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Politics

Essay 2

Discuss: “To be totally free is to be free from all restraint”


Words such as freedom and liberty have attracted a lot of interest and discussion over the
years. However, the words are used in widely ranging contexts. The main problem here may
lie in the nature of the word ‘liberty’. Its meaning is highly subjective. Discussions about
‘freedom’ are good illustrations in the field of philosophy of language as language confusion.

„So important, indeed, is the concept of liberty that we are all reluctant to define it too
closely, wanting to apply it to everything we value‟ – Crick (1971) cited in Stirk &
Weigall (1995), pp. 135

This essay will discuss only the political meaning of freedom. The topic of political freedom
is inter-human relationships.

In the pre-enlightening age and especially in ancient history, freedom or liberty was more
about social status, ability and even power. After the (counter-) reformation, the American
and the French revolution, the meaning shifted from the (ability in a) community to the
individual. This brings us to the modern meaning of liberty which dictionaries hold today:
being free from interference or control. This is a more ‘equal’ kind of liberty. In ancient
times, certain classes had ‘liberties’, these liberties were rather exclusive rights in society.

This new concept of freedom, which is oriented to the individual and is to be equally shared
among citizens, laid ground to new theories. Immanuel Kant reasoned that liberty was a
matter of autonomy and self-determination under strict rules. J.S. Mill made a distinction
between ‘self-regarding’ and ‘other-regarding’ actions. While Kant was more inclined
against complete self-regarding liberty on the basis of self-realisation, Mill criticised state-
intervention in self-regarding affairs as an unnecessary breach of liberty, e.g. alcohol laws.
Mill’s idea that the state – even1 a democracy - should not intervene in personal matters is
founded upon the concept of Tyranny of the majority. Why is the majority competent to judge
an individual’s personal choices or habits? How is the majority a better judge than a dictator?
This distrust which Mill borrowed from A. de Tocqueville’s „Democracy in America‟ was
used to empower his case on complete self-regarding freedom.

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Mill was suspicious of a democracy in breaching individual liberties on the ground that it creates the illusion
that the government are the governed and thus not ‘opposed’. He distrusted the notion of ‘self-government’.
While the intensity of the discussion around ‘liberty’ grew, the modern notion that liberty is
to be shared equally gave birth to an important distinction within this presumption. The
industrial revolution severely skewed the property distribution. Ideas that complete ‘self-
regarding’ freedom was limited by economic deprivation (limited economic freedom) arose.
While some believed the state guarantees liberty by solely enforcing property law, others
were convinced there is a need for redistribution of wealth (to the former: property theft) to
guarantee (economic) freedom. This created the dilemma between negative (natural) and
positive human rights.

In 1958, Sir Isaiah Berlin put forward the difference between positive and negative liberty in
his „Two Concepts of Liberty‟. While negative liberty is being described as the absence of
constraints, positive liberty is somewhat more complex. It is the ability of men to achieve
self-realisation in what one calls being a ‘human’, e.g. being creative, long-term thinking
(discarding base desires). If necessary, this has to be imposed. A human, if uneducated, may
choose the path of least resistance or short-term gain. He may stay enslaved by his animal
spirits and thus not self-governed or master of his true ‘self’. In this argument, there’s surely
an element of the old sense of freedom to be found. Indeed, ancient thinkers such as Plato and
Aristotle argued that freedom has to be partially imposed or educated.

Surprisingly, this ancient meaning reappeared in contemporary society, although in an


implicit form. The excessive advertising in public spaces and other modern media has
undoubtedly had an influence on modern society. If psychologists or sociologists suggest that
society is ‘brainwashed’ by media including advertisements or addicted to consumerism, they
implicitly suggest that ‘ancient freedom’ is lacking. In this light, every addiction can be seen
as a danger to positive freedom.

