Good morning. I am honored to be here with you this morning, and I thank you and Reverend Searl for inviting me back this year.

This last week or so has been a period stepped in celebratory tradition[2]. It’s just about my favorite time of year – my favorite holiday. I suspect most of you love this holiday too. It is a celebratory time, full of parades, pies, fairs, baseball, and neighborhood festivals; and of course, the blasts and booms of fireworks[3]. For many it’s a prime vacation week. In times past, Independence Day was an occasion for patriotic or political speeches.[4] That tradition has fallen out of favor since radio and TV have come on the scene. Entertainments, frankly, more entertaining, than some fist-pounding political pontificator buffeting you with praise and promises from underneath the closest liberty tree. That being said: Today, with your permission, I’d like to pay homage to the speechifying tradition. To keep things polite, I’m not going to talk about a particular candidate or party, nor praise a specific policy or polity. In fact, I promise not to talk about anything controversial at all; and will, for the sake of friendliness and universality, limit my discourse to the following non-controversial topics: science, economic policy, politics and religion. I will tie them with the common thread of liberty. We’ll leave more fractious debates and incendiary topics to others, and stick with these comfortable issues. Now, I suspect you might consider this a full, perhaps too-full, agenda for such a beautiful day. Likewise, I am obliged to be mindful of the plans you may have made– for this evening, and will keep my comments brief. But before you decide I’ve set myself an impossible task, I hasten to remind you that last year the same allotment of time proved sufficient to make good headway regarding The Meaning of Life. Today’s few topics should, by comparison, be much easier to manage. So please, give me the liberty to speak for a few minutes more.

[5] “Liberty”: The word has dusty Latin roots, and carries with it the notion of permission, granted by some higher power. Contrast it with a word inherited from the northern edge of Europe, “freedom”. In ancient usage, “freedom” implied equal voice, privileges and vote, and also carried an obligation to participate in one’s community. Freedom was about equal rights and shared obligations among community members, while liberty was privilege granted from on high. Interestingly, at the time of the Revolution in the 1700’s English was the only language with different words for these subtly different concepts. From the rhetoric of the Founding, to today’s continuing struggles for rights, votes, voice and equality, these ideas still shine[6]; sometimes as brilliantly as Sunshine, sometimes guttering like a candle-flame. Together, they are the pole-stars of our philosophical and political imperatives. From Patrick Henry’s “Give me Liberty or give me death,” to Dr. King’s “Let freedom ring, let freedom ring,” these ideas have kept our collective moral compasses pointing along the path that has led, generation after generation, to a better future.

Liberty and freedom. Such simple words, yet they have literally changed the course of history; and not just once, not just in politics, and not just here.[7] Today’s world continues to be shaped by these concepts. In 1900 there was not a single country in the world that had extended broad liberty to all its citizens – all races and genders, though several were on well along the path. By 1950, liberal rights and equalities were granted in about twenty nations. By 2009, in eighty-nine. It is estimated that currently, forty-six percent of the world’s population are afforded political liberties. There are other ways to look at this trend. I love graphs and maps; perhaps not the same way I love fireworks, but as representations of liberty they have no equal. Consider these few pictures:[8]

This is a graph of the number of nations scoring highly on a rating of political liberty, from 1800 until 2003. Kind-of looks like Al Gore’s global warming hockey-stick graph, doesn’t it? That long flat, lonely ‘1’ near the beginning of the graph, that’s us; the United States. Here we can see that world-war two was bad for liberty, but since then things have been looking up. About 1990 that big jump is the fall of European communism.

 

Here’s another graph, this one focuses on the time since world war two. It shows the mixture of government types. Here, “anocracies” are governments with weak to non-existent central authority and nationally enforceable laws – related to anarchies. “Autocracies” are countries ruled by a privileged political elite, or a single autocrat. The world, as they say, it is a’changin’.[9]

Now, graphs are fun, but they’re a little too academic looking for a Sunday morning, so let me instead show you a map or two.

 

 

[10]Here is a map of democracy, with light pink indicating societies with high political liberty, and dark red denoting those with little. When you look at this kind of map, I bet you can’t help but think about political stability, technological and economic progress and human rights. We can find maps about these things too:

[11]Here’s a picture of life expectancy. Gold is highest, green is lowest, and lime is in-between. Generally, the democracies seem to be, literally, healthier.

[12]Here’s a map of how fragile a state is- a measure of it’s likelihood of social and political instability or civil conflict. Again, countries with political liberty are historically far more stable.

