Why Freedom Must Be First

Tuesday, October 14, 1997

Freedom at Issue

Human liberty--in the sense that each adult person is a sovereign citizen and no one has control of others' actions without their permission--is still, objectively speaking, the highest political value, despite the relentless and often sophisticated and subtle contentions to the contrary. With the demise of Soviet socialism, many who have favored some version of collectivist human community organization are on the warpath against what they call liberalism but which is truly "classical liberalism." This system, with which the United States of America has always been associated, is once again taking it on the chin from innumerable theorists. For various reasons that are not logically compelling, communitarians, market socialists, and some tenacious democratic socialists reject the idea that human beings live most justly and are best off when they enjoy full protection of their right to sovereignty and liberty of action. The skeptics are wrong. Classical liberalism's natural rights–based libertarian polity remains the best form of human community organization ever thought of by the human mind. Why?

Before addressing this question, let me propose that if there has been a persistent failure identified throughout human social life by successive generations--either explicitly or by implication--it has been that some persons took it on themselves to rule others. Slavery is clearly that kind of failure. Serfdom and the attendant class system are close kin. Those who complained about industrialism in its early days were finding fault with what they saw as a system that was an extension of previous limitations on freedom. Insofar as early industrialists relied on forcibly obtained feudal wealth and privilege, those critics had a point.1

No doubt the exact characterization of the limitation by some people of the liberty of others is a point of dispute dividing those with widely differing philosophies. Just what human freedom involves and what its protection requires are some of the most widely argued points in political thought. Should we try, by means of law, to secure every person's sovereignty, regardless of how capable he or she is of exercising it? Or should we strive, by our political institutions, to alleviate all kinds of human misery and thus "make people free" of all impediments to their flourishing in life?

The answer depends on several factors but especially on the view of human nature that underlies the analysis of freedom. Suppose that persons are, so to speak, self-starters--that is, they have the capacity for initiating their conduct and are essentially able to spur themselves into action (which would ready them to succeed on their own at overcoming many shortcomings they encounter in their lives). In that case it is other people's intrusiveness in their social lives that serves as the major block to their flourishing. Once protected in their right to freedom, their own efforts (and some measure of good luck) must make the difference. If, however, we are held back by outside forces, whether imposed by other people or by nature, so that without warding off these forces we shall remain literally helpless, then a different idea of human liberty needs to guide our legal system to help us flourish.

Indeed, within the tradition of liberal political theory, the central debate has concerned the nature of the sort of liberty that ought to be of political concern to us.2

The classical liberal wing of this tradition has argued, more or less consistently, that the only type of human liberty worthy of political concern is negative.3

The modern liberal wing has not embraced this view and has, indeed, deemed it too parochial. Human "positive" liberty means to modern liberals the freedom to advance toward the ideal that is fitting for oneself, usually with "society's" help.4

Thus the poor are not free even if no one actively oppresses them or steals from them to make them poor; the same holds for all those not equally positioned in life to attain their proper goals. They are free only if their impediments are promptly removed, even if this requires forcing others to serve in this mission.5

In this controversy classical liberals have held onto the restricted sense of the term human liberty, whereas modern liberals hold that it means much more than not being intruded on by others. Modern liberals take it that human liberty means being enabled to make progress in one's life. Indeed, for them, the concept of liberty or freedom means choosing without any serious obstacles, not just being free from others' restricting one's actions but having whatever obstacles stand in the way of a person's progress removed by whatever means are available in society. This, of course, requires that the resources to remove those impediments be obtained by the state and handed to those who suffer the impediments involved. Thus for the old liberals the state is supposed to protect us from those who would intrude on us, whereas for the new liberals the state must intrude on us if others are to make use of what they call our surplus wealth. From protector of our rights the state becomes their violator.

The difference between the two liberal positions (there can be others, but those are not germane here) pertains mostly to how each views human nature. To see what kind of liberty is indeed vital--or which concept of liberty is most appropriate--the inquiry must begin with human nature. We need to have a clear notion of what a human being is to learn what kind of social life is suited for human flourishing.

