Is it time to retire the word “freedom”?

Like J.S. Mill, I stipulate that I am speaking of political liberty, not the philosophical problem of free will.

The plain meaning of freedom is being able to do what you want, but there is no way to maximize this.  Power is conserved; distributing it is a zero-sum game; any decision means more freedom for some set of people and less for some other set.  See Zippy.

One way liberals get around this by introducing the idea of a private realm that is one’s own concern.  “Freedom” means few restrictions in the private realm while in the public realm that affects everybody decisions are made impersonally so no one oppresses anyone else.  Freedom requires structuring society a certain way.  If my right to move my arm ends where my neighbor’s body begins, than freedom means giving everyone as much elbow room as possible.  This atomization process destroys communal goods that many would rather keep, but liberals are getting very comfortable about telling these people that their desires are evil and not true exercises of freedom.  And if power only over your private realm seems a paltry thing, you can participate in the impersonal public decision making machine (voting, jury duty), just as long as you only invoke motives that liberals approve as “public reason”.  Such is the price of freedom.

Conservatives have long noted that this model of expanding freedom in fact leaves everyone isolated and powerless before an impersonal government.  A better model of freedom, we have sometimes said, is provided by subsidiarity.  Don’t strip all authority from people and concentrate it at the top in an impersonal bureaucracy.  A better model of freedom is power distributed to as small units as possible.

There is some truth to this, but we should be careful about basing our case for the authority of fathers, bishops, and local governments on subsidiarity concerns, as if the only thing that mattered were spreading power and not who in particular gets it.  We insist that God has granted authority to these categories of people in particular (meaning both that He affirms the right to self-rule of the institutions these people represent and lead, and He endorses a particular hierarchical constitution of these institutions).  Defending the authority of fathers on the grounds of freedom from the state is playing on dangerous territory, because the state will invoke the liberal understanding of freedom to “liberate” the children.

Dissenting Sociologist has made an ingenious suggestion that we invert the liberal scheme of “freedom as no power of one person over another, rather power held impersonally” with “freedom as power held by responsible persons within an explicit hierarchy”, which would indeed mean a much more livable world, one that resembles less than the liberal one what we intuitively recognize as tyranny.

In my Defense of Tradition, I offer another way that conservatives might acknowledge the desire for freedom.

Cultures also have established standards of courtesy which recognizes persons as dignified by an accepted place in society…As Montesquieu noted, each people also has its own conception of freedom, the dignity we accord persons as beings with free will addressed by the moral law.  This culturally conditioned freedom can be quite different from liberal autonomy.  For example, a soldier is a free man rather than a slave—even if he was conscripted, even though his life is minutely regulated, even though he may be ordered to risk his life.  What makes him free is, ironically, his duty to obey.  To command someone over whom one has recognized authority is to appeal to him as a moral agent.  An animal could only be conditioned, and a slave could only be threatened.  The distinctive mark of freedom is also seen in the treatment of criminals.  A free society does not excuse or condition them; it punishes them.  Punishment appeals to a belief in free will and a common standard of justice.

Each of the above behavior codes varies from culture to culture.  In some aboriginal cultures women bare their breasts, while in some Arab cultures women cover their faces.  This doesn’t scandalize the traditionalist, any more than one would worry that different languages have different words for the same thing.

Freedom means not being treated like a child, which can mean completely different things in different cultures.

Other attempts to save the quest for freedom from incoherence exist.  For Hegel, true freedom is rationality, and the state exists, to speak very roughly, to make things make sense and to make us fully self-aware.  Virtue ethicists distinguish mere license from “freedom for excellence” which involves actualizing one’s own nature.  This seems to be what Tolkien meant by the “free peoples of Middle Earth”.  These definitions come close to replacing freedom as a distinctly political category with a fully actualized free will–self-control, understanding, “freedom from sin”.

Sure, there are definitions of “freedom” for which pursuing freedom is a good thing, but in all these cases, isn’t there a better, clearer word for what we are really pursuing?  If we want subsidiarity, personal (i.e. responsible) rule, culturally-conditioned expressions of respect for subjects, rationality, or virtue, wouldn’t it just be better to say that instead?

But we are conservatives, which means validating common sense categories.  If people value “freedom” and abhor “tyranny” so much, there must be something to it.  Even if the good of “freedom” is identical with some other good, the word “freedom” must be capturing some particular aspect of that good.  Maybe one of the above illiberal views of freedom is adequate, maybe not.  The intellectual work on the Right shall continue.

11 Responses

  1. I find it funny that you wrote this today, when I just wrote a simple analysis of the other side of the coin: tyranny.

    Under my conception, freedom could be viewed as the instances when what one desires and what is allowed/promoted are in sync, i.e. freedom is when there is no “subranny” as I called it.

    However, which matters more, the freedom to do as you please, or the freedom to do what is right?

    I do think there is something to be gained from not using “freedom” in the general sense, and from criticizing those who do. In the general sense freedom is fairly uninteresting. It is only in respect to particular rights (a la zippy), and the goodness of those right, that freedom is interesting. Should normal citizens be given freedom of annoying protest? Only if that is a right it is good for them to possess. The focus must be on showing why that right is Good, not why that right is going to be “freeing.” For one can free a demon as easily as an angel.

  2. Look, it’s great to be willing to challenge shibboleths, but it won’t due to indulge sophistry. We know what political freedom is: being free of arbitrary and unjust restraints; not being treated like a criminal when you have done nothing wrong. Mark Steyn on a couple of occasions has described the plight of a group of tourists at Yellowstone during the last government shut down. Because the government was “shut down,” park rangers confined these folks in their buses and hotels like prisoners for fear that they would go walking around the park enjoying nature when the park was closed. That is our government abridging freedom, and doing it in a way that is clearly idiotic. If I do something criminal, I should be punished; if immoral, I should be censured; if neither, I should be left alone.

