Friday, 28 September 2007

Authority and Freedom

If and insofar as the common man lacks virtue and self-control, and society lacks authorities, moral strictures, taboos and codes of behaviour for him to follow, and insofar as the state still possesses civilising forces, then censorship and control by the state are necessary for some modicum of civility to survive. The weakness of self-control within men, and of the bonds between them, has made it necessary that the state be stronger, that it assume the control and fix the bonds that bind them together.
Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters. [1]
It is true to say that the state has grown upon the ruins of these civilising necessities of society — but it could hardly have done so without the ruination brought in the name of freedom. Institutions and authorities and particularisms that stand against the free exercise of power are attacked as the enemies of freedom, whereupon it is forgotten what freedom they have preserved against the advance of absolutism.
A similar pattern is to be observed everywhere: the institutions which make the survival of the pluralist society possible—the legal system, the school, the family, the university, the market—are attacked by totalitarian forces using liberal slogans, in the name of freedom in other words. Freedom appears as the absence of law and responsibility, in the anarchistic sense, and thus promises all the consequences which European social philosophy has pointed to for several hundred years: unlimited freedom for everyone means unlimited rights for the strong or, according to Dostoyevsky, in the end, absolute freedom equals absolute slavery. [2]
It is funny to observe that the watchword that holds the greater authority over people’s minds is not that of authority itself, but that of freedom. Ministers of the popular state, though they have gathered ever more power over people’s lives — more than any aristocracy by its very nature could ever have gathered — , still prefer to couch the whole process in terms of freedom rather than authority; and, to some extent, they are right to do so: the unlimited state works hard to free people from all other authorities, to level and destroy, until it alone is left standing.
That which makes an institution an institution is despised, hated, repudiated: one fears the danger of a new slavery the moment the word ‘authority’ is even spoken out loud. That is how far decadence has advanced in the value-instincts of our politicians, of our political parties: instinctively they prefer what disintegrates, what hastens the end. [3]
The marriage of the ideals of liberty and equality — first consummated in the French Revolution — has put in men’s minds the absurd expectation that something will be born of it that will secure both greater freedom and greater equality for all; but naturally, since there are many men of ignoble mien who, once set free of all civilising authorities and values, cannot conduct themselves decently, such that the state must step in with the most intrusive laws and regulations to guide and restrict them, to proscribe their behaviour and to set them on determined paths, so must every man under the aegis of equality be subject to the same proscriptions that bind these lowest and most ignoble of men to a regulated and legislated life, irrespective of his capability for self-control, irrespective of his dignity of self-determination, and irrespective of his particularistic values.
Where will it end? In the destruction of all other command for the benefit of one alone—that of the state. In each man’s absolute freedom from every family and social authority, a freedom the price of which is complete submission to the state. In the complete equality as between themselves of all citizens, paid for by their abasement before the power of their absolute master—the state. In the disappearance of every constraint which does not emanate from the state, and in the denial of every pre-eminence which is not approved by the state. In a word, it ends in the atomization of society, and in the rupture of every private tie linking man to man, whose only bond is now their common bondage to the state. The extremes of individualism and socialism meet: that was their predestined course. [4]
If you are a political libertarian seeking the limitation of the state, alarmed at its pervasive interference in society and aghast at political absolutism in all its forms, then your ideal is ill-served by your also being a social libertarian caring nothing for social order or authority, or even scorning those “stuffy” things that help to maintain it but for which you yourself can see no use and in which you yourself can see no worth; such freedom — or popular licence as it might better be termed — as this attitude helps to foster serves ultimately the expansion of the state and not the liberation of the individual.
[1] Edmund Burke, “Letter to a Member of the National Assembly”, 19th January 1791, The Works of the Right Hon. Edmund Burke, vol.1, (London: Holdsworth and Ball, 1834), p.490.
[2] Leszek Kolakowski, “The Self-Poisoning of the Open Society”, Modernity on Endless Trial (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), p.172.
[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, in The Portable Nietzsche, (New York: The Viking Press, 1954), §39, pp. 543-4; preceded by: “The whole of the West no longer possesses the instincts out of which institutions grow, out of which a future grows: perhaps nothing antagonizes its ‘modern spirit’ so much. One lives for the day, one lives very fast, one lives very irresponsibly: precisely this is called ‘freedom’.” p.544.
[4] Bertrand de Jouvenel, On Power: The Natural History of its Growth, tr, J.F. Huntington (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1993), p.187.


Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

A thought-provoking mini-essay.

I recall a discussion over coffee in Tuebingen, Germany during the early 1990s with a British Pakistani woman of the left who deplored Margaret Thatcher for reducing the role of the state in Britain because people were being taught lack of responsibility for one another.

I suggested that the state, by assuming the role of caring for each individual, might itself be undermining those habits of the heart that reinforced people's care and responsibility for each other.

The lady gave me a baffled look, implying to me that she had no idea what I meant.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

David Duff said...

Thanks a million! Your pinpoint accuracy has started my weekend with a severe attack of the 'glums'.

