Imagining a free world

Ludwig von Mises’s 1945 book “Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War,” describes how national socialism in Germany led to a rejection of classical liberalism. Here is how von Mises (an Austrian) describes the opposite of national socialism:

In order to grasp the meaning of this liberal program we need to imagine a world order in which liberalism is supreme. Either all the states in it are liberal, or enough are so that when united they are able to repulse an attack of militarist aggressors. In this liberal world, or liberal part of the world, there is private property in the means of production. The working of the market is not hampered by government interference. There are no trade barriers; men can live and work where they want. Frontiers are drawn on the maps but they do not hinder the migrations of men and shipping of commodities. Natives do not enjoy rights that are denied to aliens. Governments and their servants restrict their activities to the protection of life, health, and property against fraudulent or violent aggression. They do not discriminate against foreigners. The courts are independent and effectively protect everybody against the encroachments of officialdom. Everyone is permitted to say, to write, and to print what he likes. Education is not subject to government interference. Governments are like night-watchmen whom the citizens have entrusted with the task of handling the police power. The men in office are regarded as mortal men, not as superhuman beings or as paternal authorities who have the right and duty to hold the people in tutelage. Governments do not have the power to dictate to the citizens what language they must use in their daily speech or in what language they must bring up and educate their children. Administrative organs and tribunals are bound to use each man’s language in dealing with him, provided this language is spoken in the district by a reasonable number of residents.

Von Mises does not venture into the realm of religion. But as Mormons we would add a few more elements to this perfect society.

–People would have complete freedom of conscience (see D&C 134).
–People would give freely and liberally to the poor, to widows, to the downtrodden. (See many, many references in the Book of Mormon, the Bible and elsewhere). If people would do this, there would be no poor among them.

It’s nice to imagine such freedom.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

19 thoughts on “Imagining a free world

  1. There will always be poor. Poor is a state of mind. No matter how much or how resources are given, there are those who will choose poorly, making impulsive decisions that squander whatever they are given. We can make the bottom a little easier, but we can’t it go away. As long as people have different abilities and drive their will be status differences. Even if you make all essential needs available to all for free, there will be rich simply by virtue that they can do more.

  2. Craig, I agree. People are different and satisfied by different things. What do you make of the many quotes that show a perfect zion society as one where there are no poor?

  3. “No matter how much or how resources are given, there are those who will choose poorly, making impulsive decisions that squander whatever they are given.”

    Should all of our decisions regarding poverty be swayed by the people you’re describing? As Geoff mentioned, Moses 7:18 says “And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” Not, the only poor among them were those too lazy to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

    No need to go into whether this is the governments job or not.

  4. I actually have very little problem imagining what a zion society would look like. I live in a small town where people give of their time and their talents very freely, both inside the Church and out. We have several older members or sick members, and the ward does a great job bringing meals, shoveling snow, mowing lawns. I know the bishop takes fast offering money and helps the poor pay their electricity bills and rents if needed. This voluntary service brings benefits to the giver and the one who receives the service. If everybody in town gave 10 percent plus generous fast offerings, and if everybody volunteered 10 percent of his/her time to help the needy, there really would be “no poor among us.” But there would still be people who are richer than others (in material goods).

  5. Geoff, nice post. The title is a little misleading though. We already have a world with true moral agency. That is the point of the plan of salvation. Nothing any government does can take away your moral agency.

    (Editor: Edited for snarkiness).

    Aside from that, I agree with you that it is great to contemplate our millennial state of being once Christ reigns on the earth. As a separate matter, it is also interesting to think about what kind of governmental policies existed during a telestial Zion period such as that in 4 Nephi to achieve the outcome of no rich or poor, no class or ethnic divisions (“no manner of -ites”) and no social contention. Since we continue to live in a telestial world, the latter contemplations are probably more directly relevant. As for imagining our millennial state, one wonders what kind of physical change will occur that both causes us to live without being sick or aging and without profit motive or ambition such that a state of complete righteous consecration naturally exists, as you note in your second bullet point.

