Free society and free education

A speech given during XVIII. Gottfried von Haberler Conference on May 17, 2024


This lecture is based on the contrast between the classical liberal idea on the one hand and the idea of Platonism or scientism on the other. The classical liberal idea is to recognize every human being as a person with fundamental rights of defence against encroachments upon the way a person fathoms her life. Accordingly, a free society consists of diverse forms of voluntary cooperation with a legal order (rule of law) that guarantees equal rights for all. The idea of Platonism, by contrast, is the one of an elite that has privileged knowledge of the common good and that is therefore entitled to determine the course of people’s lives. In modern times, science takes on this role. Platonism then becomes political scientism: social engineering to steer society on the basis of alleged science in order to create better human beings.

Schools and universities, insofar as they are at least regulated by the state, if not state-funded, are the channels used by scientism. It is therefore misguided to apply the idea of the state setting the framework within which a free society can blossom also to state regulation or even financing of education and science. A free society requires that education and science are free from state influence. The separation of state and religion did not harm morality, but only put an end to the abuse of religion to legitimize state encroachments. By the same token, the separation of the state from education and science will do no harm to them. It will only deprive scientism of its vehicle and prevent the institutions of education and science from being used as weapons against people’s fundamental rights and their voluntary cooperation.

The liberal revolution

The idea of classical liberalism is to recognize every human being as a person. Being a person means to think and to act. This in turn means not merely reacting to given stimuli such as sensory impressions, desires, needs, etc., but being able to position oneself in relation to them. Thus, Immanuel Kant writes: If an appearance is given to us, we are still completely free as to how we want to judge things from it. (Prolegomena to any future metaphysics 1783, § 13, note III; quoted from Kant 2002, p. 85) For example, the appearance of a stick broken on the surface of the water does not impose on us the judgment that the stick is broken. Thinking and acting consists of forming judgments and intentions to act on the basis of what is given such as sensory impressions, desires and needs and thus also being responsible for them. Only in the case of persons does it make sense to ask for reasons. If a cat plays with a mouse before it catches and eats the mouse, one cannot condemn it. The cat behaves according to its instinct. It cannot be held accountable for its behaviour. In the case of a human being, by contrast, it makes sense to ask for reasons. Freedom, reason and normativity go hand in hand.

This distinction draws a line between scientific explanations and justifications. Being a person is not an empirical fact revealed by natural science, like having a brain, a heart and an upright gait. It is a normative status or the claim to a normative status, namely the claim to recognition as a thinking and acting being. This means that a person is entitled by the very nature of personhood to fundamental rights of defence against unwanted interference by other persons in her thinking and acting. To paraphrase again Kant: people as persons have the normative status of being ends in 2 Free society and free education themselves. They must therefore never be used as mere means to an end, even if this end is a collective good (see, for instance, Groundwork of the metaphysics of morals 1785, section II, in Kant 1911, p. 429 / English translation Kant 1996, p. 80). Using coercion against a person – the application of physical force or the threat of it – is therefore only justified as a reaction if a person violates the natural rights of other persons through their actions, but never in order to enforce a collective good against the will of a person. Natural rights are a normative conclusion from a normative premise, namely the normative status of a person (see Esfeld & López 2024, chapters 2.3 and 3.2).

In our culture, the idea of recognizing every human being as a person goes back to the Christian doctrine of the creation of human beings in the image of God. In the Age of
Enlightenment in the 18 th century, this idea was secularized: its justification is separated from the Christian religion, namely formulated in terms of what is known as a transcendental argument in philosophy (see Esfeld 2020, chapter 3 for details). This idea was then put into practice: in contrast to almost all the other cultures history, Western civilization abolished slavery (see Flaig 2009), banned all forms of racism and tribalism from public life and created a society in which equal rights apply in fact to all, regardless of social status, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, etc.

