Liggio Lecture Series


In April 2013, at a special dinner in Leonard’s honor at the annual meeting of The Philadelphia Society, Atlas Network’s Alex Chafuen announced the creation of the Liggio Lecture Series, sponsored by the Earhart Foundation, Liberty Fund, and individual “Friends of Leonard.”

This annual program will spotlight some of the most promising younger scholars in the freedom movement in front of the worldwide audience that assembles for the Atlas Network Liberty Forum & Freedom Dinner.

Professor James Otteson, author of Actual Ethics, delivered the inaugural Liggio Lecture during the Atlas Network Liberty Forum in New York City, November 13-14, 2013.


Inaugural Liggio Lecture
November 14, 2013

Ladies and gentlemen, it is a pleasure, and a humbling honor, to address you today. Leonard Liggio is one of the giants in the history of liberty, and a mentor and inspiration to me personally. When I was asked to give this inaugural Liggio Lecture, I confess I assumed there was some mistake. They must have meant to ask me for some ideas about who should give it. When it became clear that the invitation was meant for me, I was honored, but that quickly turned to despair. What on earth could I possibly say that would befit such a high, solemn occasion celebrating a figure like Leonard Liggio?

Racking my brain, I recalled a conversation I had with Leonard, about 15 years ago. I was at the time a newly minted PhD in philosophy, and, of course, full of myself. I no longer recall where we were—a Liberty Fund conference? IHS? Atlas? Earhart? (Leonard, of course, was, and is, everywhere)—but I do remember one part of our exchange. There were others present, and I had intended to make a remark that I hoped would impress everyone with my brilliance. So I sallied forth with the claim that the English Levellers of the 1600s (already I was impressing people, since I had even heard of these guys), who were sometimes identified as early progenitors of British classical liberalism, were in fact “basically socialists,” which meant that perhaps socialism should be considered part of the British classical liberal tradition too! See how brilliant that was?

Leonard’s response was simple and, as I came later to understand, typically Leonard: “No, you have that wrong.” Apparently I was so wrong that no elaboration was required.

Properly chastened and chagrined, I resolved to investigate. Who were these Levellers then? What did they agitate for? My investigation eventually led to my publishing in 2003 a five-volume edited collection of Leveller writings, many of which had been out of print and hardly accessible for centuries. That publication would not have happened were it not for Leonard’s brief but potent remark. Thank you for that, Leonard.

So, who were the Levellers? Let me tell you about the greatest of them, John Lilburne. (Leonard, you will of course let us know if I get anything wrong.)

John Lilburne, or Free-Born John, as he was called, was born in Greenwich, England in 1614 or 1615 to a family of low-level gentry, and he was an agitator and troublemaker almost from the beginning. In 1630 he began an apprenticeship to a Puritan cloth merchant in London, and shortly thereafter he joined the radical opposition to Charles I. In 1637, at the tender age of twenty-two, he smuggled from Holland outlawed copies John Bastwick’s account of the punishments he had suffered for denouncing Catholicism. When one of Lilburne’s accomplices betrayed him to the Archbishop’s agents, Lilburne was arrested and tried before the ghastly Star Chamber, a body Lilburne detested and whose existence he protested. When Lilburne was brought to the bar before its judges, however, he refused to bow. He also refused to take the customary oath pledging to answer all interrogatories. Lilburne explained that as a free-born Englishman, he was, as he put it, the “peere and equall” of both the bishops and the Star Chamber’s judges; there was therefore no reason for him to show the deference they demanded. For this shocking snub to the authority of the Chamber, he was fined, publicly whipped and pilloried, and finally imprisoned, receiving over time increasingly harsh punishment because he refused to stop denouncing the presumed authority of the bishops. Lilburne remained in prison until he was finally liberated by the Long Parliament in 1640 after a speech on his behalf by Cromwell (a man who himself would one day imprison Lilburne).

Thereafter Lilburne became the most famous—or infamous—leader of the Levellers, a group of political agitators seeking extension of the franchise and other democratic rights. They were called “Levellers” not because they sought to level all property holdings—that was the position of a contemporaneous group called the Diggers (if I had had my history right, that’s the group I would have mentioned in that fateful conversation with Leonard). The Levellers were called “Levellers” instead because they sought to equalize the privileges and rights of citizens: no one was by nature or by God entitled to less authority over his own life than anyone else, and no one was justified in asserting authority over anyone else without the latter’s willing consent.

