More or less every modern politician talks about “freedom” or “liberty.” Actually, they don’t talk about it as much as they use it as a magic incantation. They go on at length about “our free country,” but if you could get them to define freedom, that definition would be something along the lines of “what we have.”
Once we’re past such self-praising nonsense, we’re still left with the original question: What is liberty exactly? And then the trouble begins. There are dozens of definitions. This is a problem. We’re all going around talking about liberty, but no two of us mean precisely the same thing. If you’re looking for reasons why liberty gets so little real traction in the world, this would be a good place to start.
So, it’s about time that we clarified what we mean by these terms. And, since I’ve spent decades pursuing liberty, and since no one else seems to be addressing this, I’ll take on this chore myself.
First of all, I’m going to treat “liberty” and “freedom” as the same concept. After all, the word freedom comes to us from old English and liberty from old French, and they both mean the same thing: unconstrained.
The problem with unconstrained lies in the fact that we are constrained by the natural world, by everything from gravity to rocks to weather. Nature constrains us. Yet, we don’t feel oppressed by nature – it isn’t trying to hurt us or limit us, it simply is what it is, and we can use it as we wish too. Our bodies are part of nature, after all.
A condition in which a man’s will regarding his own person and property is unopposed by any other will.
That is the bedrock. From there you can add other aspects if you wish, but you cannot deviate from this core and still be talking about “liberty.”
For example, Thomas Jefferson used the same core idea (notice the inclusion of “will”), but added a political aspect:
Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add “within the limits of the law” because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.
The great John Locke also held to this core, but took it in a more philosophical direction:
All men are naturally in a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of Nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man.
Personally, I like a very plain version of the same sentiments:
We should be allowed to do whatever we want, so long as we don’t hurt others.
I generally call these statements as Lockean, since John Locke was the first person to clearly define the concept of liberty in modern times. But, that’s just my preference.
These statements are clear, and they define liberty. No more really need be said.
You can ignore manipulative “freedom to” statements like Franklin Roosevelt’s famous Second Bill of Rights, whose proposed ‘rights’ included the right of everyone to their own home. This, of course, would require the enslavement of builders, suppliers and taxpayers. (Roosevelt never mentioned that side of the equation, of course.)
There’s only one thing which I will add to this discussion, and that is this: None of us have a monopoly on Lockean liberty.
Anyone who holds to Locke’s formulation is your brother and sister, and you must accept them as such.
We are past the time when we can be insular (if there ever really was such a time). You don’t have to agree 100% with the Ron Paul people or the free-market anarchists, or with anyone, but if they accept the core statements above, you must accept them as joint heirs of the Lockean liberties.
If you think someone is wrong, you can ignore the difference of opinion, or you can, respectfully, correct them. Better still, you could laugh at your joint human frailties and move forward together. What you may not do, is to cast them off as idiots; you may not resent them for honestly disagreeing. If they believe in John Locke’s liberty, they are your allies, not your enemies.
I have thus far made quite a few arguments why the Westphalian order of states is in trouble. Presuming that I am correct, and that the current state model fails, the great question is what comes next?
The Two Classes
Impolitic though it may be, any sensible analysis of states in transition has to divide the inhabitants into two groups: the Rulers and the Ruled. We can seek tamer terms if we like (such as officials and citizens), but those terms invariably muddle the issue. There are two groups that matter: those that make orders and those who take orders. These two face massively different challenges and incentives; separating them clearly is the only way to arrange a reasonable discourse.
I will begin with the rulers:
Imagine being a big boss of a big country: You and your predecessors have promised free everything to your voters, but you have now failed to deliver. They are angry, but there’s nothing you can do; there are no more buyers for your bonds and inflation has made your currency almost worthless. You are out of options. At the same time, you can’t just walk away – being the boss is something you need. So, what do you do?
Your first job will be to keep the people with you, rather than against you. You must give them someone else to blame and to make them feel horrible about the prospect of your system vanishing.
Finding outsiders to blame is always easy. (Jews and immigrants being the perennial favorites.) Making people feel like they need you, however, isn’t so easy, especially when your promises have just come up painfully short. You need some majestic promise for them to believe in: something that makes them special, provides a credible promise of more than they deserve, and/or makes them part of some magical uber-entity. In other words, you need an appealing new myth.
The problem, of course, is that large new myths are not created in a day, and certainly not by people who can’t deliver much. So, you have to use whatever respected myths remain, make them more grandiose, and run with them. (This is precisely what happened at the end of the Roman Empire, as I will explain in Free-Man’s Perspective.)
Right now, the only big myths are of the globalist strain, such as climate change, save the rainforest (or whales, or trees, or children, or…), the value of politically correct speech and so on. Judeo-Christianity remains, of course, but it is a horrible mythology from a ruler’s point of view, is more or less incompatible with the globalist myths, and has been driven from respectable circles in most of the west anyway.
So, the mythologies chosen by the rulers will have to be based upon environmentalism, anti-capitalism, and associated guilt-centric ideas. For lack of a better term, the new mythology will probably have to be globalist, with the many nation states and their scattered strategies being blamed for the crisis. The solution to the crisis, of course, will almost certainly be unified management by proper elites.
