Debating First Principles: 'Freedom From' vs. 'Freedom To'

First Principles is a series of three debates on the moral underpinnings of today's politics co-sponsored by Demos, The Ayn Rand Institute and It's A Free Country. Part one explored the role of government, and part two, slated for April 7th, explores Freedom: For Whom and From What?

»» Get ready for the THIRD debate: Is Capitalism Moral?

Watch the First Principles Debate II: Freedom: For Who and From What?




Benjamin R. Barber, the internationally renowned political theorist, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos and President of CivWorld (at Demos), the international NGO that sponsors Interdependence Day and the Paradigm Project. He consults regularly with political and civic leaders in the United States and around the world, and for five years served as an informal consultant to President Bill Clinton.

Like the concepts of democracy, equality and justice, the term liberty is both value-laden and essentially contested. Its core meaning is in dispute at a deep level that cannot be refereed by science or reason in some objective fashion.

"She is free" is not an assertion like "she is young" or "he is wet," which can be subjected to empirical observation.

Because it is prescriptive and contested, what it means to be free depends on theories about our world, and what we want from and for that world . Do we have free will at all? And if so, what augments it? Education? Discretion?

What diminishes it? Fear? Addiction? Propaganda? Are marketing and advertising to be deemed forms of education that enhance choice or forms of propaganda that limit or even coerce choice?

Our views about these issues also turn on whether we regard women and men as "social beings," embedded in relationships, or "natural solitaries" born alone. Freedom can be seen as something to be preserved against social and political relationships, or something to be achieved through them.

The debate about freedom is really a debate about how we define human nature - as individualistic or social - and how we define social relationships – as always coercive (and hence freedom-robbing), or cooperative (and hence freedom-producing).

Libertarians and anarchists and Randians (yes, I know they are not the same) all start with the abstract philosophical premise that men and women are solitary individuals defined by their separation from others in an abstract "state of nature" that is the human condition.

On the other hand, democrats posit that human beings are by nature social, born into families, embedded in clans, tribes and other groups. Freedom for humans is not something that comes "before" those associations but something to be produced and secured within and through those associations.

In this sense, this debate about freedom debate is a natural continuation of the debate about government with which the series opened.

The libertarian/Rand position sees government as contrived, coming "after" the natural state of liberty, and thus as inherently coercive. If individuals are free, a government that constrains them - even if only through laws - is coercive. More government equals less freedom, a concept neo-liberal conservatives and the Tea Party enemies of "big government" argue nowadays.

The democratic position sees no liberty in the lives of isolated individuals who live in a fictional world of natural coercion ruled by the right of the strongest. Such “free” people in practice live lives that are nasty, brutish and short.

So perhaps we shouldn't be arguing about the abstract philosophical meanings of freedom. Rather we should debate the character of the human condition. For it is what we make of the human condition that determines what freedom means to us in a world where we do in fact live together and aspire to do so without being subjected to brute force.

To my mind, this means freedom is about autonomy, not capricious willfulness; it is about self-legislation, making the laws we live under ourselves, rather than about being left alone, left in a place where there is no law. To be free is not to live without or beyond the law. That is merely living—lawlessly and licentiously—and is usually an excuse for the rule of the strong over the weak. Liberty requires not the absence but the presence of society and law.

Harry Binswanger, a longtime associate of Ayn Rand, received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia University. During the 1980's, he was editor of The Objectivist Forum, a bimonthly journal devoted to Ayn Rand's philosophy. Since 1994, he has been professor of philosophy at the Objectivist Academic Center of the Ayn Rand Institute.

The individual is an autonomous being. His life belongs to him, not to society, his neighbors, the needy, an imagined God, or the state. He is not born owing anything to anyone. He owns his life free and clear. He does not have to live at all, much less live a life of servitude.

This radical view of the individual sets the context for the Objectivist view of freedom. Freedom is "freedom from" - freedom from interference by others. "Hands off!" - that's what freedom demands. There is no freedom from nature, from the law of cause and effect, from the necessity of acting to sustain one's life, achieve one's goals, and use one's mind. Rain may spoil your picnic, but it does not limit your freedom. Gravity does not deprive you of the "freedom" to flap your wings and fly. It is against men, not nature, that we have freedom.

But freedom must be universal. There is no "freedom to rob." As someone once put it, the limit of your freedom to swing your fist is my nose.

This is what sinks all notions of "positive" freedom - "freedom" from want, "freedom" from hunger, "freedom" from poverty. My "positive freedom" would require your unfreedom - since you would have to work to supply me with the benefits my "positive freedom" supposedly requires.

It is claimed that a hungry man is not free. This is the destruction of the concept of freedom. It implies that someone else must feed the hungry man. Food, like all human values, has to be produced--produced by someone's time, thought, and effort. Either the producers of those goods are free to use and dispose of them or not. If an individual must surrender the product of his effort to others, he is not free.

This cannot be disguised or evaded by imagining that the supplier of the goods claimed by"the hungry man is "society" or the government. Society is just a group of interacting individuals, not some vague abstraction floating above them. The government is a group of individuals empowered to make laws backed up by coercive penalties. Only individuals create values. For "society" or the state to supply these values to "the needy," it must first seize those values from those who have created them.

Thus Freedom" is a negative concept. It specifies an absence: the absence of interference from other men. And from the government. Though it is an absence, it is supremely important. The *factual* negative of non-interference is a *moral* positive, just as the absence of cancer is a medical positive.

What makes the absence of interference morally positive is that it is required for man's survival, progress, and happiness. That's the lesson writ large by the whole of human history. Philosophically, it reflects the fact that the operation of the human mind requires the absence of coercive interference by others. As Ayn Rand observed, "Freedom is the fundamental requirement of man's mind."