These pictures imply a general relationship between liberty, life-expectancy and political stability. This relationship is not mere chance.

Political liberty would seem to be a good idea if one wishes to live in a stable, healthy country. It seems that people do better if they are given a voice. Not only that, and this is not at all the same thing if you think about it, countries or collections of people do better if the people they contain are given liberties. This last point is not at all obvious, it wasn’t even considered through much of history, and remains replete with subtleties to this day. Many of America’s founders were worried about giving “the masses” too much liberty.[13] For surely, they thought, the cacophony of an argumentative multitude would mire the country in a permanent stagnation of inaction, indecision and bitter bickering. Conversely, they were afraid that fads and charismatic leaders would enthrall and energize the population to lurch off in some malicious direction. [14] That’s the main reason certain of our liberties are expressly guaranteed from the vagaries of a mere majority. Throughout history, the contrary notion, [15] that people must be directed and controlled, compelled and restrained, has been far more common. The other day I did a quick calculation and estimate that of the roughly one-hundred-six billion people who have ever lived, only about five or billion have ever lived with political liberty, and of those five, more than half of them are still alive. You and I are in that count, we are in the luckiest four or five percent in all of human history.

It’s an interesting question to consider why the predictions of anarchy or stagnation arising from democracy did not come true. We don’t have time to treat the topic in detail, but I want to pick out the most important factor: Education. But not just any process of pounding symbolic knowledge into one’s noggin counts in this instance. [16] One could, for example, fill one’s mind with myths, misconceptions, ineffective methods of reasoning, or lies. Sometimes this happens because the best information available turns out to be dead wrong, such as that the Sun goes around the Earth, or that night air causes sickness. That path of the Sun is a good example: because our everyday senses tell us the Earth is not moving, thus “common sense” misleads us. Since the universe and society is so huge, and so complex, and there’s so much to know; we cannot go around figuring everything out for ourselves. If we had to do that, our whole lives would be barely enough time to figure out from scratch how to grow wheat, or build an effective stone hut or treat a headache. We’re social as well as political animals, and we have the incredible gift of being able to learn from others, and from the symbols and stories they share with us.

[17] I just have to show another map:

This map of the world shows literacy rates. Bright orange is high, green is low. Again, there is a visible relationship between literacy and political liberty.

The reliance on one another to provide an education puts each of us in a difficult position. For example, I need you, or somebody, to tell me or show me things like: how oil painting works, or internal combustion, or scoring in tennis, or non-steroidal anti- inflammatories, or how to get to Springfield, or how to deal with heartbreak, or relativistic quantum electrodynamics or any of a million other things about which I may have practical or intellectual curiosity.[18] The problem is, and I know you’re all good people and mean the best, but really, I’m sorry to say… you could be lying. OK maybe not you, but some of the other millions of experts or just those who claim to know. Some liars are perhaps, mischievous and lying just to cause trouble. Some are manipulating me for their own ends. Others will tell me anything I want to hear just to make me shut up – or vote for them. Some just get it wrong, and don’t know they’re lying. Too many people lie to themselves. When we communicate knowledge through education, it is sometimes conveyed by direct experience, as in when you learn to cook or fix a broken offshore wind-turbine. Often though, knowledge is conveyed in purely symbolic ways, whether it constitutes stories of our history, tales of the heroics of others, or aspects of nature or culture beyond our experience.

So, what do we do if we want only the best, most accurate, useful information? Well how about this: [20] How about we set up a system where people are rewarded with honors to prove that others are lying, or to uncover new or more accurate truths nobody has previously found. Let’s give them money too – maybe even make a job of it. Now, if you’re part of such a system, you’d better be pretty confident of your statements before you merrily blather away; [20] because you can be sure there’s an eager horde of Nobel-prize candidates outside your door, who would like nothing better than to point out how much of an incompetent liar you are.