On another topic, might I put in a plea on behalf of the 'ocularly challenged' by asking you to increase the font size of your quotations? They really do require a lot of 'peering power'! Perhaps you could put them in italics to emphasise the fact that they are quotes. Just a suggestion.

Godfrey Leipnits, Esq. said...

We optimists are constitutionally averse to those curmudgeonly glums.

Roach said...

The failure of liberalism in Europe in the 19th Century is the elephant in the room.

As John C. Calhoun observed:

[T]he worst form of government, is better than anarchy; and that individual liberty, or freedom, must be subordinate to whatever power may be necessary to protect society against anarchy within or destruction from without; for the safety and well-being of society is as paramount to individual liberty, as the safety and well-being of the race is to that of individuals; and in the same proportion, the power necessary for the safety of society is paramount to individual liberty. On the contrary, government has no right to control individual liberty beyond what is necessary to the safety and well-being of society. Such is the boundary which separates the power of government and the liberty of the citizen or subject in the political state, which, as I have shown, is the natural state of man—the only one in which his race can exist, and the one in which he is born, lives, and dies.

It follows from all this that the quantum of power on the part of the government, and of liberty on that of individuals, instead of being equal in all cases, must necessarily be very unequal among different people, according to their different conditions. For just in proportion as a people are ignorant, stupid, debased, corrupt, exposed to violence within and danger from without, the power necessary for government to possess, in order to preserve society against anarchy and destruction becomes greater and greater, and individual liberty less and less, until the lowest condition is reached, when absolute and despotic power becomes necessary on the part of the government, and individual liberty extinct. So, on the contrary, just as a people rise in the scale of intelligence, virtue, and patriotism, and the more perfectly they become acquainted with the nature of government, the ends for which it was ordered, and how it ought to be administered, and the less the tendency to violence and disorder within, and danger from abroad, the power necessary for government becomes less and less, and individual liberty greater and greater. Instead, then, of all men having the same right to liberty and equality, as is claimed by those who hold that they are all born free and equal, liberty is the noble and highest reward bestowed on mental and moral development, combined with favorable circumstances. Instead, then, of liberty and equality being born with man; instead of all men and all classes and descriptions being equally entitled to them, they are high prizes to be won, and are in their most perfect state, not only the highest reward that can be bestowed on our race, but the most difficult to be won—and when won, the most difficult to be preserved.

They have been made vastly more so by the dangerous error I have attempted to expose, that all men are born free and equal, as if those high qualities belonged to man without effort to acquire them, and to all equally alike, regardless of their intellectual and moral condition. The attempt to carry into practice this, the most dangerous of all political error, and to bestow on all, without regard to their fitness either to acquire or maintain liberty, that unbounded and individual liberty supposed to belong to man in the hypothetical and misnamed state of nature, has done more to retard the cause of liberty and civilization, and is doing more at present, than all other causes combined. While it is powerful to pull down governments, it is still more powerful to prevent their construction on proper principles. It is the leading cause among those which have placed Europe in its present anarchical condition, and which mainly stands in the way of reconstructing good governments in the place of those which have been overthrown, threatening thereby the quarter of the globe most advanced in progress and civilization with hopeless anarchy, to be followed by military despotism.

J.K. Baltzersen said...

Dear Sir:

Thank you for such an excellent post and for providing me with an excellent quote for the WRU Quote of the Month for September 2007.

You have once again been selected for this award.

dearieme said...

The Welsh Rugby Union does a quote of the month? I'll be Fiji'd!

Deogolwulf said...

Prof. Hodges, in such situations where politeness is to be maintained but comprehension of one's words is not to be had, I find it best to summon the spirit of amity and say nothing more, and then look baffled when the bill is brought.

My Duff, I beg your pardon for my provoking gloom. As for font-size, I shall see what I can do.

Mr Leipnits esq., glad to hear it.

Mr Roach, thanks for the great quotation.

Mr Baltzersen, thanks again and much obliged.

Dearieme, indeed, often to do with Charlotte Church.

Pietr said...

The failure of that 'comment' to say anything true or worthwhile is the Roach in the room.

J.K. Baltzersen said...

Mr Baltzersen, thanks again and much obliged.

You're very welcome, sir!

Lord Higham-Johnson said...

...the absolutist state works hard to free people from all other authorities, to level and destroy, until it alone is left standing...

The nicest of niceties, Deogolwulf, sir.

Peter Horne said...

Thanks for pointing me in the direction of this post.
It puts me in mind of J.F. Stephen's conception of liberty as the absence of injurious restraint, rather than the absence of all restraint. In this way he distinguishes liberty from licence. The social authorities providing the restraint necessary for true freedom to exist being law, morality and religion.

"From this great truth flow many consequences, some of which I have already referred to. They may all be summed upm in this one, that power precedes liberty-that liberty, from the very nature of things, is dependent on power; and it is only the protection of a powerful, well-organized, and intelligent government that any liberty can exist at all."