Winner essays
2007 - Geometry and Myth: An Essay on Freedom by José Antonio Aguilar Rivera First place Second Essay Contest Caminos de la LibertaGeometry and Myth:


Geometry and Myth: An Essay on Freedom

by José Antonio Aguilar Rivera

First place

 Second Essay Contest Caminos de la Libertad 





Any close observer of the Latin American reality will be surprised by a paradox: most countries in the region have a liberal past − often mythified − as part of their official history, and yet today this liberalism exists as an epithet usually scorned as “neo–liberalism”. Today, in the motherland of Benito Juarez, very few intellectuals dare recognize themselves as “liberals”. There is a liberal historiography but no liberal philosophers or political theorists. Democracy has at last been established in Mexico, but not the fundamental freedoms of individuals. As Fareed Zakaria wrote: “democracy is flourishing; liberty is not.” [1] Why? In the following pages we sketch an answer.

     History casts a spell on our understanding of the liberal tradition in Mexico and in other countries, but without it any understanding is impossible. We must therefore invoke the history of liberalism in order to exorcize its influence and in this way, understand. This road to understanding will take us through three stations: history, democracy and the current enemies of freedom.


The Spell of History


Liberalism as an ideology moves forward, not backward. It believes in progress, not in preserving the past. Nevertheless, liberalism is a founding myth in many Latin American countries, particularly Mexico, where it has been chained down by national history. According to historian Charles Hale, mythification distorted the events of the nineteenth century hindering our comprehension of history. In Mexico, he states, “there has been a strong tendency to dig into the liberal tradition, frequently merged with the revolutionary tradition, in search of precedents and justification for current policies. This same liberal past is also often used to criticize those same policies.”[2]

     Many challenges existed in the nineteenth century: political, philosophical, and economic, and very few liberal answers. Why is this tradition so ill–equipped to address the challenges of today? Part of the answer can be found in history. During the nineteenth century both in Latin America and in France, the “friends of freedom” were mainly concerned with effectively constraining political power by means of written constitutions. Constitutionalism stood at the core of liberal projects, which does not mean that figures such as José María Luis Mora did not engage in philosophical or economic issues; they focused however on designing institutions. In practically every country, although in some (Mexico and Colombia) more than others, a certain political conflict absorbed most of the century: the separation of the Catholic Church and the State. Constitution and Reform aptly synthesize the shared obsessions of the day– civil war and strife, the beginning of independent life.

     From a distance, it is safe to say that this need to focus on drafting constitutions impoverished the Latin American liberal tradition in a unique way, relegating philosophical and economic concerns to a second role or disappearing them altogether. Hence, liberalism adopted an excessively legalist and formal character.

The Latin American liberal tradition is rich in constitutions and poor in ideas; nostalgic as it yearns for a past of ideological combat, and at the same time short–sighted because it cannot provide coherent answers to the challenges of the twenty-first century.  Its archaic armor proves itself inadequate to fight the battles of multiculturalism.

     Constitutions became a real obsession summing up the destiny and fortune of a nation. Behind this constitutional impetus there was a great political and economic naiveté. Reality would change as soon as the Magna Carta was promulgated. With a few exceptions, Latin American liberals were readers, not thinkers. There were no Hamiltons, no Madisons or Jeffersons. Hispanic America emulated ideas from Europe and the United States. It seldom produced its own. Its liberals consumed the production of the metropolis, and became fascinated with Course on Constitutional Politics (1814; Cours de politique constitutionnelle) by Benjamin Constant, since it offered them a manual, a practical guide, to produce their constitutions.

