There is no sort of freedom other than the sort which voluntary exchange brings about.
In its truest form, freedom has only one fundamental meaning: it is the absence of force and compulsion, whether that force is direct, as in assault, or indirect, as in extortion. It means only that you are left alone, not helped by government and also not hindered. Other humans may voluntarily help you as much as they choose. (Occasionally this is still referred to as “negative liberties,” or “negative rights,” because the only obligation it imposes upon another is of a “negative” kind — meaning: each person must abstain from infringing upon the equal rights of others.)
The human capacity to forecast and plan ahead and therefore to store and save — all of which result from our conceptual capacity, which is reason — are what give rise to the process of voluntary exchange.
It is a fact that no other earthen creature besides the human creature engages in barter or indirect exchange. Plenty of creatures use tools and plenty of creatures share their food, but no other creature “trucks, barters, and exchanges,” as Adam Smith described it. Only humans. Only humankind engages in free-exchange.
Voluntary trade is a fundamental and defining characteristic of the human species, and the significance of this cannot be overstated.
Among other things, voluntary trade is the antithesis of conflict and war: it is peaceful, non-coercive, mutually beneficial. For this reason, trade promotes kinship and goodwill among humans. Money, like markets and stores, is merely a medium that further facilitates the process of exchange.
Yet the most extraordinary thing about voluntary trade is that, like energy itself, it reciprocates, and through this reciprocation, it grows in an exponential way and is inexhaustible: the more we use it, the more we have of it, and thus, by the natural way in which trade fosters innovation and wealth-creation, the better and more streamlined it becomes. It advances always toward human progress.
Trade is the fundamental engine of civilization.
There is, I saw again, no sort of freedom other than the sort which voluntary exchange brings about.
Properly defined and strictly enforced tort laws protect people and their property against the so-called externalities of production. Cronyism, however, does not protect against externalities but is itself an externality of government intrusion and intervention. As such cronyism fosters corruption.
The process of voluntary trade created, in turn, and still continues to create, the two things most responsible for the furthering of human advancement: the division-of-labor, so that we are not all spending all of our time food-gathering and food-growing for bare subsistence survival, and, as a corollary of that, increased specialized knowledge and easier and more reliable methods by means of which humans can pass along their increasing knowledge, person-to-person, culture-to-culture, generation-to-generation. This enables humans to build upon previously discovered knowledge and therefore to advance.
“The fundamental social phenomena,” wrote Friedrich Hayek, “is the division of labor and its counterpart: human cooperation.”
Ultimately there are possible only two different types of social cooperation: there’s cooperation by means of voluntary human agreement and coordination — which some call “contractual” — and there’s cooperation by means of command and control: subordination, compulsion, coercion.
To the extent that cooperation is based upon voluntary agreement and coordination, the logical relationship between the cooperating individuals is harmonious and symmetrical. They are all parties to interpersonal exchange, and as such there is no unequal balance — no zero-sum, no winners-and-losers.
To the extent that there is cooperation based upon command and control, there are only those who command and those who obey the commands. The relationship is intrinsically asymmetrical and disharmonious.
The transmission of knowledge, a direct outgrowth and natural consequence of the division of labor, is invaluable to human life and human prosperity, and the art of independent thinking is in no way pitted against it, nor is it an objection to or nullification or dismissal of the division of labor or the transmission of knowledge. It is the diametric opposite, in fact: the independent thinker fully embraces specialization, as well as the transmission of knowledge, precisely because these two things are the locus of learning — of greater and ever greater learning and the advancement of learning and thought.
Independent thinking means nothing more or less than having the confidence and courage to think critically, for yourself, examining the ideas and propositions and claims of knowledge transmitted along to you, because not all of these claims will be accurate, whether through honest error or otherwise.
Thoughts and ideas are not solely the product of individuals locked off in isolation, since thinking, too, like all other forms of human cooperation, triumphs only through the cooperation of thinkers.
No individual would make much headway into her reasoning process were she under the necessity of beginning at the beginning every time, each individual person, each generation: advances in thought, like advances in technology (and for exactly the same reasons), come about by means of the transmission of knowledge, which is fostered by specialization, which is the direct result of free-exchange.
Exchange, in other words, does not, as is so often supposed, only happen when “the gain of some can be gotten at the expense of others,” as Montaigne famously expressed it (though probably not meaning what many have ascribed to him here), but the opposite: voluntary exchange is a mutually beneficial transaction – a positive-sum gain, as the economists like to call it – or it would not be voluntary.
