Why has liberty thrived in the West?

This is where enough people stuck out their necks for liberty

The Acropolis in Athens,
perhaps the city where liberty was born
Photo by Leo C. Curran

In this politically correct era, the West has often been denounced for many things, but some intellectuals recognize that it is superior in at least one vital respect: it brought liberty into the world.

Harvard historical sociologist Orlando Patterson, for example, wrote that “personal liberty is the noblest achievement of Western civilization. That people are free to do as they please within limits set only by the personal freedom of others; that legally all persons are equal before the law; that philosophically the individual’s separate existence is inviolable; that psychologically the ultimate human condition is to be liberated from all internal and external constraints in one’s desire to realize one’s self…freedom is undeniably the source of Western intellectual mastery, the engine of its extraordinary creativity, and the open secret of the triumph of Western culture…”

One could cite 5 major developments for liberty which occurred in the West.

First of all, natural rights, the idea that individuals are born with equal rights to life, liberty and property. Liberty is undermined to the extent individuals aren't permitted to keep what they earn, and freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are impossible unless people may use their property to worship, speak and publish as they please. Individuals cannot be legitimately deprived of fundamental rights by government or anybody else.

The first thinkers to write about natural rights were ancient Greek Stoic philosophers. Previous thinkers, notably Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, had based their political philosophy on the Greek polis, or city state, since the greatest city state, Athens, was the center of the civilized world. But by the time Aristotle died (322 B.C.), Alexandria, Pergamum and Rome had become important, stimulating broader views. Zeno of Citium (Cypress, c.336-264 B.C.) developed a political philosophy based on the liberty of individuals wherever they might live. Stoic ideas were refined by Chrysippus (281-208 B.C.) who, among other things, recognized the importance of private enterprise. Chrysippus reportedly remarked that a “wise man will turn three somersaults for an adequate fee.”

Stoic ideas were popularized by the Roman orator and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.) who dazzled people with his beautiful Latin prose. He crystallized key Stoic ideas as “natural law,” meaning moral standards for judging the legitimacy of government laws. “Following Cicero,” observed intellectual historian Murray N. Rothbard, “Stoic natural law doctrines heavily influenced Roman jurists of the second and third centuries A.D., and thus helped shape the great structures of Roman law which became pervasive in Western civilization.”

During the 17th century, these ideas began to blossom into the political philosophy of natural rights, expressed by such thinkers as John Lilburne (c.1614-1657), Algernon Sidney (1622-1683) and John Locke (1632-1704). These ideas were expanded on by Thomas Paine (1737-1809), Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), Lysander Spooner (1808-1887) and Ayn Rand (1905-1982).

Politicians and intellectuals have attacked natural rights as vague and promoted the idea of “positive law,” meaning that government laws are legitimate if they result from a legal process. The ultimate authority, according to “positive law,” is government itself. But every year in the United States there are thousands of new laws, regulations and ordinances, many of which change previous laws, regulations and ordinances. Only a tiny percentage of these laws have anything to do with protecting liberty. The great bulk of laws benefit some people at the expense of others. For example, laws giving subsidies to big farmers, laws forcing people to pay taxes for bad schools and laws forcing married people to pay higher taxes than single people. The tax code is endlessly revised to reflect pressure and campaign contributions from politically-connected lobbyists. Since “positive law” is always changing, and it’s mixed up with politics, how can it possibly be a standard of legitimacy?

Moreover, the most hideous things have been legal. Hitler, Stalin and other mass murderers acted in accordance with their legal systems. Compulsory racial segregation was perfectly legal in the United States. One would have no moral basis for objecting to such horrors if “positive law” were the standard.

Natural rights has proven to be the most coherent standard for judging the legitimacy of government laws. In brief, if a law supports an individual’s right to life, liberty and property, it’s legitimate, and if a law violates these rights, it’s illegitimate. Most important, the natural rights standard is independent of government and remains valid regardless what politicians and bureaucrats might say. This intellectual bulwark of liberty developed in the West, and there’s nothing like it anywhere else in the world.

