Monday, August 29, 2011

Freedom of Conscience and Liberty

Writing the last post made me think a bit about the roots of economic and political freedom.  I tend to locate liberty a step further back, in freedom of conscience.  Ultimately, I feel that liberty is inherently about the individual's own struggle to discover for themselves what is right and moral, other forms of liberty and secondary to an individual's right to commune with their own soul.  To secure liberty, laws and social norms must be constructed to enhance this process of self discovery to the extent possible, allowing individuals to become dependent on others with no way to fulfill their obligations is the surest way to erode moral autonomy.

This requires that laws be rooted not in some kind of objective morality but rather that they are rooted in mutual recognition of both autonomy and dependency, with society seeking to regulate the interactions, whether conscious and direct or unintended and indirect, between individuals rather than trying to restrict us solely as individuals.  Dependency is our natural state, we are born with debt to those that brought us into the world and to the society that allows us to be something more than barely differentiated savages scratching for roots in the dirt.  Autonomy is the recognition of our individual self-worth that allows us to perform actions to pay back the infinite debt incurred by our existence, by working to benefit others we not only to enhance our own social position through wealth but help to construct the society that will raise others above savagery.  This reciprocity between society's role in lifting us up and our role in supporting society is what allows us to exist in a state of liberty, rather than bondage.

But I am brought back to what Mill said in his introduction to "On Liberty." 

By liberty, was meant protection against the tyranny of the political rulers... Their power was regarded as necessary, but also as highly dangerous; as a weapon which they would attempt to use against their subjects, no less than against external enemies.

What worries me, when I'm feeling pessimistic anyway, is that this conception of liberty regarding political rulers has been becoming more prominent in our culture rather than one regarding individual autonomy and individual social, moral, and economic evolution.  We seem increasingly willing to restore the local institutions that were previously the source of our spiritual bondage in order to weaken our obligations to the state that has rusted away these iron bonds.

What we have forgotten is also mentioned in Mill:

To prevent the weaker members of the community from being preyed on by innumerable vultures, it was needful that there should be an animal of prey stronger than the rest, commissioned to keep them down.

In Mill's day no individual was able to amass a long standing fortune or personal reputation and power significant enough to be more than a local actor.  Businesses were family run and often dependent on the local economy for their survival.  Individuals were curbed both by dependence on the international economy and on the opinions and needs of their local communities, rendering them harmless and a general boon to their society.  

The wings of these minor harpies have been clipped for so long that we have forgotten how dangerous and repressive these minor harpies were when in full flight, it is either too long ago or too distant from our experience to appreciate the dependency that results from these grossly unequal interactions.  Rather than seeking to simply curb the excesses of power of the king of the vultures our culture is tending in a direction that so thoroughly blinds and blunts the beak of this beast that these minor harpies are again stretching their wings to take flight.  It concerns  me that there won't be a reaction until it's too late and we'll find ourselves free of government but dependent on innumerable minor harpies and unable to make our own way in the world without tying ourselves to organizations and individuals that will give us far greater scrutiny than the state has ever chosen to do.

1 comment:

  1. A very complete thought. I couldn't agree more. I find it depressing that the danger you highlight can be literally described as "freedom is slavery."