    It does no good for advocates of NRx to act as if they don’t know what freedom and tyranny are. All semi-educated people have enough knowledge of history to know Nero was a tyrant and so was Henry VIII. If you crossed those men’s paths, you were at risk of being executed. That is not freedom. Despite all of my concerns about Modernity, I know for a fact that I have more freedom today than I would have had living under Nero or Henry VIII. Now, that doesn’t mean that in the future, I won’t have a lot less freedom than I do now.

    You can make all kinds of sophistic arguments about power being “unitary” etc. etc. It was a useful thought experiment for Moldbug, but if people don’t drop the “magic of monarchy” nonsense, NRx will be a colossal waste of time in dealing with the problems we really have. You are a Christian. It easy to see who the only human being worthy to be the King is, and He is at the right hand of the Father, not in Silicon Valley or Washington.

    I would hope NRx would give up this silliness and focus on something that really matters. For example, where we are on the “cycle of regimes,” what aspects are in decay and how, how these parts can be stabilized if at all, and what to do next if and when they fail? While the decay of the democratic features of modern polity into ochlocracy is bad, the aristocratic features have already given birth to a corrupt oligarchy. And the worst thing about this oligarchy (the Cathedral) is that they are 100% anti-Christian. They are trying to destroy even the possibility of being a Christian along with our Western heritage. Who from the criminals who rule over us are we going to select a king? Elon Musk? John Podesta? It’s madness!

  3. As much as I like Zippy I feel like attacking the concept of freedom is almost a panic response.

    Bruce Charlton, I think, did a good piece on freedom recently. If God wants our response to Him to be a free one, then that means freedom is of paramount value.

    When God founded a nation, they had by modern standards an extraordinary degree of freedom. Looking at the civic laws of the OT it’s very clear and very basic. A lot of leeway.

  4. MartinLuther,

    What human could be worthy to be a father? Worthy’s got nothing to do with it. Authority comes from God, not the personal qualities of the officeholder.

    For now, I leave the other issues you raise as an exercise for my readers.

  5. I appreciate the psychoanalysis, but I’d like to think that my arguments would be evaluated on their own merits rather than imputed to panic or other conjectured psychological weaknesses. And the subject of those arguments isn’t free will or whatever: it is specifically the attempt to make nondiscriminatory freedom a justifying principle of intrinsically discriminatory freedom-restricting concrete exercises of human authority (politics). That is, the subject is liberalism.

  6. “Become worthy. Accept power. Rule.” – Moldbug

    Everyone agrees you have to be worthy to rule. And no one is.

  7. “Everyone agrees you have to be worthy to rule”

    Except, I’m not sure anyone in these parts agrees with that. In fact, from my perspective, the whole notion that “I’ll submit/recognize/have some epistemological certainty of your authority when/becasue you’re worthy enough” is a source of a lot of error.

  8. It being obvious that unworthy men DO in fact rule and possess legitimate authority, I think I’ll trust my lying eyes.

    Besides, how many worthy men do you see being offered power? If your whole plan is “Become worthy. Accept power,” don’t expect to be ruling anything any time soon. Don’t worry, you’re probably better off that way.

  9. @Martin Luther: The sort of grotesque State overreach you describe has historically traveled hand-in-hand with the peculiar modern sense of the term, “freedom”. The incident with the park rangers happened in the self-styled “land of the free” where all men are supposed to be endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights and all that, not under Nero, or Henry VIII, and it isn’t a coincidence either. The rise of totalitarian governance as we know it, whether in its Eastern (Marxist) or Western (Liberal) forms, has taken place not in opposition to the idea of freedom, but in its very name. Critically interrogating this notion, and its associated political forms, is no mere academic pastime and nor is it sophistry. It is impossible to discuss or even conceive of the “cycle of regimes” without doing so, since the relevant variables must be specified in terms of the configuration of power specific to each regime.

  10. > We know what political freedom is: being free of arbitrary and unjust restraints; not being treated like a criminal when you have done nothing wrong.

    This definition just makes “political freedom” another name for good government. But if you meant good government (i.e. a government which upholds the good, and punishes the evil), then why not say that? Why call it “freedom?” Is it because in your mind freedom is equivalent to goodness? But this is clearly farcical. Being free to abort babies is not a good thing, it is an evil thing. So, freedom is only good when it is good. That makes freedom a useless concept. But if freedom is generally good, then that makes freedom supportive of all kinds of totalitarian nightmares.

    > act as if they don’t know what freedom and tyranny are

    We are trying to really understand what they are beyond just assuming that the 5th grade civics understanding is correct.

    > Nero was a tyrant

    Maybe, maybe not, but I bet he did not interfere in the daily life of his average citizen to one tenth the degree that every western liberal democracy does.

    > I know for a fact that I have more freedom today than I would have had…

    should actually read: “I know for a fact that I have more of the freedoms I consider to be good today than I would have had…”

    > Everyone agrees you have to be worthy to rule.

    I certainly don’t agree to that. Few to none of our current rulers are “worthy” in my book. That doesn’t seem to stop them from ruling, or from having legitimate authority to rule.

    Your essential confusion lies in the failure to distinguish between freedom and goodness.

  11. This definition just makes “political freedom” another name for good government.

    Exactly. If you told me “Martin Luther” was a sockpuppet of Zippy’s, I would be a little disappointed in Zippy, but it would be an excellent explanation of Martin Luther’s behavior.

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