Tuesday, March 3, 2015

What Freedom Is...And Isn’t

Michael Walsh has posted an interesting piece about the Left’s aversion to the late Robert A. Heinlein. It’s rather difficult to excerpt constructively, so I’ll simply exhort you to read it for yourself. My thoughts for the morning flow from the following comment to the piece:

Aargh! "Starship Troopers" is NOT "authoritarian"! Nor is the government depicted fascist. It explores the nature of duty and one way of trying to assure that the people who vote actually care about the nation. Every citizen in ST could vote, and every adult, regardless of race, sex, or economic status could become a citizen - if they cared enough to put in the service time required (and not just in the military, there were civilian jobs that qualified). One of Heinlein's subtle points was most people didn't want to!

I was reminded at once of Paul Verhoeven’s movie Starship Troopers, which, though colorful and entertaining, did violence to the book’s moral and political themes. But I was reminded even more strongly of two other works: Clarence Carson’s The American Tradition and Robert Nozick’s masterwork Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

Dr. Carson, an underappreciated writer and thinker, had some incisive things to say about one of the most pernicious fetishes of “democracy:” the “right” to vote:

[W]e are told that there is no need to fear the concentration of power in government so long as that power is checked by the electoral process. We are urged to believe that so long as we can express our disagreement in words, we have our full rights to disagree. Now both freedom of speech and the electoral process are important to liberty, but alone they are only the desiccated remains of liberty. However vigorously we may argue against foreign aid, our substance is still drained away in never-to-be-repaid loans. Quite often, there is not even a candidate to vote for who holds views remotely like my own. To vent one's spleen against the graduated income tax may be healthy for the psyche, but one must still yield up his freedom of choice as to how his money will be spent when he pays it to the government. The voice of electors in government is not even proportioned to the tax contribution of individuals; thus, those who contribute more lose rather than gain by the "democratic process." A majority of voters may decide that property cannot be used in such and such ways, but the liberty of the individual is diminished just as much as in that regard as if a dictator had decreed it. Those who believe in the redistribution of wealth should be free to redistribute their own, but they are undoubtedly limiting the freedom of others when they vote to redistribute theirs.

Professor Nozick sharpened Dr. Carson’s point still further in what he called “The Tale of the Slave:”

  • There is a slave completely at the mercy of his brutal master's whims. He often is cruelly beaten, called out in the middle of the night, and so on.
  • The master is kindlier and beats the slave only for stated infractions of his rules (not fulfilling the work quota, and so on). He gives the slave some free time.
  • The master has a group of slaves, and he decides how things are to be allocated among them on nice grounds, taking into account their needs, merit, and so on.
  • The master allows his slaves four days on their own and requires them to work only three days a week on his land. The rest of the time is their own.
  • The master allows his slaves to go off and work in the city (or anywhere they wish) for wages. He requires only that they send back to him three-sevenths of their wages. He also retains the power to recall them to the plantation if some emergency threatens his land; and to raise or lower the three-sevenths amount required to be turned over to him. He further retains the right to restrict the slaves from participating in certain dangerous activities that threaten his financial return, for example, mountain climbing, cigarette smoking.
  • The master allows all of his 10,000 slaves, except you, to vote, and the joint decision is made by all of them. There is open discussion, and so forth, among them, and they have the power to determine to what uses to put whatever percentage of your (and their) earnings they decide to take; what activities legitimately may be forbidden to you, and so on.

Let us pause in this sequence of cases to take stock. If the master contracts this transfer of power so that he cannot withdraw it, you have a change of master. You now have 10,000 masters instead of just one; rather you have one 10,000-headed master. Perhaps the 10,000 even will be kindlier than the benevolent master in case 2. Still, they are your master. However, still more can be done. A kindly single master (as in case 2) might allow his slave(s) to speak up and try to persuade him to make a certain decision. The 10,000-headed monster can do this also.

  • Though still not having the vote, you are at liberty (and are given the right) to enter into the discussions of the 10,000, to try to persuade them to adopt various policies and to treat you and themselves in a certain way. They then go off to vote to decide upon policies covering the vast range of their powers.
  • In appreciation of your useful contributions to discussion, the 10,000 allow you to vote if they are deadlocked; they commit themselves to this procedure. After the discussion you mark your vote on a slip of paper, and they go off and vote. In the eventuality that they divide evenly on some issue, 5,000 for and 5,000 against, they look at your ballot and count it in. This has never yet happened; they have never yet had occasion to open your ballot. (A single master also might commit himself to letting his slave decide any issue concerning him about which he, the master, was absolutely indifferent.)
  • They throw your vote in with theirs. If they are exactly tied your vote carries the issue. Otherwise it makes no difference to the electoral outcome.

