How to Be an Anti-Authoritarian
Freedom is declining in America and around the world. Even more alarming is how few people oppose new authoritarian measures.
Glenn Greenwald has sounded the alarm about ongoing attempts to curtail the First Amendment. Recently Greenwald described his experience as he listened to the “tyrannical goal” expressed at a Congressional hearing: “Words cannot convey how chilling and authoritarian this all is: watching government officials, hour after hour, demand censorship of political speech and threaten punishment for failures to obey.”
In the UK, former Supreme Court judge Jonathan Sumption has called out his government’s oppressive Covid-19 policies:
Underline attitude. We are only free to the extent that we understand freedom. Widespread individual authoritarian mindsets fuel authoritarian politicians. Sumption writes, “The Prime Minister claims to believe in liberty and to find the current measures distasteful. Actions speak louder than words, and I am afraid that I do not believe him. He is too much of a populist to go against public sentiment.”
Perhaps in the past year, you found yourself overcome by the seeming long odds of restoring freedom.
In his book Liberalism Ludwig von Mises has good news: “In a battle between force and an idea, the latter always prevails.” A bit later in Liberalism, he writes, “Against what is stupid, nonsensical, erroneous, and evil, liberalism fights with the weapons of the mind, and not with brute force and repression.”
Freedom is an idea. Freedom is never completely lost; it can lay latent, ready to be rediscovered.
In The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek defines freedom as “the state in which a man is not subject to coercion by the arbitrary will of another or others.” Hayek defines coercion:
The line between authoritarianism and totalitarianism is thin. The future of liberty depends on whether individuals adopt antiauthoritarian mindsets. Cultivating mindsets that lead to a greater appreciation of individual rights and spontaneous order naturally leads to a rejection of authoritarian means and ends.
The Mindset of Tolerance and Respect for Differences
In Liberalism, Mises reminds us, in a free society, others will “act and live” differently than we consider “proper:”
It’s easy to point to cancel culture as an example of authoritarian intolerance for differences. Yet, during the pandemic, we have witnessed displays of intolerance from erstwhile champions of freedom. They supported lockdowns and disparaged those with alternative viewpoints. Even some libertarians shouted anti-vaxxer at those warning against cronyism. Invectives like “anti-vaxxer” are designed to shame and demonize those with different views and end discussion of vaccine safety issues. Yet, captured regulators and crony firms shielded from liability by government cannot establish vaccine safety.
In The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek is clear that progress depends on our respect for different opinions. “It is only because the majority opinion will always be opposed by some that our knowledge and understanding progress.”
If not for different lockdown policies by states and countries, we would not have discovered that lockdowns do not stop a virus. If not for minority action, Hayek reveals the majority can be slow to learn: “It is always from a minority acting in ways different from what the majority would prescribe that the majority in the end learns to do better.”
In his seminal essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society” and again in The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek explains this key insight: “The sum of the knowledge of all the individuals exists nowhere as an integrated whole.” As a consequence, individuals are free to achieve their own ends only because others are free to explore their own. Hayek explains,
We deny reality when we insist authoritarians have knowledge they do not possess.
When we begin to grasp how little each of us knows, we can drop to our knees in awe and wonder at how progress depends on learning from and not repressing differences.
The Mindset of Curiosity
With tolerance and respect for differences comes the mindset of curiosity. We wonder, Why do others see the world differently than I do?
In his book, Curious? psychology professor Todd Kashdan reports on a study by famed psychologists Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson. Curiosity is a trait highly associated with experiencing happiness and overall life fulfillment.
Kashdan writes that in the absence of curiosity, “People show an intolerance of uncertainty.” Covid-19 created tremendous uncertainty. Without curiosity, unplanned non-authoritarian ways to solve problems are met with intolerance.
Israel Kirzner has succinctly explained why so many people ignorant of economics are primed to turn toward authoritarianism:
In his chapter “Cosmos and Taxis” in Volume 1 of Law Legislation and Liberty, Hayek points the curious reader in a direction they may not yet have considered. Order and thus progress, Hayek explains, can be a spontaneous phenomenon that is not controlled by anyone or any group of people. There are “orderly structures which are the product of the actions of many men but not the result of human design.”
For authoritarians who are not curious, what interest could they have in Hayek’s ideas on spontaneous order? Instead, they will demand that government implement authoritarian policies, mistakenly believing as Kirzner wrote that regulations “save people from the disastrous results of their working at cross‐purposes.” Kirzner wrote his essay in the 1980s when regulators were supposedly benignly “equipped with the necessary power, knowledge, and motivation to foster harmony.”
Of course, as Kirzner explains, such regulators “are likely to block or distort the market’s own delicate discovery process.” When things go wrong, instead of questioning assumptions, many double down and blame the market.
The Mindset of Personal Responsibility
Blame is a habit of mind. When thinking turns toward blaming, it turns away from one’s meaningful purpose in life. Without a meaningful purpose, authoritarianism is alluring. Those who blame and eschew responsibility, Eric Hoffer explained in his seminal book The True Believer, are attracted by “the prospect of sudden and spectacular change in their conditions of life.” Hoffer wrote of human nature:
When we see the shaping forces of our life as outside ourselves, Hoffer explains, we reduce our efforts:
In the past year, many supported authoritarian movements supporting lockdowns and other restrictive measures. Hoffer shares an insight into why:
Demonstrating their identification with an authoritarian movement, people call the police against those violating masking or lockdown rules. Hoffer explains why:
Hoffer cautions that when hope is lost, authoritarianism grows: “One of the most potent attractions of a mass movement is its offering of a substitute for individual hope. No real content or comfort can ever arise in their minds but from hope.”
Recently Stanford’s Scott Atlas reflected on his experience as Covid-19 Advisor to President Trump. His scientific recommendations were censored, his work misrepresented. He was shamed and ridiculed. Atlas reveals he “was and remain[s] stunned—almost frightened—at the acquiescence of the American people to such destructive, arbitrary, and wholly unscientific rules, restrictions, and mandates.” Authoritarianism will win, Atlas concludes, “unless more people begin to step up in defense of freedom of thought and speech.”
Big tech is making it increasingly difficult to share alternative views, but the battle is not lost. We can choose to be more open in face-to-face conversations arising organically with friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues. Even in those conversations, the intolerant will ridicule you and blame you for the troubles in the world. Yet your display of genuine curiosity will evoke curiosity in others. Out of your courage to share ideas and with a mutual mindset of curiosity, freedom can be rediscovered.
Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore.
He is senior contributor at Intellectual Takeout and the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership.
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