Eamonn Butler, Director of the Adam Smith Institute: Freedom and democracy are important: so important that nobody dares be against them

  • Written by  Vida Kocjan
Eamonn Butler (photo: Ian Bozic) Eamonn Butler (photo: Ian Bozic)

We talked with British economist Eamon Butler, the director and co-founder of the Adam Smith Institute in the United Kingdom. He graduated from the University of St. Andrews. In 2012, he received an honorary doctorate at Heriot-Watt University. He is the author of several books and expert articles in the field of economics.


Eamonn Butler is Director of the Adam Smith Institute, rated one of the world’s leading policy think-tanks. He has degrees in economics, philosophy and psychology, gaining a PhD from the University of St Andrews in 1978. During the 1970s he worked on pensions and welfare issues for the US House of Representatives, and taught philosophy in Hillsdale College, Michigan, before returning to the UK to help found the Adam Smith Institute. Eamonn is author of books on the pioneering economists Milton Friedman, F. A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Adam Smith, and co-author of Forty Centuries of Wage and Price Controls and books on intelligence testing. 

In your book entitled Foundations of a Free Society,you have written that people barely know what real freedom is  anymore. You claim that the book is meant for everyone who never knew freedom at all. When do you reckon this rift across the different societies, which is causing people to start giving up on freedom, started?

Long ago. Free societies are the exception in human history. Kings, strong men and dictators have usually run things. There were rare liberal democracies in ancient Athens and a few other Greek cities. Anglo-Saxon England was quite a liberal society: that came to an end with the Norman French invasion of 1066, but English liberalism was revived by Magna Carta in 1215 and by the Bill of Rights in 1689. Those same values informed the American Revolution.

Adam Smith's Wealth Of Nations was the blueprint for economic liberalism, which led to the great nineteenth century free-trade era. But large parts of the world were untouched by liberal values, and even in England, people came to think that economies and societies should be managed—just like scientists managed the natural world.

Nevertheless, many people speak of freedom. How would you explain this paradox where people speak of freedom while, at the same time, wanting the state to act on their behalf when it comes to basically anything?

Freedom and democracy are important: so important that nobody dares be against them. Even dictators say they are in favour of these values and are working to promote them. Few people understand that these things only work if they are bounded by rules. To have freedom, you must have a rule of law, rights, justice, toleration, a spontaneous (not a controlled) economy and society and all the other things I mentioned in the book.

As for democracy, I think we have a real problem with it. Rights have to come first. You can't have the majority deciding to execute any minority they don't like. But we have come to think that democracy can (and should) do anything. So it has putrified into mere populism.

Lately, hate speech has received quite a lot of attention across Europe. What is your opinion on it? Does hate speech even exist?

I take John Stuart Mill's line in his great book On Liberty. In liberalism, you can say and do as you wish, provided you do not harm others, because harming people is evil. But (says Mill) this rule only applies to physical harm—which is plain to see. Mere offence is not: so how do we know that someone who complains of being 'distressed' really is so? They could simply be trying to shut down other people's arguments—as socialist students in the US are doing today.

But free speech does not permit people to incite violence against any individual or group, or to threaten and intimidate them. The difference is pretty clear.

photo: Ian Bozic

You are the Director of the Adam Smith Institute. Why do you think classical liberal philsophers – e.g. Smith, Hayek, Mises, and Bastiat – are important in our era? What are their contributions?

Mostly, reminding us of the moral benefits of a free society. Free societies are based on voluntary collaboration between diverse individuals—the very thing that socialists say they favour but never actually produce. Socialist societies are inevitably based on force, because they have just one collective vision—and if you don't share it, you must be forced to accept it.

Governments often say that markets are regaining their stability – especially whenever a crisis is coming to an end. Don't you  think this is an oxymoron?

Yes, the whole point about markets is that they are in flux. They manage change. We are told it's a bad thing that we don't have 'perfect markets' (and governments set out to 'correct' that). But if everything was perfect, we would have no reason to act at all!

