Source: Kenneth Minogue, The Liberal Mind, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000). CHAPTER SIX: Freedom
Copyright: The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair Use: This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Freedom as a political slogan is an ideal, a goal to be pursued. But an ideal can only be something constructed out of what we have already experienced. In studying freedom, we may, on the one hand, consider it simply as a set of facts about social and political life; or, if our enquiry is ideological, we may seek those of its characteristics which are suitable for erection into criteria. What makes freedom difficult to study is that most investigations succumb at some point or another to its desirability; and an interest in what it is gives way to a concern with how it may be promoted.
Among the conspicuously free groups with which we are familiar are the citizens of Athens, and the enfranchised of Britain and America. In each case, these peoples, finding themselves in conflict and consequently attempting to define what they were and what their struggles sought to defend, discovered that they were free peoples. This discovery was attended by a considerable outpouring of rhetoric; and all of it was subject to the fallacies inevitable when a moral characteristic like freedom is confused with a concrete historical situation. But embedded in the rhetoric, and susceptible of extraction by enquiry, was a theory, not of how freedom might be attained but of what it was. Let us consider some of the characteristics of a free society, taking as our model one of its earliest formulations, the Periclean Funeral Oration.
Pericles was concerned not with the statement of an ideal but of those characteristics of Athens which Pericles considered to make her distinctive and great. These characteristics are not so much political as moral. Further, all of the characteristics interlock, one with another, so that the presence of one leads to the development of the others.
It was courage which Pericles identified, partly for topical reasons, as the first quality of Athenians. But it was courage of a very complex kind. For Aristotle, courage was a mean between rashness and cowardice, and for Plato it was the knowledge of what is not to be feared. The courage we are trying to identify is thus not the kind which is often evoked by the presence of an enemy; it contains no element of hysteria. It leads to a special kind of reaction to crises. In a national emergency, two extreme reactions may occur. On the one hand, the populace may fuse together to such an extent that they resemble an organism. They think and feel the same way, and their social fusion is generally capped by adoration of a leader. Tribal behavior is predominantly of this kind, and so was the totalitarian cohesion of Germany and of Japan during the Second World War. It has the advantage of simplifying matters, so that all problems seem technical problems related to an overriding objective. Alternatively, we may find that a national emergency evokes social dissolution; the State breaks up into institutions, families and individuals whose main concern is to cut their losses and survive. People distrust each other, and few are prepared to take the risks of political organization for fear of treachery by others. Something like this occurred in the French collapse of 1940.
These are both entirely different social reactions, and we are only tempted to see them as polarities because under most circumstances both reactions are likely to occur; some people will risk everything for the national effort, others will attempt to profit from the situation. Politicians have an understandable preference for the former kind of behavior which they describe as unselfish and heroic.
A free reaction to a national emergency is difficult to describe but clearly distinguishable. It consists in a kind of social cohesion which combines cooperation with the full maintenance of individuality. There is neither blind devotion to a national cause nor utter scepticism about it. All that happens as a result of the emergency is an unusual consensus of opinion about priorities, but there is no complete capitulation to an overriding goal. As a result, free societies do not drastically alter their structure and their customs as a result of the emergency, perhaps because they are in any case highly flexible. One celebrated instance of this would be the maintenance of civil liberties in Britain from 1939 to 1945. But that instance depended entirely upon the fact that unity already existed; had there been deep divisions the British government would, like any other, have had to use repression to deal with them. But then again, the behavior and policies of the government were an important cause of whether or not deep divisions might occur.
If we take it that free co-operation is a special and distinguishable social relationship, our problem is to discover why it occurs. Pericles, as we have seen, attributed it to courage; but for Plato it was a form of knowledge. It has at times been called rationality, in the sense of a refusal to succumb to passions like fear or the desire for security; but the distinction between reason and passion is moralistic and narrow. Certainly full co-operation depends upon a populace accustomed to facing new problems, and confident that it can deal with them successfully. Another way of describing it would be in terms of balance; political issues are extensively discussed, and this can only happen if some individuals resist the strong impulsions of panic that often cause people to accept any solution with a majority behind it. Small groups with unpopular policies need a good deal of courage to continue advocating their policy in circumstances where their enemies are liable to invoke charges of treason and disloyalty. In moral terms we discover courage on one side and a kind of tolerance on the other, and the whole picture is of a community involved in conflict, but deliberating, and capable of coming to a decision. If we can explain the elements of this situation, then we will have discovered much about freedom.