The “sting in the tale” is Nozick’s concluding question: At what point in this sequence is it no longer the tale of a slave?

Ponder that for a moment.

I wrote some time ago that there is no “right” to vote, that the vote itself is not an essential of freedom, and that certain conditions and qualifications should be imposed upon that privilege to render it less harmful to the Republic. That essay drew a lot of hostile commentary, mostly from persons who draw a check from the federal government and deem both that check and their “right” to vote as beyond morally legitimate criticism. Not all of them were idiots. Still, they were wrong then and they remain wrong today, for reasons Carson and Nozick make plain in the citations above.

Frederic Bastiat made the very same case in his 1850 pamphlet The Law:

A closer examination of the subject shows us the motive which causes the right of suffrage to be based upon the supposition of incapacity. The motive is that the elector or voter does not exercise this right for himself alone, but for everybody. The most extended elective system and the most restricted elective system are alike in this respect. They differ only in respect to what constitutes incapacity. It is not a difference of principle, but merely a difference of degree. If, as the republicans of our present-day Greek and Roman schools of thought pretend, the right of suffrage arrives with one's birth, it would be an injustice for adults to prevent women and children from voting. Why are they prevented? Because they are presumed to be incapable. And why is incapacity a motive for exclusion? Because it is not the voter alone who suffers the consequences of his vote; because each vote touches and affects everyone in the entire community; because the people in the community have a right to demand some safeguards concerning the acts upon which their welfare and existence depend.

I know what might be said in answer to this; what the objections might be. But this is not the place to exhaust a controversy of this nature. I wish merely to observe here that this controversy over universal suffrage (as well as most other political questions) which agitates, excites, and overthrows nations, would lose nearly all of its importance if the law had always been what it ought to be. In fact, if law were restricted to protecting all persons, all liberties, and all properties; if law were nothing more than the organized combination of the individual's right to self defense; if law were the obstacle, the check, the punisher of all oppression and plunder — is it likely that we citizens would then argue much about the extent of the franchise?

Under these circumstances, is it likely that the extent of the right to vote would endanger that supreme good, the public peace? Is it likely that the excluded classes would refuse to peaceably await the coming of their right to vote? Is it likely that those who had the right to vote would jealously defend their privilege? If the law were confined to its proper functions, everyone's interest in the law would be the same. Is it not clear that, under these circumstances, those who voted could not inconvenience those who did not vote?

Bastiat was concerned with freedom. More, he was capable of distinguishing between a genuine right and a political privilege. Some years later, Louis Thiers said this about rights:

Either rights exist, or they do not exist. If they exist, they involve absolute consequences...Furthermore, if a right exists, it exists at every moment. It is absolute today, yesterday, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, in summer as in winter, not when it pleases you to declare it in force.

Mind you, Thiers disagreed with Bastiat’s conception of genuine rights. That didn’t keep him from recognizing their nature.

Thomas Jefferson’s enumeration (in the Declaration of Independence) of our God-given rights flowed from a deeper conception: that of the individual as an autonomous being. He, and the many thinkers who preceded his formulation, realized that if rights exist, they cannot possibly contradict one another—that you cannot have a “right” that requires the abridgement of any “right” I possess. Your rights to your life, your liberty, and your property cannot and do not entitle you to infringe upon my rights to my life, my liberty, or my property. One who possesses those rights is wholly autonomous: i.e., he is both free to do as he wills (subject to the constraint that he not infringe upon others’ rights), and is responsible for the consequences of his decisions, actions, and inactions.

Quite a lot of persons recoil from this conception because of that trailing condition. (“Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it!” – George Bernard Shaw) They demand to be “free” without the responsibilities that attach to freedom; they want others to shoulder the burdens they create. The obvious asymmetries and instabilities that arise from such a division of responsibility from freedom are much of what bedevils us today. Ralph Waldo Emerson was practically brutal on the subject:

The ingenuity of man has always been dedicated to the solution of one problem - how to detach the sensual sweet, the sensual bright, etc. from the moral sweet, the moral deep, the moral fair; that is, again, to cut clean off this upper surface so thin as to leave it bottomless; to get a one end, without an other end....We can no more halve things and get the sensual good, by itself, than we can get an inside that shall have no outside, or a light without a shadow.