The second major contribution of the West has been the principle of using reason, rather than force, to resolve questions. In Homer’s Iliad, which along with the Odyssey, is the oldest surviving literary work (written down perhaps around 800 B.C.), it’s clear that discussion was a feature of Greek life. For instance, in the Iliad, Phoenix tells Achilles: “Did not the old charioteer Peleus make me your guardian when he sent you off from Phithia to join Agamemnon [during the Trojan War]. You were a mere lad, with no experience in the hazards of war, nor of debate, where people make their mark. It was to teach you all these things, to make a speaker of you and man of action, that he sent me with you.”

Homer’s works reflect the impact of the sea on Greek culture, especially on the development of rational thinking. As physicist Alan Cromer explained in Uncommon Sense (1993), “Greece has always been a littoral culture with a maritime economy. Greek merchant ships traded as far west as the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar) and as far east as Scythia on the Black Sea. Greek settlements dotted the coasts of southern Italy, Sicily, North Africa, and Asia Minor, and Greek trading posts were established in many foreign ports. This made travel relatively easy for anyone seeking adventure or fleeing persecution. The Odyssey exalts the resourcefulness of the adventurer as much as the Iliad exalts the heroism of the warrior. The sea is freedom, adventure, wealth, and knowledge – all factors important in the development of science. With the many Greek-speaking city-states on the coasts and islands of the Mediterranean, a dissident could easily find freedom in a rival city. Homer regales us with stories of young men who flee one city to start life over in another. Odysseus has for almost 3,000 years epitomized the solitary adventurer. Washed naked onto the shores of Phaeacia, he must survive on his wits alone.”

“The development of objective thinking by the Greeks,” Cromer continued, “appears to have required a number of specific cultural factors. First was the assembly, where men first learned to persuade one another by means of rational debate. Second was a maritime economy that prevented isolation and parochialism. Third was the existence of a widespread Greek-speaking world around which travelers and scholars could wander. Fourth was the existence of an independent merchant class that could hire its own teachers. Fifth was the Iliad and the Odyssey, literary masterpieces that are themselves the epitome of liberal rational thinking. Sixth was a literary religion not dominated by priests. And seventh was the persistence of these factors for 1,000 years.”

The third development in the West was political competition. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe splintered into many states. The area of today’s Germany, for instance, long consisted of hundreds of towns, duchies, principalities and other jurisdictions which competed for power.

R.R. Palmer and Joel Colton wrote in A History of the Modern World (1984 edition), “Everywhere in Latin Christendom, along about 1100, the new towns struggled to free themselves from the encircling feudalism and to set themselves up as self-governing little republics. Where the towns were largest and closest together – along the highly urbanized arteries of the trade routes, in north Italy, on the upper Danube and Rhine rivers, in Flanders, or on the Baltic coast – they emancipated themselves the most fully. Venice, Genoa, Pisa, Florence, Milan became virtually independent city-states, each governing a substantial tract of its surrounding country. In Flanders also, towns like Bruges and Ghent dominated their localities. Along the upper Danube, the Rhine, the North Sea, the Baltic, many towns became imperial free cities within the Holy Roman Empire, each a kind of small republic owing allegiance to no one except the distant and usually ineffectual emperor. Nuremberg, Frankfurt, Augsburg, Strasbourg, Hamburg, and Lubeck were free cities of this kind. In France and England, where the towns in the twelfth century were somewhat less powerful, they obtained less independence but received charters of liberties from the king. By these charters they were assured the right to have their own town governments and officials, their own courts and law, and to pay their own kind of taxes to the king in lieu of ordinary feudal obligations.”

Later, of course, many of these jurisdictions were consolidated into national states, and at various times one has dominated the others, but eventually the combined force of rivals restored a balance of power.

There were, in addition, European struggles between kings and the Catholic Church. As Lord Acton observed, “If the Church had continued to buttress the thrones of the king whom it anointed, or if the struggle had terminated speedily in an undivided victory, all Europe would have sunk down under a Byzantine or Muscovite despotism. For the aim of both contending parties was absolute authority. But although liberty was not the end for which they strove, it was the means by which the temporal and the spiritual power called the nations to their aid. The towns of Italy and Germany won their franchises, France got her States-General, and England her Parliament out of the alternate phases of the contest…”

The fourth Western development was religious competition which accelerated during the Reformation. There had been dissident voices within the Catholic Church, the most distinguished being that of Desiderius Erasmus (c.1469-1536), but the big breakthrough was the emergence of German Protestantism, beginning with Lutherans and Anabaptists. King Henry VIII broke with the Pope and established the Church of England, John Calvin enforced his brand of Protestantism in Geneva, and then came Congregationalists, Methodists, Unitarians and Quakers. Each evolved their own distinct religious doctrines and rituals. Individual conscience came to rule where the Pope had been supreme.