One crucial element of free co-operation is a respect for truth. Under all circumstances, the pressure of expediency causes considerable distortions of fact. In a crisis, this pressure increases. Further, if the national goal is taken to be an overriding criterion of action, then truth, like everything else, must take a subordinate position; always to some degree essential to the success of any operation but twisted for convenience in many particulars. This fact is most clearly seen in the case of totalitarian societies which feed on crises, and depend upon a set of dogmatic beliefs whose questioning would indicate a threat to the whole system.
Now a respect for truth is never the result simply of an act of will. It can only exist as part of a tradition which has continued for a considerable time. In particular, it must gain support from independent institutions in society, for whom truth is a concern overriding everything else: primarily, universities. In all our examples, a tradition of enquiry was sufficiently powerful to impose its standards in other areas of the life of the State: a truth-respecting integrity was part of the conception of honor prevalent in those States. Further, this kind of honor is irrational and imprudent, for there are many occasions both in political and personal life when there are advantages to be gained from suppressing the truth. The temptation to deceive becomes more pressing in times of crisis, and each side attempts to gain allies by distorting the ends of its policy and evading the unsavory facts about its own position. Too great a desire to persuade others is fatal to truth; it leads rapidly to the strident and rigid world of propaganda. In free States, then, there are always people who are irrationally attached to the truth, in the manner of Socrates and Zola, and who will not be turned aside from this by appeals to national interest or slogans like “national survival.”
But this fact tells us even more about the character of a free society; for universities nurturing a tradition of free enquiry cannot exist in isolation as the only independent institutions of the community. There must be a wide variety of institutions independent of the government and capable of cultivating their own interest within a political framework. Freedom has often been associated with variety, and even eccentricity; it is certainly hostile to the notion of a single dogmatically held truth. The existence of such a variety of independent institutions is both politically and intellectually necessary for a tradition of truth. Politically, because universities cannot remain free whilst other institutions are carefully regulated by the government, for their independence would undermine the dependence of others. Intellectually, because the clash of ideologies which goes on between institutions—between churches, or the various organized interests of the economy—generates many of the theories with which investigation deals. For there are always some areas of life which are most thoroughly cultivated by some particular institution, and it will, for its own purposes, turn up problems and solutions which for scientists, philosophers and historians, have other meanings.
These institutional arrangements are closely linked with tolerant behavior, another moral characteristic which waxes and wanes in people. “We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law,” as Pericles expressed it. Now this condition only arises as a social custom; it is a manner of life rather than the product of a desire. It lies outside the control of individuals; governments may encourage or discourage fanaticism, but they can neither create the fanaticism they want, nor destroy the fanaticism they do not want. In a State which is radically divided by fanatically held opinions, a government has no option but to repress or be overthrown. But whilst fanaticism is not a calculable growth, some forms of political organization are more conducive to it than others; one which holds strongly to the distinction between a “public” and a “private” sphere is less likely to suffer from fanatics than one in which government regulation of everything is commonly accepted. It is difficult to define the private sphere in terms of natural rights or self-regarding actions; but if some such privacy is respected throughout the State, then governments cannot easily invade it.
These conditions are part of the lives of individuals. They describe the way people think and feel. In developing our account of freedom, we may employ a distinction commonly made between technical and deliberative thinking.
Technical thinking is the solution of problems within fixed limits, as in the discovery of means to ends.
Deliberative thinking, on the other hand, is the reaction to a situation made by something which is itself capable of changing. I am referring here to what is commonly called “free choice” or “man’s freedom to choose.” The objection to these terms is that they are individualistic, assuming a fixed (but mysterious) human identity which opts for one kind of principle or act rather than others. In deliberation, however, the crucial fact which determines the outcome is the character of the chooser, and that is not known until the choice is made; for choice is a determination of character, something which happens when we are making up our minds to “take a stand” on some issue. But it may also happen unconsciously, which suggests that the term “thinking” ought to be avoided. We may distinguish three possibilities in deliberation. In one, the kind which normally draws the attention of moral philosophers, a moral problem is posed and solved by means of an intellectual effort whose course (in terms of principles held or ends considered and rejected) can be plotted at each stage. Much more commonly, however, life poses for individuals a moral problem which they seem almost to solve by impulse. Without consciously thinking about it, they come to a decision, finding that the issues have become clarified in a manner analogous to the solving of intellectual problems in sleep. Finally, there are occasions when the problem is both posed and solved before the individual is even aware of it—often because he is strongly resisting.