This liberal revolution takes place in the context of modern science and technology. In contrast to ancient science as disinterested contemplation of being (theoria) and the associated intellectual disdain for economic activities, modern natural science is guided by the interest in using science to improve human living conditions, as expressed, for example, in Descartes’ famous slogan of making us masters and owners of nature (“nous rendre comme maîtres et possesseurs de la nature”, Descartes 1902, p. 62).
To this end, science must be objective: it must refrain as far as possible from the respective subjective perspectives and strive to adopt a point of view from nowhere.

According to Descartes, nature, insofar as it is examined scientifically, is therefore only characterized by extension and movement. The aim is to grasp the laws of motion of
matter. Since it is impossible to completely abandon one’s subjective perspective, the method to achieve this goal is disciplined scepticism, namely to subject every claim to knowledge to rigorous scrutiny and to recognize something as knowledge only insofar and as long as it withstands this scrutiny. Robert Merton (1942) therefore aptly describes natural science as organized scepticism. Finally, the third characteristic that follows from this is that natural science reaches a fundamental, logical limit in human thought and action: by abstracting from everything subjective, modern natural science can in principle not grasp human beings insofar as they think and act and are thus persons. Descartes is therefore completely right in this respect, too, namely in his distinction of humans as a thinking beings from nature as described by natural science. Anyone who claims to derive instructions for human action from the natural sciences thereby shows that they have understood nothing at all of science. The slogan “follow the science” is nothing more and nothing less than an abuse of science as a weapon against the people, their natural rights and the legal order based on these rights. With the success of natural science in discovering the laws of motion of matter, the invention of the steam engine at the end of the 18 th century marked the beginning of an enormous technological progress. From the 19 th century onwards, the use of capital led to great economic progress, which immensely improved the living conditions of all segments of the population. Instead of merely redistributing a more or less fixed economic income pie so that some people live at the expense of others, this enormous progress in productivity made it possible to improve the lives of all sections of the population. This is the economic basis realizing a society that in fact recognizes all people as persons and grants them equal rights. In this respect, modern natural science and the modern legal order are directly linked to the implementation of the recognition of all people as persons in the form of equal rights for all.

However, Enlightenment can also turn into its opposite: the implementation of the idea of recognizing every human being as a person emanated from Western civilization, and within this civilization predominantly from white men. Since the 1960s, the intellectual current of postmodernism has used this historically contingent fact to put forward the accusation that the objectivity of science and a legal order that enforces equal rights for all are in fact a claim to domination by white men. However, if the claim to universality of reason as that which unites all human beings in their personhood and establishes equal rights for all is rejected and, as a result, all knowledge and all values are declared to be relative to that which distinguishes people from one another – such as ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc. –, then the Enlightenment turns into its opposite. This is so because the corresponding claims to knowledge are then implemented as claims to power by one group over other groups, and some people are deprived of rights simply because they belong to a certain group. Modern science with its claim to objectivity and the modern legal order with its enforcement of equal rights for all depend on the universality of reason in the form of the unconditional and therefore absolute recognition of every human being as a person. Nihilism, however, never endures. Platonism usually jumps into the breach of nihilism, the relativization of all values. The idea of Platonism is the opposite of classical liberalism, including the Christian view of humanity. The idea is that there is a group of people who have privileged knowledge – in Plato’s main work The State it is the philosophers with knowledge of the idea of the absolute good – and who are authorized to rule over the people in virtue of this privileged knowledge and to regulate their way of life down to the private sphere. Coercion is used against people without them having done anything wrong, thus disregarding their personhood in order to realize an alleged common good that an elite claims to know. Karl Popper therefore rightly identifies Platonism as the root of totalitarianism (1945, part 1).

