Archive for February 28th, 2010


In blog discussions and usenet debates going back decades, one issue of intense debate is freedom and politics.  I believe much of that debate is misplaced.    The result is a debate built on over-simplified slogans and inadequate acceptance of the complexity of social reality.   First, what is freedom?

We are all completely free to act as we choose, limited by our circumstances. Circumstances  include our physical capacity, the physical laws of nature, and the choices of others acting in similar freedom.   Those other choices create tthe cultural, social and political worlds around us.   Our freedom is constrained by the weight of past choices made by people.    We are also not free to choose the consequences of our choices, that gets determined by reality.

Note that this means that outside of purely physical factors (what our body can do, how the planet operates, the laws of nature, etc.)  the consequences of the free choices of others are the only things  that constrain us.   If we are constrained by circumstances, it’s only because people in the past made choices whose consequences have created the world we have now.   The social world is a human construct.

Politics,  then, is an effort to reflect on the circumstances in which we find ourselves, recognize that they are a result of past choices made (often with unintended consequences), and determine if we should try to change them.     This means that saying “government is the problem” is a misguided approach to politics.

The reason governments can and should nonetheless be critiqued is that they are the natural result of the weight of past choices.   Peoples’ choices inevitably, over time, empower some and constrain others.   Those with power make choices to try to hold on to it, and  keep their advantage.   That is rational.   The result is that they need some kind of social order to rationalize and justify their position.

Those without power can make choices too, and they often want to find a way to wrest power and wealth from those who have it.   Since they usually have numbers on their side, they ultimately can overcome the powerful.   Traditional societies recognized this conflict of interest, and created “‘grand compromises” in the form of traditions and customs.   The powerful have leadership positions, but they have to adhere to certain norms.   In some cases the masses have been coopted to support the elite by creating a smaller subclass (slaves, etc.) to exploit.

Governments emerge when polities become sophisticated enough to need administration and divisions of power.    Again, they are the result of peoples’ choices and consequences, not some kind of external agency thrust into human affairs.   They reflect the constraints and power differentials at their inception, and moving forward they can transform them.

Looked at this way, if one ‘got rid’ of government, humans would still be constrained by whatever circumstances in which they found themselves, including differences of wealth and power.   Most likely, they would reconstruct government.    Yet libertarians are right that governments are dangerous.

What governments can do is give those in power the capacity to make choices that create more constraints and protect elite privilege more than any other social institutions.   This is because they have larger scope (can rule more people) and bureaucratic efficiency (can project power very effectively).   Second to government in these capacities are private corporations.   Instead of being competing ends of the spectrum as the socialist-capitalist dichotomy would have it, they are the two most potentially dangerous social institutions.   Yet they can do great good as well, and are probably inevitable.

They key is to hold the power of leaders accountable to the people in a way that avoids populist backlash or instability.  Simply, in modern democracies the goal is to do what traditional societies did — create a ‘grand compromise’ whereby the power of the elite is constrained and the power of the masses protected or, if need be, enhanced.   This doesn’t eliminate the power differential — as long as humans make choices, the circumstances will have a level of individual unfairness — but manages it.

In traditional societies the main goal was stability — if the traditions and cultural norms functioned to keep people from revolting against the elites, or to keep the elites from amassing more power, then the society was functionally successful.  In modern western polities there is a philosophical goal on top of the desire for stability — to protect individual rights.    There is also inherent recognition that human rights are not protected in the ‘state of nature’ due to power differentials.   The state thus emerges as both the main threat to freedom, and one of the main instruments for expanding and protecting freedom and individual rights.   Democracy is an attempt to give relatively equal weight to the choices of all citizens in order to move the system forward, ideally to solve problems, reflect on circumstances, and make changes if people believe it necessary.

So debating “freedom” alone is misguided.   Some see it as being simply a limit by government (if only we didn’t pay taxes or have laws, we’d all be free), others see it as a limit by the wealthy (big corporations and money want to control the world, governments hold them in check).    The reality is that both government and corporations, among other things, create the circumstances in which we exercise freedom.   We exercise complete freedom within those circumstances, so the issue is not freedom, but the nature of the circumstances in which we find ourselves.   Are they just?   Can we posit a better world?

Ideally politics should be a reflection and debate about those issues; in our modern western democratic polities, the goal is human liberation — liberation from circumstances which are unfair and unjust.  The real issue is how to judge and assess the nature of these circumstances.   Nearly everyone has freedom.   But not everyone has the circumstances in which they can exercise it adequately.    Looked at that way we have to reject the simplistic left vs. right or “socialism vs. capitalism” set of dichotomies we’ve endured, and embrace a more wide ranging multidimensional set of questions, with no clear easy answer.

And perhaps that’s the most important point.   Looking at freedom alone lends itself to simple, easy slogan-like political programs.   That simplicity is an illusion.   The complexity of the way choices of the past have created circumstances of the present, and how to judge those circumstances defies simple ideological solutions.   That’s why political theory can yield no easy, objective, clear answer to how we should organize our political system.   There probably is no one right answer (it depends on culture — or the circumstances and choices made in various polities), the answer probably changes over time (what works today may seem backwards in 300 years), and if you change what you value a little, the answer will change.   Since values are at some level subjective, questions concerning the fairness of circumstances are inherently contestable, different people will always have different answers.

So where does that leave us?    I’d say that rather than focusing on abstract ideological debate, to think about the circumstances of our world and whether or not we consider them the best we can hope for.   And if not, reflect on how to change them, listening to warnings about unintended consequences, keeping in mind the danger of centralized power, and recognizing that there is no clear answer key — we’re creating our social world through our choices.

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