Whose freedom?

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Sunday, 24 August 2014 18:30 by Ken Wolff

Many years ago, I think during the Reagan years, the US was on one of its regular attacks on China’s human rights record and the lack of freedom for its citizens, and I recall someone from the Chinese side replying to the effect that Chinese citizens could walk their city streets at night without fear. That response raises important questions about how we view freedom.

What is this nebulous thing that is freedom? (Note that ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ are generally interchangeable, partly because some languages, such as German and French, have only the one word for the concept while English uses both.)

The philosophers argue that there is a logical difference between freedom and matters such as justice, equality and morality but generally concede that these play a part in our perception of freedom.

A basic definition of freedom, that is still used, is that of John Stuart Mill who wrote in On Liberty in 1859:

The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to attain it.

There have been two basic approaches to freedom:

  • One, that freedom comes from being rational and making one’s own choices on that basis, which includes the rational decision not to harm others by one’s actions. The ultimate (utopian) outcome is a society that does not require rules because everyone behaves in a rational manner — the perfect form of anarchy, not that any of the mainstream philosophers actually recommended anarchy.
  • The other, that freedom occurs when one is free from coercion and interference, that one is not forced to undertake activities or make choices over which one does not have some control.
In 1958 Isaiah Berlin called these ‘positive’ (meaning ‘freedom for’) and ‘negative’ (meaning ‘freedom from’) concepts of freedom. The ‘positive’ concept comes from a long tradition going back to the ascetics and was popular after the Enlightenment, arguing that a rational approach gave an individual the ability to determine which desires are ‘true’ (should be pursued) and which ‘false’ (should be ignored), which was seen as essential to genuine freedom.

The problem, even for those early proponents of the rationalist view, was that not everyone may have achieved the level of rational thought necessary to achieve that degree of freedom. For Isaiah Berlin, that gave rise to the totalitarianism of both the Right and Left (remembering he was writing only a decade after WWII and during the Cold War) because someone other than the individual could decide what was required to achieve freedom and impose on others their view of freedom and of what was necessary to achieve that higher level of rational thought.

Another criticism is that, like religious ascetics, one can achieve this personal freedom by reducing or eliminating desires and wants. In this situation, the person no longer desires to take any action that may run up against constraints, so it can be said that all actions they do desire to take are ‘free’. This can, however, lead to the acceptance of situations that are inherently not free — for example, a well-treated slave being content with their lot.

The slave analogy was also used to criticise the ‘negative’ concept because it is possible that a slave may be allowed to live a normal day-to-day existence without coercion or interference but still remain a slave. Under the definition, that is ‘freedom’ but it ignores that the slave is still liable to renewed demands (interference) from their master.

That has led to many attempts at refinement of the definition of freedom. This has meant such approaches as identifying those areas where we should expect to be free to make our own decisions: this is our emphasis on so-called ‘inherent’ human rights, such as freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom from arbitrary arrest, freedom in our personal/private lives and so on. To make it easier, we often break it down into those component parts, so, rather than talking about freedom as a whole, we argue about the specifics of each of those freedoms. There has been, and is, much debate about what should be included.

In January 1941, Franklin D Roosevelt spoke of four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. He spoke in the context of the war that was then raging in Europe, and in terms of a new world order following the war, but the underlying aspects of those freedoms remain relevant, particularly the latter two which are not commonly picked up in the current liberal views of freedom.

Attempts to define freedom also led to consideration of the nature of the constraints that are imposed. At different times, words like ‘intentional’, or ‘offensively’ have been added to the definition of what limits one’s freedom: that is, the act that limits your freedom must be intentional and not merely an accident, or in some manner be offensive rather than defensive, to count as a genuine constraint. An element of ‘domination’ has also been considered: that covers the slave ‘problem’ in the sense that even if a slave is allowed to act in a free manner by their master the slave is still subject to ‘domination’. This, however, can also be answered by the earlier approaches to freedom, on the basis that a rational human being would not choose to be a slave and therefore runs counter to Mill’s condition that freedom includes not impinging on the freedom of choice of others.

The difficulty is matching the philosophic logic to the reality of society. Even the philosophers recognised that some rules were required, that we could not each be left to pursue our own ends without some constraints that protected the rights and freedom of others. This is the ‘social contract’ that became necessary when humans began living in societies rather than small or extended-family groups of hunter-gatherers. In the larger groups we gave up some of our freedom for the benefits, including the security, that society conferred. And when our societies became democracies, we were said to be free because people gained an active role in their own government or, in other words, became involved in determining the authority that was exercised over them, rather than being subject to the arbitrary will of a monarch.

The two shapes of freedom actually overlap to a considerable extent (as you may have guessed from what has already been said) but also give rise to the different political approaches of the Right and Left.

The Left emphasises the ‘positive’ freedom in its approach, considering that an individual cannot achieve freedom, or the higher level of their rational being, if they are poor, uneducated, condemned to no choice but physical labour, are part of a persecuted minority, and so on. Or, as some have said, freedom is meaningless to someone who is starving or has no home, although by the technical definition they may well be ‘free’. That gives rise to the Left and progressive view that physical and social conditions are also determinants of freedom and need to be addressed. In this view, removing constraints to freedom includes improving the individual’s capacity to exercise his or her freedom.

