A brief reflection on liberty

At Pileus we strive to live in a society where people live free and live well.  I think we would all agree that living free is a necessary condition for living well, but not a sufficient one.

I believe a free society rests on a foundation of social, cultural, and religious norms, not just on legal protections of freedom.  These norms provide for the development of private and public virtues that make a free society function, thrive, prosper, and persist.  If it does not thrive and prosper, it won’t long persist—regardless of how free the people may see themselves.  Ben Franklin (probably not the paragon of personal virtue) said it most succinctly: “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”

Madison said that “to suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.”  A great debate—perhaps the great debate—concerning freedom is how essential norms can be propagated in a society while still protecting fundamental human freedoms.

Putting this another way, I’m becoming more and more convinced that it is the boundaries we place on freedom that actually preserve our freedom.  We must secure ourselves and our property; adjudicate our disputes; protect ourselves from aggressors; protect our children and raise them to become responsible adults; provide for those incapable of providing for themselves; and understand deeply our true nature to be able to preserve whatever measure of freedom we may have.  Outfitting society in such a way requires a degree (perhaps a significant degree) of compulsion, coercion and constraint if we are to achieve and preserve widespread freedom.

I don’t see classical liberal political theories (particularly the deductive sort) as sufficient for creating or preserving a free society.  This is because they are not grounded in a true understanding of human nature.  But they do provide us with a rough topographical map that is extremely useful.  Whenever we move to restrict freedom in some way, we are, invariably, on a slippery slope towards tyranny—no matter how justified those first steps may be.  For evidence, we need look no further than the troubled authoritarian welfare states we now occupy, in which the majority of citizens have little conception of the idea that state power should be carefully and constitutionally bounded.

One very slippery slope is the notion that the state should promote positive liberty.  Many classical liberals see the state’s role in guaranteeing negative liberties (freedom from unjustified external constraints), not in promoting positive liberties (capabilities to act).  On the other hand, Charles Taylor has eloquently argued that a clear distinction between positive and negative liberty is an intellectual Maginot Line that cannot be defended.  I think he is right, but, when it comes to state power,  I want to maintain that line to the extent possible because without it we have, again, a slippery slope to tyranny.

Still, I think that libertarians should more fully embrace the notion of positive liberties, as well as the norms necessary for the state to ensure that both positive and negative liberties can persist.  That is an essential link between living free and living well.

[PS: Obviously I use a lot of terms here whose definitions are critical and highly contestable.  I’m OK with that.]

11 thoughts on “A brief reflection on liberty

  1. You state:

    I don’t see classical liberal political theories (particularly the deductive sort) as sufficient for creating or preserving a free society.  This is because they are not grounded in a true understanding of human nature. 

    I’d be interested in reading more of your thoughts on this point. While you qualify it somewhat, in what sense do you think they lack this grounding?

    1. I’ll probably chicken out on this point for now. I don’t think I’m prepared to give a good answer, certainly not a satisfying one.

  2. I have to second Roger’s interest here. I enjoyed the brief piece in general – as somewhat of an exposition on the minarchist line of thought. As someone who derives my justification for said value(s) and theory “deductively”, I’d like to think that we hold a very similar understanding of human nature, but rather we come to somewhat different conclusions. I’d be very interested in seeing a more detailed critique.

  3. You began by stating that classical liberalism cannot, alone, make a society great. You say that values are also necessary. There is no question that you are correct on that count. A society whose government respects property rights will nonetheless fail if societal norms do not stress, for example, honesty.
    However it’s a far stretch to say that so-called positive liberties (I’m not sure whether you mean physical entitlements, or something less direct, such as a taxpayer funded public-awareness campaign) should be accorded the same importance, and it is mere conjecture to say that positive values and norms cannot exist without input (you correctly term coercion) from government.
    I would argue that values, which are more important than any entitlements, are not only beyond government’s ability to propagate, but are actually harmed by any government programs that seek to control human behavior. For example, the values of honesty and hard work are harmed by government programs and entitlements that motivate people not to be honest but to lie, and not to work hard, but to grovel and beg.
    Values are of utmost importance, but when imposed by government they become warped. The free market- the fact that without honesty and hard work you will ultimately find yourself without a job and without a living- is the best way to encourage positive values.

    1. I would definitely agree that oftentimes when government tries to promote important values it often ends up undermining other ones.

      I’m thinking not so much along the lines of government picking values to support but on creating rules in such a way that important values and social norms are preserved over the long term.

      1. I think this comment really supplements the piece well. Maybe the real underlying contentions are about what institutions and/or norms would thrive with or without government.

      2. To clarify, it seems like you’re saying that the libertarian state depends not necessarily on entitlements got its citizens, but rather on rules, some of which limit the actions an individual can take, in order to protect society and, more importantly, individuals.

        If this is your position, I think there’s much less to disagree with. Anarchists excluded, I think most classical liberals would agree that restrictions upon human behavior exist to the extent those behaviors harm others or infringe upon their rights. It is not, therefore, a far stretch to say that a government that takes protective steps, including taxation and enforcement, is not necessarily overstepping its bounds. Indeed, as society evolves, it may be the government (preferably the courts thereof) that decides what should and should not constitute an infringement on individual rights. The best example of this would be smoking. Whereas it would not have been a problem thirty years ago, now, excessive secondhand smoke in an apartment can be considered constructive eviction. This is not because government has become more intrusive, but rather because human norms have changed.

