Can Freedom Last Forever?

Original post

A photo of Alexander Green interviewing Os Guinness about American freedom and financial economics


Alexander Green: Hello, this is Alexander Green, Chief Investment Strategist of The Oxford Club. I’m very honored to be here with a special guest, Dr. Os Guinness, who is a noted social critic and author of more than 30 books. He just spoke here at Investment U in St. Petersburg. I’m sorry to say, since I was the lead speaker, that Dr. Guinness has been the only speaker to receive a standing ovation after his talk. It was very well-received, and I told the audience that I’m a new but enthusiastic fan of Dr. Guinness’ work.

I caught him on Book TV a few months ago, then I read his book, Last Call for Liberty: How America’s Genius for Freedom Has Become Its Greatest Threat, and thoroughly enjoyed it. He brought up to me what I thought was a very thought-provoking idea: Can American liberty last? We think of America as being the world’s richest country, the world’s most powerful country, and a leader in economic and political freedom. Yet he questions whether that freedom is guaranteed and talks about the ways that freedom is under threat. So why don’t you begin, Os, by stating your thesis? What are the primary threats you see to American liberty today?

Os Guinness: Well, you raised this challenge, because freedom has never lasted. So can it last forever? You in your presentation said magnificently that capitalism requires hard work, thrift, savings and delayed gratification. But when you become powerful and prosperous, you undermine those very virtues, so it becomes its own gravedigger as they put it.

You can see that with freedom at large. In other words, the challenge of a lasting freedom, especially for a large republic, is an incredible challenge. And the founders took it on as an intellectual act of daring, but also as a political act of daring. But the current generation doesn’t feel the same. For example, in modern American education, there’s almost zero history. You can’t learn from the founders, let alone the failures before the founders that the founders learned from. Without history, you have a generation that hasn’t a clue what it’s doing.

Alexander Green: No. It’s funny you say that. I saw a poll the other day. There was a multiple choice question asked to the public, “Who was our ally in World War II? Germany, Italy, Russia or Japan.” The majority of Americans could not get the answer. You can almost imagine them struggling with “Germany’s our friend, Italy’s our friend, and Japan is our friend. So which of these three could it be that was our ally in World War II?” It is a shame. If you don’t have a sense of history, of the sacrifices that have been made and the reasons that they were made, it’s tough to understand and support and, as you put it, sustain the liberties that we have. So can you get to some specifics? We have political liberties, economic liberties, religious liberties. What specifically do you see under threat today and why?

Os Guinness: All of the above. But including the very notion of freedom. So if you look back to the Bible, freedom was a contrast to the ways of the Egyptians, the Babylonians, later the Greeks and Persians. None of those had a strong view of liberty. It was in the stars, or it was in fate, or whatever. If you look around today in the intellectual circles, say secularist friends like Sam Harris, freedom is an illusion. It’s a fiction.

Alexander Green: He believes free will is an illusion.

Os Guinness: The front cover of his book Free Will shows a picture of a puppet. He believes our lives are determined by our genes, chemistry, biology, economics or whatever it is. You’ve got to begin there. What is the grounding for human freedom? One rabbi says that the Magna Carta of humanity is the notion that humans are made in the image of God. So you go right back to the very beginning. How do we believe we’re free? Then you move out to all the things you’re talking about. Personal freedom, political freedom, economic freedom, but they’re all actually linked.

Alexander Green: So who is threatening these freedoms and why, in your view?

Os Guinness: Well some people are specifically threatening them. Take the recent trends toward socialism, which leads to a central government and notions like equality, redistribution and so on. That’s a specific, open threat. But more often, I think it’s just ignorance, complacency and forgetfulness. The classical authors understood well, when you’re powerful and when you’re prosperous, you forget. And that’s the principal thing that George Will, whom you mentioned, was talking about. People just forget what you have to do. Freedom is a task. It’s a discipline. There’s a difference between liberation and liberty. You can be liberated in half an hour, from your chains, whatever it is. But liberty’s a way of life, and that requires a discipline, character, truth and so on, and many people aren’t prepared for that.

Alexander Green: It’s true. I’ve often thought of it as freedom and responsibility being two sides of the same coin. You can’t have freedom without responsibility. If you’re not responsible, then your freedoms can just lead to chaos. I talk about economic freedom and write about how people get wealthy in America, why there aren’t more wealthy people in America, and I’ve said it, it often boils down to a pretty simple formula. Some people either can’t work or don’t work. Some work but don’t save. Some save but don’t invest. Some invest but don’t do it successfully. Some do it successfully, but they’re unable to keep their hands off the money so it doesn’t compound in value. Wealth requires responsibility, virtue, working, saving, investing, thrift, industriousness, frugality and the delay of gratification. Those foundations of responsibility are what ultimately lead to financial independence, and I think that, from a political standpoint, we have to stand up and also defend the principles of liberty that the country was founded on. If we don’t, then the future is pretty hazy at best, I think.

Os Guinness: You put it brilliantly. I was at Oxford with a great Jewish philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, and his way of putting it was freedom is negative and positive. Negative freedom is freedom from. If you’re coerced or controlled by anyone or anything outside yourself – a bully, sexual predator, colonial power – you’re not free. So you’ve got to begin with negative freedom, freedom from. But real freedom is freedom for, freedom to be, that requires truth and character, and as you say so rightly, responsibility. Now, I’m descended from the youngest son of Arthur Guinness, the brewer, and he copied John Wesley’s simple formula. Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can. I’m grateful to say our family became Ireland’s most generous philanthropists by following that simple principle. But responsibility was a key part of it, and he saw that our firm paid slightly about the average and had healthcare and education and sports – this was the 18th century, nearly 300 years ago – all these things for the workers to make a difference. It’s a real sense of corporate responsibility.