This last fact about deliberation is significant; it indicates that deliberative problems are often painful, and therefore avoided. In fact, avoidance of these problems may become the solution. Such problems can produce anxiety, and a political solution to the problem posed by anxiety is the tribal social cohesion mentioned earlier. The effect of such a political development is to convert deliberative problems into technical problems: or, at least, so it seems to the members of the tribe.
Now in a free State, characterized as we have seen by a wide variety of independent institutions, individuals must constantly face deliberative problems about what they ought to do. They become highly skilled either in solving such problems or (which is also a solution) refusing to meet them. Children learn to behave in this way, partly because they are taught to, and partly because they have to. They are subject to a considerable bombardment of propaganda, and there is little in the way of an established intellectual orthodoxy on political or religious questions to serve as a protection. Given an education of this kind, people are less often tempted to succumb to the hysteria of indecision, which often leads to the desire to submit to a striking and dramatic orthodoxy.
In such varied social circumstances people cannot be generally judged in terms of their status and function, for there will be many sources of status— money, birth, place of education, intellectual distinction, celebrity, popularity and so on. This fact, too, is a source of confusion to people who are not accustomed to deliberation, and they may therefore prefer a single system in terms of which everyone can be conveniently assessed at a moment’s notice. This dislike of different sources of status often gives rise to a virulent dislike of snobbery, leading to some single criterion of “true worth” which would clarify our judgments about people.
A free State is one in which there is a strong resistance to professionalization; it is marked by that “versatility” which Pericles claimed for Athens. The sort of personal behavior indicated by versatility is one in which people are ready to “try their hand” at anything they have to. It is for this reason that pioneering communities have many of the characteristics of free States; the more difficult question is how freedom exists in States with a stable social structure. The situations which most contrast with this kind of versatility are a caste system, a rigid form of feudal system, and a bureaucracy, for here each person has a fixed status which determines the kind of work he does, and usually the only kind of work he will do.
Individuals in a free society may be described as independent. This means, for one thing, that they will organize themselves, and resist attempts by other people to dominate them. But that is only possible if such people dislike not only domination by others, but also submission by others. Independent individuals have no desire to crush the independence of others, for independence is not simply a social relationship, but a characteristic which only exists by rejecting both domination and submission—a point which Plato made in arguing that the despot himself was a slave.
It is a mark of the interlocking signs of a free State that this immediately brings us back to truth. For in considering the circumstances in which free independence is possible, we must observe that it depends to a very large extent on an intellectual interest in how things are, in contrast to the desire to make things conform to a pre-established plan. A passion to control is the attempt to create dependence from a fixed position, as a father may attempt to control the development of his children not simply by insisting upon fixed standards of behavior, but by crushing any signs of independence or deviation. Truth is frequently a deviation from our explanatory categories and from our ideas of what the world must be like, and philosophy and science are therefore marked by a respect for the independence of facts, a characteristic which is likely to be carried over into other kinds of social activity.
Free individuals can modify themselves in a traditional manner in the face of the possibility of the breakdown of order. They are not “slaves of the passions.” In social terms, men who are afraid will abandon their liberty to a protector. Men who are covetous and acquisitive will abandon their freedom to rulers who will leave them free to acquire wealth. Men dominated by gambling or drugs will not be able to see clearly enough to recognize threats to their liberty. Further, wilful men, hungry for fame and ambitious to command, will soon cease to respect the liberty of others.1 Historical generalizations of this kind indicate the connection which the idealists have always seen between virtue and liberty, however difficult it may be to elucidate this connection.