Lilburne was tireless and fearless. Even as he was put in the stocks, he issued one pamphlet and speech after another denouncing the presumed authority of the bishops, of the Star Chamber, of Parliament, and then even of Cromwell. He was again arrested, and he spent most of August 1645 to August 1647 in prison. But Lilburne was unbowed.

On May 1st, 1649, while imprisoned yet again, he published a pamphlet arguing that people had a right to their private consciences by birth, not by pleasure of government; furthermore, that the authority of each individual’s conscience for himself was equal to that of everyone else; that therefore a person’s religious beliefs were only his own business; and that therefore no one was entitled to any answers about others’ beliefs.

Lilburne’s message and example resonated. On May 2nd, 1649 some of the troops under Cromwell refused to follow Cromwell’s orders to march on the Levellers. This defiance inspired mutiny of further troops, until by May 14th some twelve hundred men stopped taking orders from Cromwell, demanding instead the release of Lilburne. This was the last straw for Cromwell. Just after midnight on May 14th, Cromwell and a contingent of men still loyal to him surprised and crushed what remained of the army sympathetic to the Levellers, effectively putting an end to the Levellers as an organized political movement.

Lilburne was then arrested and tried for treason. He defended himself and argued to the jury, in defiance of the explicit instructions of the judge, that as the judge’s peers and equals the members of the jury were empowered to judge not only the facts but also the law itself. To Cromwell’s consternation, he was acquitted—and promptly returned to denouncing Cromwell’s increasing imperiousness. Cromwell was so infuriated that in 1653 he re-arrested him and had him tried for treason again. Again Lilburne defended himself, and again he was acquitted. This second acquittal even led to a large popular demonstration in support of Lilburne, symbolized by thousands of sympathizers wearing the Levellers’ characteristic sea-green ribbons on hats and clothing. This sufficiently worried Cromwell that he decided to keep Lilburne in prison despite the acquittals. Lilburne remained in prison until 1655, when he converted to the Quaker faith and apparently, finally, foreswore his aggressive, confrontational ways. In 1657, with his health failing, he was granted parole to visit his wife, Elizabeth. Exhausted from years of imprisonment and torture in his fight for liberty, he died in her arms at the age of 43.

Lilburne was no philosopher, but his agitations formed a surprisingly coherent philosophy of individualism, from which he derived several specific political policies. These included the rights to be free of arbitrary seizures, to a trial by jury, and to face one’s accusers in open court. He also called for the extension of the franchise to all the freeborn men of England; he advocated free trade and private property; and he called for an abolition of legal economic privileges like state-enforced monopolies. He denounced the Levant Company’s chartered monopoly of trade with the Middle East, arguing that the right to trade with whomever one wished was one of mankind’s natural rights. Thus Lilburne was one of the earliest advocates of what would come to be recognized as classical liberalism, defending private property some 50 years before John Locke and free markets almost 150 years before Adam Smith.

When Lilburne had been brought before the Star Chamber in 1637, he stood his ground, asserting his equal right as an individual to the freedoms anyone else enjoyed. In 1641, Lilburne saw the Star Chamber abolished. That, ladies and gentlemen, was a great moral leap forward, elevating the individual—even the low, the mean, the disrespected individuals—to the status of a moral agent equal in dignity to those in the favored classes.

This conception of morality and human personhood spread and eventually gave rise to many of the institutions we today in the West often take for granted. If no one, regardless of class, family, or wealth, had any justified authority over anyone else, then individuals no longer need to beg leave from their “superiors” to own property, to select lines of work, to trade or exchange or cooperate with others, to worship and associate and they judge fit. Each person’s success or failure in life was fundamentally his own responsibility, even if of course it necessarily involved relying on willing others. Individuality, diversity, and of course various inequalities—except formal or legal inequality—arose, and with it the unprecedented growth in human accomplishment, in material prosperity, in longevity and health and nutrition that we have seen occur in the world in the last two centuries.