The Right, the neo-liberals (libertarians) and the economic rationalists, are more concerned about ‘negative’ freedom, the reduction of constraints, particularly by government, to individual decisions. They place a high priority on property rights, both physical and intellectual, (which was included by some early philosophers) as a way to maintain freedom, and include in that the capacity of labourers to ‘own’ and trade their labour. But this ignores the history of how many property rights were acquired: the landless peasants of South America, for example, had their land stolen and, if freedom means defending property rights, whose rights should prevail, those of the peasants or the current landholders? That is not an issue the Right likes to address.

G A Cohen, a Marxist political philosopher, also argued that lack of money is a constraint to freedom and attacked the logic of the Right’s view, describing it in this way:

Freedom is compromised by interference, but not by lack of means.
To lack money is not to suffer interference, but lack of means.
So poverty does not carry with it lack of freedom.
The primary task of government is to protect freedom.
So, relief of poverty is not part of the primary task of government.

C B Macpherson, a trained economist and also a political philosopher, developed an argument in the 1960s that early philosophers on freedom, like Hobbes and Locke, were bound by the values of their time and so developed their concept of freedom around the market, contractual obligations and property: the concept that an individual is the sole proprietor of his or her skills and owes nothing to society for them — what Macpherson called ‘possessive individualism’. Macpherson was criticised by both Right and Left. He also engaged in a debate with Milton Friedman. While Friedman claimed that history showed ‘that capitalism is a necessary condition for political freedom’, Macpherson countered that Friedman’s own examples showed ‘that political freedom actually came first and that those who gained that freedom, the property-owning elites, used it in their own best interests’, opening the doors to unrestrained capitalism.

Marx’s view of alienation relates to the disconnect between labour and its product. In Britain, it arose following the enclosures, whereby the peasants lost their access to the commons. Despite a considerable lack of freedom in feudal times, the serfs had access to land to provide for themselves and it has been estimated that they were able to retain anything from 50% to 70% of the product of their own labour. The loss of access to land meant that they had only their labour to sell, even to obtain the basic necessities of life. In essence, one form of a lack of freedom was exchanged for another. If I have no choice other than to sell my labour to survive, is that freedom?

In Nazi Germany, an Aryan German citizen could be quite happy and free as long as he or she was willing to accept the pogroms against the Jews, the attacks on the communists, and the denigration and persecution of other minorities, including non-Germanic foreigners. Was that a rational decision? Was it just acceptance of the views of the majority? Or was it manipulated by propaganda? They are questions vital to our sense of freedom.

It also brings us to a very murky area regarding our own society: the role of advertising, government manipulation of popular opinion, and even, as we saw in the lead up to the 2013 election, manipulation by the media. Brainwashing is definitely recognised by the philosophers as being counter to freedom even though the brainwashed person apparently ‘freely’ makes his or her own decision. Advertising and other manipulations may not be brainwashing per se but, to my mind, they are sailing very close, particularly as psychologists provide the manipulators with more and more knowledge about how we, as humans, make our decisions and choices. (I read recently that there are more psychologists employed in advertising in the US than are employed by hospitals.)

Kovie Biakolo, a young American woman who has her own blog, made some perceptive comments about freedom (or lack of it) in this modern context:

I believe that our society enslaves us in many ways. In the first place, consider how we work and why we work and how we are taught to work. … The premise is to pay bills and to buy things, many of which we are convinced to want in the first place. We become enslaved to our organizational practices and to our careers and, of course, to the almighty dollar. … Beyond our financial enslavement, think of the messages we consume everyday. We are told what is beautiful, what is politically popular to ascribe to, and the type of person we ought to want to be.

That raises an issue related to personal freedom and also to the concept of the rational being: that is our view of ourselves, our identity (or identities), and our autonomy in relation to that. It is accepted that many of our identities are socially constructed but we exercise our autonomy by deciding whether or not we accept a particular identity and exercise our freedom in deciding how we authenticate that identity socially. Thus I am a brother, a husband, a grandfather, identities over which I had (and have) no, or little, choice and which have social expectations attached to them but I do, or should, have some freedom to decide how I fulfil those identities. Other identities I may choose, including things like my political character and again I should be free to choose how I express that (writing for TPS for example). Freedom, then, can also be reduced if the choices to express identity are limited, whether by government or social constraints (majority values) — this is one place where issues like gay rights fit into the debate on freedom.

In my pieces earlier this year, ‘Whither the Left’, I raised the issue of the new working class, the university educated whose knowledge and intellect has now also become a commodity, just as labour did, to be sold in the market. Does this change the nature of the debate about the rational person being free? Once education was seen as a means to improve freedom by enhancing understanding and rational thought but if education now merely creates another commodity to be sold, where does freedom lie?

Jeff Sparrow recently addressed some aspects of freedom in a piece regarding comments by the Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson. He concluded with a major issue for the Left and progressives:

… the Left does need to think about freedom. It’s symptomatic of our marginalisation that [the term is] increasingly deployed by conservatives rather than progressives. There’s an urgent need to reclaim freedom, to rearticulate the concept as a synonym for liberation rather than exchange.

What can progressives do to give ‘positive’ freedom a positive image?

What can progressives do to show that freedom is about more than free markets?

How can we put freedom back on the political agenda in a country that already thinks it is free?

What do you think?