Liberty and Freedom

This coming Wednesday I have the honour of facilitating a discussion at the City Symposium about Liberty and Freedom. Today I started gathering together a few notes in preparation, and thought I’d share them here, just in case any keeners are interested in reading ahead prior to the event. There is, of course, much historical/theoretical ground not covered below, and I am at great pains to extract an hour’s worth of discussion material from what could be a career of study. It’s an exercise in foolishness, really. I hope, however, that this compilation of rough and subjective historical landmarks will yield a very interesting conversation.

To kick things off, an illustration: drawing from A Doll’s House (the 1879 play by Henrik Ibsen), the political theorist Philip Pettit proposes a terrific thought experiment about the nature of freedom. I really like the way this frames the question of liberty.

Classically, liberty was defined by the Greeks and Romans essentially as self-rule. Put most simply: the only way to not be the slave to another government is to be in charge of your own government.

Once you are no longer a subject or vassal under a foreign power, defining liberty becomes an internal preoccupation. If we are collectively sovereign, how will our sovereignty be managed? By whom? For whom? To what ends? Building from Hobbes, thinkers like Rousseau develop the idea of a social contract.

In late 18th century England, an argument emerges in defense of British colonial rule in America that, in an ironic twist of history, goes on to become the underlying theory behind libertarianism. (Compare Murray Rothbard’s thesis that governments are inherently evil because they intrinsically infringe of people’s freedom.) Libertarianism and republicanism give us the two great opposing visions about the nature liberty. There is a lot of relevance here for contemporary discussions about the nature and definition of our sovereignty.

Today, most contemporary ideas about liberty are very much influenced by John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism, and most concisely encapsulated in the harm principle. For Mill, this is precisely why strong government is essential for liberty, and this principle becomes the foundation of liberal democracies today: liberty is protection from one another.

We might put these competing tensions into another thought experiment: if a majority of Americans suddenly wanted to eradicate their first amendment, would that be the most liberating thing for America to do? Would this increase or diminish their liberty as a nation, as individuals? Regardless of how you answer, you highlight the crux of the issue.

Returning to the opening illustration from A Doll’s House, I’d like to close by considering the concept of liberty as a continual, timeless struggle to balance our paradoxical human need for both security and freedom.

If we get through all that, I’ll be shocked. If we have time, I’d love discuss some of the following:

  • Do we who espouse and celebrate the ideal of freedom fail to recognize ways in which we oppress and subjugate others? This is, perhaps, the harshest question of political realism: Is all this talk about ‘freedom’ just a luxury for those who already have the biggest guns in place to keep the intruders away? Do we not live in a “Rule or Be Ruled?” world?
  • Hobbes identified very early on that if you have a nation of liberty-loving people, can very easily terrify them into doing all kinds of violent things if you can convince them that someone else is threatening their cherished freedom. Freedom, then, is really the rhetoric for inciting a revolutionary mob, and inherently has nothing to do with justice per se. What do you think?
  • How is the concept of liberty tied to the concept of ownership? (Especially the ownership of land and private property.) Can you have one with out the other?
  • It’s the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, but even if it wasn’t, it seems impossible to have a discussion about our modern concept of liberty without considering the ramifications of this document.

To be sure, this outline is missing far more than it includes. I am curious if there are any points/thinkers/events you would insist on including in this overview?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.