Now, of course Lilburne wasn’t solely responsible for this, but he inspired many others and was emblematic of a changing conception of morality and thus politics. The lesson to draw from the example of Lilburne is that each individual is unique and precious, and that fact issues in a moral imperative of equal respect. The classical liberal government that promotes justice for all while at the same time respecting each person’s unique individual dignity as an equal moral agent is consistent with, even an embodiment of, this moral imperative.

I believe this conception of human moral agency is a shining example of the beauty—both the moral and the aesthetic beauty—of liberty. The inspiring example of Free-Born John drives the point home. And there are many other examples one might adduce.

The contrasting position, however, is dramatically illustrated by Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem, “The Panther,” which tells of a powerful and beautiful panther that, once free, now sees the world from behind bars, indeed behind “a thousand bars.” As Rilke tells us, the great cat’s beauty and power rapidly decline—not because she grows older, but because her spirit is caged and thus defeated. Sooner than one could expect the panther is, though alive, truly dead, because behind the bars she is no longer really a panther.

Now the panther’s well-intended zoo keepers will say that in the wild her life is full of dangers. Nature can be parsimonious and unforgiving, whereas the zoo keepers are benevolent and protective. So although behind the bars the panther is not free, she is at least safe and comfortable. They have a point. But the pampered and protected panther is still a caged panther—and so not really a panther at all.

Still, since the panther is not a full moral agent, perhaps you’re not inclined to value its freedom very highly, and so you’re inclined to think that a zoo-keeper morality is acceptable in this case. Fair enough. Human beings, however, are moral agents, and so the zoo-keeper morality is unacceptable for them. Living free is uncertain and sometimes dangerous, and it does involve both success and failure. But both one’s successes and one’s failures are one’s own. They belong to you and to me, and it is the true dignity of humanity to fully exercise all its abilities in striving and contending. As Calvin Coolidge, one of our greatest—if most unappreciated—presidents, said:

Unless […] people struggle to help themselves, no one else will or can help them. It is out of such struggle that there comes the strongest evidence of their true independence and nobility, and there is struck off a rough and incomplete economic justice, and there develops a strong and rugged […] character. It represents a spirit for which there could be no substitute. It justifies the claim that they are worthy to be free. (“The Price of Freedom,” 1923)

Human beings, I contend, are capable of becoming worthy to be free. Human beings become noble, and (I contend) beautiful, by the vigorous use of their faculties, and they become dignified when their lives are their own, when all the forced care and protection of others is taken away, and the bars are thrown open.

Returning now to Lilburne and liberty. We tend to think that at the heart of liberty lies the ability to do what one wants. Of course that’s limited by the similar freedom of others, but the idea is that liberty is about having the power to say “yes.” I suggest, however, that it is in fact the power of saying no that most powerfully exemplifies our moral agency. And it is when we, like Free-Born John, refuse to bow that we assume our place as free, equal, and beautiful moral agents.

Indeed, human liberty has historically developed not gradually but by great leaps—and in each of the great cases, it has been by some people, often at first just one person, saying “no.” No, I will not compromise what I believe. No, I will not acknowledge your authority over me. No, I will not accept your interpretation of my duty to God. No, you do not rule me. No, I am not your property. No, I am not less than human. No, your moral agency is not inherently superior to mine. No, I will not work for you. No, I will not pay your tributes. No, I will not marry you. No, I do not accept your judgment of how I live my life. No, I will not be quiet. No, I will not let you invade my privacy. No, I am not a second-class citizen.

On the opposite side of this is the shameful, and ugly, fact that most of human history has been characterized by our relentless attempts to control one another. My God are we meddling busybodies! Cast your mind’s eye back over human history: How much of it is marked by the ugliness one group of people trying to mind, control, repress, redirect, manage, reform, reeducate, restrain, command, rule, dominate, bully, browbeat, humiliate, superintend, engineer, organize, supervise, govern, or nudge others? Yet almost all of the great and shining moments of human history are when someone stands up and says: “No! You may have the power to coerce me, but I do not recognize your moral authority to do so.”