One further fact about free societies may be noted: they will show a considerable degree of institutional creativity. One consequence of freedom, and one mark of its existence, is the proliferation of institutions and associations created by groups of people, often for ad hoc but also sometimes for permanent ends. States in which this happens will show what de Tocqueville2 observed in Anglo-Saxon States—a craving for public affairs and a thirst for rights. The work of creating and maintaining social institutions is something which has to be learned; one cannot simply make up one’s mind to do it, and then go ahead. Many traps lie in wait—from futility to dissension and on to the possibility that the institution may misconceive its social importance and enter into violent conflict with the authorities; further, in a despotic society, governments are likely to assume that all initiative on the part of citizens is subversive in character, or will quickly become so. Thus to state the social and political conditions under which citizens may be spontaneously associative is to outline once more the various marks of freedom which we have already described.
This account of freedom attempts to set out the materials from which an explanation of freedom might be constructed. Inevitably it raises a great number of questions, some of which can be summarily considered here. In particular, it requires us to distinguish between freedom as a moral character and a free society. Freedom is something spontaneous and unpredictable in human affairs, and is likely to be found anywhere. A free society, on the other hand, is a society in which institutions have developed which are peculiarly suited to conserving a tradition of free behavior. We will find in free societies, as in any other, all those kinds of behavior which are most antipathetic to freedom. Any historical society will be a mixture of kinds of behavior, a location of moral struggle. It is only in the propagandist circumstances of war that countries are thought to stand for abstractions like Liberty, Democracy, Aryanism, or the Homeland of the Proletariat.
It is a historical commonplace to find many groups and nations claiming that they fight for freedom. And in many cases, at the end of the struggle, they find that they have merely substituted one kind of oppression for another. It is common to believe, when this happens, that the revolution has been betrayed. Yet it is more often the case that the betrayal is simply the measure of the illusion that one can literally fight “for” freedom. When slaves rise against their masters, it is usually the particular domination they object to, not to domination itself. The revolution, in other words, is always betrayed not by the leaders but also by the character of the followers. When the English struggled against the Stuarts, they were not slaves rising at last against a tyrant; they were men already free striving to maintain that freedom against what they took to be a new threat to it. Again, when the American colonies rose against the British government, they fought not “for” freedom, for they were already free; but to establish circumstances in which their manner of life might expand unfettered. What made the politics of the French revolutionaries so ambiguous in this respect was that the forces of dependence were so strong that when men shouted Liberté they had, in many cases, only a dreamlike notion of what the term meant.
When men claim that they love freedom, they can mean many things. In part they are admiring the independence of freedom, the refusal to obey masters no matter what orders may be given. But they will often mean by freedom a fantasy in which all the frustrating restrictions under which they suffer have been removed. And they will also associate this, in most cases, with an upper-class status which they have coveted from afar. It is out of these latter elements that a new bondage may be constructed for them. Most modern freedom movements have been closely associated with nationalism, and while freedom may be the flag they carry, it is nationalism which is likely to win in the end.
For while men may love freedom, they also love dependence. Those who come new to individual responsibility are likely to fear its risks and burdens. They like to take refuge in a function, desiring to be told not only what to do but also what they are. It is only clear directives from outside which can resolve the stalemates in the personality resulting from barely conscious conflicts. Such conflicts are personal problems which men unaccustomed to freedom can only solve in a dogmatic way, by unquestioning adherence to an organization, a role, a principle, or a person. The reason why freedom generally succumbs to nationalism is that a free man is an abstraction; he does not know what he is or what he may do. But in the nation, a man can find an identity and a set of satisfying duties. If freedom can only be attained by a prolonged military struggle, then what is attained is unlikely to be freedom. Actual warfare often generates demands for loyalty and solidarity of a dependent kind; and whilst there will always be some voices raised against the plea of common interest, they may not carry much weight against an established leadership and organization. The classic modern situation of this kind occurred on the Republican side during the Spanish civil war. Under these circumstances— where those who claim to be fighting for freedom are an unstable alliance of groups, each with a precise and uncompromising vision of a future condition—a free condition does not exist, nor can a free State be attained.
This raises a question to which we can only afford to give a sidelong glance, and about which nothing very much is known. What are the circumstances under which freedom can develop in a society? Taking a hint from Wittfogel’s study of oriental despotism,3 we may observe that the free societies which we are considering originated out of a combination of feudal and commercial circumstances. A decentralized feudal situation, in which honor and birth were the dominant considerations, was weakened and forced to compromise with the growth of cities and commercial activity. Freedom in each case arose out of a compromise of a peculiar kind between an established feudal class and a vigorous commercial one. Once the character and institutions are established, however, they can prove flexible and strong, and be transmitted to later generations and colonial extensions.