     Conversely, by the mid–nineteenth century English liberal thought was moving beyond the boundaries of constitutional texts. In 1859, John Stuart Mill published On Liberty, where he compiled the battles of friends of liberty against despotism and arbitrariness. The first aim of the patriots was to limit the power of the ruler and “this limitation was what they meant by liberty”. They accomplished it in two ways: first, by recognizing certain immunities, called political rights or liberties, and establishing constitutional checks whereby the head of government needed the consent of the governed to act; and secondly, when citizens decided that their rulers also had to be elected by the will of the people. Magistrates were to act as delegates to the people, and their positions could be revoked. “As the struggle proceeded for making the ruling power emanate from the periodical choice of the ruled, some persons began to think that too much importance had been attached to the limitation of the power itself. That (it might seem) was a resource against rulers whose interests were habitually opposed to those of the people. What was now wanted was that the rulers should be identified with the people, that their interest and will should be the interest and will of the nation. The nation did not need to be protected against its own will. There was no fear of its tyrannizing over

itself.”[3] Mill knew well that this was an illusion. Popular will in fact meant the will of the majority, not everybody. People might very well want to oppress some of their own, so the possibility of oppression did not disappear with elected governments. Not only that, the coming of democracy inaugurated a new type of domination: the tyranny of the majority. At first, this tyranny was conceived conventionally as a form of oppression in the guise of actions from public authorities. Nevertheless, some realized that when society itself is the tyrant (society acting collectively against its own isolated members) oppression did not restrict itself to the acts of authorities. Society can, and does execute its own mandates. When it decrees wrong mandates or intervenes in matters it should not, “it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression”. It cannot require corporal punishment; nevertheless society affords even fewer means of escape because it enslaves the soul itself. Therefore, it did not suffice to protect against magistrate tyranny. It was necessary to provide protection against the tyranny of opinion and prevailing feelings.

     And so, Mill cleared the road that from then on liberal Anglo–Saxon political thought would follow. He tapped a fertile vein of reflection that exploited topics such as individual autonomy, choosing one’s own purposes, and so on. This represented a departure from the liberal tradition of continental Europe.  While France retained its intellectual influence, liberalism remained concerned over limiting public authority and having rulers chosen by popular will. Institutions and elections continued to occupy center stage in our part of the world. Indeed continental Europe had not quite turned the page, but Latin America was seriously lagging behind. While Liberals in the rest of Europe could not move past the second stage described by Mill; i.e., achieving democratic government, Latin America had not even made it to the starting point. Not only had we not moved beyond the issue of limiting political power; in many ways we were trapped in a phase before that, which was the possibility of creating a stable politic structure. [4] In a sense, several countries in Hispanic America had not been able to transcend the revolutionary phase. Meanwhile, in France manner of government continued to be a major concern, but the country at least produced a great thinker, Alexis de Tocqueville, who not only dealt with formal and institutional issues, but outlined the new democratic phenomenon in the United States. He coined the expression “tyranny of the majority” to describe the burden of opinion he found in America.

The reception Tocqueville met with in Mexico was quite significant. When he was finally read and referenced in the constitutional debates of 1842 and 1856–57, Mexicans made use of the least original part of his book, where Tocqueville describes the political institutions of the United States of America. His most important arguments on the impact of equality in democratic societies, the tyranny of the majority, and the effect of traditions and habits did not elicit critical interest among Tocqueville’s Mexican readers.[5]

     The history of liberalism in Latin America has been marked by an obsession with constitutions and philosophical poverty. An abundance of positivist sociological theories in the last third of the nineteenth century denaturalized an already precarious tradition. My argument about history not only refers to the vicissitudes of liberal tradition in the nineteenth century, but also to the role it played in the ideas of major authors, who are essential to reflect upon freedom. For Mexico, liberal thought in the twentieth century belonged to the domain of historians like Daniel Cosío Villegas, and of a poet, Octavio Paz.

