Monday, September 05, 2011

Liberty bells still ringing

Last post on liberty for a while. In my paean to it last week, I included Proposition No. 7: “Of all the values which contribute to the happiness of man individually and collectively, the value of individual liberty, as a direction and a goal, is the most efficient, the most effective, and the most desirable way to get there."

The commenter known as Don, who describes himself more and more as libertarian than a conservative these days commented as follows:

“Proposition 7 was the most cogent and insightful.
Not surprisingly I agree with most of this with a few quibbles.
I am, however, less sanguine about the prospects for continued individual liberty in this country (see proposition 7 again) with the increased acceptance of nanny state meddling. It has an erosionary effect on liberty that will have a tendency to erode and topple it. It also tends to develop individuals who are less comfortable with and less able to deal with liberty."

Naturally, I felt sorry for the little rascal (he is an attorney, and that is ground enough for pity) and I commented back that I would relieve him of his fears this week. And, I am a blogger of his word. So, first, a very quick hop through history and then my paradigm:

No one knows exactly how old The Epic of Gilgamesh is, but it is really friggin’ old; so old, that The Old Testament is middle aged in comparison and our constitution a newborn baby. We know that parts of it are taken from far older works, so it may be vastly older than we think. At a minimum, parts of it were probably written over 4100 years ago, with what is called the standard version that is usually published in translation now - maybe 3300 years ago. Old. Yet, I say unto you, sons and daughters of men, one of the central themes running through it is - liberty.

The adventure begins with the inhabitants of Uruk angry at the partially divine King Gilgamesh because he is insisting on deflowering all the virgins before they marry as his kingly right. The story doesn’t dwell on abstract concepts, but if it did, it would have been discussing liberty – the right of people to do as they please, to have and use their own property and have their exclusive relationships.

The city folk Gilgamesh ruled got a little divine help and a creature named of Enkidu they hoped would subdue him was created. Enkidu was part man and part beast, and it was the beast part they hoped would be able to overpower the mighty Gilgamesh. A harlot was sent to Enkidu to tame him (wink, wink) and she did, the animals rejected him and he came into the city to confront Gilgamesh. This is awfully heady stuff for people in such an early civilization out of the stone age – but the storytellers are not so subtly pointing out how in exchange for civilization, we must give up nature. Put another way, the price we pay for civilization is giving up some of our freedom. Enkidu confronted Gilgamesh, but was defeated in battle and they became undying friends and had some adventures, during which Enkidu dies. I’ve written in much greater detail about this legend on 7/11/07 and you can look there if you have any interest.

Although I have never read an analysis of Gilgamesh which speaks about the epic in terms of ideas of liberty, I am sure I am not the first. it seems overwhelmingly evident once you put this light on it. Thus, even in the oldest literary on earth we know of – freedom was a great concern.

Consider the Bible too, The Old Testament first. Again and again the issue of liberty shines through like a burning bush. Moses concerned himself with freeing the Hebrews from the Egyptians. More than once, the hebrews were taken as slaves. The entire second book of the Torah is taken up with the issue in Exodus. Though slavery is a prism which it is thankfully no longer necessary to see liberty through, it comes up time and time again in the Bible. And, often, the topic is manumission – how and when will a slave be free? There is no doubt freedom will be desired, because it is as natural in man as a baby taking a first step or wresting a rattle out of an adult’s hand.

And, at the same time as freedom is arising in the Biblical tales, so are the commandments and the law (mostly Deuteronomy). It is a package deal, and leads to one of my favorite legal quotes from a Supreme Court case known as Terminiello v. City of Chicago, where Justice Robert Jackson, in dissent from the majority (and, in my opinion, coming to the wrong conclusion on the case) wrote about the balance:

“The choice is not between order and liberty. It is between liberty with order and anarchy without either.”

The accepted reading of The New Testament as having little to do with liberty and much to do with saving your soul. And, I do think that is largely correct. But, Lord Acton, whose writings on liberty are extensive and passionate, but marred by his preference for south during the Civil because they took a stand against a strong central government and asserted their independence, pointed out something that I had never considered before. I had always though when Jesus uttered the famous: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” I had always look at it not as a pro-government sentiment – hardly that – but one that acknowledged the authority of government on earth.

But Acton writes at the end of his essay History of Freedom in Antiquity: “[T]hose words, spoken on His last visit to the Temple, three days before his death, gave to the civil power, under the protection of conscience, a sacredness that it had never enjoyed, and bounds it had never acknowledged; and they were the repudiation of absolutism and the inauguration of freedom. For our Lord not only delivered the precept, but created the force to execute it. To maintain the necessary immunity in one supreme sphere, to reduce all political authority within defined limits, ceased to be the aspiration of patient reasoners, and was made the perpetual charge and care of the most energetic institution and the most universal association in the world. The new law, the new spirit, the new authority, gave to liberty a meaning and a value had not possessed in the philosophy or in the constitution of Greece or Rome before the knowledge of the truth that makes us free.”

