A reader asked me to define liberty as used in my post COVID – 2 Years and Counting. I will lean on JS Mill, Isaiah Berlin, and Frederich Hayek in the formulation that follows. Broadly assessed, liberty can be divided into two species – positive and negative. I realize this is a gigantic oversimplification, but I’ll stick with it during this piece. Positive liberty is supposed to consist of self mastery But in practice it has a lineage from Rousseau to The French Revolution to Hegel to Marx and to the proponents of social justice that now pervade the West. It is the desire to enhance the wellbeing of the people through collective action.
If the public weal requires collective action, then it must require direction. Accordingly, positive liberty can only be imposed by the government. Somehow the state must through its benevolence increase freedom. The manifest failure of governments to provide aid and comfort to their citizens while simultaneously making them freer never seems to deter those who would make life better by government fiat. There are always many who believe that if we could just cause those in power to dispense the necessaries and niceties of life with greater efficiency and dispatch that lives would be improved and liberty preserved. That there is no evidence to support such a view does not impair its power to persuade.
Governments dispense ‘rights’ like snow during a Yellowstone winter. No distinction between a benefit and a right is made. This concept of positive liberty results in the involuntary confiscation of private wealth on pain of imprisonment and if necessary at the point of a gun. Positive liberty as defined here, seems to me, to be an impossibility. If a ‘right’ exists solely at the expense of another who is forced to provide it, it cannot truly fall under that class.
Governments exist to provide benefit and security for their people. How they should be organized is likely always to be in dispute. Authoritarian governments by definition oppress all those who do not conform to their dikats. The favorite few will live off of the sweat of the many. Representative governments tend to oppress their populace in more subtle ways. Power inevitably, even if slowly, moves to the center. Armies of bureaucrats are quartered in the seats of government. To gain favor those with money form alliances with the invisible drones in the government hives. Rent seeking is an ubiquitous characteristic of so called democratic governments. Minorities out of favor are squeezed and demeaned.
Both greed and altruism are constants of human nature. The latter is often displaced such that sympathy for the unfortunate is expressed at the cost of others. A sees B’s suffering (real or imagined) and wants C to bear the burden of relief for B. Those few at the top are served by those at the bottom. They work in the name of charity and comfort to establish a permanent underclass that does the bidding of their betters as the price for the dole. Government of bread and circuses is not new.
The only escape from both the oppression of the many by the few, as well as the reverse, is to limit government as much as possible – much easier said than done. The government should confine its actions to those services necessary for the well being of the people which they cannot reasonably be able to do for themselves.
The supposedly free governments of the West and their offshoots in other parts of the world are so enmeshed in a web of favors and bribes that they are beyond reform. The late economist Mancur Olson’s postulate that very big systems can be fixed only after they collapse seems everywhere true. Governments today are provided with an almost infinite number of opportunities for suicide. That they will escape self destruction seems impossible. How long before implosion is, of course, unknowable. Scipio Aemelianus’ obervation that nations have their lives as do men is still applicable more than two millennia after he made it.
Hayek’s assertion that the economy was of such great complexity that no one person or group of people could understand it, much less effectively manage it remains unrefuted; yet alleged experts think they can direct its course effectively and to the betterment of society. The mountains of debt that menace every government on the planet stand as ominous reminders of hubris or ordinary stupidity. Everywhere the false ghost of the common good runs rampant over the freedom of the people.
Berlin defined negative liberty “as liberty in the negative sense involves an answer to the question: ‘What is the area within which the subject—a person or group of persons—is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons?” It is the offspring of Mill’s declaration: “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. Even if a self-regarding action results in harm to oneself, it is still beyond the sphere of justifiable state coercion. Harm itself is not a non-moral concept. The infliction of harm upon another person is what makes an action wrong.”
Negative liberty is the freedom to be left alone as long as your actions do not cause palpable and easily discernible harm to others. The right to private property is an essential component. Negative liberty applies only to competent adults. The assault of state education on the wellbeing of children is so close that it needs no further elaboration here. The government in the guise of benevolence may not force it’s wishes on an individual who is not harming someone else. Arguments such as denying healthcare to those who engage in disapproved behavior – ie, smoking or overeating or refusing a vaccine – because their unapproved habits cause a drain on the public purse are invalid as such reasoning can be used to sanction anything the government deems undesirable.
The compulsion to forcibly help people against their will is as ubiquitous as breathing. Similarly common is the selective enforcement of the law so that it applies to groups either favored or despised by those in power. Such selective enforcement is before us every day in the supposedly liberal West. The laws should be fairly enacted and applied equally across all strata of society. They should not be used to enrich the well connected nor enforced beyond the limit of reason to further an agenda disconnected from the general welfare.
The parlous state of higher education has loosed upon world a class of ostentatiously uneducated self styled elite who sweat only when voluntarily exercising. They display degrees of less significance than merit badges while regarding those who sweat of necessity as beneath contempt. They also easily impinge on the negative liberty of those whom they deem misinformed. The term has been so wantonly applied that hearing or seeing it should signal the approach of malfeasance.
Simply put, people should be free to engage in any discourse or action that regardless of how noxious does not directly harm another. Speech that insults or offends someone else is not warrant to repression. Hate speech may be despicable, but should not be illegal.
Honor. We expect it from our leaders, though it is, alas, an uncommon virtue. One expects dishonor from tyrants, but not from the leader of a society that has pretensions to freedom. I’m thinking of the Prime Minister of Canada. Peaceful civil disobedience has a distinguished history – Gandhi and Martin Luther King are cherished practitioners. When you engage in it, you are prepared to suffer the consequence of breaking the law. If the authorities punish such disobedience, which by definition is against the law, the authorities must fit the penalty to the magnitude of the offense; punishment must be condign. Mr Trudeau invoked martial law to end a protest that was causing discomfort. It did not rise to the level of an insurrection requiring the intervention of mounted police wielding truncheons, the confiscation of private property, and denial of basic civil rights. Trudeau’s action, viewed by the entire world, has dishonored both himself and his country. If he and those who support his use of inappropriate force pay no price for their dishonorable behavior, the stain on the political fabric of our northern neighbor will settle into a disfiguring scar.
Honor and liberty are not difficult concepts to assimilate. It is the execution that the confounds all but the most resolute. Today’s standards are misapplied to those who acted in the past when the rules were different. The nobility of liberty and honor is not diminished by the actions of those who best defined them when the world was different from today’s. How history will judge the rhetoric of the current moral germs who simultaneously proclaim both virtues while evading their constraints is not difficult to imagine.