  6. John f. is correct. We already have unabridged moral agency. Although I believe that dictatorial governments are evil, and that they are authored by the devil, there are better arguments for this belief that are not based on a misperception of Church doctrine. Dallin Oaks explains:

    During my nine years at BYU, I read many letters to the editor in The Daily Universe that protested various rules as infringements of free agency. …

    The Lord has told us in modern revelation that he established the Constitution of the United States to assure “that every man may act … according to the moral agency which I have given unto him” (D&C 101:78). In other words, God established our Constitution to give us the vital political freedom necessary for us to act upon our personal choices in civil government. This revelation shows the distinction between agency (the power of choice), which is God-given, and freedom, the right to act upon our choice, which is protected by the Constitution and the laws of the land.

    Freedom is obviously of great importance, but as these examples illustrate, freedom is always qualified in mortality. Consequently, when we oppose a loss of freedom, it would be better if we did not conduct our debate in terms of a loss of our free agency, which is impossible under our doctrine. We ought to focus on the legality or wisdom of the proposed restriction of our freedom.

    Our agency is intact. In fact, if our agency is so fragile that someone else can override our fundamental ability to choose, do we really have it? One of the unfortunate consequences of claiming that rules and restrictions take away our agency is that we inadvertently redefine agency as the “freedom to act without consequences.” On another occasion, Oaks continued this thought:

    Of course, mortals must still resolve many questions concerning what restrictions or consequences should be placed upon choices. But those questions come under the heading of freedom, not agency. Many do not understand that important fact. We are responsible to use our agency in a world of choices. It will not do to pretend that our agency has been taken away when we are not free to exercise it without unwelcome consequences.

    In other words, it isn’t appropriate to talk about “agency” in the context of government restrictions of human freedom. Freedom is vital and important, but it is an entirely different issue than agency. Freedom is about using our agency to respect the life and autonomy of those around us. However, none of us have the ability to infringe on the agency of others (even though we may choose to commit violence upon them via coercion).

  7. Ldsphilosopher, so you believe people in Nazi Germany had agency? I understand your argument, and it is intriguing. But I can imagine many realities where agency is restricted by governments.

    When government oppress you to the extent that all of your choices are evil, I would argue they are interfering with agency. (Example: you can either serve in the German army and shoot Jews and other innocents or you can object and go to jail — and perhaps be shot yourself — and your family starves).

  8. John F and ldsphilosopher, you inspired me to change the title of the post, which was not really about the issue of “free agency” anyway. To avoid distraction, the change was made. But as a discussion point I would be interested in your thoughts on whether an oppressive government can take away your agency.

  9. Geoff, an underlying assumption of your scenario is that the “rightness” of a choice depends on its consequences. A third party may attach negative consequences to all of our choices, but that doesn’t force us to make an “evil” choice. Rather, it just means that our “right” choices may now have negative consequences.

    Viktor Frankl was right when he said that no one can take away the right to choose our attitude. That is the where the rightness of our actions is decided. So long as our hearts are not turned to malice, our choices can be good, no matter what consequences follow. And that is something that no one can take away from us.

    In short, I believe that no government can take away my moral agency to choose between right and wrong. They may choose to harm me and others for my right choices, but the choice is there nonetheless. Even if the choice is simply in the state of my heart (as would be the case if I were chained in a cell).

  10. In addition: coercion is a form of malice. When we choose to use others as a means to our own ends, and to coerce others by threatening punishments if they choose differently than we wish, we are committing violence against them. That is why coercive governments are evil: the violence that is inherent in coercion.

    I say this because many people root their dislike of overreaching government in the idea that it takes away people’s agency. Thus, they believe coercion is wrong because it is a form of robbery. Thus, when people like myself argue that coercion doesn’t rob people of agency, they feel as if their political worldview is threatened. However, it doesn’t need to be, if we simply re-conceive why coercion is wrong. It’s wrong because it’s violence born of malice, which is the opposite of love.