Skepticism about Human Nature

Yet there is a problem here as well. In an age when the most trendy idea in philosophy seems to be the kind of pragmatism in which talk of human nature is moot if not entirely confused, one cannot simply set off on a journey to discover human nature without first having to decide if the road is open for travel. Deconstructionists, cultural relativists, pragmatists, and the like tell us that the road is closed, that we must rely on (usually culture-bound) historical agreement, which itself is founded in not much more than accident. In that case there cannot be any answers to our inquiry about how we might best live with one another--it is all indeterminate, awaiting the outcome of helter-skelter convention.

There is indeed a political concomitant to such a view of human nature, namely, communitarianism. This view seems best to accommodate the rejection of the very possibility of objectivity concerning our efforts to come to know reality. Assume, for a moment, as the prominent pragmatist Richard Rorty argues, that objectivity is a myth (because it would require us to "climb out of our minds"). Suppose that in its place we must embrace solidarity or the intersubjective agreement we reach within our community.6

Then it is impossible, in principle, for an individual with some better idea, based on his or her objective assessment of some situation, to stand in opposition to the group or collective. Nor is it possible to assess, as individuals who might become their members, the respective merits of the innumerable communities that solicit our loyalty because good ideas are precisely those the group collectively proclaims to be such. Since objectivity is impossible, no individual human being's mind could grasp what is true or right and set the results against the prevailing group or decide among groups. The implication of the impossibility of objectivity would, in part, be political paralysis.

Consequences of Antiobjectivism

So the pragmatist/communitarian approach is more of an evasion than a viable answer for us. To start with, it is self-defeating because by its own tenets its pronouncements have no general validity. It also rests on a misconception of the human mind: that is a tool by which we shape rather than grasp reality. We do not know by altering the world; we know by apprehending or grasping it, leaving what we grasp unchanged unless we are careless and permit our prejudices to obstruct our understanding.

Some may be able to afford an uncritical view that takes the group' judgment for granted. Most people throughout history have had the need to get glimpses of what might be best in contrast to what the group has proclaimed. And the preference for the collective's opinions as against any possible individual's objectively grounded opposition is no more than the preference of some people as against those of others, with no valid claim to better standing.

Thus it is self-annihilating to insist on the view that the community is right since no right or wrong can be established. We must look to another source for satisfactory answers, one that makes sense of the fact that sometimes communities are right as against some of their members and that at other times they are wrong and the few opponents or even just one such rebel may be correct, on the basis of her or his willingness and skill at being objective or, in the context of ethics or politics, just.

Communities cannot be the court of last resort--they too often judge with bias and intolerance. The idea of substituting solidarity for objectivity renders the very idea of a dissident incoherent--all that would be left is what the Soviet officials claimed, namely, mentally ill members of the collective who had to be cured to rejoin the group.

Human Nature

What, then, can we say about human nature that stands the test of objectivity--of meeting the standards of being true to our unprejudiced observations and experiences?

All acts of human inquiry, of the search for answers, however fruitless they may often seem, suggest an answer to our questions. Human beings are by nature creative, not merely responsive. That they do things on their own initiative explains better than anything else all our developments, cultural changes, diversity of approaches to life, varied philosophies, and religions, as well as much of our disagreements, conflicts, even animosities. No other animal appears to change and develop its environment and life circumstances so drastically and often and be so often at odds with members of its own species concerning what is the best thing to do. We, unlike other animals, are always coming up with new ideas, plans, and solutions to problems, even if these be little more than the rejection of proposed solutions, the abandonment of theories, the denial of answers.

Still, as the ancient Greek Cratylus, Plato's first teacher, discovered (despite his adherence to Heraclitus's relativist doctrine), one could not function in this world without a system of communication. Common indicators, if not outright words, need to be employed--in his case, hand signals--just to make sense to one another. So our relentless innovations--as well as our many disagreements--demonstrate our creative nature as human individuals, whereas our need for and reasonably successful practice of communication testify to our occupancy of common ground, our membership in an objectively determinate species in an objectively determinate reality.