But if globalist, elite rule is to be the next model, a modification of the social contract will be necessary. This will be the great moment of opportunity for intellectuals. Devising a legitimacy myth for the new order will be a ticket to fame and fortune.
As strange as it sounds, there is another group associated with the rulers that must be included in this discussion, and they are the dependent class. People who survive on government checks are not what we usually think of as rulers, but they are necessarily joined to them. Together with the elites, they form a high-low ruling coalition.
The vast majority of the dependent will support the rulers (or at least the replacement rulers), almost regardless of what the rulers do. Even if their checks stop, promises of future checks will keep them faithful. The other choice is to utterly reform their lives, and very few will be of any mind to do so. They may complain or even riot at the moment when their checks stop, but being faced with either radical change or supporting the rulers and hoping for restoration, they will choose the latter. And, most unfortunately, this is a very large group.
The Other Side
Now – and this will not be hard for most of my readers – imagine that you have behaved well and worked hard; that, after being challenged by numerous obstacles, you have carved out a comfortable, stable life. Then imagine that it has been turned upside down. Everything is a mess, and you want things to get back to normal so you can work and enjoy life. What do you do?
This is where the formation of the future gets interesting. The Rulers may come up with a few surprises, but their strategies are more or less predictable. The productive ruled, however, are a wild card. Ultimately, they control everything, but they don’t know it.
Rulers do not make, they only take. The productive make. If they ever decided, en masse, to stop giving in to the rulers, the rulers would be soundly defeated, and in short order. No matter how many armed tax collectors they employed, it wouldn’t be enough for an unwilling populace, not to mention that paying the armed collectors gets very difficult when there is no more money coming in. And if the mechanic refuses to fix state vehicles, if the HVAC man refuses to fix their air conditioning, and so on, the end comes much faster.
The above is precisely what happened at the end of the Roman Empire: Harsher and harsher tax laws brought in less and less silver. People ran away to Germania, Britannia and Gaul to escape. The ruling structure failed.
But, as mentioned above, the productive middle does not believe that they have the right to make their own political decisions; they feel free to choose between Party A and Party B, but not to demand a new structure.
If, somehow, the productive class does decide they are worthy of such choices, it will be a small matter for them to begin organizing with their neighbors, cobbling together ground-up systems of law and markets, and arriving, over time, at a structure that suits them. They would almost certainly end up rediscovering John Locke, the common law, and sound money. But will they?
The Cognitive War
Though most of us have seldom realized it, we have been living through a continual war for our minds and our wills. We feel confused a great deal and suspect that it is our own problem; a problem that we hide, rather than risking shame. This equates, roughly, to a surrender in the cognitive war.
Anyone who seeks to make us do things without thinking, wages war against our wills. Whole industries are built on this, as we all know: “Look at the pretty, happy people; buy the beer,” “don’t vote for that horrible, scary candidate,” “look here at the sexy girl,” and so on. We all swim in a soup of it.
This battle will determine what comes out of Westphalia’s crisis. If the Lockean productive class is too confused and intimidated to assert their wills, the globalists will be able to regroup as they wish. If, somehow, the producers regain their nerve, they can more or less do as they wish. They will have an initial difficulty in overcoming the globalists’ death throes, but in endurance they will reclaim their world.
A Second American Revolution
The last time a broad group of producers asserted their will and stuck to it was the American Revolution. Contrary to any conventional wisdom of the time, they defeated the mightiest empire on the planet and changed the world. The American Revolution, as I have explained elsewhere, is misunderstood and used badly for propaganda purposes, but it was a unique and potent event. Producers have, at other times, pushed rulers to reform, but very seldom have they gathered the courage to say, “get lost, we’re doing it our way.” In order to achieve this goal the early Americans required separation, Christianity and the philosophy of John Locke. There are wonderful Lockean thinkers and teachers in the West today, but they are usually drowned out by the 24/7 clamor of 500 entertainment channels, music in nearly all public places and the recent Blackberry, texting and iPod fetishes.
Withdrawal from the Circus
The one real hope for the Lockeans is withdrawal from the great Western circus of mainstream TV, movies and music.
In a previous article, I wrote that free news may begin vanishing, and that if it does, people will begin to choose more carefully. The thing I didn’t mention, however, was that this is occurring already. And the people who have been wandering away from the circus are mainly the producers. The first among the Lockeans are headed slowly away from the big noise. These people will begin to reclaim the right to their own opinions, even regarding how they choose to be ruled (or not).
If this grows, there will be many people who don’t believe that they need to be coordinated and ordered by central elites and that Adam Smith was right: If you leave people alone, most of them will provide things needed by others, as if guided by an invisible, benevolent hand.
In order to avoid this, the globalists will have to preserve media above all. Whether this includes subsidies for cable TV, free Internet services, or whatever, it will be strongly in their interests to provide them. If the circus ends, the young will start to ask impertinent questions.
Lockean organization is effective, but it isn’t loud and flashy. Globalist organization is parasitic, but it comes with engaging stories and entertainments. If the circus reigns, the producers stand to be overwhelmed… yet again.
The Exercise of Will
I leave you with two quotes to consider, and I hope that you do so:
The will of men is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided. Men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence. It does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, until each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd. — Alexis de Tocqueville
Mankind is made great or little by its own will.
— Friedrich Schiller