     By the end of the 1940s, the Mexican Revolution had plainly run out of steam. This brought about an attempt to couple a disruptive past with a civilized present, which coined the paradoxical term “institutional revolutionary”. As a social and political utopia the Revolution had ceased to exist. For many, its promises of regeneration had remained unmet. This depletion and disenchantment led people like Daniel Cosío Villegas to nostalgically search for exemplary ideologies and periods in the political history of Mexico that could serve as critical parameters. And so after several decades of oblivion, liberalism resurfaced in the late 1940s as a useful program to expose the deviations and betrayals of a Revolution made government. Like the “doctrinarian” liberals under Porfirio Díaz, Cosío Villegas believed that the Revolution had failed the nation’s trust in it to realize its yearning for political and moral regeneration. Where in history could one find a bar to gauge the current situation? The question inevitably led back to the nineteenth century; to the Restored Republic (1867–1876), an idealized period that would serve as a point of comparison to evaluate the present. According to our liberal historian, Cosío Villegas, this Restored Republic had represented a period of liberties, separation of powers, vigorous debate and political democracy. Cosío Villegas’ greatest work, Modern History of Mexico (1955), resulted from this nostalgic search in which he idealized the Constitution of 1857. In The Constitution of 1857 and its critics (1957) Cosío Villegas vigorously defended constitutional liberalism. The “giants” of the Reform dwarfed the “cubs” of the Revolution.

     Similarly, it was precisely during this era of consensus (1940–1960) that ideologist Jesús Reyes Heroles wrote El liberalismo mexicano (Mexican Liberalism). The Revolution and liberalism had been “institutionalized”. Liberalism had acquired two different, even contradictory faces, although both were equally mythical. The first one, embodied by Cosío Villegas, saw a critical parameter in the liberal past to judge that the reality of post–revolutionary regimes was negative. The liberal heritage constituted a program for the future that would have to be built upon the failure of the Revolution. The second face (Reyes Heroles) saw no betrayal but rather compliance and continuity of the revolutionary program. The Revolution retrieved and updated the nineteenth–century liberal yearning that had been interrupted by the Díaz regime. As Hale would point out, liberalism thereby became a national myth to be included in the official pantheon of Mexican nationalism.

     The concept of the continuity of liberalism, asserts Hale, “both in Jesús Reyes Heroles’ apology and in Cosío Villegas criticism, tends to keep us from understanding the long interval between the heroic Reform and the heroic Revolution, during which the liberal myth was forged, and therefore tends to ignore or distort other important liberal continuities that could be relevant for a clearer vision of current Mexican politics.” Liberal discourse has been, for instance, linked to a hardly liberal obsession: union, cohesion in the political body. Thus, a key characteristic of liberalism –tolerance to differences and the beneficial role of pluralism− was distorted in Mexico. The same happened with the concern over cultural preservation, for “preserving the Latin spirit of our nationality”, in words of Justo Sierra. [6]

     History animates but does not nourish liberal tradition in the twenty-first century. It is a source of romantic dreams. While historians idealize or denaturalize our liberal past, poets disbelieve it. Liberalism fights against the force of history, but will never defeat it. Octavio Paz clearly exposes the spell of history. In The Labyrinth of Solitude he wrote: “Every one of the new nations, on the day after Independence, had a more or less – almost always less rather than more – liberal and democratic constitution. In Europe and the United States these principles corresponded to historical reality (…) In Spanish America they merely served as modern trappings for the survival of the colonial system. This liberal, democratic ideology, far from expressing our concrete historical situation, disguised it, and the political lie established itself almost constitutionally”.[7] And so, thought Paz, “for over a hundred years we have suffered from regimes that have been at the service of feudal oligarchies, but have utilized the language of freedom.”

