Perspectives on Freedom and Liberty

I recently pulled a quote from a book I was reading, Escape from Freedom, by Erich Fromm.  Perhaps the most enjoyable quality of the book was the number of real insights Fromm offered, but with his errors clearly traceable (all the more so, for the half-century-plus of perspective that we now have).

Fromm was a psychoanalyst in the mold of Freud, an atheist and a Marxist, who applied his psychological research to social behavior.  A major theme of Escape from Freedom is that the society that develops during a period of history actually serves to change the character of its people, within some bounds set by nature.

In general, I disagree with Fromm’s intellectual approach.  For one thing, he seems to follow the course of defining the broad swath of human normality with reference to those who are abnormal.  Thus, to describe the actions of an entire society, he pins up a picture of a sadomasochistic neurotic and presents normality as a milder version of that, rather than defining normality first and observing how the sadomasochist has gone horribly wrong somewhere along the way.

Similarly, because he begins with the conclusion that there is no God, he gives the impression of a man trying to explain the flow of a river after having declared, a priori, that he is not at the base of a mountain.  This blind spot manifests in his analysis as well as his diagnosis of what was (and still is) wrong with modern society and what would fix it.  One need only open the book at random to find examples (emphasis in original):

If there is no use for the qualities a person offers, he has none; just as an unsalable commodity is valueless though it might have its use value. Thus, the self-confidence, the “feeling of self,” is merely an indication of what others think of the person.  It is not he who is convinced of his value regardless of popularity and his success on the market.  If he is sought after, he is somebody; if he is not popular, he is simply nobody.

Such problems are only insoluble because he has decided beforehand that there is no external, transcendent point of reference.  A believer in God might cite precisely this aspect of mankind’s psychological makeup as evidence that a divine Creator and Intentionality is built in to reality as we are able to observe it.

This leads to an interesting area of agreement within disagreement.  Among Fromm’s insights, as illustrated in the above quotation and the book’s title, is that mankind’s psychology is such that freedom can lead to isolation, which we naturally attempt to escape, creating an opening for totalitarians to promise us security.  A conservative will see immediately echoes of the welfare state and the distorted vision of the American Dream proclaimed by our current president.

To clarify the point and to understand how a hoary old Marxist and a 21st Century conservative can agree and then diverge, it’s helpful to make a distinction between two concepts: freedom and liberty. In popular usage, the two terms are synonymous.  When comparing conflicting belief systems, however, there are clearly two concepts in play.

We can conceive of “freedom” more as “fulfillment.”  One can be free (or not) from the restrictions of an overbearing authority, but one can also be free (or not) from hunger and want, or even from meaninglessness.  Thus, the progressive considers it an advance of freedom to take money from the rich under threat of prison in order to feed the poor.

By contrast, we can conceive of “liberty” more as “autonomy.”  One is free (or not) to do whatever one wants; nobody has the authority to force one to do otherwise.  (This isn’t a new idea, of course; Fromm puts these concepts in terms of negative and positive freedoms.)

Libertarians more or less believe that the two concepts are, in fact, synonymous, in the following way.

While not everybody will realize his or her maximum potential, the libertarian holds that there is no meaningful difference between autonomy and fulfillment.  It’s up to the individual to use the ability to do anything in order to find fulfillment.  The altruistic goal of maximizing the sum of human fulfillment is achieved by allowing as many people as possible to do as much as possible.

The conservative, by contrast, holds that there is a meaningful difference between liberty and freedom.  In keeping with Fromm, conservatives believe that the number of people so situated as to be able to transform autonomy into fulfillment is vanishingly small, and highly dependent on the social structures that bring individuals to the necessary level of competence.  Thus, conservatives would draw the relationship between the two concepts more like this.

We started out as mere animals, restrained in liberty by our physical abilities and in freedom by our slavishness to mere survival.  As mankind gave up some of our autonomy, we gained the advantages of society, leading to a maximization of fulfillment.

Not finding any strong line at the top of the curve, we trod along into personal liberty and have found precisely the isolation and insecurity that Fromm describes.  Paradoxically, as we’re (in theory) allowed to do more things, we’re less free from restrictions.  Either the government steps in, ostensibly to protect those who couldn’t handle the liberty (the progressive route), or those with advantages reduce the opportunities for those not able to compete (the libertarian route).

Inasmuch as Fromm acknowledges a downward slope of freedom with autonomy and there are instances in which progressives see autonomy increasing freedom, their curve must share some of the shape of the conservative one.  Yet, progressives’ big-government ideology suggests that they don’t accept the left half of the conservatives’ curve, as does their seemingly contradictory affection for native man and the liberty of the primitive.

The image that takes shape when considering these common samples of progressive thought is something like this.

Humanity started out almost completely free, although limited in his fulfillment by the hardship of reality.  As social structures developed, the masses became slaves to dictators, theocrats, and capitalists, finding themselves both less free and less fulfilled.  With advanced understanding of society, with technology, and with a well-meaning elite, we can progress toward a state of society in which everybody is fulfilled doing what they have to do for the good of all.

These three charts give some structure to the major problems in current political debate.  Provided we’re in the social realm (with such things as sex and drugs), progressives are happy to side with libertarians in increasing autonomy.  Where more-substantive matters of civilization, such as property, armament, and civic rights, are at issue, conservatives and libertarians are in agreement.  And sometimes conservatives and progressives can agree about the importance of social protections for people, although usually disagreeing about the method.

Understanding these perspectives can give some clues about how specific policies might be sold to groups with which one disagrees.  In a broad sense, though, there can be no real harmony between these views.  The libertarian will always want to move from left to right, while the progressive will always expect Eden to be to the left, and the conservative sees it all as a sliding scale, requiring careful balance over generations.

Of course, when it comes to individuals, the possibility always exists to change their opinions, and for that, the political spectrum I proposed last year might be a better way of looking at things.  The three curves above would correspond to the vertical thirds of the circle. The difference between the progressives and the far right, for example, would mainly be flipping the authority to whom all sacrifice their autonomy in exchange for fulfillment.

To move a right-libertarian into the conservative spectrum would require convincing him about the right side of the liberty bell curve.  To make a progressive into a moderate, the task is to persuade that no ruling elite can every be sufficiently perfect (or able to perfect the people it rules) to make the sacrifice of autonomy a net gain for fulfillment.

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