17th March 2005: Liberty (I’m for it)

Liberty is one of those things like happiness which comes along as a side-effect rather than as a goal. Liberty is a side-effect of people having lots of choices. You can see this in US history when there was a frontier and always the idea of moving on if this place didn’t work out. You can see it in the way, when there were more jobs than computer-people, technical staff began to be excused the requirement to wear corporate drag. You can see the reverse in things like company towns and police states.

Choices can be frightening, like standing in a cold wind not knowing what direction to turn. But without choices, everything closes in to fear, to doing things because you’re afraid — whether of torture, or just of losing your job and your health benefits. Sometimes those things are terrible things.

Then dd_b said:

You may well be right that liberty is a side-effect; I certainly see many ways in which that makes a lot of sense. However, lots of the important things widely held as milestones of liberty, from the Magna Carta to the Bill of Rights, were conscious actions intended to promote liberty. This makes the “side-effect” theory something of a hard sell.

And I replied:

People do lots of things “to be happy” as well, and “to make friends”, and some of them have even worked, yet it seems to me that happiness and friendship and liberty are all most likely to appear as side effects.

The Bill of Rights certainly came along after those were things people expected, if you see what I mean. The whole US Revolution happened because people had become free (by accident) and were used to thinking of themselves that way and were not going to put up with anything that infringed that. You can see this really clearly in Franklin’s visit to Ireland. He was asked why the American colonies didn’t produce cotton shirts for the British market the way the Irish produced linen ones, and he said that the Americans liked to wear shirts themselves. Now there wasn’t at that time on paper enough legal difference to matter between the American colonies and Ireland, in fact if anything Ireland was technically more free, in the way of paper rights, but Franklin’s answer is that of a man who is free in a way the Irish, slaving without shirts to make linen shirts for export to pay their rents, couldn’t imagine.

Magna Carta again came along to force the paper recognition of rights that had already come to exist.

Both of these have since been claimed by everyone and their dog as enshrining rights — but it’s quite clear from the amendments to your constitution that there were a number of freedoms we percieve that people at that time didn’t — equality of women, freedom from being enslaved, and so on. They didn’t set down new rights, they set down the rights they already thought themselves entitled to, and resented being infringed. (One can positively see the resentment of the disgruntled people behind the third amendment.)

I can think of lots of cases where people have sat down to write the liberties they thought they ought to have — from Marx to Rand to the “Charter 88” movement in Britain — and none of them have achieved anything like the increase in liberty that comes about as, say, a side-effect of educating women.

I think this is part of what Heinlein was thinking about in the comments on what became of the Loonies after the Revolution — you cannot enforce liberty or hand it down from above, but there are things you can do to encourage it to grow.

However, there are things which quite evidently do encourage the development of liberty as a side-effect — increasing available choices.

There are some things one never properly appreciates because one grew up with them and takes them for granted.

For most people in First World countries, these include both liberty and peace.

By peace I don’t mean “nobody fighting”, though that certainly helps, I mean the complex conditions of peace that increase choices and therefore encourage liberty. To really develop liberty, you need peace.

If you look at the liberation of ex-colonial possessions in the C.20, it appears very clear that it isn’t enough to say to people “There you go, have a constitution and be free” and just stop governing. The peace doesn’t hold. Peace requires good government. (I say good government because it’s very easy to think of examples of awful government that actively harm both peace and access to choices. But if you distrust government altogether you tend to encourage awful government. Encouraging good government seems simpler and more effective.)

If you want examples, it’s very instructive to compare post-MacArthur Japan to the ex-Belgian Congo.

There are things only governments can do to promote peace. They are quite simple, and entirely accepted in most Western countries. They’re things no individual can provide for themselves pretty much by definition: things like the rule of law equally administered, with associated trustable police and lack of corruption; ensuring opportunities are open to everyone; providing a floor beneath which nobody can sink; preventing slavery and unbearable working conditions.

The more the peace holds, the more people grow up without fear and live without fear, the more choices they have and believe they have, the more choices they make as free people and the more liberty they have. There may be dimensions of liberty we cannot imagine, as our ancestors could not imagine ours.

Posted in Human culture, Life as it blossoms out in a jar or a face