We seem to be aware of this fact of human reality in many spheres, from strictly personal relations to international economics, from law to morality, in art as well as in science. Language clearly illustrates that we need some stable principles for understanding and clear expression but that we also need the malleability that is part of every living language. In short, the diversity that comes from individuality, as well as some measure of uniformity, furthers community. This would appear to attest to both a common human nature and the essential element of the individuality of each human being. (What distinguishes human beings as rational animals also alerts us to their individuality since to be rational requires individual effort or initiative, something that places the particular individual in a decisive role in his or her life. This also explains the frustration about never being able to guarantee that we will get people to think along certain lines, that we will finally persuade them--they always have the free will to reject even very good arguments or to come up with better ones.)


What, if any, political consequences follow from this basic fact of the world?

First, we can be reasonably certain that there are some laws or principles of human community life that can serve as ideals for every human community. By virtue of the fact that we are human beings, there would be some features every decent, just human society would need to have in common. Indeed, the concern with human rights, expressed by various international organizations, is very probably a social articulation, albeit often muddled in its details, of this fact.

Our capacity for grasping such basic principles is highly disputed by all sorts of skeptics, yet such a stance is fraught with paradoxes since it aims at grasping the human situation. We may proceed, then, with the inquiry, provided we do not expect something impossible from it, namely, the final word on the topic of basic principles. Human knowledge is not some concluding snapshot in need of no further touch-ups. It is, rather, the best assessment of the world we can come up with for our time and place, when what we have is the result of having done our very best to learn. And we know enough about ourselves by now to have learned some vital facts that should guide our political communities.

Second, although we have human nature as the source of stable facts for purposes of guiding our political organizations, we also accommodate the fact that change must always be anticipated. That is because the basic, natural human rights we can identify on the basis of what we know about human nature spell out borders within which we are free to live and grow in one another's company. Human rights--as expressed, for example, by the basic provisions of the American Bill of Rights--are prohibitions laid out against others, including (especially) governments, to safeguard our liberty to make changes, to keep developing on all fronts of human existence.

Liberty and Generosity

But, one might ask, if these rights are all a matter of protecting people so that they may act freely, creatively, on their own initiative, what happens to those who are ill-equipped, hampered--by handicaps, poverty, illness, bad fortune--in their abilities to be creative, to develop with some measure of success? Do they not have human rights to be helped? Are they not entitled to support? In the terms of some political theorists, do those who need support not have (positive) rights to welfare, security, enablement?

To see why the idea of positive rights is a confused one, we need to consider at this point the important concept of compossibility: A compossible set of rights is not in conflict; it can be respected and protected for everyone. One person's positive right to health care would be protectable only if someone else's fails to be protected--goods and services are always scarce. Moreover, positive rights necessarily contradict negative rights. To protect the right to health care would involve failing to protect the right to liberty of those who may not want to provide such health care. The negative rights position holds that, although it may well be a good thing for everyone to have health care, it would be wrong to force doctors to provide it on terms to which they object, without their consent. Even if one might argue that in some drastic emergency cases this does not hold, a system of law upholding the set of negative rights--protecting the rights to life, liberty, and property from violators--is far more conducive to justice than the idea of protecting positive rights.

At most, then, what positive rights or entitlements are can only be understood, coherently, as values sought by many, values they may obtain through their own effort, through trade or by means of other people's generosity, not as a right. Treating these values as rights or entitlements implies placing others in involuntary servitude.

Of course the idea of a free society does not foreclose any efforts human beings want, indeed often ought, to make in behalf of others, quite the contrary. It is only free human beings who ultimately are enabled creatively to help their fellows, not because those fellows have a lien on their lives but because they are fellow human beings whose plight is understandable by those who enjoy their own capacities reasonably unimpaired.

