Is There Such a Thing as “Libertarian” Politics? (Hint: No)
(This again is a combination of a couple of old posts I made on my old blog, but I think are worthwhile to read even if my thinking has evolved since then)
There is a post by another blogger who I respect (Zippy) that introduced (to me) the concept that “All politics are authoritarian”. He obviously received some responses that attacked the idea in what one may consider a typical fashion, along the lines of “Clearly there are libertarian/authoritarian ideologies. What, is there no difference between 1984 and The American Constitution?” In doing so, I believe the discussion has not adequately examined the very concept of libertarian vs authoritarian. I believe far more information is contained in this distinction than one might imagine at first glance. So I’d like to discuss the axis itself, break down the specific components of it, and then move on to Zippy’s assertion.
The Axis Itself
If you’re reading this blog, you’ve likely seen/heard of/taken a political compass test. The most popular one, https://politicalcompass.org, gives you results based on two axes (Left-Right and Libertarian-Authoritarian).
The axis was designed to complement the apparent “economic” Left-Right axis with a “social” axis. Generally, more “progressive” social ideas lean libertarian while more “conservative/traditional” social ideas lean authoritarian. But is it possible that progressive social ideas might need to be enforced through authority? See the Supreme Court and US Government protecting otherwise unpopular (at the time) social ideas (desegregation being the most prominent example I can come up with off the top of my head). And, why is it that quite a few social conservatives are so opposed to the government? If social conservatism truly was authoritarian, then wouldn’t all social conservatives advocate for a far larger state? So clearly there is a distinction between being “progressive”/”traditional” versus being “libertarian”/”authoritarian”.
Breaking Down the Axis
The first breakdown within these ideas of libertarian vs authoritarian can be seen in that a person’s social attitudes (progressive-traditional) are distinct from the person’s attitudes towards the STATE(libertarianism-authoritarianism). We can now make 2 axes out of the Lib-Auth axis:
Progressive-Traditional (Social attitudes)
Statist-Minarchist (How involved the state should be in enforcing law)
But I would like to make a further note on authoritarianism. Specifically, many libertarian-leaning Social Conservatives advocate for a kind of self regulating society. That the society itself enforces its will on a local and familial level without the “administrative/bureacratic state” taking that role. In doing so, it is clear that authority is not entirely based in the State. So what does that mean? Well, I would argue that a third axis can be added to the 2 existing ones:
Progressive-Traditional (Social attitudes)
Statist-Minarchist (How involved the state should be in enforcing law)
Libertarian-Authoritarian (The Individual’s attitude towards coercion/liberty)
Wait what? Hold up. Did we just add the original axis back? Well, not exactly. The Libertarian-Authoritarian axis now exists specifically as a manner of saying “how do you feel about coercing others” or in other words “how strongly do you adhere to the liberal concept of ‘freedom = the maximization of choice’”. And it is here that we begin to see Zippy’s valid critiques of Libertarianism as a real concept.
Before we move on though, I would like to make a quick note: It is true that the positions of an individual on the axes of statism-minarchism and libertarianism-authoritarianism are highly correlated. But because there are individuals who advocate for greater coercion but through means other than the state, I argue the breakup of these two axes is correct.
“All Politics are Authoritarian”
In this way, we can now understand what Zippy means when he claims all politics are authoritarian. We have established that the true libertarian-authoritarian axis is centered not on social attitudes or statism, but rather on coercion. So, why does that mean that libertarianism isn’t a valid concept? Is it not true that there are systems that coerce moreand systems that coerce less. From a certain point of view, sure. But when we step back, we realize this difference in coercion is not actually meaningful.
In his post, “Everyone is an authoritarian; some authoritarians are sociopathic,” Zippy notes that:
Politics is the art of authoritatively resolving conflicts by discriminating between people and enforcing the resolutions. This can only be done from a particular, discriminatory, substantive understanding of how things ought to be done and of what things are unacceptable: from a particular understanding of the good
Effectively, even the concept of libertarian freedom (freedom as the maximization of potential choice and therefore the minimization of “coercion”) is a specific ethical stance. And any attempt to “coerce” individuals to change the status quo must be resisted (therefore leading to a paradox where the concept of minimization of coercion requires coercion. Basically coercing to eliminate coercion). So, there is no such thing as an ideology free of coercion. Nor is there an ideology that views coercion as bad.