Modern Platonism is political scientism. It puts science in the place of philosophical knowledge of the idea of the good, namely modern natural science. Science is supposed to steer human society with a kind of social engineering in order to improve the existing human beings. The best-known forms are communism and national socialism. Both claim scientific knowledge of a final goal of world history in the guise of the classless or the pure-blooded society, based on the laws of the development of matter or biological evolution (see Popper 1945, part 2). Both have in common the re-education of existing people through alleged science with the aim of creating better people.
National socialism never penetrated into broad intellectual and scientific circles. But eugenics was widespread: the doctrine of superior and inferior genes together with the catastrophic prognosis that, due to the high reproduction of people with inferior genes, the generation living a hundred years ago was the last generation of civilized humanity and therefore state-ordered sterilizations were scientifically legitimized. National socialism took eugenics to the extreme with the systematic physical extermination of members of allegedly inferior races. This shows that once scientists call for human rights violations with the intention of controlling society through supposedly scientific findings, there is no halt to scientifically legitimized crimes.

Today’s postmodern form of scientism consists of several small narratives, also based on alleged science, instead of the grand narratives about an ultimate goal of world history. Each of these narratives in turn claims to use science to create better human beings, such as human beings free from harmful viruses or climate-neutral human beings. The result is a society in which an elite claims a knowledge from which it derives the right to unlimited and therefore totalitarian rule, on a global scale. With regard to the goal of a virus-free or climate-neutral society, everything is permitted up to the disposal of people’s bodies with coercive measures on how they are allowed to move, how they are allowed to heat and what they are allowed to eat and what medical treatments they must undergo, as with the Covid vaccination mandates. The danger associated with the state’s monopoly as a regulator and, to a large extent, financier of education and science is therefore obvious: science can be used as an instrument of power. Whatever is declared to be science under state approval can be used to justify any violation of the basic rights of persons.

The Hobbes Dilemma and the West-Berlin Dilemma

How can such a perversion of modern science, combined with the perversion of the legal order, come about? The implementation of the classical liberal idea is confronted with two dilemmas: the Hobbes dilemma internally and the West-Berlin dilemma externally. The Hobbes dilemma arises from the fact that in a modern, open society, social
interactions are not tied to kinship or clan structures that create trust and security. There are always some people who seek to violate the natural rights of others. The argument is this one: there is therefore no basis of trust on which peaceful social, including economic, relations can flourish and with them a free society. This is why a state authority with a monopoly on legislation, law enforcement and jurisdiction is necessary as a coercive power that sets the framework within which a free society can develop. However, once a state authority has been created with the power of the aforementioned monopoly, it is in principle unlimited and therefore absolute on the respective state territory: everything that the organs of the state authority establish as law is law. Citizens who regard the state authority as encroaching upon their lives could only set their own judgment against that of the state authority, which brings us back to the starting point of the argument. Hobbes’s Leviathan is not a monster, but the logical consequence of this argument (see Esfeld 1995, chapter 6).

The one horn of the dilemma therefore is that a free society without state power is poised to fall into at least a latent civil war. The other horn is that the state power only
exists through the aforementioned monopoly, but by enjoying this monopoly it is diametrically opposed to the natural rights of the people and the tenets of a free society: it is in principle unlimited and in principle operates with coercion against everybody, regardless of whether or not a person has violated the natural rights of other persons through some of her actions. In short, the paradox is that of an unfree framework that is supposed to set the conditions for a free society. The West-Berlin dilemma is the situation of an internally free society surrounded by hostile powers. The threat posed by these hostile powers cannot be avoided by not interfering in their affairs: the mere existence of a free society in their proximity destabilizes their system of rule – for example, by people under East-Berlin rule trying to flee to West-Berlin. In short, their system
of rule is not only dependent on a monopoly internally, but also on a monopoly externally, namely on the absence of alternative options. The dilemma for a free society is therefore that, on the one hand, a military and secret service apparatus is required as defence against this external threat; on the other hand, the structure of this apparatus, including compulsory military service and secret agencies that are not bound to respect fundamental rights and, if necessary, the use of discretionary emergency law and a state of emergency, is diametrically opposed to the principles of a free society and the legal order on which a free society is based.
The problem is this: once such a state apparatus exists, then sooner or later the second horn of the dilemmas is always realized. The state apparatus tends to expand the power associated with the monopoly of coercive force through an ever-increasing regulation of social life down to the private sphere (see already Lippmann 1927 for this diagnosis).