The Prospects for Flourishing

On the broad canvas of human history, free persons have, in the main, been more helpful to the rest than those who have been coerced by governments to render service. Excepting perhaps some emergencies, governments ruin the plight of the needy by thwarting the creativity of the able and willing--including the creative and ambitious traits of the temporarily helpless--at least in the long run. Slaves do not make very good Samaritans, nor do they exhibit much ambition. So the prospects for both the fortunate and the less fortunate are greater if the human right to liberty is promoted, protected, and maintained within the various legal orders that guide human communities.

The revolution that changed the bulk of the Western world from feudalism to a constitutional individualist order--attempting to secure the sovereignty not of collectives or elites but of every individual--has reached Eastern Europe, much of Asia, Latin America, and even portions of Africa. This so-called bourgeois revolution--as referred to by historicists such as Marxists--is the main, central, crucial turnover of political institutions in recorded history: it shifts power from groups of human beings to individual human beings. It is the revolution that rejects the essence of nearly all old orders, namely, the view that humanity is either some whole entity (deriving in part from its characterization as a Platonic ideal standing above all particular persons) or a collection of smaller groups arranged in a hierarchical order. What is put in place of these collectivist conceptions by the "bourgeois" revolutions of the last three centuries is humanistic individualism, the view that any individual adult human being is equal in worth to any other when it comes to the possession of the rights to life, liberty, and property.

Of course, to flesh out a detailed meaning of such a revolution takes time and patience and has encountered and will continue to encounter massive setbacks. The twentieth century has seen major backlashes already, in fascism and communism, as well as less significant but often equally noisy attempts at small-time collectivist states (e.g., Iran's theocracy).

Nevertheless, the revolution has made an enormous impact on the world, and by any reasonable assessment--which excludes, for example, measuring human flourishing by impossible, ineffable standards--has accounted for the production of a better life throughout the globe. (Of course, because of population growth, this can only mean that the percentage of humans' flourishing has improved, even though large numbers of persons are still in dire straits.)

There is no guaranteed progress in human life. Persons are capable of leading destructive as well as flourishing lives, and it is always up to them, to some extent, which they will choose to lead (even if in free societies there is a greater likelihood that they will make the better choices). No revolution, in any sphere, is irreversible. To sustain it must always be a feat of human effort, an effort presuming a diverse division of labor.

One such area of sustaining labor is political thought. And on that front few can doubt that in our time massive work is being done to undo the revolution. We have few prominent intellectuals, outside economics, defending the principles of the bourgeois revolution. And the economists' efforts cannot be sufficient since they lack the crucial ethical component (one can agree that laissez-faire is more productive than its economic alternatives and still dispute the moral climate that laissez-faire supposedly promotes, e.g., consumerism, hedonism, etc.). One needs to show that prosperity, which laissez-faire enhances, is worthwhile, not merely a greed-driven objective, crass materialism. In political philosophy there is much support for some kind of democratic socialism or, at least, the democratic welfare state. Communitarianism--that euphemistic version of socialism--is on the rise, promising a benign version of the collectivist menace. Such support usually follows conclusions about the corrosive nature of capitalism, individualism, and competition. To counter such contentions, it is not sufficient to reiterate that laissez-faire is economically superior to socialism, communitarianism, fascism, and so on.

Communitarian Counterrevolution

Individualism, as well, is being belittled more actively than it has been in recent decades--usually by distorting it to mean some kind of legacy of atomism. Books by Charles Taylor and Robert Bellah and his colleagues7

attempt to demonstrate the point Karl Marx made in his essay "On the Jewish Question," namely, that to acknowledge human beings as essentially individuals means identifying them as isolated social atoms or hermits and that this is destructive of community life. That there is a richer, much more socially compatible yet still fundamentally individual conception of human life (than what we have inherited from Thomas Hobbes and classical and neoclassical economic science) is largely ignored, perhaps because the goal of such critics is to advance to some form of collectivism, never mind the shape of individualism.8