So, why can’t there still be a gradient of coercion? Wouldn’t there be systems that are more coercive and less coercive inherently? In fact, no. There aren’t. Why? Because what determines how coercive an ideology is isn’t the ideology itself, but the people the ideology is applied to. Let’s take a look at an example:
Imagine there is a small town of about 200 people. In this town, farming is an integral part of life so during the summer everyone is asleep by 9pm in order to wake up early to get working. Everyone except the night policemen that is. Now, the night policemen want the ability to question someone for being out late because the only people out late would be from out of town. (Bear in mind that the police have not yet noticed anyone out late. It is merely a precaution) So, the police advocate for a curfew of 10pm during the summer. Everyone is already asleep at 9pm and so they say “sure, doesn’t matter to us. Keep us safe.” The behavior of the inhabitants of the town doesn’t change. Theoretically they are being constrained, but there is no actual shift in their behavior.And yet, what happens if a family moves in who are night owls? Perhaps genetically they can get away with 6 hours of sleep per night without bad effects and so they go to sleep at 11pm. What if they wanted to be outside past 10pm? I would argue that the law that previously did not change the behavior of the town’s inhabitants now DOES actually coerce the new family.
So, is the curfew itself coercive in the absence of any individuals to apply it to? I would argue, no. I would argue that something is not actually coercive unless it has an effect on your actual actions. And true, every little potential coercion will affect how you think and even if you aren’t personally coerced in an actual manner, the greater the number of coercions the greater your uneasiness will likely be. So, we could even argue that any and all laws are potentially coercive. Apply the laws in the right (or I guess in this case, wrong) environment, and a law or norm or value that had no effect on the behavior of individuals in society A now becomes coercive.
And why it’s important to distinguish between actual and potential coercion is that all norms, values, and political decisions are potentially coercive. All you have to do is apply them to an individual who does not agree with them. So, to claim that a specific policy is coercive is to not grasp what coercion is. When people say this, they really mean “that policy is coercive to me/people I care about and/or support”. But that doesn’t make that policy coercive while other policies are not coercive. Coercion can only be determined by an individual, based on whether or not the policy allows the individual to keep living the way he/she would had the policy not been enacted and subsequently enforced. Since politics necessarily discriminates between interest-holders in a social conflict, it can be rationally understood that all politics are authoritarian, in that all politics are potentially coercive and will be actuallycoercive whenever an individual who disagrees with the political decision encounters said decision.
I will be continuing my discussion from my deconstruction of the libertarian-authoritarian axis(which I highly suggest you read beforehand or you may be lost), and making some broader points regarding the idea we call “freedom”. I will be further developing Zippy’s concept that there are no free societies, and attempting to demonstrate and support my understanding of his theory. This piece can also be considered a deconstruction, in that we are aiming to unpack the meaning behind “freedom”.
Part 1: What is “Freedom” in a Political Sense?
I linked a number of relevant blog posts of Zippy’s on my last piece, but I will link a few more here: 1, 2, 3, 4. But I also want to point out one of his latest posts, which I think is making a courageous attempt at demonstrating the meaning (or lack thereof) behind “freedom”, but perhaps doesn’t draw enough on other literature, theorists, and examples in order to combat skeptics of the idea. I intend to combine Zippy’s ideas and my own ideas on the matter of freedom with the concepts of Domination and Legitimacy as put forth by Max Weber in order to demonstrate what we actually mean by “freedom”.
Some Notes on Weber, “Domination”, and Legitimacy
There was a well written short post by Iskraphoenix on a blog I’m affiliated with which aims to explain differences between different kinds of frameworks for determining political legitimacy. If you are totally unfamiliar with Weber, I suggest starting there. For a more in-depth explanation of Weber’s concept of domination and political legitimacy, see here.
Weber’s points are summed up by Iskra in this manner(emphasis my own):
Any state uses a combination of tools in order to enforce order and maintain control over its territory.The passive consent of the populace in this case is secondary to the tools used to elicit this consent. If the state uses power to legitimize itself then as long as the power is applied it’s authority is in question with the population upon which it bears its violence.