However, this distrust is not embedded in most of the modern economic ideologies. All
things equal, economic theory suggests a consumer’s choice is always to be preferred above
no choice. Advertisements add value since they add perceived value when a consumer buys a
good. Even if the consumer is influenced by advertising, this choice is still preferable above
all the other substitutes for it holds the highest perceived value. The consumer’s perceived
value is synonym for his satisfaction and this translates into the fact that his own choice
always leads to the highest ‘economic value’, even if this choice is objectionable on rational
grounds.

An excellent example is the trend in medicine where power of choice is shifting from doctor
to patient. If we agree that the field of medicine has developed itself the last century in
solving most of the common medical problems, we can thus agree it makes more sense a
doctor chooses the remedy for a patient’s problem. However, lately two forces have made it
easier for consumers to choose their own medicines. Firstly, the biggest force has undeniably
been the internet. Secondly, ‘the big pharma’ has supported this trend to achieve higher sales.
As far as economic theory is concerned, this trend is to be cheered upon. The consumer
moves higher up in satisfaction when he buys the goods of his own choice. Also, the GDP
grows because of higher revenue in the pharmaceutical sector. Just two questions might be
asked here: Isn’t the health of the patient in danger if, primo, he makes his own questionable
decisions, and secundo, when the sector which treats symptoms of disease is growing.

Indeed, this example is a good illustration of the flaws2 in modern liberal ideologies.
Economic theory is based on some dangerous and wrong assumptions which don’t make
sense in a lot of practical fields. Perhaps the most important and dangerous assumption is that
an economic actor acts rationally. While some people might act completely rational in some
situations, I am severely suspicious of this notion on human nature. If economic theory
pretends to predict the economy – which is, as a reminder, determined by human behaviour –
then why does it make the simplistic assumption that human behaviour is completely
rational? If this assumption was true, wouldn’t economic theory deny the purpose of
psychology and other humanities? This question gives birth to a more fundamental question:
Is economic theory valid in its own domain? That, in turn, suggests the perversity of any
economic ideologies based on economic theory, which is itself undeveloped in its own field3.

At this point it is plausible to ask: ‘How do these arguments relate to freedom?’ This brings
us back to the start of the essay. The contexts where words such as liberty have been used
have been stretched further than in Wittgenstein’s worst nightmare.

Is total freedom being free from all restraint? Yes. While there are various definitions, I do
believe a lot of confusion originates from inflation in the usage of the word by practical men.
The dictionary meaning of freedom, and perhaps the most distilled sense, is:

„Liberty or freedom signifies the absence of external impediments of motion‟ -


Thomas Hobbes’ (1651) on liberty in ‘Leviathan’ (in Stirk & Weigall 1995, p. 142)

The question which may be raised is: ‘To whom does this definition apply?’ In the light of
positive and negative freedom, one may want to know if the concept freedom is applicable on
society in the first place. Sometimes, a person has conflicting interests but in the end, the
human body makes one choice and acts coherently. Consider on the other hand society, can
society be ‘free’? No. The concept of freedom is not applicable to society because society has
no one coherent will on which it coherently acts. Governments are artificial bodies which do
not behave the same as one (human) body. Indeed:

2
In the last example, patients are acting under bounded rationality at best since they can only
use a very small portion of the available information.
3
Research has shown that empirical doctors were more successful compared to academically
schooled doctors in ancient times. Even not consulting an academic doctor at all was proven
to be less dangerous than consulting a doctor for several issues. These findings hold until
academic medicine was properly developed in the last two centuries. One can draw a parallel
with undeveloped economic theory now. Why should governments consult economists at all?
(Taleb, 2010)
“When the words free and liberty are applied to anything but bodies, they are abused,
for that which is not subject to motion is not subject to impediment” - Thomas
Hobbes’ (1651) on liberty in ‘Leviathan’, cited in Stirk & Weigall 1995, pp. 142)

On the basis that freedom can only be evaluated on individuals, we have to value freedom
from within the individual. It is now possible to evaluate the freedom of a group by using a
sum-of-the-parts analysis on their freedom. However, this is not the topic of this essay. The
essay is concerned with merely one individual.

