New Year Musings on Human Freedom and Progress


This afternoon, as I sat in the cosy comfort of a Virgin Money Lounge enjoying tea and biscuits, listening to the player-piano and looking out over Edinburgh’s St Andrews Square, I could scarcely believe this was all free of charge. And I could stay as long as I wanted.

As I watched the world go by, I couldn’t help but contemplate the amazing things done through persuasion (the essence of free trade and what Richard Branson built his business empire with) and what terrible things are done through politics (the coercive apparatus of the state).

I wondered why on earth we are still struggling to bring ourselves to have faith in human freedom when it produces such astonishing things; when it has raised us all up to a standard of living completely unimaginable to our ancestors; when its benefits are all around us and so glaringly evident.

I wondered why we still fear businessmen armed with nothing but the power of persuasion and yet still have faith in men armed with state power, the greatest force for evil humanity has ever known.

Staring into my empty teacup, I felt sad at that thought and yet cheered by my surroundings; by the smiling face of the host who was giving motherly attentiveness to an old gentleman as he happily sipped his complimentary coffee.

Observing this interaction between two strangers, I reassured myself than we do have faith in each other’s freedom in our private lives, but we struggle to translate that faith into our public perspective; perhaps because our general ignorance of the ethics and economics of liberty makes the leap of faith look much bigger than it really is.

The end of another year is a time when many of us start reflecting on the state of humanity like I did today. If you find yourself fearing that things are getting worse, then fear not. The happy truth is the world’s getting better all the time.

The number of people living in absolute poverty around the world continues to rapidly decline. Technological, medical and scientific advances, which enhance our lives and reduce suffering, continue to happen at a rate that’s nearly impossible to keep track of. Considering how powerful governments are today, this is remarkable.

This progress isn’t happening because lawmakers decree it should. It’s not happening because governments are making more laws and spending more money. This progress is a by-product of individual liberty. It’s happening because billions of people have at least some degree of economic freedom to pursue their own ends.

Fundamentally, progress is an effect of human freedom and human compassion; it’s the result of capitalism on a global scale and the creative use of human energy free from restriction and interference by people in authority.

As you celebrate the new year, raise a glass in gratitude to individual liberty, to freedom, which, despite the institutionalised political plunder we’re subject to, has made us the wealthiest, healthiest and smartest human beings who ever lived.

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