No state can exist without domination because any state that can exercise violence requires a human element to do so. Those that employ power in state functions do so because they are compelled by their own values or interests.That is to say they either concede to traditional or charismatic authority (in the case of values) or rational-legal authority (in the case of interests). It is to the sectors of the population which do not follow the will of the state that the state is illegitimate.
When the state is illegitimate it uses force against rebellious segments of the population in order to force them to comply. Since the state is not in line with neither the values nor the interests of those parts of society it is forced to enter into conflict with them. It is in this conflict that state structures self-legitimize.
Because of the distortion between society and the regime power is required.I must note here that those who rise against tyranny do not allow the state to possess a monopoly on legitimate violence. They form their own parallel or resistance organizations and rise against the state. In the event of armed conflict there are only two options: defeat or triumph. One entity must give, be it the state which seeks to impose its illegitimate rules or the parallel organization which challenge it.
If the state is defeated it must reform its functions so that it does infringe on those parts of society that are not in line with its authority.Thus this reform causes the authority of the state to change and allow for legitimization through justified authority. The other option is that the state contracts geographically and expels illegitimate portions of society from itself.
If the state in question triumphs then the factions that consider it illegitimate begin to emulate passive consent. In time the values of the population change and traditional or rational-legal authority is created. Power is no longer necessary to bridge the gap of domination and create authority.
We can sum up these points as follows:
When the State uses power, its legitimacy is in question. The State will generally use this power when the interests of society at large and the interests of the State differ. The portions of society whose interests do not align with the State will view the State as illegitimate and the State will need to use power to maintain control. This will lead to some form of conflict which may resolve itself through bringing this group of society back into the fold through State reform, expelling this group of society, or engaging in combat and having the parallel institutions establish themselves as a distinct sovereign entity.
Relating Domination to “Freedom”
So how does this concept of domination relate to freedom. I will quote a couple lines from Zippy’s recent post, They hate us for our unicorns:
Define “unicorns” to be certain things we like about the politics of Country A, and onlythose things.
Define “not unicorns” to be certain things we don’tlike about the politics of Country B, and onlythose things.
And this is where we begin to get at Zippy’s major thesis, and we begin to understand what we mean by “freedom”. I would like to paraphrase a sentiment from a series of his posts (I think this is a direct quote but I can’t find the post it is from):
A “Free” Society is one that puts the right people in prison for the right reasons.A “Tyrannical” Society is one that puts the wrong people in prison and/or puts people in prison for the wrong reasons.
And again, we see this problem of almost begging the question: “who defines right/wrong”?
And THIS is where domination comes in. Notice how we pointed out that states become illegitimate when they must use force to maintain control? And that this happens when a state’s interests are not in line with those of a specific group in society? Well that’s basically what we have here. Freedom/Tyranny are ultimately subjective concepts:
Freedom = Legitimacy = The State does not need to exhibit power to coerce me to align with it
Tyranny = Illegitimacy = The State does need to exhibit power to coerce me to align with it
So when we discuss “freedom” what we are discussing, in effect, is “things we like” vs “things we don’t like”. (Just a sidenote: Iskra and I were discussing the logical implications of domination and he pointed out that for the world to be entirely composed by legitimate states, states would have to be pretty goddamn small. And if one accepts the theories of individuals like Walker Connor, these states would likely be predominantly ethno-states).
Why Does This Matter?
I’m sure this is the question you are asking yourselves. “Yes, we get it. There is no such thing as ‘freedom’ in an objective sense, but why does that matter?” This gets to an issue of bias in language. When someone calls something a right/freedom it carries (for most in the modern US at least, and likely the West at large) a more positive connotation than calling it an obligation/duty. And yet, freedoms have two modalities: empowerment and constrain. Why is this important? Because we too frequently only see the shiny side of “empowerment” with rights, but rarely see the constraint side. To illustrate why this is important, I will return to the example I used in my deconstruction post, and elaborate on my personal theory that I hinted at in that same post: The distinction between invisible vs visible coercion.