People all across the globe are convinced that the free-market economy is bringing about a discrimination that can only be dealt with forcefully or      by means of law. What is your opinion on this matter?

Actually, markets are a great way to reduce and end discrimination. It was the market economies, and the industrial north of America, that first ended slavery, for instance. Market participants are not concerned about the race, colour, religion or other features of who they buy from or sell to. Only that they are reliable and providing the best value for money.

You have also focused on material inequality that contemporary egalitarians (socialists) have attempted to solve by means of redistribution. Is this really a viable solution and where would it bring us?

It's not: how does an egalitarian government decide what the distribution should be? Perfect equality? Then people who do nothing would be as well off as people who work hard. On the basis of the social value people create? Well, the market actually does that already. When the state tries it, firstly, it has no way to evaluate people's contribution, and secondly, it faces an endless strife as different groups all say they should get more.

In order to convince masses, they make up all these different things and amend human rights acts so as  to make everything seem more democratically just. You use the term human freedoms. What are your thoughts on the matter?

You can best understand these things by looking at their opposites. The opposite of freedom is slavery—being constrained by others. The opposite of right is duty—an obligation on others. We have freedom of conscience, because nobody can prevent us thinking. But our right to life imposes a duty on others not to injure us.

Unfortunately many people mix these up. They speak, for example, of a 'right' to free education. That suggests a duty that other people have to pay for it. But that is contrary to their right to own and manage their own property, their money.

What are your viewpoints on the material wealth of individuals? After all, a person does not become rich because someone else becomes poor, or do they?

They used to, and that is the problem. For most of history, as I say, people have got rich only by being powerful enough to steal wealth from others. In a genuinely free economy, you get rich only by providing goods or services that someone else quite voluntarily wishes to purchase. The trouble is we have too much cronyism, with politicians granting favours to their business friends, and people think that is what capitalism really is.

Most people strive to live freely. Some understand this as living in the absence of war and violence but, to be truthful, it is much more than that, isn't it?

Adam Smith said that the way to national prosperity was 'peace, easy taxes and a tolerable administration of justice'. Peace is vital. So is limited government and the rule of law. So is toleration of others. So are free markets. Free speech and free thought. And freedom of association—the clubs, churches and societies that are the fabric of society. 

In your book Public Choice: A Primer, you have  written that individual government decisions are influenced by the self-interest of politicians, burreaucrats, legislators, and voters. Hence, decisions are sometimes made that harm the majority. A lot of  things happen under the pretence of public interest. In recent years, Slovenia has been facing the so-called notion of national interest. This  was a convenient excuse made by the ruling ex-Communists in order to keep the wealth in the hands of the state, where they could benefit most from it. What are your views on this public or national interest?

There is no such thing as the 'public interest'. There are only thousands—millions—of different interests, many of them competing interests. Elections are not thermometers of the 'public interest' but contests between different views on how society should be structured. Once you realise that, you realise that politicians are not disinterested angels, but are promoting their own view of things. And that in turn makes you far more sceptical about anything they say. Quite rightly. 

Are you familiar with the current state of affairs in Slovenia? What is your perspective on our reality?

I cannot judge, but it is never easy to reconstruct a country once it has been ruined by socialism. I always say, you can make fish soup out of an aquarium, but it is very hard to make an aquarium out of fish soup.  

Could you please provide a  short presentation or biography of yourself?

Yes, my parents ran a small filling station and repair shop. I did well at school and went to university in Scotland, but joined the 'brain drain' and emigrated to the US in the 1970s, when the UK was in a really bad way. (Socialism, again.) I worked briefly at the US Congress, and learned just how rotten politics was. But I also picked up some good ideas about how we could run things better with much less government involvement. So with colleagues I returned and started the Adam Smith Institute to promote these ideas. And I have never looked back!

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