Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Freedom versus Freedom

Tibor R. Machan

Santiago, Chile. As I was driven to my hotel upon my arrival here, I couldn’t miss all the promotional posters and billboards typical of election seasons in most Western democracies. I had little interest in Chilean politics other than to wonder whether anyone running was promoting greater liberty in the country than it was enjoying now.

Chile is Latin America’s most modern, most economically sound, and certainly cleanest country, both based on my own evidence and what I am told by everyone hereabouts. (It has some of the most striking and gorgeous natural attributes, to boot.) Where Buenos Aires shows the recent Argentine meltdown by way of its rather dilapidated environment—cars going about with dents not fixed, apartment houses going un-repaired, people wearing slightly shabby clothing and the hotel in which I stayed in need for many minor fixes—Santiago looks and feels like, say, Tucson, Arizona, or some other city shooting up in the midst of a southwestern state, only better kept.

I asked what if any issues are being debated in the current election here that suggest some care about liberty? The answer was that there is indeed a debate about the very nature of freedom.

It seems there are those who want the concept to be understood in its classical liberal sense—a person is free if other people do not intrude, if the rights to life, liberty and property are secure. Freedom is negative in the sense that it involves a “Do not enter without permission” sign around every adult person. Many in Chile are relatively loyal to this American model of freedom, often complaining that it is Americans who are losing sight of it these days more than Chileans.

But there are those who want freedom to be understood in its positive sense—people are free if all obstacles facing them, human or other, are removed, if they aren’t held back by various impediments be these the creations of others or of nature itself—ignorance, poverty, disease, and such. This kind of freedom is respected if others who have plenty of it are legally required to share their portion with others who lack it. So respect for individual freedom is in fact often an imposition of burdens so that these could be relieved for others—a kind of redistribution of burdens and benefits to make everyone equally free.

Of course Chile is not the first place where this debate has surfaced. From when the idea began examined seriously, there have been those who objected to “mere bourgeois freedom,” claiming it is shallow and unfair. Marx was among these but by no means the first critic. Those who defended negative freedom believed that human beings could—and most often would—do very well for themselves if only they were not subjected to the will of others, including, especially, their governments. Break their chains, liberate them from captivity and subjugation, and then they would take the steps, sometimes alone but more often with willing others, to be successful in their lives. Human initiative was taken to be a very good prospect, provided everyone’s sovereignty is respected or at least properly protected.

Those who champion the “true freedom” of Marx and his allies maintained, in contrast, that people need to be given support in order to advance in their lives, that merely setting the free from oppression is far too little help for them. Indeed, often so as to improve their lives, it is necessary to secure supports from others, whether voluntarily or by coercive force. Only that will make them free. In the case of Marx, of course, this could only happen at the end of social history, when human nature would be reconstituted and everyone would be motivated primarily by fellow feeling. Neo-Marxists and welfare statists aren’t like that, though, so they wish to impose the ideal of the New Man on their societies right her and now. They take us to be substantially passive or inert and in need of receiving boosts so as to improve our lives, something that requires the redistribution of labor power and other resources guided by either some elite or a democratic discussion. In either case, negative freedom is not only insufficient but often an obstacle to achieving positive freedom for all.

The current embrace of the “European model,” as many here in Latin America call it—in contrast to the US model, as proposed by the American Founders—is based on the widespread belief that a great many people who aren’t doing well in life cannot benefit much from enjoying mere freedom from intrusiveness, oppression, regimentation and so forth but must, instead, undergo a certain measure of proper regimentation by people in the know who have their best interest at heart. Venezuela is, of course, now fully in the grip of this outlook, going even further back, to outright socialist ideas. Bolivia looks like headed in that direction, with its favorite in the upcoming presidential election championing no holds barred socialism and nationalization of vital industries.

Of course, one problem is that the “American model,” as some refer to it, is nothing like what the American Founders outlined in the Declaration of Independence. The USA today is virtually a market socialist system, with government in charge of much of the economy, subsidizing this, regulating that, and protecting yet another thing from the free market. With this kind of leadership of the free world, no wonder its earlier ideal of a free society is faltering among those around the globe who are trying to figure out which way they ought to go as far as their political economic system is concerned.

Ultimately, of course, the debate is about human nature itself and what kind of community best suits it so individual human beings can embark upon a life of dignity and prosperity. For my money, there is little doubt that a free society requires respect for individual rights, not some elite group embarking on forced redistribution and caretaking. The lessons of history and honest human reflection (e.g., public choice theory, the tragedy of the commons, etc.), not to mention plain ordinary morality—that makes freedom from coercion a precondition of any ethically significant conduct—teach this to anyone who would but pay attention.

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