The Struggle for Freedom and (My Friends) the Liberals
by Sebastián García Díaz
Third Essay Contest Caminos de la Libertad
An Introduction of Sorts
Shall I start with a quote by a libertarian? I will if that puts your mind at ease. Relax, I’ll paraphrase John Stuart Mill: All errors which man is likely to commit against advice and warning, are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they deem is for his good.
Yes, people, rest assured that I am an impassioned champion of liberty, just as you are. I am willing to put my life at stake so as many men and women as possible may discover the taste of determining their own destiny
Not a simple task, by the way, because most of our fellowmen in humanity (and history) are not fully convinced that being “so” free is such a good deal. They prefer special care politics. They are more inclined to leaders, patriarchs, messiahs. They are even willing to massively vote for them in exchange for the promise of wellbeing. They’d rather not complicate their lives with the arduous task of becoming involved. They settle for the show of politics and its anecdotes; hence, populism (at least the strong dose of it that runs through the “open veins of Latin America.”)
But there are many of us who are working to change this attitude towards freedom. In my case, every chance I get I shout at my neighbors in the manner of Benjamin Constant: “The holders of authority […] will say to us: what, in the end, is the aim of your efforts, the motive of your labors, the object of all your hopes? Is it not happiness? Well, leave this happiness to us and we shall give it to you. No, Sirs, we must not leave it to them. No matter how touching such a tender commitment may be, let us ask the authorities to keep within their limits. […] We shall assume the responsibility of being happy for ourselves…”
But my neighbors don’t listen to me.
Libertarian work is certainly complex. These days making people truly free is an epic accomplishment akin to the efforts of those madmen trying to convince others that a man who died on a cross somewhere in the Roman empire thousands of years ago is God and came to save us. Unless there is passion, unless there is a sense of a transcendental mission, unless one leaps into the void (unless there is faith), we will eternally be casting stones against the ebb and flow of the ocean, which will continue regardless.
My Friends, the Liberals
I am disappointed at the liberals. They are the worst battle-mates in this great fight for freedom. I see eye to eye with them on the purpose: that all men will be free. But I do not share their methods or dogmatism.
You can see them going about with the arrogance of leftist totalitarians using and abusing arguments of authority to convince the already convinced, but absolutely incapable of convincing the majorities.
Liberals make for difficult companions to share a cause with. Some are wet blankets, pessimistic existentialists when it comes to thinking that one day the masses could spontaneously cheer freedom; others are relentless and fearless utopians—always ready to join, and multiply in, select circles they are akin to. These are the social leaders with tinted windows in their cars, living in access-controlled neighborhoods. E-mail agitators. Library revolutionaries.
“Open a political cell in a low-income neighborhood? Sorry, I’m not available.” “Attend more than five meetings (the kind that never seem to end and repeat themselves in political parties under construction), where dozens of people ask for the floor and don’t say anything? I don’t have the time.” “Pool money from my own pocket? Call me later.” It has been a long time since the last liberal set out to cross the Andes to free South America.
We need freedom fighters. Young people willing to defend freedom with the same fierceness that Che Guevara displayed to defend his totalitarian beliefs. Peacefully, of course, but with that same extreme passion Gandhi himself poured into the pursuit of his beliefs.
We cannot continue to allow our best leaders to break ranks in their spare time because our rank and file fail to contain them. Like serenaders they show up in the wee hours of the morning playing their guitars and singing the catchy tunes of popular nationalist totalitarian anthems. I don’t blame them. Even I start humming them when I’ve had one too many…
By contrast the political meetings of liberals are boring: full of economic analyses, apocalyptical in their perspectives, excessive in the pleasures some find come happy hour. Lacking commitment, they have no revolutionary spirit, no sense of cause, of true teamwork, of collective struggle. Bereft of the ambition to represent the majorities, they are not obsessed with winning democratic elections to take power and produce libertarian changes.
At the most they manifest the intention to deal with the current populist leader, once again to gain influence over a privatization, to meddle with a void in regulation, but always on loaned power.
The notion of people has no room in the psyche of liberals because they could never transcend their semantic criticism of such a collectivist word. Well then, how are we supposed to address the people? We don’t have an anthem to freedom that we can all relate to and sing together. We shed no tears.
I know what you’ll tell me: tears are shed by the Cuban people fighting for freedom, or by the families of the dead in Tiananmen Square. But we all know that those are exceptions. Besides, no honest liberal could appropriate that kind of legitimacy.
None of the above is that serious, what is truly serious, however, is that liberalism has fallen into the trap of its own theoretical contradictions and strangely enough, most citizens perceive these contradictions. That indeed is something to worry about, because the former can be remedied with motivation and attitude, but unless liberalism revises its theoretical foundation it will lose every democratic battle.
I therefore declare that the fight for liberty is being lost, at least in our continent, because our main battle-mates are no less than the liberals themselves!