I expect that is too long a paragraph for Don to comprehend, and as I am writing this in response to him, I will summarize it for him. It was not a statement about the power of government over our lives; it is a statement of the limitations of government. But that is Lord Acton's opinion (remarkably, he is far more well known than I am), and I believe he has stretched it.

Nevertheless, Jesus was focused on saving souls and the kingdom to come, but the rest of the Jewish world was at least as concerned with liberty from the Romans on an earthly plain. A few decades after Christ’s death, it exploded in 3 wars for liberty that lasted on and off from 66 to 136 A.D. Much less well known are smaller revolts that lasted right up to the days of the Muslim takeover. It was the end of the beginning of the Jewish diaspora, which lasted up until the last century, after which it is voluntary. But, the point is, they were all for some measure of liberty.

Acton’s essay, quoted above, is mostly about the Greeks and the Romans. When we talk about Greek freedom in antiquity, we are almost always talking of the Athenians of the Golden Age, that is the 5th century B.C., although, in my humble opinion, that may not be fair to the Spartans and perhaps some others. The Spartan lifestyle was – well, spartan, but, their laws gave great freedom in many senses to the Spartan men, in some senses more than the Athenians had. But, Spartan men did not express themselves in a literary fashion as did the Athenians.

And, with apologies to Solon, who plays a great role in the history of democracy, and through it liberty, it is the Athens of Pericles who excite us all about the Greeks. The Greeks may have had the greatest explosion in libertarian ideas, and all around genius of any people any time in history and I have been marginally obsessed with them from my infancy until present. Their own manner of liberty also serves as a template that liberty means different things to different people at different times. For, the Athenians not only had slaves, but their wives and children were essentially property of the men, and they even treated their own allies as vassals (I wrote on the Melians on 1/18/11).

But, take this speech extract from Thucydides, quoting from or paraphrasing Pericles at a funeral oration near the beginning of the Peloponnesian War:

“Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. Our government does not copy our neighbors', but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition. There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private business we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbor if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant. While we are thus unconstrained in our private business, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws, having a particular regard to those which are ordained for the protection of the injured as well as those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the reprobation of the general sentiment."

This is, of course, one of the great speeches in the development of liberty. But, the Athenians great experiment was rather short lived. Edward Gibbons, more famous as the author of the most famous history of the Romans, wrote this about the Athenians:

"In the end, more than they wanted freedom, they wanted security and they wanted a comfortable life. And they lost it all—security, comfort, and freedom. The Athenians finally wanted not to give to society, but for society to give to them. When the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free."

The idea of liberty, however imperfectly developed by 5th century Greece, was so prevalent throughout Greece that both sides claimed it was this they were seeking in the Peloponnesian War.

Then came the Roman Republic, which also tried, and eventually failed, to institute principles of liberty as well. Lord Acton tells us that at a distance, the Roman Empire actually gave greater impetus to liberty than the Republic, extending citizenship to its colonies and exporting religious toleration.

I’ve just mentioned a few places at a few times in history. We can, of course, travel anywhere in the world and at any time, and find comparable stories. Someone trying to gain control, someone else trying to free themselves. It is best when there are values and traditions of freedom which can be learned in infancy so that the world does not need to be completely remade again and again. More, future generations will always look back at others of which they have some knowledge and have a different take on how free they were. Liberty implies choice implies change.

Some believe that what we deem liberty in America today was a product of two separate traditions - French and British, although there can be little doubt that its greatest blossoming was in England and Scotland in the 17th and 18th centuries.

This tradition of liberty was transplanted to America with its colonies, developed there and took its greatest step with our revolution and the flowering of two central or organizing ideas – the first, that all men are created equal and the second, that in America, the law is king. These did not exist in England – while all Englishmen had certain rights, there were class distinctions and royalty. While the notion of due process, a constitution and common law are British creations, the Parliament in Britain is still superior to the law, whereas in America, even the legislature is often powerless against it. This is why here, congress can even take action to change a law where they don’t like the Supreme Court ruling on it, and the Court can say – no, you can’t do that. Though many feel that this is undemocratic and an usurpation of power, it is a product of our system of checks and balances that no group or class or branch of government can be given too much power for too long, though many strive for it.

Ironically, in every place and every time liberty must always fail in some way and even where it largely succeeds, it never seems to be enough. Sometimes, it seems to disappear completely, as in 20th century Soviet Union and Communist China. But, yet, as tyrannical as a society can be, the idea of liberty is never snuffed out completely – ever. It can come roaring back in an instant as it is now in the Middle East, albeit in a variation that we in the west have trouble seeing as freedom.

