Front Page Titles (by Subject) II.: FREEDOM AND SPONTANEITY - The Liberal Mind
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II.: FREEDOM AND SPONTANEITY - Kenneth Minogue, The Liberal Mind 
The Liberal Mind, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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FREEDOM AND SPONTANEITY
We have described freedom as a set of interlocking moral characteristics. This accords both with the so-called positive view of freedom and also with ordinary experience. For there are many typologies suggesting that some men are not free even when nothing external impedes their actions. One example would be the type of sycophantic courtier, a man enslaved to the will of another because his behavior is dominated by an overriding fear of losing favor. Another would be the anxious parvenu, ill at ease among his social superiors for fear that his actions will betray his origins. And there is the modern type of the other-directed man whose dominant fear is that of losing the approval of his “peer-group.” None of these people is free, yet none suffers from political oppression.
So far as many liberal discussions of freedom go, this is none of our business. The use that people make of freedom is thought to be their own affair. Liberals feel uneasy if the enquiry turns in this direction, for it seems to lead towards the Rousseauist paradox of “forcing people to be free.” This uneasiness reveals that virtually all liberal argument about freedom rests upon the image of the slave—the man who waits for his chains to be struck off. The chains have grown increasingly insubstantial, but the continuance of the metaphor suggests the fundamental assumption that all men naturally want to be free. And since this flies in the face of the facts, it can be saved by the view that the voluntary slave is enchained by his environment or the traditions of his society.
We may regard these elaborate metaphysics as an evasion of the moral issues raised by the question of freedom. Political freedom is comparatively simple to describe. It refers to a system of political institutions which is constitutional and in some degree popularly responsive. In liberalism, this is freedom, and the moral issues only arise when we consider what use people make of freedom when they have it. Yet it is quite clear that one of the most popular uses of freedom is to subvert it, and the whole distinction between freedom and how it is used collapses into the unanswerable question: Does a free nation have the right to sell itself into slavery? This was Milton’s problem as the Restoration approached. It faced the Weimar Republic as the Nazi Party grew in strength. It has faced many countries becoming independent after a period of colonial rule. Intellectually and politically, it is evident that freedom is what we do, not what we may be allowed to do. Freedom is not a set of abstract things which we might do if we wished; it depends entirely on what we choose in action.
Thus in answering the question “under what circumstances are men free?” most people would agree that one of the circumstances is political. Thereafter, however, discussions of freedom can go in two very different directions. One direction leads us to the moral considerations which we have already discussed. Even in this field of moral preoccupations there is a good deal of disagreement. The modern idealist tradition is likely to put a great deal of emphasis upon rationality and harmony, without ever quite discovering what it is that is being rationalized or harmonized. But the point which must be stressed about the relation between political freedom and freedom as a moral characteristic is that the first depends directly on the second. Freedom depends on how men actually do behave, not upon how they are allowed to behave. It is a matter of character, not of foolproof constitutional devices. For fools are paramount in politics, and there is nothing which they are unable to destroy.
But these questions can be side-stepped if we proceed in a manner which seems on the face of it to be more scientific. We can search for the conditions of freedom. Such a search is partly a concern with those things which have always been associated with freedom; but this concern is shaded by an overriding interest in discovering what can make political freedom effective. Effective, that is, in promoting human happiness. Freedom at this point becomes a means, and political freedom is seen as a necessary but not sufficient condition of happiness. For no man, it may be suggested, can be free if he is deprived of leisure, and must grind out his life in toil. To such a man, political rights are a mockery. Again, those who have been free in the past have enjoyed a certain prosperity. If we would make men free, prosperity must be our object; if we wish to make all men free, then we must also be careful to distribute this prosperity widely. For such is a condition of freedom.
Now it would merely confuse our discussion not to recognize that freedom, as it appears in this argument, is something quite different from the manner of behavior on which we have so far concentrated. It is here an abstract potentially, a generalized kind of “being able” which in equity must be provided for all citizens. Freedom, as we have discussed it, has the peculiarity of providing the materials for its own continuance; that is to say, a tradition of free behavior creates habits and institutions which themselves require and encourage free behavior. On the view we are now considering, however, freedom is simply a power to do things, without respect to what things. Now we may say of such a power that it is entirely unreal; what people will actually do with such a power depends on what kind of people they are, and how they got the power. Freedom conceived in this way is quantitative; there can be more or less of it. But freedom as a manner of behavior is something which, at a given moment and in a particular situation, either exists or doesn’t. The situation is constantly changing; there are always some things we can do and some we can’t, but it is illogical to try to add up these abstract possibilities and quantify them. Money and power, on the other hand, are things which do allow of quantification; and, when freedom is quantified, we may well suspect that it is not merely being associated with money and power; it is being taken to mean these things.