What to do in the face of such a scenario? A certain commitment to the many liberal friends life has bestowed upon me compels me not to abandon them. I will therefore attempt shock strategy: I intend to attack the very foundation of liberal thought until I make them uncomfortable enough to open their minds to new ways of defending liberty.
I will make categorical statements to leave everything clear. There will be no academic quotes nor will I be forced to write boringly (which is only apt for sophisticated liberals.) This is a pamphlet, people. It is up to you to discern properly when we are theorizing and when we are preparing for action. Practical truths are not deducted, but deliberated. The goal of deduction is a conclusion, yet the goal of deliberation is a decision.
If I am able to accomplish what I set out to do, perhaps we might be able to sit down to a deeper and more open discussion about the feelings and thoughts people have about freedom, and how we may conquer the hearts of the majorities so that they may opt for freedom.
Let’s Start at the Beginning
The struggle for liberty begins with politics –very much in spite of what liberals contend–, and man is at the root of politics. What man? This is no minor question because the political conception of man (and hence the way to attain real freedom for all citizens) depends upon the anthropological conception of man. I am trying to prove that one of the great errors in liberal thinking is its extremely indigent anthropological view.
Given the historical advantage our “post-modern” condition affords us, let’s contrast a few paragraphs from two great thinkers: Aristotle and Hobbes, a brief debate of sorts on man as the foundation of politics.
During his first five minutes, Aristotle establishes the criterion that later would inspire many classical thinkers for more than twenty centuries: “That the Polis is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal [...] And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either a bad man or above humanity.”
Hobbes contrasts: “So that in the nature of man, we find three principal causes of discord. First competition, secondly distrust, thirdly glory. The first makes men invade for gain, the second for safety, and the third for reputation. The first use violence to make themselves masters of other men’s persons, wives, children, and cattle; the second use it to defend themselves and their families and property; the third use it for trifles—a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other sign of a low regard for them personally, if not directly then obliquely through a disrespectful attitude to their family, their friends, their nation, their profession, or their name.”
Aristotle, in his simplicity, offers a very sound interpretation of human nature, and from it derives his vision of politics. His is a theory of ends: politics have a purpose: the common good defined as a group of conditions that allow citizens to consciously and fully develop their own perfection.
The Stagirite is definitely telling us –for the purposes of our philosophical exploration– that although freedom is an individual faculty of man, its recognition in political terms and basic conditions so it may be effectively exercised presume a collective struggle. Freedom is not at the beginning of politics, but at the end. This is not a prior postulate, but a conclusion. Hobbes postulates about the human condition, by contrast, lead him to decisively reject classical notions of the common good.
This is the crossroads where liberal thinking takes the wrong path. We overlooked the winding –but certain– path that leads to a political coexistence pursuing substantial ends, to follow instead the other path that assumes the realm of politics as an agreement “because nothing else can be done about it”, and to avoid the consequences of human nature that “given the chance, only cares about bothering his neighbor.”
Had we chosen the first path, we the advocates of freedom would have found it much easier to explain to the people that what is best for all (the common good) is in fact to promote freedom in every way possible. The liberals, however, chose the second path and must now strive to defend the obnoxious idea that any “dense” notion of the common good attempts against individual freedom, prior to any political construct.
The Father of the Child
John Locke is the father of liberalism. He was born on August 29 1632, forty-four years after Hobbes, thirty-six after Descartes, twenty-four after Milton, the same year as Spinoza, ten years before Newton, and fourteen before Liebniz. One has to recognize that the man lived in the right place at the right time.
Far from being a purely speculative thinker, Locke was committed to the great political debates of his day. Two purposes fueled his reflections. He shares the first of these himself towards the end of his Treatise on Civil Government: “it is lawful for the people, in some cases, to resist their king.” We must not forget that the thinker was involved in the transformations brought about by the Glorious Revolution of 1688. In essence, his work intended to theoretically justify revolutionary ideas: the installation of William of Orange on the throne, which occurred only two years before Locke’s work was published.
His second purpose was more complex still: The great and chief end, therefore, of men uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property, which in the state of Nature is very difficult to achieve.
These postulates (quite revolutionary in their day, although in perspective are actually conservative) shed light on many of Locke’s statements regarding the boundaries of society and the government.
His great merit consisted in toning down the dramatics in Hobbes’ proposals on human nature. However, Locke believed that man is not political by nature, but out of interest and this is why he agrees to the existence of an authority with limited powers.
This notion leads to his famous thesis: “… men would not quit the freedom of the state of Nature for, and tie themselves up under, [society] were it not to preserve their lives, liberties, and fortunes…”
Thus, individual consent lies at the core of his political theory, “Men being, as has been said, by Nature, all free, equal and independent, no one can be put out of this state, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent. The only way whereby any one divests himself of his natural liberty, and puts on the bonds of civil society is by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community.”