     Paz understands the liberal goal of definitely breaking away from the colonial tradition. It seems to him, however, that this goal is beyond liberal power. History defeats the illusions of a handful of illustrated optimists. Paz sharply notes the constitutional naiveté we have already discussed. Liberal criticism is “directed less toward a change of reality than toward a change of legislation. Almost all of them believe, with an optimism inherited from the Encyclopédie, that to transform reality it is sufficient to decree new laws”. The work of the generation of 1857 did not only consist in breaking away from the colonial world, but in projecting “the founding of a new society. That is to say, the historical project of the liberals was to replace the colonial tradition, based on Catholic doctrine, with an affirmation equally universal: the freedom of the individual”. [8] Paz was not mistaken when he stated that the Reform founded Mexico by denying its past: “it rejected tradition and sought to justify itself in the future”. That is the spirit of liberalism. For Paz, the limits of freedom are determined by history and its legacy: “Liberalism was a critique of the old order and a projected social pact.  It was not a religion but a utopian ideology; it fought rather than consoled; it replaced the notion of another world with that of a terrestrial future. It championed man but ignored half of his nature, that which is expressed in communion, myths, festivals, dreams, eroticism. Above all, the Reform Movement was a negation, and its greatness resides in that fact.  But what this negation affirmed− the principles of European liberalism− was a philosophy whose beauty was exact, sterile, and, in the long run, empty. Geometry cannot take the place of myth.  To convert the schemes of the liberals into a truly national project it would have been necessary to win the support of the country as a whole. This would have been supremely difficult, because the Reform was attacking a very concrete and particular affirmation:  that all men are the sons of God, a creed permitting a genuinely filial relationship between the individual and the cosmos.  In its place the Reform offered an abstract postulate:  that all men are equal before the law. Freedom and equality were –and are− empty concepts, ideas with no other concrete historical content than that given them by social relationships…” The corollary to this romantic reflection was: “the founding of Mexico on a general notion of man, rather than on the actual situation of our people, sacrificed reality to words and delivered us up to the ravenous appetites of the strong.”[9]

     Even though the Labyrinth of Solitude was written in the mid–twentieth century, this vision of history remains in good health. I believe the ideas of Paz portray one of the critical weaknesses of liberal tradition in Mexico and Latin America: its vulnerability against romantic attacks because its history has no weapons against arguments like his. Had historical liberalism nurtured itself not only from the ideas of Constant but also of Tocqueville, Paz’s accusation of freedom being a sterile idea would have been much less convincing. For man, Tocqueville discovered in the United States, equality was not an encyclopédiste abstraction, but a true passion. Furthermore, this French observer proved the falsehood of the dichotomy between freedom and religion. North Americans were religious and free not in spite of religion but largely due to religion. The philosophical version of Paz’s argument is contemporary communitarianism: society precedes the individual. And yet, the vigorous refutations liberals have offered communists in the Anglo–Saxon world are absent in our countries; not surprisingly, therefore, does anti–liberal multiculturalism enjoy such great popularity in Mexico.


Democracy vs. Freedom


A divorce between political liberalism – including democracy − and economic liberalism, supporting the free market, constitutes another anomalous feature of the liberal tradition in our countries. Whereas in the nineteenth century, the constitutional perspective of liberalism was hegemonic, in the twentieth century, various forms of authoritarianism eclipsed political liberalism. And even though individual freedoms and democracy in principle were incompatible with dictatorships, the free market was not, and so liberalism was reduced to its mere economic component in the countries of the Southern Cone. Divested of its political component, the free market became associated with governments that restricted civil and political freedoms, yet allowed economic agents to move freely. But liberalism had been historically born as a political ideology; it never was just laissez–faire. Today, perhaps the most significant challenge for Latin Americans lies in restoring political and economic integrity to liberalism. The divorce mentioned above has resulted in the anti–liberal democracy described by Zakaria. If liberalism fails to restore democracy as an integral part of its political legacy, it runs the risk of watching its democratic advancements turn into lost freedoms, as it happened in Venezuela. Reducing liberalism to the free market opens the door to populist anti–liberal leaders who oppose an open economy as well as the civil and political rights of citizens. They do not believe that courts, the separation of powers or constitutions can curb their terms in office. Reintroducing political liberalism in most of Latin America, therefore, remains a pending task.