Both dilemmas relate directly to education and science: in order to prevent people from being manipulated from within or without by teachings that endanger a free society, the argument is that the state authorities must regulate education and science, if not largely finance and operate them themselves as a monopolist via compulsory levies (taxes), enforce compulsory attendance at schools that are regulated and operated accordingly, and so on. This creates a concentration of power that invites manipulation: given that the state apparatus tends to expand its rule, education and science become the ideal vehicle for educating people to become compliant subjects. For its part, the education and science system equipped by the state virtually invites those minds who are obsessed with the idea of creating better people through education and science to make use of it.

For any group that seeks to impose a particular doctrine, it is expedient not to take the laborious route of persuading people to follow the doctrine voluntarily, but to employ the state apparatus, using its monopoly as the regulator, if not the operator of the institutions of education and science, in order to impose their doctrine on the people under the guise of the common good. In concrete terms, when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the external threat to the actual West- Berlin ceased to exist, the state apparatus of power built up to protect the free society was not scaled back. Instead, it sought a new narrative to ensure its continued existence and expand its prerogative. In the absence of an external threat, this was the hour of the Platonists among the intellectuals and scientists in the educational, scientific and media apparatus. They provide the narratives of tasks for the state apparatus to protect free society from new threats. Emergency law and a state of emergency no longer have to refer to military wars, but can also be used in staged, metaphorical wars, such as the war against a virus or the war against climate change. This is my explanation of what we experience: 1989 was not the end of history with a definitive victory for liberal democracy and a free society (according to the thesis of Fukuyama 1989, 1992). It was the beginning of a repetition of the history of the Platonic society with its totalitarian features, in which an elite, supported by its claims to knowledge, controls society with the help of the state power apparatus and in particular the education, science and media system (see Esfeld & Lopez 2024, chapter 3.6). The greatest crimes were and are always committed by state organs. Since state crimes are no longer legitimized by religion, they are legitimized by alleged science.

Free education and science Sooner or later, the second horn of the mentioned dilemmas always prevails, even if there are extended periods in which a free society functions reasonably well within a non-free framework, such as in the West in the decades between the end of the Second World War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The question therefore is whether the path that leads into the first horn of the dilemmas can be avoided: Can a free society exist and prosper without an unfree framework? At least as regards education and science, this question can be answered in the affirmative. The reasoning that leads to the mentioned dilemmas is wrong. Science is intrinsically anarchic. Only data and argument count. There is no rule that would be necessary to establish anything as scientific knowledge and to enforce it under the threat and, if necessary, the use of coercion. It is not a problem that competing hypotheses often exist side by side in science. On the contrary, this is an engine of scientific progress. It would be contrary to the use of reason, on which science is based, to resolve conflicts in claims to scientific knowledge through the use of coercion, insofar as these conflicts do not dissolve themselves through data and argument that are recognized by all participants of their own accord.

This assessment also applies to the distinction between science and non-science: this borderline cannot be determined by an authority. The idea that there could or should be a non-free framework that determines what free science is amounts to absurdity. What is science and what is not science can only be determined in practice. Science is not characterized by certain doctrines, but by the method of rigorous scrutiny of all knowledge claims. Again, the danger does not come from anarchy, but from scientism,
which makes use of the state apparatus: in the Corona period, what was presented as science by the state apparatus and the organs dependent on it violated all standards of scientific methodology (see Kotchoubey 2023). As far as the funding of science is concerned, however, it is unlikely that research that goes beyond purely theoretical work can be funded solely by voluntary social communities, tuition fees and donations. There are obvious economic interests in research and the use of research results to develop new technologies. The involvement of companies in research and its financing is not a problem if there is no state authority whose representatives the entrepreneurs can influence to exempt themselves from liability. If there is no such state authority, then the entrepreneurs must convince the customers of their products and they can be held liable for any harm caused by their products. Research that is not oriented towards the interests of the people and that does not
observe the method of rigorous scrutiny of knowledge claims then has short legs. In order to build airplanes, one needs knowledge of gravity as it objectively exists in nature; otherwise the planes would crash. No one would board an airplane built on the basis of a science of gravity that is guided by “diversity and inclusion” instead of searching for the facts about gravity independently of the ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation – or the vaccination status – of the researches involved (see already Mises 1949, p. 77).