What is the strength of this theory? That it finds a way to defend liberty and property with extraordinary simplicity, the simplicity of a fairy tale. In fact, his proposal has proved so solid it has become the fundamental dogma of citizen faith in the liberal constitution and theory of democratic representation.
“I, the presumed sovereign delegate to you my power prior to authority in a conditioned and limited manner by means of a political contract, so that you may decide over topics I do not understand, vote without my realizing what is best that you do for me, and then that you suffer no other punishment for failure to report the results to me than the possibility of my not electing you again.”
This theory of the contract and the constitution of the political domain by consent of free men is so rooted in the collective psyche that our thinker deserves applause.
What is its weakness? That it fails to match reality. It could be criticized from different angles, but I will highlight only two in particular. First of all Locke does not adequately address the objection that at the time the contract is signed there already exist inequalities between the signatories so profound that such a contract relationship is absolutely void since its inception.
In every case, Locke speaks about formal equality, but even in his formal view the question arises as to why those with less would be willing in a state of Nature, to sign a contract saying that they would respect the private property of others without complaint. In exchange for what?
It is suggestive that Locke’s social philosophy produced the curious result of a theory that so very dogmatically defended property rights while emphasizing the value of tolerance and religious freedom.
As for the second, deeper criticism I will quote Bertrand de Jouvenel (who is anything but liberal): “ ‘Social contract’ theories are views of childless men who must have forgotten their childhood. Society is not founded like a club. One may ask how the hardy, roving adults pictured could imagine the advantages of the solidarity to be, had they not enjoyed the benefits of a solidarity in being throughout their growing period; or how they could feel bound by the mere exchange of promises, if the notion of obligation had not been built up within them by group existence.”
The Dangerous Charm of the Invisible Hand
Let us stop now to consider Adam Smith, who one century later incorporated a new element into this liberal conception by justifying selfishness as a positive virtue with positive consequences for society. His moral reflection allows him to justify these passions –usually deemed negative—and release them from reproving moral judgment.
Thus, from the pursuit of private interest Smith attempts to retrieve accordance with the general good. He puts forth the beneficial social effects this behavior can produce for a group. There is an intention to reconcile private good and common good not through coercion, but via freedom, which Smith justifies on moral grounds.
His justification stems from a unitarist principle explaining human behavior: the principle of sympathy, the need for social acceptance that balances man and society.
The thinker expressed his socializing principle in these terms: “Nature, when she formed man for society, endowed him with an original desire to please, and an original aversion to offend his brethren. She taught him to feel pleasure in their favorable, and pain in their unfavorable regard.”
This principle is clearly very weak in anthropological terms, but this Scot found it sufficiently valid to argue: “These two sentiments [sympathy between the agent and spectator], however may, it is evident, have such a correspondence with one another, as is sufficient for the harmony of society. Though they will never be unisons, they may be concords, and this is all that is wanted or required.”
And so, from a vision of man we come to a political conception. Smith, a thinker of the Scottish Enlightenment, dares to allow the evolution of the political domain in the care of “the invisible hand” because he trusts society to function like a well-tuned machine: “[The rich] are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, [the rich] advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.”
In absolutely good faith, Smith introduced a new fantasy into the ideals of the liberals; one that to this day keeps us from convincing common people that freedom is best for them. To put it simply: If Locke left the disadvantaged by nature (who have always been majority in society) no significant rights to resist this inequality, once they were effectively under a social contract, Smith came to tell them: “Worry not, society in its natural evolution will make these distortions right. Do not attempt not to correct them with laws and politics– leave it to the market.”
It is very curious and symptomatic that when Smith justified why people would follow these instructions that so clearly did not benefit them, he returned to his theory about sympathy expressed in these terms:
Upon this disposition of mankind, to go along with all the passions of the rich and the powerful, is founded the distinction of ranks, and the order of society. Our obsequiousness to our superiors more frequently arises from our admiration for the advantages of their situation, than from any private expectations of benefit from their good-will [...] Even when the order of society seems to require that we should oppose them, we can hardly bring ourselves to do it. That kings are the servants of the people, to be obeyed, resisted, deposed, or punished, as the public conveniency may require, is the doctrine of reason and philosophy; but it is not the doctrine of Nature. Nature would teach us to submit to them for their own sake, to tremble and bow down before their exalted station, to regard their smile as a reward sufficient to compensate any services, and to dread their displeasure, though no other evil were to follow from it, as the severest of all mortifications.
It should be recognized that Adam Smith had some intuition of what actually happens sometimes, but is this argument really enough to make it a pillar of political theory?
Liberalism vis-à-vis Democracy
Jeremy Bentham was not a liberal. He was the father of utilitarianism. I must mention him, however, because he was one of John Stuart Mill’s ideological mentors. Mill was a pureblooded nineteenth century liberal, albeit at the end of his days love made him cross the line to socialism more than once.