     Economic liberalism is necessary, but not sufficient. The fact that very few of the technocrats who implemented structural reforms in their countries during the 1980s had a comprehensive vision of a liberal society is just as striking as the philosophical poverty of many nineteenth–century liberals. This explains why the technocrats neglected institutional areas such as Rule of Law and independence of the judiciary, without which a market economy cannot operate properly. Once again, a distorted and partial version of the liberal tradition swept over the continent that was adopted and uncritically copied by the heads of government of our countries. In the nineteenth century Constant’s “Course” had served as a textbook, in the 1980s that role had been taken over by the books of North American economists suggesting deregulation and a drastic reduction of the State. Taking structural reforms, which have not concluded in many countries, to a deeper level will necessarily require restoring political integrity to liberalism. Francis Fukuyama has acknowledged the importance of the State and institutions for the future of economic prosperity. [10] Yet this will not happen under authoritarian technocracy, but only through democracy and persuasion in an environment of political pluralism.


Freedom and its Enemies


     The main enemy of freedom in the Western societies of the twenty-first century is multiculturalism. The Marxist critics of liberalism of the past have metamorphosed into today’s multiculturalists. Contrary, however, to the old Marxists who openly attacked democracy and capitalism, the new critics do not fight head–on but obliquely by proposing collective rights for cultural minorities.

     One way of covertly introducing the notion of cultural rights consists in presenting them as a necessary condition to exercising individual rights. Philosopher Luis Villoro, for example, pointed out that “among the rights that ensure an individual’s ability to make life choices, it is necessary to consider those rights that secure the autonomy which makes such life choices possible for different cultural communities.” He adds: “before a Purépecha or Tzotzil individual can truly exercise his right to choose his own life plan, there needs to be respect for the ways of life of the Purépecha and Tzotzil peoples. A person cannot choose his life plan nor realize it if a culture other than his own is forcibly imposed upon him.”[11] The conclusion is, of course, that “the rights of the peoples cannot be deemed contradictory or opposed to individual rights, but rather as a condition to exercise those rights.”

     The merit of this vision consists in that it recognizes the ontological supremacy of the individual, but craftily conditions it to cultural “requisites”. Will Kymlicka in particular has systematically developed this thesis. Kymlicka, a Canadian political philosopher, states that the problems of cultural diversity are multiple and crucial. Majorities and minorities in a country often clash due to language, regional autonomy, political representation, land property rights, and immigration and naturalization policies. Finding morally defensible and politically viable answers to these issues is “the greatest challenge facing democracies today.”[12] The solution for Kymlicka demands reformulating liberal theory so that it recognizes the existence of minority rights. According to Kymlicka, “Liberals should be concerned with the fate of cultural structures, not because they have some moral status of their own, but because it’s only through having a rich and secure cultural structure that people can become aware, in a vivid way, of the options available to them, and intelligently examine their value.” [13] Culture, Kymlicka believes, is a necessary primary asset to make significant life decisions. Translated into practice, this means multicultural citizenship.

     Such an argument allows multiculturalists to assert that the rights of indigenous peoples do not go against individual rights or have a different foundation, but constitute a condition that make individual rights possible.  Theory and practice, however, do not support this argument. The possibility of conflict between collective and individual rights is not a hypothetical one. Theoretically, as Jeremy Waldron puts it, “The claim that we always have belonged to specific, defined, and culturally homogeneous peoples […] needs to be treated with the same caution as individualist fantasies about the state of nature: useful, perhaps, as a hypothesis for some theoretical purpose, but entirely misleading for others”.[14] Although it is true that we do not come up with our decisions and choices for no reason, this does not mean that in order to make them we require a “cultural framework” in which each available alternative has a meaning. Culture is formed by innumerable components coming from many places.