Today, our self-anointed superiors often justify their interposition in our lives on the grounds that they know what choices we should make to make our lives better. The latter-day Puritans and Inquisitors say: Don’t worry, we are here to help you. If we know that smoking and eating doughnuts and drinking 20-ounce sodas and driving motorcycles and starting taxi companies and serving the homeless your homemade food and braiding hair without a license and using an incandescent light bulb and not recycling (and on and endlessly on) are all bad, it would be wrong not to intervene—right? Wrong! On the contrary, it is precisely this paternalistic meddling that shows others a profound, and immoral, disrespect. For that says: “We do not believe you are competent to lead your life properly, so we shall undertake to do it for you.” That may be appropriate for children or for the mentally infirm, but it is an unacceptable imposition on the equal moral agency of adults. Ladies and gentlemen, I submit to you that having a person in government serving as a “Regulation Czar” is an affront to everything the long and proud and beautiful history of liberty stands for. It is to our shame that we tolerate it.

To our actual and would-be czars, then, I say: Not even God believed He should restrict mankind’s ability to choose only the Right: When He created man, God gave him free choice, which necessarily entailed the ability to choose the Wrong. Well, if it was good enough for God, it is good enough for you, Cass Sunstein. That doesn’t mean you can never help another, but it does mean that you must respect others’ agency when you undertake to do so. If they decide not to do what you want them to do, if they resist your impositions and your nudges, if they behave in the gloriously unpredictable way free people do, you must respect them. They have the right to say no to you. And, as we should all know by now, no means no.

Let me now come to my conclusion. What Leonard Liggio did for me those many years ago is something he has done for countless others over the years. He has not only argued for, but his life has actually exemplified, the principles I have described. In inspiring me to rethink my positions on my own, he respected my moral agency even as he reminded me that intellectual laziness serves no one—including me. Liberty is too important not to get the story right and for me not to figure out how I might personally contribute, in however small a way, to its unfolding moral arc.

What, then, would be the best way not only to thank Leonard but to honor him and his legacy? By doing the same yourself. I exhort you, then, each of you, to look at the opportunities available to you, and to seek out ways that you too might contribute, in your own unique but indispensable way, to the protection, preservation, and extension of the moral beauty of liberty. Perhaps this will entail exercising your own power of saying “no.” Perhaps like me you too will decide to prosecute your own campaign of what I call Guerilla Liberty™—entrepreneurially and opportunistically finding your own ways to deny, and even subvert, the assumed authority of those who presume to superintend you. (I won’t tell you more about my own Guerilla Liberty campaign, not only because the NSA is listening right now (though they are) but also because I believe in the power of decentralized spontaneous order and division of labor. So I cannot know how you should expend your efforts; maybe you yourself don’t know—yet. But I do know that your time on this earth is absolutely limited, and the threats to liberty are real—and advancing. So get started, right now, and put every remaining minute you have on this earth to good use. Like all beautiful things, liberty is fragile, and a free society is rare indeed; they require continuous maintenance by those who appreciate their blessings. When they are threatened, however—as they are now—they require all hands on deck. That means me; that means you.

Now, we may not be successful. And as many in this room can personally attest, fighting for liberty carries risks. But moral duty requires us to fight nonetheless. Ladies and gentlemen, there is a lot of ugliness in this world, and there is nothing uglier than coercion and paternalism. My call, then, is really to minimize ugliness and promote beauty: moral and aesthetic beauty.

There are a lot of beautiful people in this room, starting with Leonard Liggio. What we stand to gain, then, not only for ourselves but for all other equal moral agents, including the future souls on whom peaceful and prosperous civilization will depend, is the priceless gift that people like Leonard and John Lilburne and so many others have spent their lives nurturing and protecting: the exquisitely beautiful and precious treasure of freedom. Thank you.

Otteson is a joint professor of philosophy and economics, and chair of the Philosophy Department, at Yeshiva University, and adjunct Professor of Economics at New York University. He is a Senior Scholar at the Fund for American Studies in Washington, DC, a Research Professor in the Freedom Center and Department of Philosophy at the University of Arizona, and a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in California. He taught previously at Georgetown University and at the University of Alabama, and he maintains a personal blog at



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