Part 2: Invisible vs Visible Coercion
Here is the example I used in the deconstruction post:
Imagine there is a small town of about 200 people. In this town, farming is an integral part of life so during the summer everyone is asleep by 9pm in order to wake up early to get working. Everyone except the night policemen that is. Now, the night policemen want the ability to question someone for being out late because the only people out late would be from out of town. (Bear in mind that the police have not yet noticed anyone out late. It is merely a precaution) So, the police advocate for a curfew of 10pm during the summer. Everyone is already asleep at 9pm and so they say “sure, doesn’t matter to us. Keep us safe.” The behavior of the inhabitants of the town doesn’t change. Theoreticallythey are being constrained, but there is no actual shift in their behavior.And yet, what happens if a family moves in who are night owls? Perhaps genetically they can get away with 6 hours of sleep per night without bad effects and so they go to sleep at 11pm. What if they wanted to be outside past 10pm? I would argue that the law that previously did not change the behavior of the town’s inhabitants now DOES actuallycoerce the new family.
So, is the curfew itself coercive in the absence of any individuals to apply it to? I would argue, no. I would argue that something is not actually coercive unless it has an effect on your actualactions. And true, every little potential coercion will affect how you think and even if you aren’t personally coerced in an actual manner, the greater the number of coercions the greater your uneasiness will likely be. So, we could even argue that any and all laws are potentiallycoercive. Apply the laws in the right (or I guess in this case, wrong) environment, and a law or norm or value that had no effect on the behavior of individuals in society A now becomes coercive.
I didn’t properly explain what I meant by saying “Apply the laws in the right…environment and a law or norm of value that had no effect on the behavior of individuals in society A now becomes coercive.” Failing to do so, in my opinion, led to several misunderstandings from readers who I talked to regarding how all politics are coercive. To better explain this, I would like to elaborate on the theory of invisible vs visible coercion, how that relates back to the discussion on freedom in this post, and how it demonstrates that every single society that wishes to stay true to its values is coercive.
In the example, the law never changes. Yet, for some people the law doesn’t affect their activity. They would have gone to sleep at 9pm anyways. And then for the new family, the same law does affect their behavior. It is in the interaction between a particular law and a particular person that a law becomes coercive. It is always potentially coercive, but it only becomes actually coercive when it prevents an individual from acting in the manner they desire.
We can differentiate between these two concepts of potential vs actual coercion as being invisible and visible. To the original members of the community in the example, the coercion is invisible. It doesn’t prevent them from acting how they normally want to act. And yet, to the new family, the coercion is visible. It does prevent them from acting how they normally want to act. Even if one of the original members suffered a bout of insomnia and went outside late, it’s possible that the coercion moves from invisible to visible. So, we can say that any set of laws(or more broadly, enforceable rules) is always potentially coercive. Therefore, invisible coercion is always an element of every society regardless of how that power is distributed (whether held in a monopoly by the State or distributed more widely through differing mechanisms).
So how does this refer to freedom? Knowing that every society has invisible coercion, we now know that there is no such thing as an objectively free society vs an objectively tyrannical society (remember that objective means observer-independent, so if there is a disagreement regarding whether or not a society is free, that very disagreement proves that freedom is not objective since it depends on the observer’s perspective). And so building off of this we can define political freedom as:
“A particular set of rules that do not infringe on your desired actions.”
Now, Zippy explained this through the idea of the “modalities” of freedom, of which he claimed there were 2: empowerment and constraint. Every empowerment (right/liberty/freedom/whatever you want to call it) is accompanied by constraint (duty/obligation/restriction/whatever you want to call it). And so with this further explanation, we can modify our definition of political freedom:
“A society is “more free” when it has a particular configuration of empowerments and constraints that better allows you to act according to your will (aka modern freedom) than some other configuration”
Just because there is “freedom” does not mean that there are no constraints. You merely consider it free because you are not aware of the constraints. They are invisible to you. Because they do not constrain your actions. And yet, as we demonstrated in the example above and explained in the concept of invisible coercion, the coercion is always there. Waiting for someone to step out of line for it to smack them back into place. But I cannot stress enough how important it is not to confuse invisible coercion with a concept like “freedom”.
Why shouldn’t we call something “freedom”? Why can’t we say that “North Korea is more free than the United States”? Because again, freedom is ultimately subjective. When we say “that country is less free/is a tyranny” we are actually saying “that country puts the wrong people in prison and/or puts people in prison for the wrong reasons.” And remember, going back to the concept of domination, a society can only be judged as legitimate (and by extension, “free”) from the perspectives of the people within the society. Certainly one can argue that North Korea is in fact far less legitimatethan the United States is, since it uses power to maintain itself far more than the US does. But again, the obsession with the concept of freedom is problematic in and of itself (legitimacy provides a better framework, and allows us to be aware of invisible coercion, while freedom blinds us to that coercion).