There’s a pre-requisite to all this joyful competition for truth: freedom and liberty. Without the ability to dissent from the prevailing view (albeit with evidence or sound reasoning in your corner), the constant striving towards the perfection of knowledge will stagnate[21]. This has happened in the past, when authority trumped evidence. Perhaps most famous, is the case of Galileo, who contradicted Aristotle and the Catholic Church. Now, why the Catholic Church decided to sanctify the clever musings of a Greek polytheist is a tale for another time, but the upshot was that the Church decided Aristotle had put forth the whole, complete and final set of truths about the world, and that was that. The idea that the Earth was the center of the cosmos was one such truth, as was the contention that women have a lower body temperature than men. There were countless other bits of inaccurate information and flights of pure, unsubstantiated fancy. The Church exhibited a classic conservatism in wanting to anoint Aristotle’s ideas as the ultimate truth, and insist on their continued sanction through education (or indoctrination, as the case may be). Such tendencies are the antithesis of liberty. But lest we do too much religion-bashing, imitating a stick stuck in mud is not limited to the clergy. Recall that Christopher Columbus was told, “So many centuries after the Creation, it is unlikely that anyone could find hitherto unknown lands of any value.”[22] Robert Fulton had a great idea for a steam powered ship. He took this idea to man known for a radical approach to government and warfare. Emperor Napoleon called nonsense the notion that a “bonfire under the deck” could propel a ship – and went on to march his troops to death going to Russia and back; but others listened. As a last example, in 1894 the eminent scientist Albert Michelson said, “The… important… laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and… are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted …[by].. new discoveries is … remote… Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.” This was almost exactly ten years before an iconoclastic patent clerk explained puzzling results in Michelson’s own experiments – and with that launched a whole new branch of science. You might have heard of this clerk, Albert Einstein. And the science: Relativity.[23]

It is not enough to merely tolerate challenges to presumed truths, said challenges must be encouraged and, when substantiated, rewarded. Somewhere, somebody has a great idea, and it’s nothing at all like what you or I already think we know. Only the striving for a more perfect liberty gives these unspoken ideas a chance. A chance to be laughed down: maybe. But just maybe, a chance to change our world for the better.

I’d like to take a break now, and play some music I feel is very appropriate. . Along with the music are some images of America’s history of liberty. The song is, “The World Turned Upside Down.” I consider it a fantastic song to extol the virtues of liberty, and not just because of its title. Tradition has it that this song was played by a British military band a few years back— when their army surrendered to General Washington at Yorktown.

———<break>————-

[24]I want liberty, and I live in a country where I can expect and demand it. We American’s have been using liberty as a foundational principle for nearly two hundred fifty years. That is a short time in history, but it makes us the oldest democracy on the face of the Earth. During that time, we and our forebears have been vigilant not just in the preservation, but also the extension of liberty. We recognize that a world populated by those free to act, speak, vote: To pursue their own course in their own time by methods of their choosing; is a world with much more safety and opportunity than the alternative.

In 1791, Alexander Hamilton, predicted America would become a country of enterprise and industry. About the same time, Thomas Jefferson envisioned a bucolic paradise of small-hold farmers stretching from sea to sea. History has proved one of them right.

Among the contingencies enabling a Hamiltonian future was the simultaneous applications of new ways of doing things in industry, finance, transportation and communication. However, a root of these things, as well as a separate thing unto itself, was liberty. A kind of feedback loop of innovative ideas, practices and technology has been propelling us forward these past centuries. Liberty gives us the opportunity to have, express and implement these things in the face of the status quo. However a question remains: Why would we want to? Why isn’t staying the course preferable to rocking the boat? People generally like predictability, and they like to stay employed by using their already acquired skills to get by in life. Change is scary and can have unpredictable consequences. Why change?

[25] The fundamental reason is that we always want our lives, and the lives of our children, to improve. We wish to find easier ways to perform our labor – saving our muscles and eliminating the need to feed a huge number of draft animals or provide for a mass of laborers. Now, if you’re working for some king, or landlord or, putting it starkly, if you are a slave; your own wishes count little. But once your voice or vote is given equal merit, once you have your liberty, your complaints with the status quo begin to have an impact.

In your quest to improve your lot, you will welcome ideas and tools that improve the quality of your life, while minimizing your injuries and discontents. You will also gladly trade what you have, or what you can do, for those new things, experiences or settings you desire; and you will do this of your own free will.

Amazingly, in a social and diverse society, the main way to improve your lot is to help others – to provide them something they need. If everybody, or nearly so, does this; then through specialization and trade, everyone’s life is improved, as if by magic. This is the essence of Adam Smith’s Invisible hand. [26] Here’s a close-up of that hand… Remember, it’s invisible.

Many years ago, I devised three prosaic laws of economics. The first of them proves useful here: People use what they have, to get what they want.

