Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Freedom back in the Mainstream?

Tibor R. Machan

Other than the occasional loose and practically incoherent mention of “freedom” by George W. Bush & Co., contemporary political discourse hardly invokes the idea. It is as if the era in which human liberty was of concern had now passed.

That, indeed, was the notion that Karl Marx championed. For the old communist individual liberty was a passing fancy, mostly of concern to those who were pushing for the special interest of the rich—e. g., John Locke, Adam Smith, David Ricardo. And while the alternative, namely socialism (not to mention the fantasy of communism) has met with serious setbacks, there still linger strong echoes of Marx’s idea that liberty has become passé. Even American conservatives seem to have given up on the ideals and ideas of the American Founders, other than in some of their neo-conservative rhetoric that tries desperately to justify going abroad and futilely attempt to change some rouge regimes.

Yet, now and then the concept of individual liberty re-ignites the imagination of even mainstream scholars and pundits. That was evident from a riveting book review published in the October 9th issue of The New Republic, written by Professor Steven Pinker of Harvard University and taking to task the book by another linguist, Professor George Lakoff, Whose Freedom? The Battle Over American’s Most Important Idea (2006). You may think what you will about either the book’s message or Pinker’s brilliant review but what is most encouraging is that The New Republic would publish a long discussion that’s focused so directly on the idea of human liberty.

In academic political philosophy and theory circles it is pretty standard fare that two conceptions of liberty have been doing battle for a couple of centuries now, usually dubbed “negative” and “positive.” Sometimes the discussion is cast in terms of “negative” versus “positive” rights, inasmuch as “rights” signify a sphere of human liberty. The idea of negative rights is just what is contained in the Declaration of Independence. It is that all adult human beings require, by their very nature, a sphere of sovereignty or self-government and others may not enter this sphere without being given permission. That is why government requires the consent of the governed, otherwise it is illegitimate. (This notion, while gaining public airing rather recently in human history has been around for a long time—check out Xenophon’s book, Memorabilia (written around 400 B.C.) in which it plays a vital role in a dialogue between Pericles and Alcibiades!)

Positive rights—which came on the heels of the fullest development of the idea of negative rights by John Locke and other classical liberals—was defended by such philosophers as Hegel, Marx, and T. H. Green and means being entitled to provisions from other people. It came to dominate political discourse during the era of FDR, who forged what’s called “the Second Bill of Rights,” filled with “rights” to services and goods other people must produce for us whether they choose to do so or not.

Obviously, these two ideas are incompatible. Pinker makes that point very well in his review of Lakoff’s book (one that's in full support of FDR’s idea): “[M]y freedom to have my teeth fixed impinges on my dentist’s freedom to sit at home and read the paper. For that reason, positive freedom requires an agreed-upon floor for the worst off in a society with a given level of affluence, and presupposes an economic arrangement that gives providers an incentive to benefit recipients without being forced to do so at gunpoint. That’s why many political thinkers (most notably Isaiah Berlin) have been suspicious of the very idea.” Certainly none more so than libertarians, who have always recognized that “positive freedom” is really the very antithesis of individual liberty.

We cannot fully explore this debate in a column but it bears noting how important it is that The New Republic made room for such a discussion by an astute thinker like Steven Pinker, who, though no libertarian himself (to my knowledge) has focused on the issue very precisely. And this in the context of reviewing a book that purports to advise the Democratic Party on what issues to stress in their push to regain Washington!

One can only hope that once again America will become a forum for some intelligent discourse on the most important idea in human political history, the idea of individual liberty.

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