Quote of the day—Adlai E. Stevenson Jr.

My definition of a free society is a society where it is safe to be unpopular.

Adlai E. Stevenson Jr.
October 7, 1952
Speech in Detroit
[At first glance this appears to be a decent one line definition. Some simple tests are as follows:

  • In some societies it is unpopular to be of a particular religion/ethnicity/sexual-orientation. But in a free society such people will not be harmed as long as they do not intimidate or harm others. In an non-free society they may lose their jobs, socially shunned, their property destroyed, or even killed for merely for being suspected of matching an unpopular attribute.
  • In some societies it is unpopular to be a gun owner. But in a free society such people allowed to go about their business without restraint as long as they do not intimidate or harm others.

It is clear that the U.S. is not a free society. It has various degrees of freedom depending on the relative popularity of the activities of the person. 100 years ago gun owners were relatively free but today in certain political jurisdictions we are at great risk of going to jail if we attempt to go about our business even though our actions harm no one.

100 years ago to be homosexual in many locations in the U.S. was very risky and Christianity very low risk. Today homosexuality is much lower risk and Christianity is at some risk.

Stevenson definition is a pretty good for those issues. But as you dig into things more your realize Stevenson definition is not really adequate. What about alcohol production? Beer and wine are quite popular but highly regulated. Cars are very popular but highly regulated.

I have a half-baked hypothesis that total freedom in our country is a near constant. As it increases in one area it decreases in another. People demand control over something.

In the beginning it was black slavery, indentured servants and intolerance of non-Christians. Then as those went away it was regulation of things like alcohol, guns, drugs, business, tobacco, and a million little things. It doesn’t seem to have any relation to public safety, economic prosperity, or anything of importance. It’s just control.—Joe]


11 thoughts on “Quote of the day—Adlai E. Stevenson Jr.

  1. A variation on that would be: a society where it is safe (and legal) to offend people.
    By that definition, Holland (and, I suspect, the rest of Europe) is not free. In the words of the head of the government (christmas 2006): “A right to offend does not exist. Nor is freedom of religion a license to injure…”

  2. That’s a good essay, and as such it deserves some editing.

    We can discuss harm and popularity, and even “freedom” all day long and still miss the mark. Stevenson’s above sentence, taken in isolation, without knowing a lot more about him, tells me very little to nothing. It could be (and probably has been) said by the libertarian, the conservative, the Progressive, the violent radical communist revolutionary, the atheist, the devout Christian and the devil worshiper.

    Human sacrifice, theft, slavery and murder are “unpopular”, as are Judaism, Christianity, property rights and the sovereignty of the individual and the family unit.

    It depends on your allegiance. There are those who long for freedom from wrong, to do right, and there are those who long for freedom from right, to do wrong. Each side sees itself as right, and sees the other as foolish, hypocritical, ridiculous, dangerously wrong and even criminally insane. Jesus was both popular to the point of attracting people wherever he went, and unpopular to the point that a lot of people wanted to kill him. The same description, taken in isolation, applies equally to Hitler.

    Within the quote is a seed of self pity, or indignant justification or absolution. The quote is true as far as it goes, and it makes for a fascinating start of a conversation, but it can’t serve as any kind of a guide.

    • Isn’t “I’d rather be right than President” attributed to Adlai Stevenson?
      There’s no guarantee he would still believe or even say this in today’s Leftist society.

  3. Huffman’s Law of Conservation of Liberty?

    Lyle, also wasn’t Stevenson far to the left of Truman and Eisenhower and even Kennedy? I wonder how that would have worked had he actually been elected. I think the 60’s would have been birthed a few years earlier, as at that time the Left’s long march through the culture was not yet complete.

    • “…wasn’t Stevenson far to the left of Truman and Eisenhower and even Kennedy?”

      Ah! My point is; from just that quote, I wouldn’t be able to tell if he were a flaming, violent communist revolutionary or an Ayn Rand-influenced libertarian objectivist. There is not a clue in it. All the quote actually says is that he has been thinking about politics, and (we can infer) has come to the conclusion that government’s role is to protect. WHAT he has in mind that he thinks would be unpopular, and among WHOM he thinks it would be unpopular, cannot be determined from the quote. It could be absolutely anything from global genocide and slavery (pretty unpopular among some, not so unpopular among others) to fulling the dream of the American Founders, of total equality under the law and total rights protection (also very unpopular among some yet popular among others).

  4. “Safe it be unpopular”? What does popularity, or lack there of, have to do with freedom? To be “free” I think means to have unrestricted liberty. To be able to go about your business as you see fit as long as you do not cause harm to others. Unfortunately in today’s society many laws are written based on popularity. A group of people get together and get a person elected. Then that elected person passes a law to force other people to live by the standards of the group.

    My freedom should never be based upon what the mob (and by mob I mean the 51% it took to get some idiot elected) wants.

    • “…go about your business as you see fit as long as you do not cause harm to others.”

      Wrong metric. I’ve been harping on this point for years and it’s getting ignored. My going about my business can and certainly will “harm others” along the way. I set up a doughnut shop right next to your doughnut shop, I build a house on my own property and spoil your beautiful view. Those are extremely simple and obvious of real harm, and yet liberty demands that I have a right to harm others in such ways. There are countless example.

      We’re falling into the steel jaws of a trap whenever we use that “harm others” standard.

      There’s no device guaranteed to be understood and to be free from vulnerability to liars and cheats, but the metric I use is that of rights verses the violation of rights. I may in fact harm you in several ways, even deliberately, and it could be both legal and moral for me to do so.

      However, I may not violate your rights– THAT is where a legitimate government would step in.

      Please, People; let’s get this one right. Also, please see Walter Williams’ excellent piece from several years ago entitled “Who May Harm Whom”. This isn’t rocket surgery.

      • I see your point but isn’t it just a game of semantics? What is the definition of harm? From my point of view the examples of harm you gave are not what I consider harm, they are examples of a free market.

        “However, I may not violate your rights– THAT is where a legitimate government would step in.”

        I completely agree with this, this is exactly what our government was supposed to do. However we can just as easily fall into the definition trap again. What exactly are a persons rights? Can rights change as society changes? Take the gay wedding cake for example. I think its a violation of the bakers rights to be forced to make the cake. Homosexual’s think its a violation of their rights that they are refused service based on their degenerate lifestyle. Unfortunately because they have the mob (51% of the vote) they will win.
        Using the word “right” can cause just as many problems as using the word “harm”.
        This is probably why I like to use the word liberty. As Jefferson defines it:

        Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.

  5. One of Niven’s Laws reads:
    Freedom * Security = k
    Where k is some constant. I don’t really buy it. Seems rather zero-sum. So I encourage you to develop your more sophisticated conservation principle.

    • Let me begin with an amendment:

      F*S = k(t,p)

      Freedom times security is a constant…at any given time and place. The value of ‘k’ was not necessarily the same in 3rd century BCE Rome as it is now.

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