Every time you use what you have, or get what you want, you are exercising your own free will. Generally, nobody compels you to buy one thing or another. Nobody tells you which of your talents to offer in trade (unless you’ve already contracted them in advance). No supposedly all-knowing government official tells you what to produce, or predicts with super-human accuracy the needs of your fellow citizens. You get to make your own choices. You have, in other words: Liberty. The liberty to get what you want. The liberty to use what you have. So does your neighbor, and all the people elsewhere in the nation. So do all citizens of free-market economies. You are entrusted to make your own choices, and I can’t imagine you’d have it any other way.

[28] Here’s one final map.

It shows how countries rate relative to a set of criteria measuring economic freedom. The United States and western Europe have not ranked at the top of the scale the past year, unlike prior years, largely due to government intervention in the recent economic crisis. But the overall rating of the free world is still quite high:

There will always be some who presume to know what you should say, do and think. Many well-meaning folks believe they know how the world, and even your own life, works far better than you. There are Utopians with grand economic visions for redistributing wealth based on a grand design. There are corporate titans with a vested interest in holding on to market share or stifling competition. All of these people presume that their own selfish notions about how things should be are far better than any ideas you could have. If they silence your vote, your voice, your questions or your pocket-book, they have stifled your liberty. As our Founding Fathers, and Adam Smith and Francis Bacon all figured out, it’s far better to throw everything, every idea, into the mix, and see which ideas or products catch on or prove consistent with reality.

[29] With billions of people in the world; most times when we raise our voice, or vote with ballot or billfold, we join a comforting sub-community of similarly disposed beings, beings united in philosophy and behavior, in agreement regarding objectives and means. That’s not a bad thing, it provides a context of predictability, reliability, a sense of belonging and opportunities for collective action. We all need a sense of community and belonging. But being in a like-minded group does not imply a state of perfection. It might tempt us to become overly confident of our moral rectitude, our political correctness, our intellectual superiority, our way of doing things, or our economic indispensability. In fact, recent neurological and psychological studies have shown that just having the feeling of knowing something, sets us on a course of habituation of behavior and neural pathways. The habituation is so powerful, that in almost every case, we are guaranteed to ignore new, or contradictory evidence, that we’re wrong – even if that evidence comes from our own actions or senses. With such a hazard associated with certainty, it is hugely difficult to strike a balance between confidence and overconfidence, between the tried-and-true and hypothetical revolutions, between informing and dictating, or between liberty and conformity.

If there is one nugget I recommend you consider, it is this: The key lesson of liberty: is humility. The moment I presume to know and do what’s best for you, that is the instant I have robbed you of choice. Our freedom is bound by shackles forged from the conceit of those who presume to know better than us. Sure, some people, many people, will exercise their liberty and make poor or uninformed choices. But in each instance, they know more about their own lives, and what matters to them, than do I. The best I can do, the very best anybody can do, is twofold: First, we can improve the range of choices people have available. Limiting choice, or even the knowledge that a choice exists, is a favored tool of tyranny. With a greater range of perceived choices, the opportunities for success and creativity are multiplied. Second, we can help cultivate quality education; an education based on our current best understanding of how the world, or people, or society works. With each incremental step or prodigious leap in understanding, potentials are multiplied. When all human beings have the freedom to cultivate and apply practical or artistic skills, potentials are multiplied. We exhibit far more wisdom when we multiply our own skills by the opportunities and inventions of others, whether political, economic, philosophical or practical. The product of all this multiplication is a world orders of magnitude more spectacular than each of us, or any well-meaning few of us, could achieve alone. If we follow this course of liberation with heart-felt steadfastness, the wonders of the future will humble our most extravagant dreams.

How do we follow this course? I’m reminded of the cliché about sowing the seeds of liberty. Liberty is not made from the outside in. It waits in the heart of each human being. We cannot plant liberty, the best we can do is provide sunlight and water to nurture it, perhaps from neglected dormancy.

Considering all these things, I hope you’ll agree with me that the universal application of liberty is the best idea in history. Each person who lives in freedom, and has the liberty to participate in the world they way they choose, improves the chances not only that he or she will thrive, but that each of us will benefit from some new and wondrous thing, or method, or idea. Perhaps like Galileo and Columbus someone will discover new worlds. Certainly, others will have great ideas to improve the one we already share.

Who knows, if a great idea catches on, some lovers of freedom might even try to form a more perfect union, dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Thank you.

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  1. […] an exceptional and profound addition to these otherwise classic notions; an addition I have spent some time extolling. But hiding there, right at the beginning, are perhaps my favorite four words of our […]

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