As Liberty Fades, Contemplate The Wisdom Of The Olive Tree

It’s easy to despair watching the flame of liberty flicker and die. To accept the sad fact that our Founders’ vision of limited government could not be sustained despite the constitutional straitjacket they so carefully designed. To lament the failure of the greatest experiment ever undertaken to secure the fruits of individual liberty under rule of law directed by the consent of the governed. To cry as democracy is slowly crushed under burdens of its own making, drowning in a tidal wave of spiraling debt, unfunded liabilities, and currency debauchery washing from the Old World to the New. To watch as redistributive entitlements ostensibly intended to alleviate the burdens of inequality, misfortune, sloth, age, and illness slowly strangle the goose that laid the golden eggs. To understand that Western Civilization’s finest days have passed.

And then, you contemplate the olive tree. One hundred years, they say, is how long it takes the olive tree to bear good fruit. Unimaginably hearty, these long-lived providers of versatile and wholesome sustenance are readily transplantable. Take an old and gnarly trunk shorn of its limbs and branches, bundle it off to someplace new, give it water and peace, and it blossoms again.

But only if the soil and climate suit. Olive trees won’t grow in some places.

Freedom is like an olive tree. It, too, takes many years to bear good fruit. But once it does it can provide versatile and wholesome sustenance for generations. Born with an implacable will, freedom transplants itself nestled in the bosom of every seeker of new soil and climate that suits. Such seekers may wander for years, but once freedom finds a place to root, it grows to welcome all. Take an old and gnarly people, bundle them off to someplace free, give them rule of law and peace, and they blossom again.

But like the olive tree, freedom won’t grow in some places.

As we despoil or own patrimony, where might the new fertile soil for freedom be found?

Probably not in the land that birthed the olive tree. Despite the Arab Spring and its toppling of despots, the soil there has long been denuded of the nutrients needed to nourish freedom. The choking weeds of religious zealotry and intolerance now threaten to grow into a new despotism barely distinguishable from the old. Unless and until a Reformation transforms the Islamic world the way it did the West, freedom in the Middle East will face a long struggle against the rule of sheiks and mullahs, ancient hatreds between Shia and Sunni, the oppression of women, and the suppression of all political and religious dissent as “heresy.” Don’t look for freedom there.

Probably not in Africa, a perpetual basket case of corruption and conflict. Rich in natural resources, Africa ought to hold promise. But with chronically underdeveloped human capital, dependent on alms supplied by guilt-ridden former colonial masters, and with large swathes ruled by tyrants of unimaginable brutality, that promise seems to always lie somewhere in the distant future.

Maybe in pockets of South or Central America. The native soil is weak, stained with the legacies of conquistadors and caudillos, but there is talk of charter cities carved out of the rainforest, neo-Hong Kongs contractually shielded by a sovereign protector yet left free to develop outside the strangling grasp of national laws. Will we see these interesting projects launched by economic refugees as failing democracies release a diaspora of talent and flight capital? Most likely. Yet projects they are likely to remain, operating at a scale nowhere near large enough to satisfy the global demand for freedom from those who have not traded away their liberty for a slice of someone else’s pie.

My bet is China. Not a pretty picture today, a mixed bag of one-party rule and Wild West capitalism, ham-fisted central planning and free-for-all black markets. A hard working and hungry people with a deep history of entrepreneurialism, the Chinese exploded out of poverty once released from the shackles of Communism, creating millionaires and a middle class at an unprecedented pace. But will the new haves demand more freedom before the long suffering have-nots start to demand a free lunch? Can the ruling Mandarins give way to a constrained yet open pluralism that does not degenerate into the same unlimited majoritarianism that is slowly crushing us?

That will be the key question determining whether freedom will take root. As liberty’s lights progressively dim in what was once hailed as the land of the free, we can only hope that, like the olive tree, it will one day blossom again.

Bill Frezza is a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and a Boston-based venture capitalist. You can find all of his columns, TV, and radio interviews here. If you would like to have his columns delivered to you by email, click here or follow him on Twitter @BillFrezza.