        So, if what you’re saying is that government’s enforcement of individual liberty should adjust to evolving norms, I agree, provided that said adjustment doesn’t infringe upon property rights as they often currently do (i.e. banning smoking in privately owned restaurants), and doesn’t extend to ban unrelated behaviors, or such prohibited behaviors as they occur independently of their infringement upon the rights of others (i.e. banning smoking marijuana in private).

  4. Yes, I’m thinking mostly of certain restrictions on behavior, but more than that, too. So you might not agree with me after all! 😉

    A couple of examples:

    I want a very high degree of self-ownership and letting people suffer the consequences of their choices, but I don’t want to allow people with, for instance, psychological delusions to be allowed to abuse themselves. This can be tricky, since the internal psychological constraints that people face can be very hard to identify to the extent that regulation would be effective.

    I want the state to facilitate families in bringing up children who are prepared to live as free and responsible adults. A big hole in classical liberal theory is that adults sort of just appear in the original position. I think the state has to take a deep interest in this pursuit while at the same time providing families with very wide latitude on governing themselves and raising their children as they see fit. Many unjustified intrusions of the state into the private sphere are made in defense of this goal, so it is definitely a dangerous slippery slope of the type I mentioned above. But I am unwilling to say that states should not pursue this goal, and I don’t think they can pursue it without some non-neutrality about families, including marriage, living arrangements, schooling choices, religious practices, and the like.

    Like many others, I find that the abstract notions that classical liberals bring forth ring true. But those theories don’t give much guidance, I fear, for structuring rules and incentives in such as way as to promote vital social norms in a way that will build a society worth living in.

    1. I understand your concern with psychologically delusional people, but I don’t agree with your conclusions regarding government’s responsibility to them. I would argue that government, given the chance to manage the affairs of the mentally challenged, has failed miserably (see Willowbrook. Admittedly, we’ve come a long way since then, but it still stands as a warning to all those who wish to cede the responsibility of care for the disabled to the government). That being said, I don’t think it is morally right to ignore the helpless, and I have full faith that, absent government intrusion, the private charitable market will care for them. In fact, I suspect many people would be far more generous with the homeless if they couldn’t say “oh, the government should take care of them.” Additionally, the private donor may make more of an effort to research the efficacy of organizations he supports, which would encourage efficiency in charity.

      On child rearing you raise several valid points. You point out that children are not born into the adult stage, and thus child rearing is an important consideration in determining whether the free market will function. You also note that government involvement is a slippery slope, and ideally parents should be given as wide a lattitude as possible in making decisions affecting their children. This calls to mind a theory I really liked, that Professor Otteson relies heavily on in Actual Ethics which he terms “local knowledge,” in which he states that the people best positioned to make decisions are the people closest to the decision-maker (ideally the decision-maker himself).

      The reason I mention this is because it establishes government as one of the most distant (and hence, unfit) decision-makers. You mention family, marriage, living arrangements, schooling choices and religious practices as areas in which state non-neutrality may be necessary. With the exception of negative liberties (i.e. protecting families from obscenity, religions from harassment or persecution, etc…), I believe the local knowledge argument indicates that decisions should be made by individuals. Only an individual can know whether religion is right for him (Ayn Rand, if you recall, vehemently opposed religion, but nobody could honestly accuse her of being harmful to the free market), whether and when and to whom he should be married, or whether when and how to have and raise a family. When government gets involved beyond clearing the way for individual decision, it tends to impose one-size-fits-all solutions that don’t truly fit many people.

      It probably wouldn’t hurt to bring up your previous post on gay marriage in this context. I think the point you made there is the same one you make here (correct me if I’m wrong or if I’ve mangled your position), which is that the government should encourage the right decisions for society. Although you stated, correctly in my opinion, that the culture of promiscuity is a bad thing for society and the free market, I think your prescription will not heal the illness. I mentioned there that government would do better to merely quit SUPPORTING this culture. I think the same answer can be given here. I am not convinced that, without the current degree of government support (or, perhaps, the negative and positive government and media attention), homosexuality would be as widespread. I believe that the negative aspects of homosexuality- such as a lack of proper family structure and reproducing, to the extent they actually exist- would, by a function of the free market, serve as a natural check against the spread and acceptance of such a culture.

      The same can be said of most of the other areas you address; living arrangements, schooling and religion. The negative effects to society of poor individual choices on these issues will serve to prevent such choices from becoming widespread without external help (such as poor government policy). On schools, I would add that, without government involvement, schooling would be more accessible (on a more acceptable level) than it is under the current government-enforced monopoly.

      1. You make some excellent points which deserve more thought and consideration than I can give them right now.

        Let me just say that for almost all the areas above, I agree that the government is not the best (and in many cases may be very poorly) positioned to do the types of limited regulation and support that I have in mind. So, reset assured, my first preferred avenue of defense of these social norms is NOT government.

        But I would still like to preserve the possibility of legitimate government action in these areas.

        On the issue of marriage, I think that government licensing of marriage has great payoffs for liberty in the long run at a minimal cost in terms of the non-neutrality of government on social issues, which is generally desirable.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s