If this account of freedom is correct, then it is an ideal only in that it is widely admired, and like anything widely admired it can sometimes guide our efforts. But there is no question of approximation to some unattainable condition. For freedom refers to a complex set of moral facts. What might we mean by saying, for example, “Britain is a free country”? This proposition might point to the existence of free institutions in Britain—freedom of speech, opposition parties, habeas corpus. Such is the liberal view of the matter, and as far as it goes it is perfectly correct. But we may then enquire: Under what circumstances are such institutions possible? When the people arise and throw off their chains? When the victims rise against their oppressors? Hardly, for that kind of insurgence seems uniquely to produce a new set of oppressors. It may be that the conditions permitting free institutions lie beyond our conscious control; we cannot have them merely because we want them. It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the proposition “Britain is a free country” refers not merely to political institutions, but also to a type of behavior which is sufficiently widespread among all classes of the population (but especially the political classes) to permit and maintain free institutions.
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.
Liberalism advocates the elimination of poverty and illiteracy by the provision of welfare; and it is most recognizably liberal when it recommends these policies as ingredients of, or means to, freedom.
We may observe immediately that in this respect, modern liberalism may be sharply distinguished from classical liberalism. Classical liberalism advocated a system of government which permitted the maximum room for self-provision; each family was expected to make its own arrangements; economic success was a carrot to encourage people to work, poverty was an indispensable spur. It is one of the ideological triumphs of modern liberalism that this classical version seems to us nothing more than a crude veil over the naked operations of the capitalist system, for we have become accustomed to estimating political doctrines in terms of the interests they appear to serve. What we must remember, however, is that the classical doctrine of self-provision was explicitly a moral doctrine, and one which must be discussed on its own moral ground.
The classical doctrine of self-provision was partly based on a sound distrust of political interference. It took government as no more than an instrument for keeping order; anything else was meddling. This point of view no doubt benefited the interests of some rather than others, just as the doctrine of State regulation similarly benefits some rather than others. But it was also based upon a strong dislike of the State setting itself up as a father. The classic rejection of this pretention occurs not in discussions of political economy but in Areopagitica, where Milton opposes any claim by the State to be the sole supplier of truths. Such a claim would condemn grown men to a “perpetual childhood of prescription.” Milton’s objection is a moral one: “Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather: that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary.”6
Milton was here attacking the doctrine which suggests that children are born innocent and learn corruption, and therefore asserts that each State has a duty to suppress heretical, blasphemous, obscene and untrue doctrines. Women, children, slaves, household servants, workers, soldiers,7 must all be protected from such material. The Roman Catholic Church operates upon this protective principle, and so have most States, claiming that they are not merely the custodians of order, but of morality as well. The State, on this view, is a paternal institution which guides and cares for its subjects in exchange for their devoted obedience. It is further true that governments holding such views are often more solicitous of the welfare of the poor than their classical liberal opponents—the government of Charles I was, at least in its aspirations, a case in point. Such a doctrine fitted well into a patriarchal milieu—by which the landowner cared for the tenant, the officer saw to his men and his horses before seeing to himself, and all of society was to be wrapped in mutual solicitude.
It is thus clear that modern liberalism, by virtue of its morality of public provision, has, with modifications, taken over some of the principles which in other centuries we would describe as conservative. The issue may be expressed in the formula State-provision versus self-provision, and the espousal of State-provision is perhaps the most important change that has taken place in the development of modern liberalism.
State-provision is supported partly by arguments from justice and partly by arguments—as we have noted—from freedom. Yet, if our interpretation of freedom is correct, the freedom argument is a mistake. Provision by the State of welfare and education does not necessarily promote freedom, and it may be positively inimical to it. Yet while the confident assertions of ideologies are often mistaken, there is usually a reason for their mistakes. And the reason why welfare is mistakenly assumed to be a means to freedom is that welfare is something independently supported. In other words, liberals would seek to promote welfare whether it conduced to freedom or not.
Modern liberalism, then, supports welfare irrespective of its bearing upon freedom. One reason for this emerges out of what we have called the suffering situation. Liberals seek to relieve generalized kinds of suffering, and it is plausible to argue that those who suffer are not free.
