The History of Liberty

Human history is a complicated tale. There are many ways to tell it. One is as a story of progress — from caves to huts to highrises. Another is regress — from harmony with nature to clanging, polluting machinery that destroys it.

Conflict is another common theme. Illiberals have spent the better part of the industrial era spinning tales of class struggle and racial or national conflict.

Competition is a less severe theme that many liberals like to stress. When church and state compete for power, the people are either left alone, or they can flee whichever is more oppressive. States that are numerous, small, and close have to have friendly, liberal policies, or else risk becoming little more than empty spaces.

Equality is still another. Many people think that rich and poor are less equal than before; look at income data. Others think that people are more equal than before. Slavery, monarchy, and titled nobility are largely things of the past. Status has (mostly) been replaced by contract.

History is much too complex for such simple conceits to explain everything. But all of them have at least some value for understanding where we came from, where we are now, and where we might be headed in the future.

There is one more aspect of history that has fascinated scholars from Thucydides to Lord Acton. That aspect is freedom. Like the others, it neither pretends to nor does explain everything.

But it does have one advantage. It ties together all the above narrative possibilities and more. Progress, regress, collective, individual, conflict, cooperation, more equality, less equality — they’re all there. And they all matter.

In my opinion, no living scholar synthesizes those disparate parts into a coherent whole better than Tom Palmer. The video below is a shortened version of a lecture that I have had the privilege of seeing a number of times over the years, with the added bonus of top-notch production values. This amateur history buff continues to learn from it to this day.

It’s 26 minutes long, which is about as long as an average sitcom. It is also far more rewarding, and at least as entertaining. If you have some spare time, it is well worth foregoing an episode of I Love Lucy to watch it. Click here or watch it below. And do keep an eye out for part two.