Freedom is one of those things that is drilled into your head as Good and Right. Along with the idea of Equality and by extension Human Rights. “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”. “Liberté égalité fraternité”. And similar expressions abound. But in the end, these are merely appeals to emotion. Since freedom is Good axiomatically, anyone who claims “this policy will expand freedom” is appealing to this emotional part of the mind that just accepts it because it must be Good. If policy X leads to more freedom, then it mustlead to more Good. Right? Guys?
The problem with this emerges in the discussion of empowerments and constraints. The modern discourse on freedom tends to focus on empowerment. On the shiny side of the coin. And yet on the other side, we have constraint. And we have a serious problem: no one sees the constraints on their own coin. And we all see the constraints of other people’s empowerments. It basically becomes a double standard. Which is why the entire discussion regarding “freedom” frequently ends up being counter productive if not entirely misleading. In the end, freedom is a non-concept. Too subjective to be useful in comparing societies.
Part 3: Liberty vs Freedom
I would like to elaborate on a distinction between two types of rights (political freedoms) a critic of my theories claimed to exist: Liberty and Freedom. Accordingly, these are distinguished by the actors being empowered and constrained. A Liberty has to do with an individual being empowered and the State being constrained. Liberties can be redefined as constraints on the State. A Freedom has to do with just citizens, and the State is only a mediator/discriminator in the conflict.
It should be noted that a basic Liberty (the State is not allowed to discriminate between religions or prevent you from congregating in a certain public place) is less problematic in terms of constraint, but is not wholly unproblematic. Let us ask pose an example:
There is a small town in an unnamed country. This country has a clause in its constitution claiming that all people have freedom of religion in that the state cannot make any laws in favor of or opposed to specific religions. 100% of the town’s inhabitants adhere to religion A. A group of people who adhere to religion B moves in. Are the town’s prior inhabitants able to refuse the new people entry to the town? Are they able to use the military (a state resource) to push these new people away? Are they able to use a militia (jeopardizing the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence) to do the same? Are they only allowed to act as private individuals and refuse service at all these locations until the new people voluntarily leave?
Let us ask another example:
The government believes in freedom of assembly (in public areas of course). Now, let us assume there is an ongoing protest in a park. And let us assume that a local mother wants to bring her kid to the park in a stroller to enjoy the sun and relax. The interests of individuals conflict due to the Liberty granted by the government.
And so what we see with these two examples is that these “Liberties” affect disputes/conflicts between individuals, and end up being rules along which the government discriminates with its authority. And so we can now determine that there are no distinctions between “Liberties” and “Freedoms”.
But What About Negative vs Positive Rights?
I will repeat what Zippy had to say about these: The distinction between positive and negative rights, isn’t. Zippy approaches this from a different point of view than I do. Personally, I believe the distinction between these rights is more of a result of playing around with language than any genuine difference. Allow me to explain. Let’s take the example on wikipedia used to explain negative vs positive rights:
To take an example involving two parties in a court of law: Adrian has a negative right to xagainst Clay if and only if Clay is prohibitedfrom acting upon Adrian in some way regarding x. In contrast, Adrian has a positive right to xagainst Clay if and only if Clay is obliged to act upon Adrian in some way regarding x. A case in point, if Adrian has a negative right to lifeagainst Clay, then Clay is required to refrain from killing Adrian; while if Adrian has a positive right to lifeagainst Clay, then Clay is required to act as necessary to preserve the life of Adrian.
What is the specific difference between the positive and negative right to life? Let’s think about this:
If Clay took a gun out and shot Adrian, he would violate both his negative AND positive right to life. Everyone accepts this. The problem emerges when people begin to misunderstand the distinction between direct and indirect effectsand misunderstand causation more broadly.