But we can find a more interesting reason why modern liberalism supports welfare if we extend the ends-means chain a little further. We have seen that, in liberal argument, welfare is a means to freedom. But what is a means to welfare? The classical liberal would immediately reply: “Self-help.” His modern successor would shake his head and point to the handicaps which the poor endure. Hence he would advocate State provision, something which requires the development of new administrative and political techniques. And this extension of State regulation and provision can be presented as a necessity, for there is indeed no other way in which welfare can be provided in a modern State.
A clear grasp of this point not only bears directly upon the question of freedom; it also explains what we may call the paradox of simultaneous omnipotence and impotence of the people. It was the fashion not so long ago to talk of the “century of the common man.” Democracy is now something almost universally supported because it allows the people, rather than the privileged few, to determine what governments should do. Yet, at the same time, each individual appears to be more and more impotent in the face of governmental control. What has happened is that whereas before many problems were things to be solved by some group of people organizing themselves, now all problems, having become social problems, can only be solved by putting pressure on the government to do something about them.
The significance of this situation is much clearer if we turn to those countries of the world which, in the jargon of liberal ideology, are called “under-developed.” These countries have, even more strongly than others, the liberal conviction that the present time is “transitional.” Once they had a stable past; sometime in the future they will again arrive at a stable industrialized point, but for the moment the most real thing about them is simply movement. This is, of course, pure illusion, and the expectation of some point of rest in the future merely utopian. Nevertheless, this conviction has imposed on these countries what we may call the politics of the gap. It provides a single overriding aim—that of industrialization—which has become a moral and national purpose. The condition of freedom in these countries is thought to be the closing of this gap.
The frenetic and impatient industrialization which has resulted is no doubt a matter of necessity; for where some western techniques have been introduced, they have created problems which can only be solved by further importation. Population increase due to medical advance is an obvious example. The solving of these problems requires enormous energy; there is the difficulty of understanding things which had previously been of no interest, and that of organizing and co-ordinating a national effort. What makes the difficulties even greater is a nationalist impatience to do everything quickly; the pace must be forced in the hope that the effort can then be relaxed. Now all of this is too much for individuals or for voluntary organizations. Each individual is weak and fallible. All agree that the gap must be closed, but there are many countervailing considerations—wanting to consume immediately, personal enmities, traditional rights, building up family or clan influence, simple laziness, and so on. Here in fact is the kind of situation which was uniquely rationalized by Rousseau’s general will. In this situation individuals are perfectly prepared to be forced to be free, for they have, so to speak, invested their moral capital in the government as the only organizing center of the national effort. Once that is done, there quite genuinely need be no nonsense about democratic liberties or the counting of heads at elections.
The results are twofold. The first is bureaucratization, for it is only by means of an efficient hierarchy that difficult things can be regularly done. Judge and hangman, general and private, inquisitor and torturer—in all these cases, an unpleasant policy has been split into two or more operations. One person makes the decision, another merely obeys without having to take responsibility for the acts. There are, no doubt, a few enthusiasts who like to combine both jobs—monarchs who have carried out their own executions— but such enthusiasm cannot be relied upon as an institution. It is difficult not to describe this bureaucratic principle in ironic terms; but it must also be observed that without it any kind of administration would be impossible, and with it almost anything can be done unless the bureaucracy runs up against some kind of conscientious objection. The despotic implications of dividing the responsibility from the act are, of course, quite evident, which is the reason why the defense of superior orders is rejected in British courts as a defense against criminal charges.
A further difficulty of this device is that those who give the orders in a bureaucratic system are likely to live in a rarefied atmosphere. Especially if they are politicians, they are likely to succumb to dreams of national status and to live far from the life around them. They are, like most politicians, interested in the product, not the producing. They look at the industrial statistics and they set norms; they are unconcerned with the quality of life lived by the people, and the only happiness they are equipped to discern is a visible thing, measurable by acclaim or by some material result. They are like small new countries, where Philistines are perpetually trying to turn each artist, novelist or poet whom foreigners can be induced to admire into a national icon. The eternal symbol of such leaders must now be Mussolini, who swaggered around dreaming dreams of imperial prestige, misrepresenting the general will, and failing even to provide proper equipment for his soldiery.