  11. Ldsphilopsher, let’s differentiate between unabridge moral agency and “that every man may act … according to the moral agency which I have given unto him”.

    Unabridged means or implies we all have the same degree of agency. I’m actually not convinced that’s true. I think we will be held accountable according to the degree of agency we used that we have. I’m not sure if it’s the exact same for every human who ever walked the earth. You might say once again, where much (agency) is given, much (moral accountability) is required. Perhaps some have more talents given than another! (perhaps not, I’m ok either way)

  12. What if a government only teaches its people ignorance, does not allow them to read or learn new things? What if they are not taught to make moral choices? Does a people that have only learned a certain way of thinking have the ability to choose?

    For Viktor Frankl, he and others had learned to read and think prior to the concentration camps. They could think and choose an attitude. But what of those raised as animals or slaves? Is there moral agency existent, or at least, limited?

    A child who has been raised in violence, drugs, and sex – does such have moral agency? Years ago, as a foster parent, I cared for a little boy and girl. Their 16 year old sister was in a special program, because she was unmanageable. As a small girl, her mother gave her to her boy friends as a sex toy. By the time she was a teen, she was addicted. Foster homes didn’t work, as she would hit on the men and boys in the home. Did she have moral agency? If a person is put into an addiction prior to the ability to learn right/wrong, does that person have the ability to change still? Does that person have agency?

  13. Rame, I think ldsphilosopher’s point is that even in the most extreme totalitarian government we still have moral choices that God gives us. We can choose to be kind to others in prison (like Joseph) even if we are unfairly incarcerated. We can make small choices that bring us closer to God.

    Remember in “1984,” the totalitarian government’s goal was to take away Winston’s secret center of freedom. In the end, they succeeded. This definitely the goal of truly totalitarian governments. I guess in real life this is very, very difficult to do.

  14. But how much of choice or agency is due to an innate gift, and how much is learned?

    Is knowledge necessary for moral agency? If not, then the ignorant are responsible for their choices, aren’t they? We are commanded to raise up our children in righteousness, teaching them. What happens if they are not taught?

    Yes, 1984 suggests an innate agent center. But it seems that few ever locate that agency, because they do not realize it even exists.

    Does the torture and brain washing that occur actually mean a person gives up their inner freedom? Or that they have just made a choice?

  15. I believe agency is something that grows and expands as we use it in the manner that facilitates it. God has far more agency than we do, but works to show us the way to gain all that he has. Brainwashing, abuse, brain damage may all knock us down a peg on the agency spectrum, but they do nothing to are long term potential if we follow the path.

  16. In Zion there are no poor because ALL people live their covenants. Not just the more capable taking care of the less capable. In Zion there is no indolence. Not everyone would be equally capable, but there would be no one assuming they were owed a living by the sweat of others brows. Those are the true poor.

  17. This revelation shows the distinction between agency (the power of choice), which is God-given, and freedom, the right to act upon our choice, which is protected by the Constitution and the laws of the land.

    With respect, the definitions here are wrong and do not make any sense. Agency is not the power of choice. That is what free will is. Free will most definitely was not God-given. As Elder Maxwell says, our will is what is most uniquely ours.

    The D&C, in one of the very few passages on the subject, implies that liberty is indeed necessary for agency to exist:

    According to the laws and constitution of the people, which I have suffered to be established, and should be maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh, according to just and holy principles; That every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment. Therefore, it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another.

    In short, bondage is destructive of agency, as is the deprivation of rights and protection. Agency is what is necessary for us to be accountable for our own sins. It requires not only the power of choice (free will), but a proper domain of individual discretion, what we normally call liberty.

    The distinction between liberty and unfettered freedom was well understood a couple of centuries ago, which is why the hymn states “Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law”.

    Not just any law, but those based in “just and holy principles”, as the scripture says. Whether any particular law or rule impairs agency is a matter of principled debate. All laws impair freedom, the unrestricted ability to act as one pleases, but the preservation of liberty, and hence individual agency, is the very essence of true law.

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