06 September 2012

Free people and free societies

Alan Ryan's Making of Modern Liberalism is a collection of critical essays written over a 40 year period which Ryan hopes will amount to an intellectual history. I'm currently reading a free sample on my e-reader -- to give you an idea of the size of the whole, the sample is 127 pages long -- and while that's not enough from which to draw conclusions about Alan Ryan, it has already provoked some thought in me. On the subject of "freedom," Ryan notes that the meaning of the term, of what it meant to be free, varies depending on the author, while some writers seem to contradict themselves. He's critical of Thomas Hobbes, for instance, for "his implausible claim that a man who swears allegiance to a conqueror when the conqueror's sword is at his throat does so freely." While Ryan observes that "It is, of course, true that he is not hindered in swearing allegiance," he adds that "it would be odd to suppose that he is not hindered from refusing by the prospect of immediate death. It may be true that if he were to wish to refuse to swear allegiance and so get himself killed, he would refuse; he would not be hindered in doing what he had a mind to do." However, this doesn't seem to sit well with Hobbes's (and Ryan's) contention that a man is free when he is "master of his actions," and isn't free when "another man can become the master of our actions .. by possessing the ability to make effective threats." Later, Ryan writes that "A man in jail is paradigmatically not free; a man threatened with punishment if he writes a book is paradigmatically less free to write it than a man not so threatened."

It would seem that consequences condition freedom, and that we are less free when we face consequences for our actions that may deter us from taking them. But whether we're free would seem to come down to what we actually do. If we are deterred from certain conscientious actions (e.g. writing a book) by the threat of consequences, common sense seems to say that we are unfree. But if, under the very same conditions, we act and face the consequences can we say that we are unfree because we are punished? During the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, I was happy to debunk the assertion that we ought to "liberate" the Iraqi people by observing that there were plenty of free people in Iraq; most of them just happened to have been imprisoned or killed by Saddam Hussein. This sophistry was unlikely to satisfy anyone who saw killing and imprisonment as proof of people's unfreedom, but as I think back after reading a sample of Alan Ryan I think that a distinction should be drawn between free people and free societies. The Iraqi dissident was a free man even if Saddam suppressed him so long as Saddam didn't deter him, but so long as Saddam had the power to both suppress and deter Iraq was not a free society. It might be possible in such a context that someone is a free man but not a free citizen. To make that distinction makes some concept of immunity essential to the ideal of civil freedom, as opposed (regardless of whether they're considered synonymous) to individual freedom. Civil freedom, in this sense, means that we should not be punished for some acts, especially the conscientious ones. The free society is the one where you are neither executed by the ruler nor lynched by the mob for expressing a conscientious yet controversial opinion. The unfree society is the one where it's unsafe for the free person to live, whether he chooses to take his chances or not.

Like all good things, the ideal of civil freedom as immunity from reprisal can be taken to bad extremes. If there can be no agreement on people's "natural" rights, than accountability in civil society is always subject to contest. There may always be debates over the scope of accountability, or whether people should be held accountable by the state at all for certain acts. Natural rights are often asserted as a check on accountability, but if we recognize "natural rights" merely as natural prerogatives -- that is, if we acknowledge that people will do certain things rather than that they must (or must be allowed to) do certain things, then it doesn't really violate someone's individual freedom to subject it to accountability. Is it a slippery slope from there to Saddam Hussein? He may not make the best reference point to the extent that his power was arbitrary in nature, but the question remains whether the state can go too far in asserting accountability and render society unfree. My best first stab at a standard would be to suggest that a society is unfree if it ends up deterring people from useful activity, the usefulness of it not being up to the state alone to determine but not for any one person to assert unilaterally, either. A free society would be the one that allows citizens to determine in the least rigid fashion how useful any citizen has been or can be. The freedom of the society is determined not by what people do, but by what society does about it. The freedom of the individual is taken for granted since it can't be suppressed. The individual may complain that society makes him unfree, but he can't say, as some individuals often do, that it makes him a slave. That's progress, isn't it?

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