Secondly, the politics of the national gap invests an enormous moral force in the State, an inappropriate and risky organ for such investment. Deposits are easily managed, withdrawals are almost impossible. For Locke, in describing governments as trusts, was being hopeful rather than descriptive. It may be true that the populace regards the government as an agent of its interests; but from the government’s point of view, the people are agents of its interests. From a government’s point of view, particularly in international affairs, regimentation and industrialization are very distinctly means to other ends; freedom is nice, but national strength and discipline are even nicer. Further, in any purposeful organization of the State, however temporary, new interests— both financial and emotional—arise in the land; they will not be easily dispossessed once the moment of fruition has come. Indeed, these interests will be among the forces making perfectly sure that it never does come, moving the future always a little further away. We may support this view by referring once more to Wittfogel’s study of the development of technological bureaucracies into political despotisms.
The evidence on this subject and its ramifications are by now considerable. Among the more dramatic items is the manner in which purged communists, overawed precisely by this kind of moral authority claimed by the Soviet State, proceeded to accuse themselves and vilify an imaginary past. Yet even so, it is clear that this moral investment in the State is by no means a guileless submission to necessity. It is found among those modern liberals who seem positively nostalgic for some kind of national purpose, and who seem to imagine that unless we are all pulling together in some philanthropic national effort, then we must be given over to selfishness and apathy. It is found also among the young looking for moral causes, who are as ready to have the State supply them as any other agency.
The bearing of this on freedom is perfectly clear. A populace which hands its moral initiative over to a government, no matter how impeccable its reasons, becomes dependent and slavish. If the national tradition is in any case one of political dependence, then this will simply perpetuate the tradition. But even in countries which have a long tradition of individual enterprise and voluntary initiative, dependence is likely to increase; and just this charge has been made against the effects of the welfare State in Britain. It is certainly true that British migrants have, in some countries, a reputation for sitting passively around in reception centers until someone arranges a house and a job for them. A topical example of this kind of dependence would be the case of London’s homeless—people ejected from dwellings after the Rent Act. As a political issue this was presented as one of victimization, and the only solution widely canvassed was that the authorities should hasten to provide houses for the homeless. Now it is at least possible that these people might, by co-operation, get credit facilities and build houses for themselves, something which has often been done in other countries. There would obviously be difficulties to surmount, but it is by now an almost automatic response that every probem is one to be solved by authorities; and it is liberalism which seeks, by a steady equalization of the circumstances of each individual, to make certain that no one except governments can initiate voluntary organizations; all political initiative must be that of the pressure group.
The changes in human behavior which we have been considering are not to be attributed solely or even primarily to modern liberalism. Yet it is preeminently liberalism which has accepted without much questioning the “necessities” on which those changes are based. Indeed, quite apart from ideology, there exists a genuine dilemma which has considerable bearing upon the future of free behavior. The politics of national purpose always poses the alternative of governmental organizations with the corollary of dependence and servitude, or on the other hand, allowing people to develop at their own pace and in their own direction, which for good or bad reasons is often found to be too slow. There is no evading this dilemma; and it is foolish to pretend that it does not exist. Modern liberalism, to the extent to which it recognizes the dilemma, attempts to evade it by aspiration. We must try, it would say, to keep governments democratically under our control and subservient to our interests. But the question of freedom, as we have considered it, is not at all a matter of interests. It is a question, not of what is done, but of how it is done and of who does it. And it will not be answered by cant about democratic vigilance. For people whose only recourse is to put pressure on the government will, when seriously frustrated, respond by pointless turbulence.
[1. ]It is difficult to describe free men without making them seem like paragons of virtue. Any of these virtues will no doubt make only an intermittent appearance in the lives of particular men. But in free States, these virtues are available to men in their public capacity, and they dominate the situation. Where this is not so, free political institutions will not long survive.
[2. ]See the passages quoted by A. V. Dicey in Law of the Constitution, Ninth Edition, London, 1945, pp. 184–87.
[3. ]Karl Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism, Yale, 1957.
[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.
[6. ]Selected Prose of John Milton, Oxford, 1949, p. 290.
[7. ]A selection of the kinds of people on behalf of whose tender minds censors have at various times claimed to operate.
Last modified April 10, 2014