Here again, I’m Stephen Dames, co-Editor-In-Chief—along with Inica Kotasthane—of the Next Gen Politics Blog. This week–as I do every week–I bring to you a new installment of “The Agora,” a column in which I present a new philosophical topic and, in the spirit of the traditional greek “agora,” present multiple sides of the issue in order to (hopefully) inspire dialogue and debate. Each week, after explaining briefly each side’s thoughts and arguments, I will share a short paragraph at the end detailing my thoughts on the significance of the philosophy in the modern world. In doing this, I hope to present and further NGP’s spirit of cross-partisanship, and present classical ideas in a non-intimidating format.
This week we’ll be diving into one of the largest debates in classical and modern political philosophy: what is liberty? While there are hundreds of positions on this, and thousands of books and articles written about it (including some of the most important philosophical works ever written), I will attempt to present two of the most common arguments made when discussing the concept of liberty.
Defending the Idea that Liberty is “Freedom From Restraint”: Libertarians & Conservatives
Enshrined in both our Constitution and in the works of the great Enlightenment philosophers of Europe, the argument that liberty is “freedom from restraint” is the most traditional, and the most widely accepted, view on this topic. To boil it down simply, those who believe that freedom from restraint is liberty–while thinking that liberty is beneficial–believe that the less the state interferes in the personal lives of the citizens, the freer everyone is. A common thought experiment used by right-libertarians is the following: if a random man came into your town and demanded that contributions should be given to the poor, should you be mandated to give it to him? The analogy then goes on and asks the question “would it be just if you said no to man and then he had the power to imprison you at gunpoint?” Though this analogy may be lacking in subtlety, it conveys a point about taxation and the role of the state in individuals’ lives. It is on this point that the side who believes in “negative liberty” (freedom from restraint) comes in conflict with the idea of “positive liberty” (freedom from want), as those who believe that liberty comes from freedom from want would claim that it is an imperative that the state taxes the citizenry in order to meet everyone’s needs, while those who argue for negative liberty would say that this taxation is merely theft by a greedy authoritarian state that seeks to impose its will on its citizenry. Those who believe in the “freedom from restraint” principle believe in free markets, rugged individualism, and the necessity of a small, locally controlled state.
In the book “Arguments for Liberty”, Professor Christopher Freiman makes the following utilitarian argument for markets and for liberty: “The great virtue of the market, from a utilitarian perspective, is that it leads us to promote the happiness of others without demanding that we prioritize their happiness or even know how to make them happy.” Human happiness forms the bedrock of the discussion on liberty, as it is widely accepted that being free and having agency makes one happy and content compared with the brutal repression and inhuman misery of authoritarianism. These arguments are nowhere near comprehensive, but I think they provide the seeds for anyone interested to go into further study with a bedrock of knowledge.
Defending the Idea that Liberty is “Freedom From Want”: Libertarian Socialists & Anarchists
Although the phrase “freedom from want” is very old, and evokes deep meaning to many, today the phrase is most commonly associated with former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In his iconic “Four Freedoms” speech, FDR extolled the values of a large government to meet and maintain the freedoms of individuals. When people have their needs met, and their worries lifted, they have what Isiah Berlin called “positive liberty.” A major proponent of the theory of positive liberty, Jean Jacques Rousseau, argued that individual freedom is achieved through the collectivization and democratization of society. When a community’s democratic will is expressed, and individuals have their needs met through that expression, freedom is present. Only when individuals are “free from want” do they have the unlimited ability to pursue their own ideas, goals, and plans.
An example given by libertarian socialists is that of the factory worker. When a student comes out of high school and decides to work in a factory for a honest wage, the negative liberty side would view that choice as free, while the positive liberty side would view that choice as inherently coerced, as without the economic circumstances forcing the student to choose factory work, he might instead go pursue his passion, or continue with his education. Freedom from restraint frees those with the capital and the influence to live their lives to the fullest, but these individuals’ freedom is wrought from the oppressive apparatus of capitalistic authoritarianism which dominates states with “free markets” and “freedom from restraint.” To get to a state of true positive liberty, individuals must agree to an invasion of their property rights in order to win the right to satisfaction, personal freedom, and true “autonomy.”
While I would argue that this philosophical argument is important on its own, its value in the modern world could not be clearer. The states which most of us live in possess a security apparatus that was unfathomable to even the most repressive twentieth-century dictators, as it is one that is able to monitor us in every area of our lives–whether digital, private, or public. In the United States at least, both of our main political parties advocate for negative liberty–and against its other variant–as cover for a corporate-backed agenda that limits our rights and makes our country ever more authoritarian. There is no message coming from either side of the aisle at the highest levels around positive liberty, and if we are not careful, the dialogue around this freedom will be totally shut out of mainstream politics. As citizens we must value, advocate for, and protect our freedoms. As Thomas Jefferson once said “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots–and tyrants.” We must heed this message, and advocate for the forms of liberty in which we believe.
Thoughts? Opinions? Please share any musings in the comments below or, alternatively, apply to write for NGP and join us in ongoing dialogue!