Yet, we can look back at our own short history and ask where liberty was even after our Constitution for blacks and women and prisoners and foreigners and dissidents and so on. It did not come in a waterfall or wrapped up in a package but has progressed over time alongside the development of custom and values. No doubt, these are black marks in our history, but they are recognized so only because of how high we've soared since. The idea of liberty, however imperfect, was the central reason for our revolution. It was the reason that the central government was rendered almost powerless in the Articles of Confederation and limited in the Constitution. It is the reason the first ten amendments were added soon after it was ratified. It is the reason the last two of those amendments made sure that the rights enumerated in the constitution did not deny or disparage others retained by the people (Amendment IX) and that powers not delegated to the federal government or restricted from the states, were reserved to the states or the people (Amendment X); It is the reason we have had 200 years of litigation trying to figure out who has power over whom and where. And, as with the Athenians and Spartans, both sides in our Civil War looked forward to more freedom, according to their dictates. Don’t think so? Abraham Lincoln did:

"The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatable things, called by the same name———liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatable names———liberty and tyranny.

The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails to—day among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty. Hence we behold the processes by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage, hailed by some as the advance of liberty, and bewailed by others as the destruction of all liberty. Recently, as it seems, the people of Maryland have been doing something to define liberty; and thanks to them that, in what they have done, the wolf’s dictionary, has been repudiated."

All the above is a backdrop to my Fear Not Paradigm of Liberty I will now recite for you:

Libertarianism is an ideology, but liberty itself is not; it is an abstract characteristic of society more akin to things like comedy, competition or hedonism, and subject to the same arguments as to its existence, qualities and how to maintain it.

Liberty has always existed and always will because it stems from the will of billions of humans seeking to be free and to self-determination. It can have an effect on only the person themselves or it can affect other people too.

But, liberty is always countered by an opposite abstract characteristic of order or control – as in – an ordered society. Order comes from the same billions of humans seeking to express their will, but by controlling themselves or others.

Neither liberty or control is inherently good or bad, but is deemed so based on the frame of reference of the person or society based on their values.

They are not complete opposites. Liberty, without some measure of order and control results in nihilism or anarchy, sought by very few people in this world. With a measured amount though, liberty is enhanced. You only need to take a drive to see how rules of the road enhances everyone’s freedom to go where they want, as a very easy example. Traffic tickets are frustrating and occasionally unfair, but they make our lives better. Besides, the recipient of many, I can think of only one I got which was unfair.

Order or control, however, can seem to survive without much liberty – perhaps North Korea is a good example – but no amount of order or control can completely destroy the desire for it anymore than we can destroy matter without an atomic explosion or some equally cataclysmic event. Tamping down liberty with excessive order or control is like trying to stop a biological or physiological need or keep dandelions off your lawn – good luck.

Like much in human behavior, too much or too little of a thing seems less good to us, and even that statement is certainly subject to qualification, depending on the stakes. When Barry Goldwater said "I would remind you that extremism in defense of liberty is no vice," he later walked it back a bit, although you will not find those in wikiquote. Naturally, what is too much or too little liberty is subjective and depends on societal and personal norms too complex to be recorded accurately anywhere. But, we imbibe them effortlessly when young, as we do language. In a truly free or open society, the bounds of social norms are looser, and there is a greater deviation of behavior and expression than in an unfree or closed society.

Because people have different values, needs and interests, some people will view liberty and order very differently from others. This is normal within a society and between societies, even though it causes tension and stress. There is a word that can apply to describe a society where liberty and control reach a perfect equilibrium. It is called a utopia. It is also an abstract concept, but unlike liberty, it has and can never exist as a chaarcteristic of any society. For it to exist, all people would have to be the same, have the same needs, interests and values, which is kind of like saying that all people will love the same colors or foods and have the same taste in clothes. This is, of course, not possible.

People expect things that work together to go smoothly. But, liberty and order working together seems more like a jittery butterfly than a soaring eagle. It is an erratic combination subject to winds and other conditions out of anyone’s control. Societies where the balance favors order fear liberty and those with an abundance of liberty fear order. Those in a free society who are most vigilant of liberty tend to see its dissipation and those who are most vigilant of order tend to see its dissipation.
The boundaries of freedom and order in our society have grown very haphazardly and seemingly randomly, sometimes too much one way and sometimes too much the other. Whether there is enough of one or another or not is naturally subjective, like asking someone if it is too hot or too cold. You will find out what the extremes of either are when enough people give the same answer.