A problem seems to occur in the absence of a body which imposes ‘positive freedom’ upon
the individual. Suppose the individual cannot self-realise himself fully in respect to the
definition of human nature. Is he not limited by his nature to achieve more self-realisation
and thus imprisoned by his own abilities? No, for there is no will to move towards this
education and thus no movement. No movement means no applicable constraints. On the
other hand, wouldn’t this obliged imposition of so-called ‘positive freedom’ limit his liberty?
Yes, to impose is synonym for leaving no choice to a human being. This, in turn, is denying
the fact he has his own life to live.

One can criticise the fact that positive freedom was evaluated here by using the most
common definition of liberty which is in fact negative freedom. While this is true, there are
sound reasons for this. Positive freedom is not well-defined and open for manipulation.
Indeed, positive freedom depends on the prevailing definition of self-realisation:

Enough manipulation with the definition of man, and freedom can be made to mean
whatever the manipulator wishes. – Berlin, I. (1969)

What is the ‘true self’? History teaches us that a lot of old general and obvious truths have
been falsified by individuals and are now held as ‘obviously false’. Even the best
governments and societies with the best intentions should not be allowed to have a monopoly
in ‘truth’. The human race has become more aware, however, the prevailing truth can only be
held as a legitimate doctrine if there is a possibility of falsification. We might as well leave
the quest freely open4 to new individuals.

The fact that the very meaning of ‘self-realisation’ is bound by the prevailing opinion and
thus never definitive is very important. For how can we possibly pretend men are free or not-
free depending on if they are ‘masters of their own true selves’ if we are not sure what ‘being
your true self’ means. Should we really feel enslaved by indefinable and invisible chains?

The notion of positive freedom is thus language confusion with equality, rights, brotherhood
and other virtues. Furthermore, by using a religious concept, positive freedom can be made
more questionable on its own merits. If all these virtues have to be imposed by the state, then
what do you leave to decide for the individual? Does Christianity not teach that virtue is only
possible through choice? Is not negative freedom, i.e. choice, a necessary condition for
positive freedom? How can positive freedom only exist if negative freedom is present?
Because language is used as deceit. Positive freedom is confused with virtues, and everything
4
That is, offer them sufficient or complete (Mill, 1859) freedom of speech in every circumstance.
we render positive or negative behaviour as a society. This, however, has nothing to do with
freedom.

History serves as a perfect example of this conclusion. Is it possible that mankind itself has
become more aware of the true meaning and importance of (negative) liberty the last
centuries? Indeed, in Western Europe we have seen a big shift in the meaning of liberty right
after the religious wars which were preceded by the protestant reformation. These horrific
religious battles have made mankind more aware of the madness of crowds5 and the Tyranny
of the majority on the individual or a minority. In this case, (negative) freedom of religion
was established after mankind paid a big price.

Mill reminds us in his ‘On Liberty’ that if society does not acknowledge the importance of
negative liberty that this will result in ‘collective mediocrity’. Perhaps a good illustration is to
be found in a rather seemingly distant domain from political science. The stock market has a
notorious history of market folly and madness of crowds6. Probably not coincidentally the
most successful actors in this domain (today for example W. Buffett, G. Soros) are famous
‘contrarians’. Contrary to the majority of academic practisers in this domain who consider the
market actors to be rational, the most successful participating actors have been those who
acknowledge the (euphemism): ‘collective mediocrity’. Disciple of Karl Popper7, G. Soros
made his name as a macro-investor by falsifying notions the public holds as common
knowledge. As opposed to politicians who link nation successes to their policy on dubious
empirical ground, his track-record does not lie.

This scene where social science - that is, politics and psychology - meets exact sciences,
where almost all the possible human fields of expertise come together, the very individuals
whom Mill describes as innovative individuals get their ultimate reward in monetary gain.
Individual outcasts who cry ‘the emperor wears no clothes’ are being blatantly ignored by
politicians on the grounds of the nature of their professional field. The job of a person is,
however, known as an invalid argument in an intellectual discussion.