True, it was a long time before religious toleration prevailed in the West. Martin Luther and John Calvin were every bit as intolerant as their Catholic contemporaries. Luther approved the slaughter of some 100,000 German peasants. Calvin ordered many a religious slacker to be burned. The Church of England cut off the ears of religious dissenters. The aim of each religion was to crush rivals, but because there were rivals their power was limited, and the West pioneered religious liberty.

The fifth Western development: constitutional protections for liberty. In particular, an independent judiciary, trial by jury, a separation of powers, a written constitution, bill of rights, free elections and term limits.

These protections were absolutely crucial. Throughout history, there had been many rebellions against tyranny, but the tendency had been for one tyrant to replace another. Forces strong enough to overthrow a powerful ruler proved almost impossible to control, which is why so many rebellions made things worse for ordinary people. It was in the West that constitutional protections evolved to limit the power and therefore the harm that might be done by bad rulers. Even today, constitutional protections are scarce in the non-Western world.

Okay, why did liberty originate and develop furthest in the West? Geography surely played a role. Since Greece has a lot of islands, the best bet for people there to get ahead was to pursue overseas commerce. The most successful traders were rational (running a business and handling money efficiently) and tolerant (getting along with different kinds of suppliers and customers). Similarly, as Thomas Sowell pointed out in Migrations and Cultures (1996), “more than one-third of the total land area of Europe consists of islands and peninsulas,” which facilitated commerce on that continent.

Yet despite favorable geography, liberty was later lost in these places, and people were ruled by brutal tyrants. How could this have happened? Perhaps economist Mancur Olson offered a clue in his book The Rise and Decline of Nations (1982). He described how, over time, interest groups tend to gain more government power and consequently more privileges at the expense of everybody else. As a result, burdened with taxes and restrictions, people produce less. The over-taxed and over-regulated region declines. Many people go elsewhere.

Hence, Olson wrote, "It was not in the awesome Egyptian empire that the Mediterranean achievement attained its fullest expression, but among the previously inconsequential peoples of the Ionian Peninsula [Greece]. The empires of the great city-states of Greece were of course eventually supplanted by the Romans who before their amazing conquests had been a people of little note. The civilization of Western Christendom that had by the end of the nineteenth century come to dominate the entire world sprang from the backward and chaotic societies of Western Europe in the Middle Ages, which were usually unable even to defend themselves against the advances of the Moslems, the Magyars, and the Vikings. The parts of Western Europe that paced the advance of the West were often areas that had previously been peripheral or unimpressive; the center of growth in the seventeenth century was in the northern provinces of the Netherlands, which had never been important or wealthy before and had only lately escaped subjugation by Spain. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries it was England, rather than the far larger and more imposing France, that gave us the Industrial Revolution. In the second half of the nineteenth century it was the long-quiescent Germany and the distant ex-colonies in North America, rather than the British Empire at its apogee, that carried the revolution farthest."

The same processes have been at work in the United States as powerful interest groups, encouraged by intellectuals, helped push up government spending, taxes and regulations. By the 1970s, Americans suffered from inflation and stagnation as well. Why has America rebounded since then?

Olson suggested that revival was possible if some kind of shock broke the grip of entrenched interest groups. Well, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, global competition exposed the weaknesses of complacent, politically connected American industries like steel and automobiles. They had become accustomed to producing expensive, mediocre products. Global competition forced these and many more American companies to cut costs, improve quality and service. At about the same time, there was a surge of immigration. Foreign-born students dramatically expanded the number of engineers and scientists trained in the United States, and many went on to work here. Immigrant entrepreneurs played a major role energizing American high technology. These immigrants keenly appreciated the liberty they enjoyed in America, and they helped revive the spirit of enterprise.