Nor are ideas “a certain state of social interactions and conditions,” as many of today’s racial-theorists, following Karl Marx (whether they know it or not), would have you believe. Rather than beginning at the beginning every time, an individual can instead advance in her thinking because her efforts are aided by those of previous people and generations who have helped form and shape the tools of cognition, who have raised the questions and found answers, formulating the ideas and developing the vocabularies.
Within any given society, new ideas, good or bad, may at any time spring forth and take hold – transforming the social system thereby – and yet it remains true that every society is always the product and creation of ideas that are both logically and also chronologically prior.
It is at the same time also true that humans are capable of mistakes and errors, as they are susceptible to biases and prejudices, as they are capable of initiating force and creating ideologies explicitly advocating, in one form or another, the initiation of force.
The independent thinker is the one who recognizes no ultimate power or authority as taking precedence over his or her own experience or independent judgement. This doesn’t mean that the independent thinker won’t listen to and respect the knowledge and expertise of specialists — not at all. It only means that he or she understands the efficacy of reason and hence the efficacy of the independent mind, in both herself and in others. It has nothing to do with genius or brilliance or originality, and everything to do with will and courage: the will and courage to think for yourself.
For the independent thinker, it is always a requirement to question profoundly ideologies proposing any kind of command and control, including the compulsory expropriation of money from private citizens in order to redistribute it. This must never be regarded as a forgone fact.
Independent thinking is the desire and the courage to think for yourself, even in the face of overwhelming opposition.
It is important to note as well that data and knowledge are not in and of themselves thinking. Data and knowledge are the end products and consequence of thinking. This is why a conclusion or an agreement or a deal reached by a group of people is still not an example of “collective thinking,” as it’s sometimes said. The end result – the agreement or conclusion or outcome – is the consequence of thoughts performed individually, and the act of thinking (of processing information and synthesizing it with a preexisting context or body of knowledge) cannot be performed collectively. It is from start to finish a thoroughly individualized act. The idea of a “collective consciousness” is an arbitrary idea: baseless and therefore cognitively inadmissible.
The operations of the body and brain are in the final analysis entirely personal and private. They are also inalienable in the literal sense – which means that they cannot be transferred, revoked, or made alien. This is also what it means to say that you or I cannot think through the apparatus of another individual’s brain – any more than we can pump our heart’s blood daily through the apparatus of another’s circulatory system in an effort to maintain our own limbs and lives.
Learning, like intelligence itself, is a process. It is active by definition. No person can inject knowledge into another — neither by transfusion, nor witchcraft, nor extra-sensory sleight-of-hand.
To learn from others means to grasp their conclusions by comprehending the words they use, and by understanding their reasoning process. Observe, though, that this is a discrete and individual act of learning from them, not through them — specifically, by means of the effort which you exert in activating and sustaining your power of reason.
Learning is not an effortless or unearned gift but needs an exertion of will and energy, an effort put forth – most fundamentally, the effort of attention. It requires independent examination and deliberation and cogitation. Knowledge is not intelligence, Heraclitus wrote.
In this way, when any individual takes the time to sincerely understand and process another’s ideas and discoveries, that individual has in essence synthesized this learning into her own body-of-knowledge and in so doing has created an understanding which has never quite existed before, since no two contexts-of-knowledge are the same.
The world is for each peculiar and private to each individual soul, T.S. Eliot wrote.
Merely reciting words, upon the other hand, no matter how true and profound the words may be, yet still without thinking about them or processing them, does not constitute an act of apprehension. A magpie can do this. Rather, it’s equivalent to reading a passage or a paragraph or a page when your mind is a million miles away, distracted and thinking about something else, and then suddenly, through the effort of focus, bringing your brain back to your task and realizing that you didn’t catch a single thing you just read. It is the difference between a magpie who can repeat perfectly human speech, and the human who grasps the meaning of the words he or she is using.
A formal education is not required in order for one to discover contradictions in an ideological system; nor is it required in order to discover ideological inconsistencies. As long as an individual remains of (relatively) sane mind, without serious brain damage or disease, that individual can choose to question, cogitate, evaluate. If the individual can evaluate, the individual can accept or reject the things he or she reads and the things he or she hears from others.
The hallmark of the independent thinker is, in the final analysis, the desire and the courage to think for oneself, and to always question — question into the ground, down to its very roots — any and all ideologies propounding authoritarian control and command, no matter from which side of the aisle it originates or propagates.