I am not at that point where I fear an unusual erosion of liberty as I see it in our society. In fact, I am nowhere near it. We have an open society where we are free to say almost anything we want and we can say it to the president of the United States. The fact that we can’t say everything we want at all times in every place does not concern me any more that I can’t sleep wherever I want at all times for any length of time. We can do for a living almost anything we make the sacrifice to do, limited by our abilities and supply and demand. Even monopoly, which may hinder or destroy opportunity is rarely a barrier anymore. Securities markets enable us to dabble in areas we might not have been able to crack before, when we can't participate directly. Although government can easily destroy us with its power, it rarely does, and even prosecution is riddled with tremendous safeguards deemed fundamental to our law that protect the guilty as well as the innocent. Every society has limits to its resources, and our society is now sometimes at odds over desire to preserve our aesthetically pleasing but rarely used wilderness and the desire to use our desperately needed resources. This does not trouble me either, because as I look at people, I look at societies, and that is relatively. Ours does not fare badly in the comparison with other countries. In fact, it fares wonderfully.

Moreover, most Americans I know adhere to what I call enlightenment values like the rule of law and not men, free speech and conscience, capitalism, toleration (to an amazing scale despite our differences) and so on. Far more people come to this country to find these values than for any other reason by an overwhelming margin.

If you live in a free society, you must expect risk, failure and others trying to compete with you, take your stuff and even control you. As Winston Churchill said of Germany - we try to do our best and must expect that other people will try to do their worst. Now go back and read the excerpt from Pericles’ funeral oration above and tell me that isn’t the best of America. Don’t tell me there’s a worse part. I know. But, if this is as good as it gets - it is pretty darn good.


  1. AAARRRGGGGHHHHH! First, a'quick hop through history" that goes on FOREVER, then, finally, diarhhea mouth gets to the point. And what a grand point it is: Liberty, you're darn tootin'. It's good. REALLY? Was it necessary to quote 4,000 friggin' philosophers and historical figures to come around to "America is bitchin'"? Write about growing up,or books, or living in the country... PLEASE, I AM BEGGING YOU. How about a list? Top Ten ANYTHING....

  2. You know, I really shouldn't encourage him by laughing but he is funny.

    I wrote it for Don and those millions who are interested in this stuff (maybe 10 of whom will ever read this, if I'm lucky).

    But, okay, next week top ten this or that or something biographical. Going to put on my thinking cap right now.

  3. Well thank you for the post.
    I especially appreciate limiting the long paragraphs and your explanations where you couldn't limit them.BTW I agree that the rendering unto Ceasar was a diminishment of secular authority; although obviously not secular power.

    You made a persuasive case, through literature (and I include the Bible as literature in a sense that does not demean it value) that liberty is a goal that has been strived for by man since dates that are pre-historical and continuing to quite modern times. However, I do not believe that the striving toward liberty is always an existential imperative for people as they form a society where their "needs" are seen as best met by the government. This has a necessarily infantalizing effect which grows over time and with each suceeding generation. I see liberty as a need to be in a state of atrophy today. While you point to several items which illustrate liberty I can point to as many which would point in the other direction. You surely have heard of the children being prosecuted for running "unlicensed" lemonade stands. I have recently read a short item about the degree towhich an Englishman, shortly prior to WW 1 could act autonomously of almostb all governmental power and authority. It is in marked contrast to today. (I will try to find it and either send it to you or refernce where it can be found. Even the items that you list as illustrating liberty are highly regulated by civil and criminal authorities. I don't find matters that are basically controlled by government to be illustartive of liberty- quite the opposite.

    Do you see much evidence that the generations of the past 25 years or so strive toward liberty or are willing to trade it away for comfort, feelings of well being etc? The ver growing influence of government ito all areas of life inhibits liberty. People believe they have it because they have been told they do but the evidence is to the contrary. More like a bird who lives in a cage but has been told, and believes, that it is the whole world so it believes it is free.

    I find merit in your effort but I am not yet persuaded. What I really would appreciate is if you could get me set up with that kingly right of deflowering the virgins...see what you can do.

  4. First, to Bear - see how nice it is when someone appreciates all the time and effort you put into writing an article. Snicker.

    To Don - And there is no doubt merit in your concerns, which I tried to address by describing the never ending dance between liberty and control. And, you are certainly not alone in being concerned about the "nanny state," but you are unfortunate in that much of it is actually very popular with people. E.g., most people like the seat belt law and the no smoking indoors laws. In fact, in a way, public education until 16 is a nanny state law too, and I don't know anyone who doesn't like it provided private or home schooling is an option. I have a whole schtick on regulations but if I do it next week, Bear will have a stroke. So, I will address it in the future.

    Last, as to your interest in the right of kings, let me know when you are no longer restricted by Megan's Law and I will see what I can do for you.


Your comments are welcome.

About Me

My photo
I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .