View from a Cage: My Transformation from Convict to Crusader for Liberty
by Michael Liebowitz
Paperback, $12.95, Barnes & Noble, 229 pages
Liebowitz tells me that McCall is largely responsible for the text of the book, an analytical review of the proper and improper uses of punishment.
I recall a conversation with Liebowitz shortly after he was paroled concerning personal suffering and writing. Late in life Fredrick Nietzsche said that he had refused to read authors who had not suffered some personal tragedy. It was suffering that produced many of the works of Feodor Dostoyevsky, an author, Nietzsche thought, who was the best psychologist of his time.
Liebowitz (very excited): “I love Dostoyevsky.”
He had in mind in particular The House of the Dead, Dostoyevsky’s cleverly concealed account of his own ordeal at the hands of justice.
Having been sentenced to death by Czar Nicholas for crimes against the state – Dostoyevsky had procured a printing press used by a group of anarchists to peddle anti-Czarist tracts – he and others were blindfolded and set against a wall to be shot. At the last moment, an envoy from the Czar raced through the courtyard with a death reprieve, and Dostoyevsky was sent to a labor camp for four years followed by seven years of exile. The last thing he saw before being blindfolded was the blazing cross on a church, alight with the blazing, world-affirming sun, set against an unearthly blue sky. In these seconds, Dostoyevsky’s soul was awakened and reborn.
Liebowitz’s book is titled View from a Cage: My Transformation from Convict to Crusader for Liberty.
Well now, timeservers have much time on their hands, and Liebowitz has made good use of his time in prison, but not all transformations are like those of Dostoyevsky.
Under proper circumstances, prison may confer on the prisoner precious but barely noticed gifts, the most important and life-altering of which is an irreducible yearning for liberty – hence, Liebowitz’s personal crusade for liberty which, though it includes freedom of movement, an absence of bars and restraints, is much more than physical liberty. Some of our most restraining bars are interior ones. And liberty, when all is said and done, is an interior movement and a motion of the soul, a turning back and forward – the end-point to a series of conscious choices.
The first 20 pages of View from a Cage is an examination of Liebowitz’s tortuous childhood. Both his mother and father were drug addicts, and both had spent some time behind bars. It is a considerable understatement to say he was misled as a young child, although his treatment did not affect in the least his affection towards his mother.
Addiction and criminality both rest uneasily in a distorted morality in which human action arises from an abject surrender, willing or not, to a surrounding, corrupting environment. Liebowitz’s personal development in prison was a therapeutic counter-reaction to this abject surrender.
Books led the way out of his dark tunnel.
The next 20 pages of View from a Cage, readers will be surprised to discover, is a courageously analytical discussion of a number of moral philosophers – economic and philosophical theorists really – that led, in Liebowitz’s case, from intellectual enslavement to what Sam Adams once called “the animating contest of freedom,” proving along the way that prison is not an insuperable bar to liberty of thought.
Two books in particular,” Liebowitz writes in View from a Cage, “had an especially powerful influence on my thinking. These were Free to Choose by Milton Friedman, and The Law by Frederic Bastiat. I was unaware of it at the time, but I would eventually learn that these two authors represented two separate types of arguments for capitalism. Milton Friedman argued on consequentialist grounds, while Frederic Bastiat put forth a ‘natural rights,’ or moral argument”
Unlike Friedman, Liebowitz writes, “Bastiat didn’t spend any time arguing about the deleterious effects of government intervention in the economy. Instead, he proffered an uncompromising moral defense of individual liberty. In my opinion it’s a defense which, if one accepts his premises, is irrefutable. One of those premises is that in order to survive, humans must think, work, create, and accumulate property. Another premise of his is that what it is ethical for an individual to do is likewise ethical for a group to do.” Here in Bastiat, one detects the moral imperatives of Immanuel Kant, who left his imprint on many Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century.
As Bastiat put it, “Try to imagine a regulation of labor imposed by force that is not a violation of liberty; a transfer of wealth imposed by force that is not a violation of property. If you cannot reconcile these contradictions, then you must conclude that the law cannot organize labor and industry without organizing injustice.”
There are differences tenderly explored by Liebowitz, but very little moral distance between Friedman, Bastiat and Ludwig von Mises, the author of the sometimes ponderous Human Action.
If the reader asks himself what has any of this to do with the prison experience, he will be told by Liebowitz, “…the purpose of this book is to demonstrate how the combination of my studying and my experiences has led me to conclude that much of what the government does is ineffectual and immoral…”
It is a rare talent to be able to swallow the whole of Human Action and spit out for readers sweet and concise digestible conflations of abstruse ideas. Liebowitz does this without breaking a sweat.
After a long epistemological consideration of Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy, Liebowitz, well-armed, moves on in View from a Cage to his manifold experiences in prison, some of which are amusing.
Liebowitz tells us, “My entire life I thought I was acting in my best interest, when in fact I was furthering my own demise.
“In other words, I could feel good about doing a bad thing, and bad about doing a good thing. Thus, given that I had criminal values, I was rewarded with immediate pleasure by living a criminal lifestyle. I was incentivized to commit more criminal acts, and so on. This is one of the reasons I now believe that the entire process of criminal reformation can be reduced to teaching criminals to use reason to dispel their criminal values, and to replace them with objective values.”
Values, some think, are the secular equivalent of morals. But there is an important difference between the two. Kant argued, like Rand, that the moral law is a truth approached by reason. But Kant’s universe is large enough, and healthy enough, to contain morality. It does not leave morality outside the door, a homeless orphan. Dostoyevsky’s work-camp throbs with selfish values. If asked “What should I do?” both Kant and Dostoyevsky would answer that the moral person should act rationally in accordance with a universal moral law. The moral person, Kant thought, should act always as if their every action was a universal law applying to all mankind. Adam Smith, Dostoyevsky, Bastiat, Friedman and Mises did not elbow Kant out of their moral universe.
Rand did, elevating in the process egotism to a moral virtue.
Liebowitz is certainly right that the prisoner – do we not carry our cages with us all the days of our lives? – may think his way to freedom and liberty. And he is living proof that the goal, with much effort, is attainable.