In the nineteenth century, Bentham went beyond Scottish utilitarianism to establish the foundation for a democratic utilitarianism. This thinker began his best-known book, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, with the following words:
Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. They alone point out what we ought to do and determine what we shall do; the standard of right and wrong, and the chain of causes and effects, are both fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, all we say, all we think; every effort we can make to throw off our subjection –to pain and pleasure—will only serve to demonstrate and confirm it. [...] The principle of utility recognizes this subjection, and makes it the basis of a system that aims to have the edifice of happiness built by the hands of reason and of law. Systems that try to question it deal in sounds instead of sense, in caprice instead of reason, in darkness instead of light.
From anthropology with a unitarism principle we come to political philosophy in the same terms. The father of utilitarianism declares: One should govern seeking to attain happiness for the greatest number of individuals. And that happiness will be had by what the majority determines about pleasure and pain.
John Stuart Mill takes these postulates and tries to introduce them into the liberal tradition. He makes this individualism almost a religion he fervently believes in, and a tool for people to fully assume their freedom.
It would be best to place Mill in context. Locke and Smith wrote free from the pressures that the social movements after the French Revolution had come to signify by the nineteenth century, and the growing democratization of society. By contrast Mill, together with Tocqueville and other liberal authors of his time, had to address this democratic trend, a new side to politics that had gained unusual force since Rousseau and the Jacobins in Europe and the new constitutional structures in America.
Reading a paragraph by Tocqueville will shed light on how complicated things had become for liberal thinking in the face of this growing democracy:
The whole book that is here offered to the public has been written under the influence of a kind of religious terror produced in the author’s mind by the view of that irresistible revolution which has advanced for centuries in spite of every obstacle and which is still advancing in the midst of the ruins it has caused.
Mill does not fear the phenomenon of democracy, although he does share a few qualms stated by the French thinker that certainly had a bearing on Mill’s own political theory. It could be said that he accepted classical liberal postulates, but showed great sensitivity by addressing the new demands of social reform. He was aware that it was no longer possible to speak of freedom without answering to the growing demand for equality. Let’s take a look at his anthropological conception:
Different persons also require different conditions for their spiritual development; and can no more exist healthily in the same moral conditions [...] The same things which are helps to one person towards the cultivation of his higher nature, are hindrances to another. The same mode of life is a healthy excitement to one, keeping all his faculties of action and enjoyment in their best order, while to another it is a distracting burden, which suspends or crushes all internal life. Such are the differences among human beings in their sources of pleasure, their susceptibilities of pain, and the operation on them of different physical and moral agencies, but unless there is a corresponding diversity in their modes of life, they neither obtain their fair share of happiness nor grow up to the mental, oral, and aesthetic stature of which their nature is capable.
From there Mill extracts his liberal political notions:
That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind is warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise.
Mill is taking the reaches of freedom to the limit. He wants society to develop with integrity, respectful of multiple cultures, without weakening social morals. The process to achieve this ideal is based upon the principle of self-determination of individuals, the foundation of which does not arise from a right or a natural system acting as a source of legitimacy, but rather from a utilitarian teleology.
It would take a lifetime to unravel at what point our thinker would establish a balance between the need for total freedom and the boundaries imposed by democratic utilitarianism. What’s important for our debate is that Mill began to understand the difficulty amid the pressure democratic majorities were introducing into the picture, to maintain protection over freedom as a postulate prior to the political domain and not as a result of a collective conquest.
He made the mistake, however, of abandoning his attempts at providing a substantial explanation for the liberal order and adjust his foundation to the ever unstable and relativist criterion of utility.
At the End of the Line: John Rawls and the Anarcho-Liberals
And so we come to the twentieth century with a question posed by John Rawls, one of the best-known liberal authors of our time: How can it be that citizens, who remain deeply divided on reasonable but incompatible religious, philosophical and moral doctrines, still maintain a just and stable democratic society in time?
Definitely the diversity that liberal individualism defended throughout history started to become a reality in the twentieth century, but at the same time it turned into a problem difficult to solve. What for Mill was a great expectation –creating a society of different personalities– for Rawls represented the core problem he reflected upon.
Rawls directly forgoes attaining a substantive anthropology and liberal political theory. He simply devotes himself to defending freedom within an enclosed and adjusted political framework of tolerance relative to equality. He is willing to surrender margins of freedom in favor of equality to the point it is acceptable for democratic coexistence.
In Political Liberalism, this author responds to those who view his theory as a mere formula for the coexistence of irreconcilable positions:
We say that the hope of political community must indeed be abandoned, if by such a community we mean a political society united in affirming the same comprehensive doctrine. This possibility is excluded by the fact of reasonable pluralism together with the rejection of the oppressive use of the state power to overcome it.