Heinlein made it maximally explicit in Starship Troopers:

“Both for practical reasons and for mathematically verifiable moral reasons, authority and responsibility must be equal - else a balancing takes place as surely as current flows between points of unequal potential. To permit irresponsible authority is to sow disaster; to hold a man responsible for anything he does not control is to behave with blind idiocy. The unlimited democracies were unstable because their citizens were not responsible for the fashion in which they exerted their sovereign authority... other than through the tragic logic of history... No attempt was made to determine whether a voter was socially responsible to the extent of his literally unlimited authority. If he voted the impossible, the disastrous possible happened instead - and responsibility was then forced on him willy-nilly and destroyed both him and his foundationless temple.”

Jefferson understood freedom – the rights to one’s life, liberty, and honestly acquired property – as a natural condition prior and superior to political organization. He understood politics and government not as goods to be pursued, but as unfortunate necessities to be confined within the cage of men’s God-given rights. Heinlein, though he allowed one of his teachers in History and Moral Philosophy to denigrate the Jeffersonian conception, grasped and adhered to it even so.

Carson, Nozick, Bastiat, Jefferson, and Heinlein had no trouble explaining to you why there is no “right” to vote -- and why you should be glad of it.

To sum up: You are free to the extent that your decisions, actions, and inactions are wholly at your discretion, rather than being constrained by punishment or the threat of punishment. Archibald MacLeish summed it up nicely:

What is freedom? Freedom is the right to choose: the right to create for oneself the alternatives of choice. Without the possibility of choice and the exercise of choice a man is not a man but a member, an instrument, a thing.

Political freedom is merely freedom from punishment for one’s choices by a politically constituted body: a government. To distinguish it from absolute and unqualified freedom, we call it liberty.

There cannot be liberty without responsibility. The “right” to vote has nothing of liberty in it; as Heinlein notes, it is merely a delimited exertion of political authority. When you vote, you are not exercising any aspect of liberty; you are functioning as an agent of the political authority. In our “democracy,” in which the voter bears no direct responsibility for the consequences of his vote, for that brief instant in which you “pull the lever and feel the power,” you are functionally a master, if only an infinitesimal fraction of one.

When you pull back the curtain and leave the booth, you’re back to being wholly a slave.

Always bear that distinction in mind.


  1. Anybody who votes should have to pass the naturalization test. That would at least weed out the ignoramuses who have no idea how many Senators each state has.

  2. What an excellent piece, Fran.

    The social welfare state is the quintessential expression of the concept of political authority without responsibility. Fiscal bankruptcy is a direct result of the welfare beneficiaries' exercise of the franchise and the bleeding of productive citizens that precedes it is a matter of indifference to the winning electoral coalition. (And riots and the threat of riots are more powerful exercise of the franchise than any 10-minute visit to any polling place.)

    >> citizens were not responsible for the fashion in which they exerted their sovereign authority... other than through the tragic logic of history <<

    Right there is the encapsulation of last days of any polity. Solzhenitsyn spoke of the pitiless crowbar of events. Someone else observed that sooner or later all must bow down to Mars. Commies like to speak of the presence or absence of a revolutionary situation and Chinese in olden times spoke of the loss of the Mandate of Heaven. Christians (some) speak of the loss of God's protection. Political action unhooked to responsibility is monumentally irrational and that has been the inevitable goal to which English, European, and American systems have labored deliberately, intentionally, and with malice aforethought. Communist-dominated unions, welfare recipients, intellectuals, and feminists are powerful reservoirs of malevolence. The Treason Class and its absurdities and crimes is simply the apotheosis, the distillation, of these empowered lives of free-floating license and plunder. Open borders are, for example, open and obvious, concentrated, deliberate manifestations of pure malevolence.

    As Solzhenitsyn et al. warn, however, incoherence and ignoring of cosmic laws sooner or later lead to an unpleasant reckoning.

    Heinlein et al. are all correct but I can think of no possible course change where our current aimless depredations and stupidities can be fixed. To paraphrase what an observer of the Versailles Conference said, today everyone wants the gravy train to go on forever but no one is willing to give up what cannot be had without a train wreck.

    Don't miss Fred Reed's recent take on the insanity of allowing morons and the intellectually slothful to vote.

  3. Outstanding piece, Mr. Porretto. This piece will become widely propagated.

  4. > The “sting in the tale” is Nozick’s concluding question: At what point in this sequence is it no longer the tale of a slave?

    When a poison is diluted enough, it is no longer a poison. There are strengths of slavery: chattel, debt, forced labor, forced marriage. The question I quote above is a dull one because it assumes answers are black or white, rather than gray. Under every proposed libertarian system I've heard of, there are temporary partial restrictions on action while a conflict is being resolved.

    Perhaps you meant to ask a different question entirely, such as: at what point during this sequence does "government" stop being a parasite and start benefitting the individual?


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