Let’s take a look at another example (and here is where Zippy’s theories come into play with saying negative vs positive rights are “distinct” in a way but also not-distinct at all):
If Clay saw Adrian was going to fall off a bridge, and Clay was within range to reach and grab Adrian and save him, is he obliged to?A libertarian would say no as “no one is obliged to act” and yet clearly people are obliged to act since “negative rights” are merely a specific set of empowerments and constraints and positive rights are a different set. This comes back to the arbitrary and ultimately non existent distinction between direct and indirect effects. If Clay watches Adrian plummet off the bridge when he could have saved him, there is a world where Clay had acted and Adrian had been saved. If this world exists, then an understanding of causation means that Clay did end up killing Adrian, because metaphysical neutrality does not exist (and you cannot “do nothing”).
The language game played by proponents of the distinction only obscures the fact that there is no distinction in the first place. Positive Rights and Negative Rights are ultimately non-distinct metaphysically, just different sets of empowerments and constraints, and far less different than you might assume. (One could use the example of a fair trial as obligatingthe jury to treat you a certain way, even though that is considered a negative right). Results of a language game used to describe different sets of empowerments and constraints the individual is in favor of, generally due to a misunderstanding of causation and a belief in the unreal doctrine of neutrality.
The Scourge of Legalism
Going along with the debate on Liberty and Freedom, I would like to point out that legalism in and of itself is a terrible doctrine. Replacing morals/ethics with law as a guide of action is fraught with issues. I’d like to mainly quote Alexander Solzhenitsyn in this section; in particular, his 1978 commencement address at Harvard University, as I consider it an extremely profound and honest speech:
Western society has given itself the organization best suited to its purposes based, I would say, one the letter of the law. The limits of human rights and righteousness are determined by a system of laws; such limits are very broad. People in the West have acquired considerable skill in interpreting and manipulating law. Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the supreme solution. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required. Nobody will mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint, a willingness to renounce such legal rights, sacrifice and selfless risk. It would sound simply absurd. One almost never sees voluntary self-restraint. Everybody operates at the extreme limit of those legal frames.
I have spent all my life under a Communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale than the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses. And it will be simply impossible to stand through the trials of this threatening century with only the support of a legalistic structure.
Solzhenitsyn touches on a point that I think is very valid. When we have a legalistic mindset, everyone pushes the boundaries as much as they can. “Don’t worry the cops don’t go on this road, let’s speed.” “Don’t worry, it’s legal, we’re fine.” Just because it is legal doesn’t make it right, just as how a thing being illegal doesn’t necessarily make it wrong. This does not mean that you want a society without any objective legal scale, as he pointed out. But rather, that laws are not sufficient to guide human action.
Every citizen has been granted the desired freedom and material goods in such quantity and of such quality as to guarantee in theory the achievement of happiness — in the morally inferior sense of the word which has come into being during those same decades. In the process, however, one psychological detail has been overlooked: the constant desire to have still more things and a still better life and the struggle to attain them imprint many Western faces with worry and even depression, though it is customary to conceal such feelings. Active and tense competition fills all human thoughts without opening a way to free spiritual development.
The individual’s independence from many types of state pressure has been guaranteed. The majority of people have been granted well-being to an extent their fathers and grandfathers could not even dream about. It has become possible to raise young people according to these ideals, leaving them to physical splendor, happiness, possession of material goods, money, and leisure, to an almost unlimited freedom of enjoyment. So who should now renounce all this? Why? And for what should one risk one’s precious life in defense of common values and particularly in such nebulous cases when the security of one’s nation must be defended in a distant country? Even biology knows that habitual, extreme safety and well-being are not advantageous for a living organism. Today, well-being in the life of Western society has begun to reveal its pernicious mask.
Even Solzhenitsyn misses the fact that Liberty and Freedom are not distinct, but his point still stands: the materialistic “well-being” in Western life ultimately seems unfulfilling(Perhaps the hedonic treadmill plays a role). The “freedoms”, the particular set of empowerments and constraints in Western society may ultimately be the wrong ones. And Solzhenitsyn does somewhat grasp at the idea of invisible coercion
There is yet another surprise for someone coming from the East, where the press is rigorously unified. One gradually discovers a common trend of preferences within the Western press as a whole. It is a fashion; there are generally accepted patterns of judgment; there may be common corporate interests, the sum effect being not competition but unification. Enormous freedom exists for the press, but not for the readership because newspaper[s] mostly develop stress and emphasis to those opinions which do not too openly contradict their own and the general trend.