It remains to be seen how Locke’s proposal of a political contract (after Rousseau’s distortions) could act as a tool to protect freedom. The thinker was forced to propose a “veil of ignorance” over the contracting parties to exclude their particularities and differences, so that none of them would dare go against something they might possess once the veil was lifted.
This reformulation, nevertheless, elicits the same criticism made to the contract: where are those men who, away from their circumstances and prior to the political domain, would be able to define the criteria of justice in the constitution of a democratic society?
In parallel we find the anarcho-liberals who are unwilling to negotiate greater margins of equality with democracy; they seek to ensure freedom by completely neutralizing it from politics. Not one of the liberals we have reviewed would have dared go so far. For them, the concept of State disappears (or declines to the point it is neutralized) and takes on the investiture of a “goods and services enterprise” of sorts with the sole mission of protecting individual rights.
Nozick’s conclusion in his theory of entitlement is that “a minimal state, limited to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts, and so on, is justified; that any more extensive state will violate persons’ rights not to be forced to do certain things, and is unjustified…” Friedman proposes something similar: substituting the power of the State with the power of entrepreneurs and free enterprise, and converting social relations into economic relations.
First Criticism: Man Is Much More
What is the message then from this journey through the liberal tradition of politics? We owe to liberal thinking –and no one will argue against this– mankind’s release from the rigid molds of the ancient regimes of the middle ages. However, as we have seen, this freedom was forged upon a conception of man whose builders were forced by excessive Cartesian rationalization to be superficial.
Actually this error can be ascribed to the modern conception of man whose fondest child is liberalism; to a systematic reduction of reality and the potential of human nature out of a need for “scientific rigor” imported from the natural sciences. Modern thinkers influenced by the Newtonian method sought to explain the essence of man in a coherent manner that would subject itself to a single criterion.
To this end they extricated man from his cosmologic environment. In other words, they segregated him from his relationship with the world, with others, and what is transcendental. They needed an individual they could free from the ties of medieval corporations and thus forged him. This way they made him independent from the arguments of authority used by religious structures for so many centuries—and that is of merit. However, a negative consequence was that they so distanced Faith from Reason, than man was no longer able to project into the political realm an integral part of his being: his existential expectations no less!
Then they dissected different parts of his body and soul, so that ultimately one of these aspects would prevail and determine his nature or conduct. It is a long list of scientists who consciously or unconsciously helped build this individualistic conception of man.
To cast a human dimension as an absolute in detriment of others is a mistaken appreciation of what we truly are: multidimensional beings able to go certain distances in every one of the dimensions that constitute our essence.
We are not just selfish and violent beings; neither are we just charitable and social; not pure reason, or will alone; not absolutely free because we bear the needs of our body, neither a spirit transitorily occupying matter. We are absolute beings, who are also limited by certain dimensions: we are finite.
Being absolute and non-finite pertains to God; being finite and non-absolute characterizes natural beings. Yet man is absolute and also limited and finite; such is the true human paradox.
On the other hand, either exaggerating the differences among human beings or ignoring these differences constitute two erroneous extremes. True, every one of us is unique and unrepeatable, but it is also true that we are so alike! We share the same human nature and common experience forged by history and handed down from one generation to the next.
And so I put forth this first challenge to liberalism: theoretical support to defend freedom cannot stop at partial proposals of what man is and can become, it should be in harmony with the vision of man as a whole, an integral human being that can be analyzed but at the same time requires synthesis.
An Individual, If You Can Become One
Let’s take a look at how this defect in anthropologic conception sheds a mistaken political vision of man as a citizen.
Liberal thought a priori accepts the contents of the “individual” status in the belief that because these contents are recognized in formal terms, consequently they will be implemented in real terms. When liberalism tries to arrive at a political concept of universal vocation, it paradoxically produces an abstract prototype that is not common to all human beings, precisely because the different characteristics that condition real (flesh and blood) humans are not taken into account.
The burden of abstraction causes a divorce, so to speak, between formal political and juridical structures and reality: a human being much richer in anthropological tonalities, at the same time poorer in actual possibilities. This distortion repeats itself in all of the liberal thinkers reviewed above.
Here we face one of the fundamental contradictions of liberalism: far from including every member of the polis, it unwittingly discriminates against those who do not have the basic features of the individual it has assumed.
At first sight, by defending the principle that we are all free and equal (that we can all approach justice to defend our rights) we are confirming an inclusive vocation. However, the challenge of adapting to the formal assumptions that make it possible for everybody to realize this principle in their own circumstances impairs an important number of citizens; the majority, in fact.
Therefore, we have a human being who is formally protected by political and liberal juridical laws but is nevertheless forced to fulfill –by his own devices–, the conditions the formal assumption demands from him so that he may truly enjoy the benefits of citizen status, being a legal person, and market agent. Consequently, this generates an exclusive trend in the realm of reality.