Two more factors contributed to the revival of liberty in America. First, the growing impact of thinkers like F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, George Stigler, Ronald Coase, James M. Buchanan and Ayn Rand who had vastly strengthened the case for liberty and won support from both intellectuals and the general public. Second, President Ronald Reagan did much to help change the terms of public policy debate toward liberty, and his federal income tax cuts, the biggest in our lifetime, helped spur an economic boom which has continued up to the present day and given people more confidence in the private sector.

During the last decade, it should be noted, Harvard historical sociologist Orlando Patterson offered an alternative thesis about the origin of liberty. In his National Book Award winning work Freedom in the Making of Western Culture (1991), Patterson declared that slavery caused liberty. Since slavery tends to involve the worst deprivation of liberty, it engenders the strongest desire to escape and be free. “The idea of freedom,” Patterson said, “has never been divorced from this, its primordial, servile source.” Yet his book didn’t make clear why liberty originated in the West, since he acknowledged that slavery was a universal scourge of the ancient world. Why didn’t liberty originate in China where slaves were buried alive and presumably the incentive to escape ought to have been stronger than in the West? Why didn’t liberty originate among the Cherokee Indians who enslaved the prisoners they didn’t kill? Or why not among the Tupinamba people who, in South America before Europeans arrived, actually ate their slaves?

Patterson displayed impressive knowledge, especially of the ancient world, so it’s puzzling that he tried to explain everything in terms of slavery. There have been many struggles about other deprivations of liberty: struggles against taxes, struggles for religious toleration, struggles to secure freedom of the press, struggles to eliminate guild monopolies, struggles to achieve free trade, struggles against war and military conscription, struggles against all kinds of tyrants.

Patterson belittled many struggles involving aristocrats. For instance, referring to medieval English lords, he said “’the preservation and defense of liberty’ was, of course, the exploitation and degradation of the masses.” But defending liberty has always been risky, and somebody had to make the first move. Those with some education, money and connections were more likely to succeed than those without any of these advantages. While aristocrats were certainly pursuing their self-interest, others wanted the same privileges, and they were extended to more and more people. Thus, for example, in 1832 the voting franchise was extended from English aristocrats to the middle classes. They seemed quite comfortable retaining the voting franchise for themselves, but political pressures led to further extensions, and eventually there was universal suffrage.

Patterson confused his case by discussing conflicting ideas together, namely “sovereignal freedom,” “personal freedom” and “civic freedom.” By “sovereignal freedom,” he meant the ability or power to do something. “Personal freedom” means neither government nor private individuals will interfere with you as long as you don’t interfere with others. “Civic freedom” means you may participate in the political process. He referred to governments which have “sovereignal freedom” as they oppress people. In his most bizarre passage, Patterson said that “Nazi Germany was, for Germans, a free state, the freest and most powerful collective experience of any Western people up to that time. In their identity with the powerfully free Third Reich, the Germans experienced a freedom that was liberating, ecstatic, and empowering. They correctly called what they experienced ‘freedom.’”

Ultimate answers to the origin of liberty could remain elusive, but the simplest interpretation might be enough: we in the West are fortunate to live where independent thinking individuals explained liberty and took action to defend it. Other people became inspired to carry on until the Western values and culture of liberty became established. When liberty was under assault in America, there were bold free spirits, many of whom escaped from tyranny, who helped revive the American dream.

See:

Bernard Bailyn ed., The Debate on the Constitution, Federalist and Antifederalist Speeches, Articles, and Letters During the Struggle over Ratification (New York: Library of America, 1993), 2 vols.

Irving Brant, The Bill of Rights, Its Origins and Meaning (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965).

Neil H. Cogan ed., The Complete Bill of Rights, The Drafts, Debates, Sources, & Origins (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Bruce Frohnen ed., The Anti-Federalists, Selected Writings and Speeches (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1999).

Leonard W. Levy, Constitutional Opinions (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

Leonard W. Levy, Origins of the Bill of Rights (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).

Information for purchasing “A Written Constitution,” in Jim Powell, The Triumph of Liberty (New York: Free Press, 2000).

Bernard Schwartz, The Bill of Rights, A Documentary History (New York: Chelsea House, 1971),

Herbert J. Storing, The Complete Anti-Federalist (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 7 vols.

Herbert J. Storing, What the Anti-Federalists Were For (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

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