Alexander Green: You mentioned that your family paid above the average. I think one of the great misunderstandings comes often from the left that business pays people as little as they can possible get away with, and anybody who’s run a business knows that’s absolutely not true. That your people have to be competitively compensated or they’re going to take their talents elsewhere, and so you have a vested interest, even if it’s a rational self-interest. You keep your people by making sure that they’re engaged in their work, they’re competitively compensated and they feel that their work is valued. So the whole idea that we hear in the media and academia – that business is about greed and selfishness and exploitation – I think is a total mischaracterization. I’ve often said the beautiful thing about capitalism is it takes rational self-interest, which we all have – some people could call it selfishness – and it harnesses it to be a societal good. Because all capitalism says is that you can have anything you want, if you can just help provide enough other people with what they want. If that’s a terrible economic system, then I don’t know what a good one would look like, personally.

Os Guinness: Again, you put it well. But it does help when you’ve got a strong sense of ethics and above all, if you’re inspired by certain faith like say the Jews and Christians. If you think about it, the America republic owes so much to Sinai and its notion of covenant, which became constitution. At the heart of that is the reciprocal responsibility of all for all. So you had an incredible equalization, but not socialism, because of a strong view of private property. But you did care for justice and, when inequalities went too far, the wealthy had to look after their brother. Every Jew responsible for every Jew. It should be the same for America. So Americans think America is a democracy. Well, democracy lasted only 50 years in Athens. The republic is a much deeper notion and, at the heart of it, is relationships. So a friend of mine runs a center in Cambridge and at the heart of their notion of capitalism is relationships. So you think of many companies in America, they think only of the stockholders. Maybe the executives and so on, they don’t think of the community the corporation’s in or the families of the workers or, in other words, every single relationship that the corporation touches. When you have that total responsibility, you have a mutuality of economics, and that’s terrific.

Alexander Green: My friend John Mackey, who is the founder and CEO of Whole Foods, uses the term conscious capitalism. It’s based on the notion of stakeholder theory. Milton Friedman used to say that the only reason a corporation exists is to maximize profits for shareholders. But the conscious capitalism view is that you have stakeholders in the form of employees, customers, suppliers and the community, and it’s only when everybody is satisfied and happy that you have a thriving and healthy organization and the business grows. So I think maybe we are moving away from capitalism 101 back in the old days when we had child labor and people dumped the waste in the river out back. We’re growing toward a more conscientious form of capitalism, and it’s good for business and good for society. But what do you think is driving so many in this country to look at socialism, which has failed everywhere it’s been tried? Why has that become such an attractive notion to some?

Os Guinness: Well, I think there are three toxic factors today, which, combined, create the desire for socialism. But if you look back in history, you can see the same thing in the Jewish scriptures. You can see the same thing in Roman history, which Tacitus the historian describes well. And you can see the same thing in the famous book, Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes. In other words, whenever you get a war of all against all or an exploitation or all by all. And I say if you have three things in America today, you have individualism, sometimes to a degenerate form, people just looking after themselves. You have inequalities. And you have injustices. Put those three together, and there’ll be a desire for a strong protector, namely the state. Then you have the movement toward socialism, you have Leviathan, and of course Leviathan gains power and becomes oppressive and corrupted. Then you have the cycle all over again.

That’s what we have to resist. In other words, you’ve got to tackle the injustices and so on, if we want to silence that trend toward socialism, which is disastrous. At the heart of the American experiment and of freedom is limited government.

Alexander Green: Right, of course. You mentioned in your talk that this idea of the virtues of socialism are pushed by the mainstream media, academia and Hollywood. How do people who have a different view push back against three such powerful forces in society?

Os Guinness: Well, look how it happened. There was a flaw in the American experiment. Samuel Johnson said in the 18th century, “Those who are yelping about freedom are driving slaves.” In other words, the declaration promised freedom and equality for all; the constitution didn’t give it. Now that flaw, Lincoln address it, Frederick Douglass addressed it, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed it. But with a failure, you shift to Stokely Carmichael, to the rise of various movements or radical movements in the ’60s, and then to what I call the long march through the institutions. In other words, you have people in this country who are radical. They’ve thrown out the baby with the bathwater. It’s not that the bathwater of slavery and racism and so on doesn’t stink, but they’ve thrown out the best as well as the worst.

They’re choosing, without realizing it, the French revolution. Which will lead to disasters for freedom and disasters economically, including socialism and the stifling of economic freedom.

Alexander Green: So many people that heard you speak today said, “I’m so fired up by his ideas, but I’m wondering what I can do specifically.” Other than speaking your mind and educating people about the nature of freedom and casting your vote, is there more that people can do to help preserve American freedoms?

Os Guinness: Three crucial things are needed. One is leadership. For example, the president talks about “Make America Great Again.” He never asks, “What made it great in the first place?” That’s what needs to come into the discussion, what Lincoln called the better angels. You can’t discuss immigration as borders and sanctuary cities and all those things without talking about citizenship. So we’ve got to begin with leadership.

Then you need a restoration of civic education, E pluribus unum. The unum used to be taught through civic education in public schools. It’s gone. Then you need, thirdly, the transmission to the younger generation. Again and again people said, “I wish my grandchildren or children could hear this.” The fact is, millennials have almost no sense of history. And without that, they won’t understand either economics or American politics, and it’ll be disastrous. So these are relatively simple things, and we can all start with the circles in which we live – with our families, colleagues, neighbors – and start getting people to think how this experiment arose and what is needed to keep it going. The next generation better understand it.

Alexander Green: Os, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us. And for all of you for joining us, I want to encourage you to either visit to hear more of his thoughts or read his excellent new book, Last Call for Liberty: How America’s Genius for Freedom Has Become Its Greatest Threat. Thank you so much for joining us.

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