Without any censorship, in the West fashionable trends of thought and ideas are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. Legally your researchers are free, but they are conditioned by the fashion of the day. There is no open violence such as in the East; however, a selection dictated by fashion and the need to match mass standards frequently prevent independent-minded people giving their contribution to public life. There is a dangerous tendency to flock together and shut off successful development. I have received letters in America from highly intelligent persons, maybe a teacher in a faraway small college who could do much for the renewal and salvation of his country, but his country cannot hear him because the media are not interested in him. This gives birth to strong mass prejudices, to blindness, which is most dangerous in our dynamic era. There is, for instance, a self-deluding interpretation of the contemporary world situation. It works as a sort of a petrified armor around people’s minds. Human voices from 17 countries of Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia cannot pierce it. It will only be broken by the pitiless crowbar of events.
Call it the Overton Window, call it The Cathedral, call it Propaganda, call it The Spectacle, etc. An outsider like Solzhenitsyn is capable of seeing the invisible coercion we too often call “freedom” just because it doesn’t coerce us. This problem of coercion is so significant, that Solzhenitsyn spends a large portion of his speech focusing on the Western concept of “freedom”:
In today’s Western society the inequality has been revealed [in] freedom for good deeds and freedom for evil deeds. A statesman who wants to achieve something important and highly constructive for his country has to move cautiously and even timidly. There are thousands of hasty and irresponsible critics around him; parliament and the press keep rebuffing him. As he moves ahead, he has to prove that each single step of his is well-founded and absolutely flawless. Actually, an outstanding and particularly gifted person who has unusual and unexpected initiatives in mind hardly gets a chance to assert himself. From the very beginning, dozens of traps will be set out for him. Thus, mediocrity triumphs with the excuse of restrictions imposed by democracy.
Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, such as motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror. It is considered to be part of freedom and theoretically counterbalanced by the young people’s right not to look or not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil.
Such a tilt of freedom in the direction of evil has come about gradually, but it was evidently born primarily out of a humanistic and benevolent concept according to which there is no evil inherent to human nature. The world belongs to mankind and all the defects of life are caused by wrong social systems, which must be corrected. Strangely enough, though the best social conditions have been achieved in the West, there still is criminality and there even is considerably more of it than in the pauper and lawless Soviet society.
Now, I don’t wish to quote the entire speech. Nor is the entire speech relevant to this particular work (although I do highly recommend it). But I do wish to use Solzhenitsyn to pose a question: If the modern concept of political freedom is so broken, then is our broader concept of freedom broken as well? Personally, I will be addressing this in my next post (Maybe tomorrow. or Thursday. or this weekend. I’m not sure. Been quite busy lately). For now, I will leave you with a final quote from the speech:
The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals. It’s time, in the West — It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.
Part 4: The Incoherence of Political Freedom (conclusion)
I will keep this relatively short, as we are mostly going to be synthesizing what we have already said.
Let us assume we have an individual A. Individual A believes in freedom. Individual A supports a specific set of empowerments and constraints.
Let us assume we also have an Individual B. Individual B also believes in freedom. Individual B also supports a specific set of empowerments and constraints.
Furthermore, let us assume the set of empowerments and constraints supported by Individual A is not one-to-one equal to the set of empowerments and constraints supported by Individual B (in other words, they disagree on what policies constitute “freedom”).
If we look at this not from the perspective of the individual, but from the perspective of any specific policy, any and every policy can be construed as being both free and not-free. Because of this, we can say that no policy is essentially free. By extension, we can say that no set of policies (set of empowerments and constraints) is essentially free. Therefore, we can say that “freedom” as an objective property does not exist. Furthermore, we can say that because we have already demonstrated that “freedom” is a non-concept, merely used as an emotional appeal to others to support a given set of policies, the pursuit of “freedom” is incoherent. Pursuing any one set of empowerments and constraints will be simultaneously pursuing freedom and pursuing tyranny. In such case, we can confidently state that the pursuit of political freedom is incoherent.
Now, one of the reasons political freedom is a non-concept and incoherent is BECAUSE freedom independent of politics IS a defined concept. Now, whether the modern idea of freedom makes sense/is valid will be addressed in the next post. But for now, we have demonstrated that, ultimately, political freedom is incoherent. And there needs to be far better arguments in support of sets of empowerments and constraints beyond “freedom”.