Under this liberal framework, social progress towards freedom is excluded from the political realm as a topic. It is no longer channeled there and so becomes a “private” problem. The idea of progress in the political domain, or even of change or transformation among societies that have already agreed upon a political and juridical individualist/liberal order shifts from being everybody’s enterprise to a game of tension between the excluded and the benefited from the system.
Liberal Education, but Not for My Children
Let’s look at these criticisms applied to a specific political plane. Liberalism defends the principle of neutrality in the political realm, and under this framework it rejects the possibility to publicly debate particular conceptions of what is good.
However, there remains a question liberalism cannot answer. So that freedom may provide significant options for the individual making a decision, shouldn’t there be a common foundation of options that could be recognized and judged?
What do liberals say, for example, about education that is typically configured by the State so that a citizen may recognize valid options and, moreover, decide which ones are best for him?
In general, liberalism maintains the firm conviction that social forces in free interaction will produce the social goods an individual requires. The rule of laissez faire, or the invisible hand if you will, not only regulates economic market dynamics naturally, but the “social market” as well.
Of course there are different hues in the various currents that make up the liberal tradition. What is termed libertarianism, extreme liberalism or “anarcho-liberalism” takes this conviction to its ultimate consequences.
“Any attempt of the State –would say any liberal who prides himself at being one– to protect pluralism within a society will collide with the liberal principles of justice. The State has no right to interfere in the development of the social-cultural market, except of course, to ensure that every individual has a fair share of available means necessary to exercise his moral capabilities. The existence or disappearance of a given kind of social purpose does not behoove the State.”
Rawls, himself a so-called social or egalitarian liberal, contends that valuable ways of life will sustain themselves in the cultural market without requiring help from the State, because in a state of freedom, people can very well recognize the value of certain ways of life and, will consequently support them.
What kind of contents should State-supported public education have? Anarcho-liberals would object to the mere existence of a “public” education. According to them there is no reason why the State should warrant its existence. Social liberals recognize the need for the State to take over this function, but demand a criterion of neutrality.
Below is a passage in which Rawls illustrates how neutrality would affect our education example:
Various religions sects oppose the culture of the modern world and wish to lead their common life apart from its foreign influences. A problem now arises about their children’s education and the requirements the State can impose. The liberalisms of Kant and Mill may lead to requirements designed to foster the values of autonomy and individuality as ideals to govern much if not all of life. But political liberalism has a different aim and requires far less. It will ask that children’s education include such things as knowledge of their constitutional and civic rights, so that for example, they know that liberty of conscience exists in their society and that apostasy is not a legal crime [...] Their education should also prepare them to be fully cooperating members of society and enable them to be self-supporting; it should encourage the political virtues so that they want to honor the principles of justice.
At this point, I’d like to ask my friends: Fellow liberals, can we meet the expectations of our developing societies with such a poor vision of what public education must and can do for the common good? Do we, by chance, educate our own children with that degree of neutrality?
The Day We Stopped Giving Basic Reasons
People hear liberals say that the State should quit promoting the good of mankind, so they wonder whether or not liberals believe that good actually exists. Most people in search of roads to self-fulfillment do not find in liberalism an objective criterion to help define “good life”, because any suggestions coming from a public viewpoint would attempt against individual freedom.
Now what happens if the majority supports a particular conception of good and votes for the State to impose it upon the rest? Liberals would panic and respond, “That cannot be. Natural rights, the values of reasonability or tolerance must be respected.”
The masses ultimately ask: Why should we respect them?” At that point liberalism begins to provide basic reasons and to invoke rational criteria regarding why certain values are good and others bad.
Liberalism is definitely afraid of totalitarianism and (it has to be recognized) this fear is supported by historical experience. It is a fear we all share. It is what makes us liberals even if we aren’t. Hence, the “principle of adhesion” constitutes the great liberal principle. Our fear leads us to state: “Except for what peaceful coexistence prohibits or demands, everything else must be screened by free decision.”
Liberal theory contemplates man as a being appreciated for his autonomous choice of ends, and this appreciation makes it assign absolute priority to those ends. Yet, what basically commands respect in human beings is their ability to choose objectives and ends, not the specific choices they make. Rawls himself says so: The ‘I’ comes before the ends it sets forth.
But, is this willful conception of the individual relative to the ends and values that confirm his identity real? Or true? Rawls assures that his conception of the individual does not defend a metaphysical position but a political one.
According to the reality of a contemporary democratic culture, all we can assign to the individual in the political realm says Rawls are the attributes “free” and “equal”. Everything else exists and is important but pertains to the private sphere or the social sphere at best. It may never be invoked in the political framework.
Nonetheless, it is very difficult to argue that personal identity does not need fellowmen, and that our value scale on what is good and bad lacks any foundation without a common political framework. Tolerance, freedom and equality are also values and we could hardly defend them by stating that no value can be defended in the political arena.
