cossacks started screaming. They realized the West had betrayed them. Young cadets, just boys, gathered together and tried to stand between the troops and the women and younger children. Behind them a wail from the women rose to such pitches the entire valley was alerted to the betrayal. From across this valley church bells started peeling out in protest.
The cadets tried desperately to fight off the soldiers but they were easily beaten into submission. Armed soldiers took their rifle butts to the heads of children so the West could satiate the vindictive appetite of a monster.
The sound of the bells mingled with the weeping of the women, the screams of the children, and the painful groans of the youths. Each person there knew where they were going; each knew what fate awaited them, and many choose to die free than to die as slaves. As the trucks were pulling out with their human cargo some of the women threw their infants under the wheels. Death was a better alternative. Those women who could do so followed. A raging river, filled with the winter run-off, had acted as a barrier behind the poor Cossacks when they were attacked. Some tried to cross a small bridge to escape but found it occupied by Allied soldiers as well. Faced with the choices given to them by Churchill and Roosevelt many of the woman, children in their arms, simply leapt into the waters to drown.
Those captured and incarcerated in the convoy trucks used every method they could to end their own lives. And though the men were separated from their families they were doing the same thing. Throughout the deportation process bodies had to be off loaded as hundreds preferred to die at their own hands than to ever return to the socialist paradise again.
All this is the inevitable result of the desire to place liberty subservient to anything else. The socialist ideal did not start out as a totalitarian regime but it was, and is the inevitable consequence of that ideology. The prime goal of socialism is human equality — not equality before the law as in the West — but equality of results. It is deemed unfair and unjust that some should be more prosperous than others, that some should be healthier or wealthier.
The problem is people act in ways that vary the results. And in this case I don’t mean others interfere with the good intentions of the government. What I am talking about is how individuals, who are the object of government charity, when allowed the freedom to do so, interfere and hinder the programs set up on their behalf.
Advocates of “social justice,” or the equality of results, have a problem in that free people, even those they wish to help, often make choices that do not reflect the values of the bureaucrats who are engineering the programs. The only real solution to this problem is to strip the beneficiaries of their right to make choices. That is why socialism has historically led to authoritarianism.
The great philosopher/economist F.A. Hayek, in his book The Constitution of Liberty, wrote: “It is just not true that human beings are born equal;… if we treat them equally, the result must be inequality in their actual positions;. . . [thus] the only way to place them in equal position would be to treat them differently. Equality before the law and material equality are, therefore, not only different but in conflict with each other.” Equality, the very principle of socialism so many people hold out as its highest virtue, leads inevitably to dictatorship.
Usually this authoritarianism takes two forms. First, the recipients of government charity must be denied the freedom to act in ways that undermine the program. If you don’t want housing recipients selling their houses then you must strip them of the rights to sell property and of freedom of movement, you must have a policing mechanism to make sure this is enforced. The people “on the bottom” will have to be stripped of the right to make free choices. If you want demographic representation in the professions you must strip students of the right to decide their own course of studies.
Secondly, you have to target those who are “on the top.” While it is very difficult to raise the bottom up, it is relatively easy to tear the top down. Mao did it in China and Pol Pot did it in Cambodia, This is why Hitler targeted the Jews and why Mugabe targeted white commercial farmers and black professionals in Zimbabwe.
The inevitable fact is for equality of results to flourish, human freedom must be stamped out. It doesn’t matter how “altruistic” the motives of the social engineers. The achievement of their goal requires the use of authoritarian means. What is really tragic is in the end not even the goals are accomplished. The result of this process is a crude equality at the lowest levels and for this human freedom was sacrificed.
What I have tried to do tonight is make clear the importance of human liberty in every aspect of our lives. I want you to see the bigger picture. I want you to understand what is required for humankind to flourish. I want you to think back to those values you hold that are so important to you and to see why your liberty is necessary to achieve them.
Now, many of you may not consider yourselves libertarians. That’s okay with me. I have no desire to get you to join any political party. If anything I dream of the day when we ignore politics and get on with the crucial business of living.
But, I do want you to think back and remember. I want you to remember that 11-year-old boy who refused to go back to tyranny. I want you to remember that woman who handed her child over the fence never knowing if she would see her child again. I want you to think of those young Cossack cadets who bravely tried to defend their mothers and sisters from Allied soldiers doing the will of Stalin.
We could stay here all night discussing example after example. In fact we could probably stay here all of tomorrow and the rest of the week as well. History is filled with the blood of martyrs seeking nothing more than the right to be free.
I just want you to remember these people and what they were forced to endure each time you are asked to make a political decision. I want you to remember them when you listen to politicians making rosy speeches. And I want you to ask yourself some fundamental questions — questions politicians in power NEVER want you to consider.
Does the candidate support policies that move the country toward freedom or toward more control? Does the policy support liberty or reduce liberty? Do these programs increase freedoms or reduce them?
Politics is like an elevator. There are only two directions you can go. You can move toward greater human freedom or you can move toward a society that limits freedom. Realize if you choose to move away from freedom you will set into motion a series of events that may get out of control. You may not live to see the day, but unless someone reverses the process, the day will come, perhaps for your children, when they will have to do what all these people, whose stories I have shared with you tonight, had to do.
Freedom can take a lot of abuse and still survive. But once shackled it withers and dies, and the results are too horrible to contemplate. No, politics isn’t very important, but freedom is. Freedom is the foundation that allows you to live as a human being. That is what you must always remember