     The unfortunate Marxist aversion to individual rights has not abandoned multiculturalism. Since it is no longer rhetorically possible to deny those rights, the strategy now consists in “adding” them to collective rights. This is why individual and collective rights appear hierarchically equal in the proposals of many multiculturalists, and therefore seek a non–liberal theory of justice. Marx had one. As Brian Barry states, “Marx was distinctive in his position on civil and political rights: he was not content to point to their limitations in the face of great economic inequalities; rather, he denounced them as suitable only to ‘egoistic man’. The solution was not to supplement these universal rights with others, but to abolish rights altogether. In the society of the future, social solidarity and spontaneous cooperativeness would obviate the need for ‘bourgeois rights’.”[15] Obviously, indigenous rights are allegedly “non–egoistic” rights. Underestimating their potential to violate individual rights is perfectly consistent with the history of Marxism. "It is not necessary to hold Marx responsible for every crime against humanity committed by Lenin, Stalin and Mao," says Barry, “to recognize that his contemptuous attitude to standard liberal rights provided an ideological underpinning for the monstrous abuses of the legal system perpetrated by the regimes they ran, and by others molded on theirs.”[16] It continues to do so to this day.

     Those in favor of abstract “diversity” should remember like Sartori that, “a fragmented society is not necessarily a pluralistic society. And if it is true, as it is, that pluralism postulates a society of ‘multiple associations’, it is not enough. Indeed, these associations should first of all be voluntary (not mandatory or into which a person is born); and, secondly, non–exclusive, open to multiple affiliations. The latter is their hallmark. Therefore, a multi–group society is pluralistic if, and only if, the groups in question are not traditional groups and secondly only if they develop 'naturally' without being imposed in any way."[17] The demands of ethnic entrepreneurs are anti–pluralistic because they want one identity −an ethnic one− to dominate the rest. Conversely, “pluralism works when dividing lines are neutralized and blocked by multiple affiliations (and loyalties as well), while it ‘dysfunctions’ so to speak, when social–economic fractures match, joining and reinforcing each other (for example, in groups whose identity is ethnic, religious and linguistic)”. Multicultural projects, Sartori says, “can only lead to a 'tribal system' disintegrating, not integrating, cultural divides. It is not a matter of a conceiving rightly or wrongly, because the evil is innate to the conception of the project.”


[1] Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom, New York, Norton, 2003, p. 17.


[2] Charles A. Hale, “Los mitos políticos de la nación mexicana: el liberalismo y la Revolución”, Historia Mexicana, Vol. 46, núm. 4 (April-June 1997): 820.


[3] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1952, p. 268.

[4] J.G. Merquior, Liberalism Old & New, Boston, 1991, pp. 75-80.


[5] José Antonio Aguilar Rivera, “Omisiones del corazón: la recepción de Tocqueville en México”, Revista de Occidente, núm. 289, (June 2005): 17-35.


[6] Justo Sierra, La Libertad, 6 de marzo 1883, citado por Hale, “Los mitos políticos”, 825.

[7] Octavio Paz, El laberinto de la soledad, Postdata, Vuelta al Laberinto de la soledad, México, FCE, 1994, p. 134. (Trans. 1985. Grove Press)

[8] Ibid. p. 138.


[9] Ibid. pp. 139-40.


[10] Francis Fukuyama, La construcción del estado, Barcelona, Ediciones B, 2004.

[11] Luis Villoro, Estado plural, pluralidad de culturas, México, Paidós, 1998. P. 93. 12


[12] Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1995, p.1.

[13] Will Kymlicka, Liberalism, Community and Culture, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1989, p.165.

[14] Jeremy Waldron, “Minority Cultures and the Cosmopolitan Alternative”, in Will Kymlicka, ed. The Rights of Minority Cultures, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1995, pp. 93-123.


[15] Brian Barry, Culture and Equality. An Egalitarian Critique of Multiculturalism, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2001, p. 54.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Giovanni Sartori, La sociedad multiétnica, Madrid, Taurus, 2001.