The liberal preoccupation with the conditions of freedom can lead to another, equally fallacious, conclusion. The initial assumption, we have noted, is that no man is free without—say—bread and parliaments. This is a possibly defensible proposition, but its converse is not. For the converse would assert that all men who have bread and parliaments are free. Now this is to mistake a necessary for a sufficient condition, and serves the propagandist purpose of inclining supporters of freedom towards support for other social policies. “And it cannot be too strongly emphasized,” wrote Professor Laski, “that those who seek the new social order are in this hour soldiers in the army of freedom.”4
The most interesting assumption of this kind of argument is that freedom can be an object of political pursuit, and that such things as prosperity, industry, or certain constitutional arrangements, are means to the attaining of the end. One cannot organize a work of art; nor write poetry to rule. The man who sets out quite deliberately to maximize his own happiness is likely to fail. Whilst one may, perhaps, be able to create vast pools of technicians at will, one cannot create political stability or a nation of mystics. There are many things in the world which we cannot attain simply because we want them; and some are beyond our grasp precisely because we want them too much.
Here, we are forced to face one of the many paradoxes of freedom, namely that a political policy which aims at attaining any of the supposed conditions of freedom is likely to destroy free behavior. The French nation-in-arms of the 1790s, marching with libertarian slogans headlong into the Napoleonic dictatorship, would be the classic instance of this paradox. In such cases as this, and as I would argue in all cases, the political pursuit of freedom is always the pursuit of something else. There are no means which serve the precise end of freedom, for freedom, like happiness, is not an end that can be pursued.
Most ideologies which concern themselves with freedom deny this point explicitly, since they tell us what we must do either to attain freedom or to “increase” the amount of it. And a good deal of current political speculation denies it implicitly—notably the exponents of “thaw and freeze” analysis of the Soviet Union who are always hopefully looking for the moment when, a relaxed prosperity having been attained by the régime, freedom will evolve out of the primeval slime of despotism. It is certainly true that instances of free behavior will be found in the Soviet Union; but it is illusory to believe that some day the popular will to peace can alone bring an end to the cold war.
For if we are seeking the conditions of freedom, we must look not to those circumstances which happen to accompany it, but to the manner in which it has been attained. And we will find that it has always been attained because of a spontaneous growth of interest in truth, science, or inventiveness; a spontaneous growth of moral principles appropriate to freedom; a spontaneous construction of the political arrangements which permit of free constitutional government. Spontaneity indicates that free behavior has arisen directly out of the character of the people concerned, and that it is neither a mechanical process, nor a “natural” reaction to an environment, nor a means to the attainment of some end. Free behavior, in other words, is its own end. It may indeed be that “necessity” set the problem; that political antagonists in Britain had to work out some balanced form of constitution since none was strong enough to subdue the rest; but, once established, this element of balance was something desired for its own sake by people who criticized and rejected any recourse to absolute sovereignty.
It follows from this that free behavior cannot be understood in a context of ends and means, for it only begins at the moment when we forget about ends and begin to act for no other reason than an absorption in what we are doing. And this implies that an important element in free behavior is that we are prepared to accept the consequences of our actions, rather than adjust and modify our behavior in accordance with something external to us.
This explanation of freedom necessarily excludes those rationalist and utilitarian views of human behavior by which everything we do is a means to some further end, leading always—efficiently or inefficiently—towards some such goal as happiness. Rational behavior is the product of a judicious choice both of ends and of the means to them. It is certainly true that we do make calculations of this kind, though in fact most people consciously do so comparatively rarely. The moral significance of these doctrines is that they recommend calculation as a pre-eminently ethical manner of behaving. In utilitarian terms, prudence or caution is the highest virtue. In terms of our account of freedom, it is, on the other hand, unfree. This contradiction is not, however, as direct as it might seem, for prudence is an ambiguous virtue. It may be a servile concern to placate and serve others, the reference of every act before it is done to a criterion of self-interest, and this is what it often looks like in utilitarianism. This is prudence as it is found in our earlier examples of courtier, parvenu, and other-directed man.5 But prudence may, on the other hand, be a recognition of the preoccupations of others and of the extent to which we can accommodate our preoccupations to theirs; and in this sense, prudence is essential to a free State.
[4. ]Laski, Liberty in the Modern State (Pelican Edition), 1937, p. 40.
[5. ]I refer, of course, to typologies; any particular courtier or parvenu may well behave very differently.