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Transatlantic Blog

Can you spare 12 minutes to learn the pillars of a free society?

Communicating the underlying pillars of a free and virtuous society is sometimes like describing the Kingdom of God: We can envision it, but detailing its operations to non-believers can be difficult. (This is largely for the same reason – both are so rarely encountered on earth.) Thankfully, the London-based Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) has finished releasing a series of brief videos that describe the six pillars of a free society.  

Dr. Steve Davies, Head of Education at IEA, details the underlying prerequisites of a spontaneously ordered society in a pithy manner – the longest video in this series is just two-and-a-half minutes long – explaining how such elements as limited government, the rule of law, and free markets lead to greater prosperity, creativity, and (perhaps a surprise to many) equality. However, he rightly warns in the last video, posted this week, against imperialist attempts to jump-start the process in societies that do not possess the culture necessary to sustain liberty:

[T]he world is slowly…moving in the direction of greater freedom … Some people would like to speed this up and argue that you should impose the principles of a free society in parts of the world that do not have them through a kind of top-down reform process. This has never worked, and it’s easy to see why: It contradicts the very principle of a free society, which is that it a bottom-up and spontaneous order.

The six videos are drawn from the insights of IEA’s 183-page book Foundations of a Free Society, written by Eamonn Butler, the director of the Adam Smith Institute. As in every other field, the book is better than the movie, since video necessarily shortens and bowdlerizes the source material. Dr. Butler’s book features enlightening asides on topics as diverse as “equality of outcome,” “negative discrimination,” and “the problem of altruism.” Perhaps the most important part is on “moral equality”:

In a free society, people are thought equally worthy of consideration and respect. They all have the same right to make choices about their own lives, provided that they do not cause harm to others in the process.

This view is based on a deep belief about their very nature as human beings, the nature which we all share. We all want to make our own choices, regardless of our ethnicity, religion or gender; and we all want others to respect our right to do so. The rule in a free society is ‘do as you would be done by’.

This is not to say that people are equally moral in their actions. Those who attack or rob others do not act morally. Some may deliberately flout social or sexual conventions. But their lives remain of value. Their lawbreaking or immorality opens them up to punishment or rebuke that is proportionate to their offence. But it does not open them up to arbitrary or excessive cruelty and humiliation.

The full book is available as a free PDF download here. The videos may be seen below, or on YouTube at this link.


Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. 

Rev. Johnson was a panelist at the 2016 CPAC. His writings have appeared in The (UK) GuardianHuman EventsThe Stream, Real Clear Policy, Aleteia.org, Conservative ReviewThe Daily Caller, and have been cited by National Review, CBS News, and Fox News. 

He was managing