Perhaps the most vocal outcry about classical liberal individualism focuses on problems of community within the framework of this political outlook. Without delving into this matter at length, it needs to be noted that, because individuality is central to human nature, classical liberalism is not able to advance some general or universal theory of voluntary community life. Indeed, as Robert Nozick observed,9

what distinguishes the libertarian political order is its hospitality to numerous experiments in human community life. And, indeed, what we find in a nation such as the United States of America is the presence of innumerable overlapping human communities to which nearly all citizens simultaneously belong. Yet it is arguable that the only human community as such--suitable to any and every human being--is one that does not impose particular community goals on its citizenry. It makes it legally and otherwise possible, however, to develop innumerable communities--churches, clubs, neighborhoods, corporations, professional associations, fraternities, political parties, and so on. This is just what we would expect in light of the fact of the essential individuality and uniqueness of human beings--that this aspect of their nature be reflected in the variety of communities their interaction generates.

Accordingly, every effort needs to be made by men and women, all of whom at least implicitly set themselves the task of flourishing here on earth, not to allow the backsliding to become dominant through contemporary culture. Such an effort must, however, be made without resorting to any violation of the individualist principles (e.g., without censorship.) It must be a matter of relentless argument and application of the principles of individualism to public policies and private conduct.

Unless the momentum is maintained in sustaining the political revolution that has turned human legal institutions toward supporting the flourishing of all human individuals here on earth, there will be massive reversals toward class warfare and oppression. Some signs of those reversals are already evident, and the diminished prominence of individualism among American intellectuals and political figures has made the advance of this revolution less likely now than it had been earlier. One can only hope that members of the intelligentsia will not continue to be mesmerized by alternative systems that promise them greater powers over others in the name of chimerical politics, culture, and economics. Calls for civility and virtue that in fact replace the initiative of human individuals and their voluntary associations with state power impede rather than advance the humanistic objectives that impelled the founders of the American republic to put freedom first, as the central public good to which nothing else must be sacrificed.

1 As consistent a libertarian as Father James Sadowsky argues for this in "Private Property and Collective Ownership," in T. R. Machan, ed., The Libertarian Alternative (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1974), pp. 119–33. He attributes the phenomenon to the inadequate rectification of feudal injustices in emerging quasi-capitalist systems.

2 The former conception of freedom is usually designated as "negative," while the latter is designated "positive," suggesting that in the former case the (right to) freedom is from others' intrusiveness in one's life, actions and property, while in the latter the (right to) freedom is to do or be something. See Tibor R. Machan, "Moral Myths and Basic Positive Rights," Tulane Studies in Philosophy, 1985, pp. 35–41, as well as the accompanying essays in that issue. See also the classic discussion by Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), chap. 3.

3 That is, pertaining to the principles that ought to govern human actions vis-à-vis other persons in a community aiming for suitability to human flourishing.

4 It is notable that some conservative political thinkers (e.g., Thomas Hill Greene) have also subscribed to the "positive" conception of liberty or freedom. Indeed, we can trace this conception all the way back to Plato. Consider Edmund Burke who proposed that "we are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank of nations and of ages." Reflections on the Revolution in France (Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 1987), p. 76.

5 Even in popular discussions there is the position that someone who may not be prohibited to or prevented by others from, say, travel but cannot afford or is otherwise unable to do it is not free to travel!

6 Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

7 Charles Taylor, "Atomism," in Taylor, Philosophy and the Human Sciences (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1985); Robert Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (New York: Harper and Row, 1985) and The Good Society (New York: Harper and Row, 1991). One might take note, also, of the recent development of organizations, with the leadership of Professor Amitai Etzioni, devoted to the furthering of what is called communitarianism. See the journal published to this end called The Responsive Community, under Professor Etzioni's editorship, as well as his book The Spirit of Community (New York: Crown, 1993).

8 For a detailed discussion of some of the points mentioned above, see Tibor R. Machan, Capitalism and Individualism, Reframing the Argument for the Free Society (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990). In this work I identify what I call "classical" individualism, so as to distinguish it from the homo economicus, neo-Hobbesian version that is the usual target of critics such as Karl Marx, Michael Foucault, Thomas Spragens Jr., and Amitai Etzioni

9 Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), Part III, "Utopia."