The tendency of the majority (and their electorates) to silence this small innovative minority
of people is another illustration of the perversity of the „Tyranny of the majority‟. Even if
they show they were right and saw it coming as opposed to the majority after irrational policy
or market behaviour (e.g. housing crash 2008), their voice get silenced in discussions about
e.g. future policy. The popular saying goes: „If you take unpopular views and lose, you are a
changeling; if you win, you will be hated by the majority and said to be lucky for they are full
of envy.‟

This example may seem out of place but it has to be stressed that few domains, if any, contain
better empirical evidence about the success of an individual to find ‘truth’, innovate, and this
all opposed to the ‘mediocre’ majority, than the securities market.

5
Other straightforward examples include: The witch mania, the crusades, duels and ordeals, popular
admiration of great thieves and the latest fads on your today’s news channel.
6
The Mississippi Scheme, the South-Sea Bubble, the Tulip mania, the Railway mania, the twenties stock-
market bubble, the dotcom bubble, the 2008 housing market bubble.
7
George Soros earned his first degree at LSE in philosophy (1952).
There is also popular history, which serves well as an illustration of Mill’s ‘collective
mediocrity’ warning. We have seen the execution of Socrates, Newtonian science, Galileo,
black independence and rejection of slavery; indeed, all these innovations have come from
individuals or small minorities.

I explored why a maximisation of negative freedom8 necessarily leads to the biggest freedom.
The question here is not what would happen with the distribution of freedom in society if this
was maximised and if this is desirable taking into account other political values. However,
this is merely a partial answer on the question because the notion of being ‘totally free’ has
not yet been addressed.

The philosopher Schopenhauer addresses the question whether a human has free will. He
argues that a human may think he is free because he enjoys a lengthy decision process which
transcends intuition decisions (that is, animal behaviour). A human is free to act on his will,
however, he is not free in his ‘will’ because this is predestined by his character and his inputs
(experience) from his environment. A human has more ‘options‟ when making a decision.
However, his determined ‘will’, which is made out of past experience and character, shall
pick the option with the highest value out of necessity. Free will can only exist in indifference
and is thus useless in its single form of existence.

Negative freedom comes in where the decision is already made and the human wants to act.
In this sense, a human is completely free in acting (negative political freedom) if he enjoys
the absence of external constraint.

Furthermore, imposing positive freedom can be seen in the light of Schopenhauer’s theory. It
looks like a rather naïve attempt to change an individual’s character by feeding him new
artificial inputs or experiences. What does happen is that the outputs (his acting) will change
because his experiences are altered. His character (his preferences) is, however, fixed.

In this light, Mill’s finding that imposing positive freedom equals denying human nature can
be understood easier. In other words, the practice of imposing positive freedom to increase an
individual’s freedom stands opposed to Schopenhauer’s concept of free will.

8
That is, a minimisation of restraint.
Works Cited
Berlin, I. (1969) Two Concepts of Liberty, In Berlin.I. [Online]. Available from:
http://jmaggio.typepad.com/no_call_me_jay/files/two_concepts_of_liberty.pdf [Accessed: 3th
March 2011]

Taleb, N. (2010) The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and practical aphorisms, Allen Lane.

Stirk, P. Weigall, D. (1995) An Introduction to Political Ideas. London, Pinter Publishers Limited.

Bibliography
Mackay, C. (1995) Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Wordsworth
editions limited.

Mill, J.S. (2005) On Liberty, Republished. Cosimo.

Popper, K. (2002) ‘Open Society and its enemies’, 8th Revised edition. Routledge

Schwartz, B. (2004) ‘The Tyranny of choice’, The Scientific American, April, pp. 71-75.

Soros, G. (2008) ‘The New Paradigm for Financial Markets: The Credit Crisis of 2008 and What It
Means’, PublicAffairs

Open Society Institute [Online]. Available from: http://www.soros.org

Schopenhauer, A. (1897) On human nature, Translated from German by T.B Saunders. [Online].
Available from: http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/schopenhauer/arthur/human [Accessed: 2th of
March 2011]

Taleb, N. (2006), The Black Swan: The impact of the highly improbable, Penguin.