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Is There a Universal Quest for Liberty?

English Pages, 28. 9. 2013

Thank you for bringing me back to the United States, back to California, back to CATO and for giving me such a generous space here tonight. I’d like to use this opportunity to thank you once again for the great honor, for the status of “distinguished senior fellow”, you conferred upon me this March, in the moment when I – after ten years – left the beautiful Prague Castle and with the castle also my presidential duties. I know that CATO is basically and almost instinctively against the whole political class (and you made me feel it sometimes in the past) so I hope to be more welcome here now when I chair nothing but my small think-tank, a sort of presidential library.

This is not my first speech at an event organized by the CATO Institute. I don´t have any reliable statistics but I guess the number of my presentations here has reached two digits. I saw it always as a challenge and a great honor.

This time you also suggested a topic for my presentation – “The Universal Quest for Liberty” – which I accepted without protesting and took it as a motivation. I will return to it, to my second thought about it, later.

For us who spent most of our lives in a totalitarian communist regime, the words liberty, freedom, democracy were at that time not topics or themes of empty intellectual discourse. They were a fundamental topic of our everyday life. Liberty, freedom and democracy – as they are traditionally defined – were practically absent during the half a century I spent in the communist regime, with the notable exception of a short period known to the outside world as the Prague Spring era. As you know, we paid heavily for our short moment of less oppressive and to some degree hopeful political arrangements.

Throughout that time, we were dreaming about a free society. We were extremely frustrated with what we had to go through but I always add – at a more positive note – that we also learned something. We learned something one cannot get at a distance and it provided us with a special sensitivity, if not an oversensitivity – probably for the rest of our lives. It sharpened my eyes and forces me to look at current reality in my country, in Europe and in the whole Western world more critically than is typically the case.

The communist past is, of course, over. We succeeded in getting rid of the communist regime quite rapidly, relatively smoothly, and in a “velvet way”, as we used to call it. We had very good feelings in the first post-communist years and these feelings were probably justified. They, however, did not last long and I don’t think that the reason was that we took the new situation too quickly for granted and ceased to be capable of seeing the miracle that happened. In my speech at the CATO Institute in Washington D.C. in March 2007,[1] I said with evident bitterness “We erroneously hoped that the attempts to suppress freedom and to centrally organize, mastermind, regulate, control the whole society (and economy) were already matters of the past”. I added that these attempts “are – to our great disappointment – still there”. That was six years ago. The situation now seems to me visibly worse than back then.

I am afraid, and I can watch it more closely in Europe than here in America, that individual freedom and liberty ceased to be the issue of the day. When attending the funeral of one of the last true champions of liberty, Margaret Thatcher, this spring in London, I was shocked to see that there were no European political leaders, especially West European politicians, there.

It was not an accident. They demonstrated by their absence that the issue of liberty is not important for them. They are much more interested in their political games, in political correctness, in empty gender equality projects, in new forms of income redistribution which became inevitable in the era of massive sovereign debts of the Eurozone countries, in building further, visibly undemocratic European institutions as banking, and fiscal unions (without asking people in still, at least nominally self-governed European countries whether they want them), etc. They are the victims of the environmentalist´s propaganda and are not able to see that this ideology (if not religion) tries to mastermind the whole human society. I suppose you agree with me that the environmentalists do not want to control global temperature, they want to control and manipulate us.

This disturbs me. As I said at the beginning, I accepted without any hesitation the title of my speech “The Universal Quest for Liberty”. When I think about it now, I would prefer a slightly different title: “Is There a Universal Quest for Liberty?” I have many reservations or doubts in this respect.

The first one is whether there really is a universal quest for liberty and the second what kind of liberty are we talking about. Let me briefly touch upon both of these issues.

I guess – without having any hard statistical data (and I don´t consider the opinion polls´ results to be sufficiently relevant) – that some people do evidently consider liberty a very high if not the highest value worth fighting for but I am afraid that many other people don´t see it that way and have other priorities and preferences. I don´t speak about the people in the remaining totalitarian or authoritarian regimes where the quest for liberty is strong but even there, there are inevitable trade-offs. The quest itself is probably not compromised, but the individual endeavor to fight for the victory of liberty is usually heavily compromised. We don´t live in a totalitarian regime any longer and should not fight it now. We should have done it decades ago. Yet, there are those who were silent in the past and started “fighting” once everything was over. Something, I dislike very strongly.

The more relevant question is, therefore, whether the people, or better to say we, who live in the contemporary nominally free societies are ready to protest sufficiently strongly against the incremental losing of liberty we are experiencing, against – what our great teacher Friedrich von Hayek taught us – this slippery road to serfdom. Here – to my great regret – I don´t see any “universal quest”. I am afraid that we are neither able to see nor willing to efficiently resist the creeping loss of liberty which is so characteristic for our era.

What is even worse is that there are people in our societies who are quite satisfied with such a development and who intentionally and openly support it. I have in mind the elites, the anointed (I like this term, coined by Thomas Sowell), who demonstrate day by day that they are interested in liberty for themselves only or mostly. They understood that the lack of liberty for us is a huge opportunity for the increase of their power over us. We should perhaps return to the term “clash of civilizations” but it should be understood as our clash with the intellectual, journalistic, academic, artistic elites who have been systematically undermining the roots of our free society.

I would also differentiate between nominal and real liberty. Nominally guaranteed freedoms, which did not and do not exist in communist and other totalitarian societies, but did and do exist in current Western world, should not confuse us. They are not sufficient. Many important decisions in our countries are done out of the domain of institutions of representative democracy, both internationally and domestically. Internationally in global governance institutions (which you are aware of but the size of your country makes it much less dangerous for you to be governed by them than for a small country), domestically in institutions which are the outcome of the continuously growing role of NGOs and of the ideology of NGOism around us.

I would like to warn against narrowing the issue of liberty (or of the lack of it) to the realm of non-Western countries where there are – without any doubt – major deficiencies in the field of nominal freedoms and liberties. It is easy to criticize them and to get applause (and international celebrity status) for it. It is much more difficult to criticize and efficiently oppose modern, politically correct “isms”, such as aggressive human-rightism, transnationalism, multiculturalism, europeism, feminism, etc. In our societies, no one can expect to be praised for it. Some international celebrities perhaps promote these “isms” without being aware of the fact that they – by doing so – undermine liberty in their own, nominally free countries. I want to believe that their innocence is bigger than their potentially wicked intentions but I may be wrong and excessively idealistic.

Anti-liberal (in European, not American sense) ideas and ambitions have been here all the time. The question is: what gives them such power now, at the beginning of the 21st century? I have a strong candidate for it.

I see the substance of the problem in the accelerated process of the suppression of the role of the nation state and of the rising of supranationalism and global governance in contemporary world. This process represents the reversal of traditional political arrangements. It represents the shift of the power balance between bureaucrats and politicians, and between democracy and post-democracy.

Last year, I spoke – not very far from here, in downtown L.A. – at a conference organized by the American Freedom Alliance which was devoted to this issue. I stressed there that “the ambition to govern without a democratic accountability from a distant city is something I experienced for most of my life”.[2] What I had in mind was, of course, Moscow. But this is exactly what I experience in Europe these days again, but from another city. The de-democratization process goes on very rapidly there.

After the fall of communism, the people in Central and East European countries misinterpreted the European reality and especially the ambitions of European elites. They believed they were marching “back to Europe of democratic nation-states” but they were marching “avanti into the supranationalist European Union.” The ongoing European shift towards trans- or supranationalism and towards a continental-wide governance meant that European integration turned into unification. That the EU was transformed into an entity composed of non-sovereign states led, organized, directed, controlled, regulated, standardized and harmonized from the “commanding heights” of Brussels. It is more than appropriate to mention your great former Chairman – late Bill Niskanen – who saw it the same way. In a Festschrift, published on the occasion of my 70th birthday,[3] he advocated an alternative – much more democratic – institutional arrangement in Europe: “An Association of European National States”, something similar to what I’ve been promoting in my recent book “Europe – The Shattering of Illusions.”[4]

Returning to the issue of the title of my presentation, instead of seeing the universal quest for liberty, I see many threats to liberty. And having said that, I don’t have in mind Taliban, Al Qaeda or Islamic fundamentalism. I am afraid our liberty is attacked from the inside much more than from the outside.

Václav Klaus, CATO Club 200 Retreat, Laguna Beach, California, September 27, 2013.

[1] Klaus V., “Challenges of the Current Era”, CATO Institute, Washington D.C., March 9, 2007; http://www.klaus.cz/clanky/134.

[2] Klaus, V.,”Global Governance and its European Variant”, American Freedom Alliance Conference, Los Angeles, June 10, 2012 (http://www.klaus.cz/clanky/3116).

[3] Niskanen, W., Alternative Political and Economic Futures for Europe, in Today´s World and Václav Klaus, Fragment, Prague, 2011.

[4] V. Klaus, „Europe, the Shattering of Illusions, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2012. See also “The Illusions of European Integration”, Cato Letter spring 2013, on my website http://www.klaus.cz/clanky/3391.


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