Thus, it is a mistake to defend liberal values while arguing from the political domain that all values are purely subjective. Defending liberalism from a relativist perspective is not exactly defending it.
I now put forth the second challenge to liberals, or if they do not want to take it on, for us champions of freedom. We need to dare think about political alternatives that will generate conditions and options for freedom in a way that does not entail coercing individual freedom.
How to Defend Freedom?
I trust these critical reflections have accomplished their mission. The fundamental reasons provided by liberalism fail to convince, especially when they appoint themselves the clear function of being a strict formula for neutral political coexistence.
And so, perplexed, with the humbleness of those who know nothing yet want to learn, we can receptively approach the concerns of the common people who look upon liberalism –and by contagion the advocates of freedom– with particular mistrust.
Undoubtedly all human beings expect to be free and all –or at least the majority– understand freedom as one of the essential, or even the most important element of human good. Man holds an innate passion for freedom that has even taken him to war, and it forges him to resist oppression (like the Ladies in White resist it in Cuba today). No other cause can have more rallying power than the fight for our own personal freedom and the freedom of our loved ones.
Yet for most mortals freedom is invariably linked to the ends we pursue and the means we allow ourselves to pursue them. “Freedom to do what?” is the common question. “It doesn’t matter what for, what matters is being free,” is the liberal answer. But most don’t settle for that alone, and theirs is a legitimate expectation. It is human to wish for freedom not just as an attribute so that no one bothers us; we want it to become a voluntary mechanism to benefit from the good things living in a community has to offer (and of course reject the bad.)
There is a Greek saying that exactly summarizes what any upright person should advise another to rule his life by: “Become who you are.” This principle expressed by Pindar is of an anthropological depth and philosophical force sufficient to inspire an entire treatise. However, I will only underscore its major quality in political terms: it establishes an objective criterion, that when applied respects the particularities of every human being.
Just because we are all motivated to lead a good life, does not make us all the same. Quite the contrary, every one of us will maximize our innate and acquired potentials, which in no case are identical to anyone else’s. Of course there is a common substrate because human nature is shared, but there is also the ideal of authenticity that respects diversity and upholds tolerance.
What is the path to fulfillment, to reach my own perfection? This is the most important question that individuals who want their freedom ask themselves. And they find their answer with the classics: “Leading a righteous life is the way.” Virtue designates the set of qualities the possession and practice of which will help man attain happiness.
It is here where liberals may re-encounter their best alternative: refrain from denying any of the preceding statements yet insist that freedom is the only way to find virtue. To this effect Tocqueville has a wonderful phrase: Freedom is a truly holy thing. There is only one other worthy of this name: virtue. But what is virtue other than the free choice of good?
Freedom and good are intimately bonded. Far from attacking this bond thereby restricting the political domain to strict parameters of justice, what we the advocates of liberty should do is assume the challenge of asking ourselves how bonded can they be in the political realm?
If we fall into the temptation of having the State compel people to follow a certain conception of good, Mill and Rawls (and the entire liberal tradition) would be right: we’d be abolishing freedom. It would be as if God, tired of humans erring with their freedom, suddenly decided to force them to be good. That would make heaven a concentration camp.
But if on the contrary, our education in virtue and our defense of significant options from the political domain resulted so weak and precarious as to keep citizens from developing clear criteria on what is good and what is not, we would be aborting the process of personal fulfillment.
The challenge lies in ensuring the conditions and alternatives for liberty in such a way that they do not coerce freedom. That may be the key to success –in our times– in the struggle to spread freedom.
In this sense, most people fear that liberalism will “leave them to themselves” under the formal liberty we denounced before, and that the continual confrontation between such liberty and the political domain may end up hindering the development of sufficient conditions for equality and the alternatives necessary so we may fully develop our ability to choose.
I want to avoid the temptation of reductionism as well, but clearly this is one of the most powerful reasons why confessional liberals lose elections all over the planet. When these people quote anarcho-liberal writers championing a market regime whereby most public institutions are abolished and the rule of individual freedom is left completely to its own devices, it’s as if they fueled a fire.
God forbid that during elections we stand next to a Hayek-quoting liberal: Whether I am or not my own teacher and can follow my own elections and if the possibilities I can choose from are many or few, are two completely different matters. Or: Even if the threat of starvation to me and perhaps to my family impels me to accept a distasteful job at a very low wage, even if I am ‘at the mercy’ of the only man willing to employ me; I am not coerced by him or anybody else, nor I am therefore not free because freedom is nothing more than being free from coercion.
Do you realize my liberal friends why most people distrust the advocates of freedom so much, when in the midst of our ranks there is a liberal, or what’s even worse, an extreme libertarian?
Is it Freedom What Needs to Be Defended?
