Montreal, April 15, 2008 • No 255


Bradley Doucet is QL's English Editor. A writer living in Montreal, he has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness.






by Bradley Doucet


          Liberty is won and preserved not primarily with guns, but with ideas. Spreading freedom requires that we spread an understanding of the benefits freedom brings, that we explain to whoever will listen how freedom is really in everyone's best interest. In making the case for a truly free society, however, we will inevitably come up against a wide array of illiberal beliefs that keep others from embracing our vision of a better world. The more we seek to understand those beliefs, the better we will be able to counter them and address the concerns that underlie them. In this ongoing series, I address some of the issues we can expect to face, along with brief outlines of the kinds of responses I think can be helpful.


BELIEF # 13: Change is bad

April 15, 2008

          Sometimes it seems like just about everybody thinks change is a bad thing. Not only conservatives, but modern liberals and environmentalists also want to slow, stop, and reverse many of the technological and cultural changes sweeping our lives. Dealing with these reactionary forces is an ongoing challenge for friends of liberty.

          Of course, we expect conservatives to, in the words of the recently departed William F. Buckley, “stand athwart history yelling Stop.” At its most basic level, being "conservative" means being resistant to change. But at their best, what conservatives resist is the encroachment of the State into our economic lives, fighting the over-regulation of the market and the nationalization of industries. In one sense, this is not really "conservative" at all, since free markets are rife with change. At their worst, though, conservatives only pay lip service to free market capitalism, instead doling out special favours and bailing out companies that should be allowed to fail. In this way, they tarnish the image of those of us who honestly believe in the enormous benefits of free markets.

          Conservatives also often resist and attempt to stop cultural changes. As the Cato Institute’s Brink Lindsey points out in his recent book, The Age of Abundance (see my review in QL), the cultural changes of the past several decades are the result of capitalism’s unprecedented success in creating material wealth, and thus liberating us to pursue a wider variety of experiences. Conservatives, though, tend to see these kinds of changes (evolving gender roles, sexual freedom, the normalization of homosexuality, drug experimentation, etc.) as threatening the stability of family, community, and even the capitalist system itself. Now, over-indulging in sex and drugs might make one less productive—even less satisfied with life overall—but as long as people bear the brunt of their own experiments in living, it is wrong to remove their freedom to choose. Concerned about wider cultural changes, conservatives tend to oppose such things as “day after” contraceptives, stem cell research, gay marriage, and ending the Drug War—opposition that causes far more harm than it prevents.

          Modern liberals do not necessarily fare any better—they just have a different focus. Whereas conservatives fear cultural change, modern liberals fear economic change. Like ersatz conservatives, they fear the upheaval entailed by layoffs, bankruptcies, and economic downturns. They short-sightedly attempt to prevent unemployment through business subsidies, when lowering the taxes that paid for those subsidies would be a more efficient solution. In bailing out poorly-managed businesses instead of allowing the better-managed to win in an open marketplace, they hamper the spread of innovation in products, services, and management techniques. In manipulating the money supply to ease economic downturns, they only forestall the inevitable correction and make it far more damaging than it would otherwise have been.

          There are some issues, like immigration, that confuse conservatives and modern liberals equally, with some people in both camps in favour of more open borders and some against. The only real difference is that once again, liberals are more likely to fear the economic impact of new arrivals, while conservatives are more likely to fear their impact on culture.

          But radical environmentalists are really the most "conservative" people of all. They resist development; they resist the use of natural resources; they oppose technologies like GMOs and DDT, which are enormously beneficial to humanity; and they fear manmade changes to the climate. They do not want us to adapt to climate change; they want to stop and reverse it. Radical greens are far more ambitious than conservatives. The latter hark back to a time a mere hundred years ago, when markets were freer and families were more stable. Enviros, on the other hand, look back longingly to a time many thousands of years ago. In their mythical version of the past, we lived in harmony with nature and all its creatures—and in their equally mythical vision of the future, we are on our way to destroying it all.

          In fact, human nature has always been about change, and about changing our environment. We harnessed fire, invented the wheel, tilled the land, discovered the benefits of trade and money, founded cities, invented the printing press, discovered how to harness the power of fossil fuels and electricity, learned how to fly, created computers and the Internet—all along improving our lot. Sure, we also fought wars and polluted the environment; but then we also made peace and fixed environmental problems, and we will continue to do so. In the real past, as opposed to the mythical one, human life was “nasty, brutish, and short,” to quote Thomas Hobbes. We have accomplished much in 10,000 years. In wanting to wish it all away, the misanthropes who have hijacked much of the environmentalist movement dishonour our heritage and discredit our ingenuity.

          In working for positive change, we need to reaffirm that human beings are not evil for wanting to create wealth, or for wanting to decide how to enjoy that wealth. And we need to reaffirm that using the resources we find in nature is not synonymous with despoiling nature. Nature is not some delicate, unchanging, perfectly balanced, pristine bauble. It is wild and robust and constantly changing—and it is in our nature to shape it as best we can.



Current Illiberal Belief >>>


12. You're either with us or against us
11. The environment is steadily deteriorating
10. Resources are limited
09. It's a small world

08. Morality must be enforced
07. The truth is obvious
06. Good intentions are enough
05. Charity must be enforced

04. We are our brothers' keepers
03. Theft can be justified
02. Order comes from above
01. Government is good