- Cato University Day Five: Foreign Policy and the Future of the Liberty Movement - July 31, 2015
- Cato University Day Four: The Constitution and U.S. History - July 31, 2015
- Cato University Day Three: Liberty and the American Experience - July 28, 2015
Today, Cato University Director Tom Palmer concluded his lecture series on the origins of state and government. He showed how guilds, churches, and other associations served as an alternative to government in mediating disputes between private citizens. He also showed how earlier documents like the Magna Carta and Kosice and Hungarian tracts served as predecessors to the American republic because of their emphasis on limiting arbitrary monarchic rule. He also showed how the unique feudal system in Europe, while imperfect, introduced more equal relations between lord and subject and a contractual system of reciprocal obligations that would be echoed in today’s democracies.
Georgetown Law School Professor Randy Barnett gave Cato University attendees a treat when he interpreted various portions of the Declaration of Independence for us. Barnett discussed how natural rights are naturally found in humans, noting that the primary function of the government is to preserve its citizens’ natural rights. He discouraged the judiciary from “discovering” rights in the Constitution and to consider how their rulings may unintentionally benefit special interest groups. Barnett also showed how the theme of unalienable rights—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—is also echoed throughout the Constitution.
United States Military Academy Professor Robert McDonald gave two lectures in the afternoon. The first concerned the role of property rights in improving the lots of the American colonists. In the settlements Jamestown and Plymouth, many inhabitants initially starved to death in the early 17th century because of the collective farming system imposed on the populations by the British government. Men were mandated to work together in the fields, give their crops to the state, and receive an equal amount of the total yield. Morale soon fell as they were disincentivized to work and committed themselves to other endeavors like seeking gold. When men in those towns were allowed to plant and keep their crops privately a few decades later, production skyrocketed and the overall population and life expectancies increased. These formerly backward colonies became so successful with newfound property rights that indentured servants and later slaves were brought from across the Atlantic Ocean to satisfy European demands for crops.
McDonald’s second lecture concerned liberty and the American experience. Oppressive tax laws by the British on the American colonies were repealed time and time again before the tragic Boston Massacre in 1770. The Tea Act taxed the colonies on that highly demanded good and led to the Boston Tea Party. Although the newly formed United States won the Revolutionary War a few years later, liberty was difficult to preserve. Contentious elections in 1800, 1860, 2000 and other years divided the country even while the United States grappled with an increasingly activist judiciary and the legacy of slavery and Native American displacement. McDonald argued that the American experiment, while fraught with tragedy and errors, is well-worth maintaining because of its unique history and the Founding Fathers’ emphasis on small government and liberty.
Our customary dinner lecture was given by Palmer on the history of the liberty movement in the world. Palmer highlighted every society has two narratives: one of power and domination and the other of liberty. Statist and individualist forces have often fought throughout history. Palmer located the American Revolution as a link in the chain of pro-liberty Atlantic Revolutions. Classical liberalism emphasizes the unalienable rights of individuals and has been used to promote the women’s movement and eliminate slavery and serfdom in the 19th century. The 20th century was tragic in that many nations became dominated by statist and fascist factions and wreaked havoc on their own people. Since the dawn of the 21st century, the liberty movement has shown promise due to new communications technologies and the appeal of the libertarian virtues of individual rights and responsibilities, solidarity, respect for peaceful diversity, and a belief in the dignity of mankind, he concluded.