Monday, July 28, 2014

Conceptions Of Freedom Part 2: For Some End Or For Its Own Sake?

The previous essay concerned itself principally with differentiating the original American conception of political freedom (a.k.a. liberty) from the fascist and socialist bilge being vended today under that label. The distinctions should be clear, which is what makes it so puzzling that so many can't see the gulf between them. But were everyone in the nation to embrace the original conception once again, there would still be questions to ponder. The one of greatest interest is:

Why do you want to be free?

No, it's not new. Nevertheless, it's troubling, for two reasons. Let's tackle the lesser one first.


"Why do you want [insert item or condition here]?" is a question that can confound anyone, on any subject, for a simple reason: There are only two answers, and one of them is transitory:

  • "To get [some other thing]."
  • "It will make me happy."

The first of those answers merely provokes a second iteration of the question. The second does not, for no one can rationally ask another "Why do you want to be happy?" When the condition under scrutiny is freedom, the implication behind the question is that the answer must be of the first sort: Smith wants to be free because it will enable him to get something else. In that view, freedom is merely a means to an end, nothing more.

This opens an ominous door: the divergence of the argument over freedom into other channels that have nothing to do with freedom per se. He who succumbs to the lure will thereafter find himself parrying questions about the worthiness of his ends, about whether there are other and better ways to pursue them, and once he has revealed his other goals, whether his priorities are "good." For example:

Questioner: Why do you want to be free?
Respondent: Because free societies are more prosperous.
Questioner: But you're already prosperous. What do you want that you don't have?
Respondent: Oh, nothing specific. I'd just like to be able to keep more of what I earn.
Questioner: But why, if there's nothing in particular that you want?

Or:

Questioner: Why do you want to be free?
Respondent: So I can make more money.
Questioner: But you could do that by changing trades! By becoming a lawyer, for instance.
Respondent: But I don't want to be a lawyer!
Questioner: Well, what about becoming a doctor, then?

Or:

Questioner: Why do you want to be free?
Respondent: So I can ride rollercoasters all day and get legal access to ABCD [a drug not yet invented -- FWP]
Questioner: What? That's all you want? What a waste of your talents!

Freedom itself ceases to be the subject under discussion once Respondent's answer allows Questioner to address his "real goal." The importance of freedom is thus postulated from the start as instrumental only. As it is given no inherent value of its own, the shift of focus to Respondent's other interests is automatic.

But there's no need to allow ourselves to be channeled into such courses.


The "Why freedom?" question has confounded many able minds. It's that seductive, to say nothing of the tendency of the intelligent to over-analyze even the simplest questions as a way of displaying the power of one's intellect. Writers of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, John Stuart Mill notable among them, fell into the trap in a subtle way. All men must seek the good, they said. But we cannot resolve, once and for all, what "the good" is or must be. Therefore, men must be free to pursue "the good" as they conceive it.

See the hidden snare in there? No? Give it a moment; it will come to you.

Of course! There's no shortage of persons who will claim, with varying degrees of plausibility, that they have determined what "the good" is, for any and every individual. And as freedom is merely an instrumental value, important only for seeking the good, we can do away with it now, and simply impose the good by the force of law!

Many, many peoples have succumbed to such nonsense. Some survivors of Nazi Germany, Communist Russia, Maoist China, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and other examples are still around to tell you about it.

Part of the "Camelot myth" that surrounds the "New Frontier" of John F. Kennedy involved just such notions. Kennedy opened his administration to suggestions from an unprecedentedly wide variety of would-be advisors. Indeed, he often sought them out actively, perhaps in the hope that in doing so he would discover previously hidden or ignored fountains of wisdom about the human condition and the proper ends of Man:

"One could not deny a sense of New Frontier autointoxication; one felt it oneself. The pleasures of power, so long untasted, were now being happily devoured -- the chauffeur-driven limousines, the special telephones, the top-secret documents, the personal aides, the meetings in the Cabinet Room, the phone calls from the president....The currents of vitality radiated out of the White House, flowed through the government and created a sense of vast possibility....Above all, Kennedy held out such promise of hope. Intelligence at last was being applied to public affairs. Euphoria reigned; we thought for a moment that the world was plastic and the future unlimited. " -- Arthur Schlesinger, A Thousand Days.

Those savants presumed to eliminate all "need" for freedom.


It's insufficiently clear to far too many, including many in the liberty movement, that "Why do you want to be free?" is a trick question. In nearly all cases, the questioner is hostile to freedom and would like to see it reduced or expunged altogether. He wants to lure you down some secondary rhetorical path, specifically so you'll stop promoting and defending freedom itself. This is the second and infinitely more important reason the question is of importance.

If each of us has a natural, God-given right to be free -- i.e., to suffer neither coercion nor intimidation in any matter that doesn't involve aggression or fraud -- then there is only one appropriate response:

Questioner: Why do you want to be free?
Respondent: Why do you want me to be unfree?

In applying that riposte, Gentle Reader, do take care to stand well back. Spittle can fly farther than most of us might think!

4 comments:

  1. Distilled, math breaks down. Only "can we come home?"
    And, some are sorry, some are invited, and ashamed at the implications. A lot of work gets done on the knees, just needs to be done.

    Freedom. Maybe just a life, or the big question.

    Math does not fix that, just the One that is served, one way or that other thing.

    War fatigue. Gets a little crazy, when some think that the think can replace what was told to Adam.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Simple. Because the alternative becomes unacceptable.

    (I think that even the most liberty-minded among us can tolerate small amounts of slavery for a time. As proven by our current circumstances.)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Brilliant.

    You ever move out of NY/CT/MA?

    Please stay there and fix your own things, if just not way too busy reading and writing.

    ReplyDelete
  4. another simple retort: i am free, it is my basic state of being. there is no need to explain or justify living in accord with my nature.

    the question implies it is something to move toward. to want implies not to already have. the question sets the stage with a null premise that cannot be answered except in recognition and denial of that premise.

    ReplyDelete

Comments are moderated. I am entirely arbitrary about what I allow to appear here. Toss me a bomb and I might just toss it back with interest. You have been warned.