Palmer Gives Lessons on Liberty, Liberalism

Article excerpt

The head of the Cato Institute's Cato University now is on a mission to enlighten the uninformed about the American traditions of liberty, limited government and the rule of law.

Thomas Palmer heads the Cato Institute's Cato University, a project started three years ago, in Palmer's words, "to deepen the understanding of adults of the American tradition of liberty, limited government and the rule of law." Nearly 2,000 people have gone through the program, which includes audiotapes, books and a study guide. The course encompasses 12 modules, two of which are dedicated solely to study of the U.S. Constitution.

In 1998 Cato University launched a series of seminars that condense a college course into a long weekend or a whole week and in which instructors are academics who share Cato's "attitude toward the importance of liberty," Palmer says. More than 200 people attended one of these seminars in San Diego: 50 were high-school and college students and the other 150 were professionals and businesspeople. Ages ranged from 15 to 85.

Palmer, a student of politics and philosophy, has lectured on American and Anglo-Saxon notions of liberty and limited government in Germany, Hungary, Albania, China, Poland and many other countries. Between 1989 and 1993, he was director o fEast European Outreach Programs of the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. This summer he will be lecturing in Greece.

Insight: What do students in your programs learn about liberty?

Thomas G. Palmer: One of the things we stress is that liberty is not something invented in the 18th, 19th or 20th centuries, but that the principles we stand for, these libertarian ideals, have very, very deep roots in civilization. In my lectures I start with the ancient Hebrews and the ancient Greeks. We look at the way in which the institutions we take for granted -- the idea of the rule of the law, for example, and the constitutional establishment of separate powers -- weren't just inventions of the American Founders. The Founders worked in a very long tradition.

We also show how running parallel with the history of liberty is a history of violence, power and coercion. The two traditions constantly are struggling with one another -- the party of liberty and the party of power. We think the party of liberty represents what is good in our civilization. As Jefferson saw it, it's the natural thing for government constantly to expand and the party of power to gain the upper hand unless the party of liberty is vigilant.

Insight: How do Europeans take to American notions of liberty and limited government? Liberal means something different in the United States now than it used to mean.

TGP: I use the term liberal with Europeans. They all understand what that means. I point out that it's the United States and the Anglo-Saxon countries that are the ones with the confused political terminology. In Russia and China, in Germany, in Italy and Hungary people have an idea of what the word means: It still means limited government, private property, market economy, the rule of law, a tolerant political culture and so on.

In this country, when people think liberal they think of Teddy Kennedy, whom I don't associate with any of those values, or Hillary Clinton.

You do find that there are prejudices that have been inculcated through the European educational system, similar to prejudices inculcated here, that are sometimes difficult to break through. One of them is that the state fundamentally is an instrument for good.

But I think it can be gotten through: For one thing, just look at European history in the 20th century! It's quite clear that the state can be an instrument of tremendous, organized evil.

To this day, the German academic system teaches pretty much that one of the highest moments in human history was the achievement of the unified German state, the so-called Second Empire, that Bismarck ushered in [in 1870]. …