I would like to delve into the sentiments of people. The men and women in our societies have not yet completely learned what to do with their freedom. In the depths of our consciences there is an underlying annoyance at the contradictions of modern capitalism.
On the one hand it subjects us to extreme nationalism marked by economic optimization and efficiency. On the other, we suffer from a hedonistic style of relativism that neither accepts rules or criteria: we establish the rules by the dictates of our feelings. To put it metaphorically, in the midst of our freedom that reality forces us to be “one thing by day and another by night.”
Daniel Bell denounces these contradictions much more accurately:
In modern society the axial principle is functional rationality, where the regulating mode is economize. Bureaucracy and hierarchy constitute this axial structure, because they derive from functions becoming specialized and fragmented, and from the need to coordinate activities. There exists a simple measure of value, namely utility. And there is a simple principle of change, the principle of productivity, and that is the capacity to substitute products or processes with more efficient ones that yield more benefit at a lower cost. Social structure has been rendered a world of things, because it is a structure constituted by roles, not people. This is exhibited in the organizational documents specifying hierarchical and functional relations.
In this realm it is not hard to establish the framework of political debate: laissez
faire propose the entrepreneurs; “a subsidy for survival”, say the unadapted to the system. Without question, equality is at the heart of the debate and not liberty.
On the flip side of the coin is the measureless expanse of the private realm, characterized as intimate or intimist in its pursuit of immediate sensation, pleasure and hedonism. Once again Bell:
Modern culture is defined by its extraordinary liberty to plunder the cupboards of the world and eat up any style encountered. This liberty comes from the fact that the axial principle of modern culture is expression, this remodeling of “me” to attain fulfillment. This pursuit negates any limit or border imposed on the experience. It engulfs every experience; nothing is banned and everything must be explored.
In this framework of contradictions the specifically modern Me cannot find appropriate limits to establish a judgment, because such limits can only derive from rational assessment criteria, which are not taught or promoted by the political realm but depend upon the life of private organizations to do so.
Rationalism and hedonism: I think we can all perceive this contemporary contradiction because it is a part of our daily reality, of our lives, and of our habitual concerns over our family and children (should we curb their outings? their alcohol consumption? their “liberated” sex?)
Although some may want to present this as a triumph, we all feel as if we’ve lost something along the way.
A Constructive Proposal
In the political struggle for freedom, we therefore need to concern ourselves over the common good as a foundation for our free men to find fulfillment. If we don’t, we will leave room for people to adhere to totalitarian, authoritarian, or (what’s even worse) populist proposals. (I say worse because populism is a totalitarianism people adhere to voluntarily, which makes it the worst kind of domination.)
What are we, the defenders of freedom willing to allow? It appears necessary to allow, but even more so to build an intermediate political venue, halfway between pure legal obligation ruled by the criterion of regulated justice, and the absolute freedom of our intimate sphere, where until now we have locked up our desire for bene vivere.
There should exist –necessarily so– a set of political possibilities, that are forceful beyond the moral level without being coercive. In other words a degree of can be that without being mandatory relative to the rigid frameworks of the political individualism of our day, provide for the release of concordant energies.
Although it is positive that in its regulating function the State does not let itself be tempted to depart, however momentarily, from the precepts that compel it to respect freedom understood in its negative sense (according to Isaiah Berlin’s classical distinction), and to be neutral in its architectural function, it should offer citizens a real and institutionalized possibility to use that liberty in a positive way: to build in political terms and commit, motu propio, to the results of these constructs and agreements.
The “realm of possibility” could occupy that space and serve as liaison between justice and morality (or good) although many authors do not believe in building such a dimension. These critics point out that what is being presented as a potential project will end up resorting to the coercion that accompanies regulatory justice or, the opposite, it will end up subordinated to the ever changing will of the agents. Ultimately no one would feel any such an agreement is compulsory. “We are all begat by rigor”, and anything that is not mandatory gets lost in permissiveness.
This prejudice, however, owes itself to the poor modern anthropological conception denounced above. People (or rather the majority) have it in themselves to overcome their selfishness when encouraged to do so. “If I am asked, I will give my all; if it is demanded of me, I will give nothing” should be the new libertarian cry. The key lies in working from the standpoint of freedom, but not as a boundary of the political domain, rather as its starting point.
I will use a paragraph from Amitai Etzioni a thinker who is not a liberal either, that very well summarizes the idea I am insinuating:
The new golden rule requires that the tension between one’s preferences and one’s social commitments be reduced by increasing the realm of duties one affirms as moral responsibilities- not the realm of duties that are forcibly imposed but the realm of responsibilities one believes one should discharge and that one believes is fairly called upon to assume.
Care should be taken not to confuse this intermediate level we have termed “of possibility”, with the social realm or the realm of civil society. Despite its endless manifestations, society cannot substitute the political function as the head of the entire social body. In other words, no matter how many intermediate organizations exist, no matter how sturdy t