In short, if everyone is held liable for their actions, no one can afford to market products based on unverified knowledge claims. Nothing more is needed than a legal order that enforces liability. Again, the greatest danger comes from scientism, which uses state funding of research for its own purposes. Again, the Corona regime is the best illustration here with the vaccines: exclusion of liability for damage, so that profits flow without economic risk; moreover, guaranteed purchase of the products through state vaccination programmes without having to provide evidence of their effectiveness and safety according to scientific standards. The corona vaccination programmes (or
even mandates) for the general population were not based on research according to scientific standards, but on central government planning driven by scientists obsessed with the idea of creating better people through social engineering. As far as education in general is concerned, the fundamental insight is this: no education in
personhood is necessary or possible. Respect for the natural rights of persons is enshrined in every moral system. A legal order is required that punishes violations of natural rights and enforces liability for all for their actions. Schools, like education in general, should be in the hands of parents’ associations. There is no justification for the state apparatus to intervene here, to regulate schools, to finance them by means of compulsory levies or to run them itself. Whether someone is a suitable educator, scientist, doctor or pastor is not determined by a state diploma, but by whether he or she is recognized as such by the people who demand the corresponding services. In other
words, it shows itself in the confrontation with reality.

The more pluralism there is – that is, the less regulation there is –, the less one can avoid the confrontation with reality. Voluntariness in the choice and financing of educational institutions means that these institutions have to prove themselves in reality through their performance. State regulation and monopoly funding prevents this because it opens the door for scientists who do not seek to educate people through instruction and science, but rather to re-educate them, replacing natural rights and voluntary cooperation with a collective good enforced by coercion and legitimized through alleged science. It has been shown time and again that the higher the level of education acquired in the state system, the greater the adhesion to such ideologies tends to be. This was the case a hundred years ago with eugenics and its catastrophic scenario of the downfall of civilized humanity through the reproduction of supposedly inferior genes. The same can be seen today with the coronavirus and climate change catastrophe scenarios. Uneducated people usually do not fall prey to such narratives. The more educated people are, the more they tend to be lured into such narratives,
insofar as education spreads ideologies that replace natural morality with respect for the natural rights of other people with chimeras of a common good that educated people, standing on the right side of history, are supposed to realize, overriding if necessary basic human rights.

A free society does not need a public space that is controlled by state-financed media, educational institutions and science as well as a state-organized economy. The public sphere shapes itself already when everyone can contribute their talents to an economy based on the division of labour. Different educational institutions are then also in competition with each other in the public sphere, which promotes their quality: no one voluntarily pays for poor quality educational institutions. The same applies to ideologized rather than quality-oriented science. In short, exchange arises automatically through pluralism, provided there is a legal order that consistently enforces equal rights for all. Only has to take away the vehicle that the scientists engaged in scientism use, namely the state regulation and funding of education and science. Everything else will take care of itself.

The separation of state and religion did not do harm to morality; it only ended the use of religion to legitimize state encroachment both within a state’s territory and in declaring war upon other states under religious pretexts. Exactly the same is to be expected from the separation of education and science from the state (see also Feyerabend 1975, chapter 19): no harm to education and science, but only the end of being able to use the institutions of education and science as weapons against the basic rights of people and their voluntary cooperation.


Michael Esfeld, PhD, full professor of philosophy
University of Lausanne, Switzerland


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