Robert Higgs’s Tocqueville Award Acceptance Speech (November 15, 2011)
Distinguished honorees, co-chairs and honorary co-chairs, Mr. and Mrs. Theroux, ladies and gentlemen,
It is a great honor to have been selected to receive the Alexis de Tocqueville Award on this occasion. For many years, I have been working with David Theroux, the founder of the Independent Institute, and Mary Theroux, the Institute’s senior vice president, striving to make the world a freer, more peaceful, and more prosperous place. I wish to pay the highest possible tribute to them for everything they have done―and it is much more than any of you is likely to know―to promote greater scholarly and public understanding of the values and institutions that undergird a truly free, peaceful, and prosperous society. They have fought the good fight, never flagging, never yielding to despair, never hesitating to take the next step, and the next and next, toward the goal of a world in which every human being is accorded the freedom and dignity to which each is justly entitled.
Over the years, as a teacher and scholar, I have striven to uphold high standards of honesty, accuracy, and professional competence in my efforts to enlighten my students, professional colleagues, and members of the public. However, I have disdained many of the beliefs and practices common in the ranks of professors and commentators on public affairs. I have been, no doubt, too frank for my own good, and I would not be surprised to learn that many of my colleagues have found me, at least on occasion, obnoxious as a result.
For one of the ways in which I have made myself obnoxious, however, I make no apology: I have forthrightly raised the banner of individual liberty again and again, even among associates and fellow citizens who esteemed other values much more than they esteemed liberty. Although few Americans openly oppose individual liberty in the abstract, it is obvious from their frequent willingness to sacrifice liberty in a quest for other goals that they do not place individual liberty very high in the rank-order of their preferences about how social life should be lived. In contrast, I unashamedly love liberty. For society as a whole, I wish nothing more fervently than I wish that it should be as free as possible. For me, freedom is not simply the highest-ranked value with regard to public affairs; it stands on a level by itself, far above all the others.
I espouse individual liberty in this “extreme” fashion for two reasons, which in my mind complement one another. The first is that freedom is the optimal condition for each individual’s engagement in society. To be driven, bullied, abused, disregarded, treated with contempt and dishonor―these are bad things in themselves, not only for me, but for every human being. We ought to recoil from them, regardless of whether the perpetrator is a local cop or the government in Washington. Yet all too many of us become accustomed to such official cruelties and take them in stride without much conscious thought that they are wrongs and ought to be stopped, regardless of their source.
Individual liberty, however, is also an instrument for the creation of many of the conditions, goods, and services that constitute material abundance and relieve many of the anxieties and pains that once accompanied social life for almost everyone. Virtually everyone favors economic development, especially inasmuch as it reduces or eliminates extreme poverty. Individual liberty is a necessary condition for sustained economic progress. The specific conditions of a free society―private property rights, secure contracts, a reliable rule of law―are prerequisites for the ongoing creation of wealth in the long run. At this late date, after we have witnessed the personal horrors and economic disasters brought about by socialist central planning, it should not be necessary to go on preaching the gospel of private property and the market economy, yet we all know that many people still do not understand these essential matters and often act politically to thwart the operation of a genuinely free society.
Therefore, for those of us engaged in research, teaching, and public dissemination of our knowledge with regard to the operation of just, peaceful, and prosperous societies, much work remains to be done. Indeed, even after a great number of people seem to have achieved an understanding of freedom’s importance, the gains may be largely swept away in the panic of a national emergency, when political leaders invariably come forth promising relief and protection, if only we will sacrifice more of our liberties to accommodate their exercise of new powers. Crisis and Leviathan, the title of a book of mine published in 1987, encapsulates a recurrent type of reversal in what might otherwise be a society’s steady march toward greater and greater freedom. Frightened people clamor for a savior, a leader who will relieve them of responsibility for their personal security and economic well-being.
This temptation we must resist if we are to preserve and ultimately to enlarge our liberties. If we do not resist, the legions of frightened citizens, political and economic opportunists, and would-be demagogues will carry the day, and the boundaries of our liberties will be constricted further with each episode of crisis. This struggle requires education, constant awareness, and the courage to think, speak, and act forthrightly among our more conciliatory fellows who would rather take the easy way of going along to get along, even when society at large is going along toward a plunge into complete tyranny or a long, steady descent toward totalitarianism. Americans should not reassure themselves that it cannot happen here. To a great extent, it has already happened here, and worse things lie in store unless many more of us rouse ourselves to resist.
The foregoing views—especially my devotion to individual liberty and to the struggle against everything that moves us away from the free society—explain, I believe, why I am being honored here tonight with the Alexis de Tocqueville Award. I am pleased to accept this award on behalf of all those who share my ideals and who struggle to defend and promote the free society. Like Lord Acton, we believe that “Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.”
As we carry on our resistance to every idea and action that threatens individual liberty, we recognize a fact that Somerset Maugham expressed 70 years ago when he wrote: “If a nation values anything more than freedom, it will lose its freedom; and the irony of it is that if it is comfort or money that it values more, it will lose that too.” I would only add that if it values security more than freedom, it will lose that, too, because a nation that values security more than freedom almost certainly will be neither free nor secure. Indeed, in the end, it will lose every decent and humane thing that human beings hold dear, reducing itself to little more than a mass of cowardly protoplasm.