Freedom Reimagined as Liberty for Life

“Give me liberty or give me death!” These dangerous words, famously flaunted by Patrick Henry, continue to serve as inspiration for freedom fighters around the world. This is unfortunate. It is a far, far better thing to seek liberty for life.

Before he uttered those famous words in 1775, Patrick Henry put a rhetorical question to his audience: “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” My reply: Life is dear and peace very sweet. To purchase them, it certainly would be worth paying some taxes. Even with representation, most of us now do pay our taxes, and few of us do it gladly. We also continue to obey the rule of law, even when our preferred candidate wins the popular but not the electoral vote. Yes, life is so dear and peace so very sweet.

To be truly conservative, we should be willing to go far and bear much bitterness in order to conserve the various forms of life on earth and the fragile human peace without the which this whole glorious puzzle may fail to fit.


Liberty and Freedom: A note on the words

Unlike many other languages, English has two words: ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom.’ French only has liberté (from the Latin libertas), and German only has Freiheit. We use our two words more or less interchangeably. Still, there is a tendency to use ‘liberty’ in political or legal contexts, and ‘freedom’ in the personal or everyday sense. This essay will consider personal freedom first, and then political liberty.


The concept of personal freedom

  1. Is it freedom to do what you wish?

Many philosophers and other writers have endeavoured to clarify the concept of freedom. Most relevant for present purposes is the analysis of freedom provided by John Locke (1632-1704), who gives us several illuminating examples. First, imagine that while asleep you have been transported into a locked room where all of your basic needs are met and you can enjoy the company of your best friend. You may well say, “I know I cannot leave, since the door is locked against me. Still I am able to do what I most want to do, which is to spend time with my dear, dear friend. Since I am free to do what I wish, I consider myself a free man.”

To this, Locke would say: You tolerate your condition admirably well. But it sounds not right to say you are free. Freedom is not connected with a person’s present wishes. Rather being free means having options—in your case, having the option to stay or go, no matter which you presently prefer. You are not free, because someone else, without consulting you, has placed you in a locked room—a physical circumstance that narrowly limits your options.

Most clearly then, freedom is limited when a person’s options are limited by physical barriers put in place by other people.


  1. Does disability limit a person’s freedom?

Now consider a woman who has suffered spinal trauma and whose legs are completely paralyzed. One might say that she is not free to go running. But this too sounds odd. Rather it seems right to say that she cannot run, because of her disability. Similarly, we would not say of a fenced-in horse that it’s not free to fly. So let’s stick with this: a person’s freedom is limited when options for the activities that person normally can do are limited by external physical barriers.

This has come to be called the notion of negative freedom—“negative” because we explain it with reference to what is not there: a person is free insofar as his or her normal options are not limited by physical barriers put in place by other people.


  1. When we prevent a person from injuring themselves, are we limiting their freedom?

To this negative notion of freedom Locke adds two further considerations. He says, in his wonderfully old-fashioned English, “That ill deserves the name of confinement which hedges us in only from bogs and precipices.” What he has in mind is some sort of railing that prevents travellers from slipping into a swamp or tumbling off a cliff, to their inconvenience, injury or death. So in his view, physical barriers placed by other people that help prevent inconvenience, injury or death should not be considered limitations on freedom.

Bars on the window of a hotel room on the 37th floor do take away from a guest in that room the option of throwing himself out that window. Still, on Locke’s advice that man should not complain that those bars limit his freedom. This implies a positive notion of freedom. Freedom is to be used for all kinds of positive, enjoyable or creative activities, and not for negative things such as self-harm or suicide. Locke does not consider the situation of a person with a terminal illness or chronic pain, and I won’t consider it here either. Let’s just say that Locke was thinking of a healthy person with plenty of living left to do.


  1. What is freedom good for?

Finally, Locke also says that liberty is not to be confused with license. ‘License’ is an old-fashioned word that covers a wide range of immoral behaviours. Locke does not specify them here, but it’s safe to say he had in mind activities in which a person’s lower, bodily urges are given priority over his intellectual, imaginative or spiritual powers. For example, someone might say that he enjoys the freedom of being able to drink himself into a stupor any day he pleases; and most days it pleases him to do precisely that. Locke would say: That’s not the kind of thing freedom is for. He might even say that person is a slave to his addiction.

Here again, there is something quite positive about Locke’s concept of freedom. He envisions what human beings can do at their best. People can dance, run, play tennis, write poetry, cook delicious food, make beautiful clothing, build affordable housing…and so on. That kind of positive activity is what freedom is good for.

In short, Locke has a broad notion of what is good for human beings, and on his view liberty is freedom from constraints to pursue what really is good.

Locke’s understanding of liberty is lovely: it would grant human beings the freedom to do good, to do well, and to flourish.


Political liberty


Freedom to disobey

Criminal behavior

On one view, freedom is not limited when the government threatens to punish certain behaviors. You are still free to rob a bank, even though you will, if caught, face prison time. And in fact on a fairly regular basis some people do use their personal freedom to rob banks. Presumably, they do so in the hope that they will get away with a large sum of money and escape punishment; and some people succeed in doing just that.


Civil disobedience

In other cases, citizens decide to break a law because in their judgment the law is morally wrong. For example, Rosa Parks used her personal freedom to sit in a “whites only” seat on the bus. People who commit such acts of civil disobedience expect to be punished, and they freely accept punishment as a consequence of their actions. One may even say they hope to be punished, because it’s part of their plan to draw attention to the law and illustrate its injustice.


Punishments and rewards

The purpose of law is to influence behavior. Individuals are obviously always free to break laws. Still for the most part laws backed up by punishments do serve to deter certain targeted behaviors in the population as a whole. To cite one remarkable success, in both the 2000 and the 2016 presidential election, the race was very close, and both Bush and then Trump were chosen by the electoral college, although they lost the popular vote. The purpose and wisdom of the electoral college system has been widely called into question, yet no one attempted to overthrow the new administration or assassinate the elected president. In sharp contrast, laws attaching punishments to drug and alcohol use have been remarkably unsuccessful.

When speaking of political liberty we tend to focus on laws backed up by punishments. But it is important to note that government can influence behavior also by rewarding certain targeted behaviors. For example, in these United States, individuals and corporations receive a tax credit when they make charitable donations. Similarly, some insurance companies offer reduced rates to safe drivers, or to people who participate in exercise programs. More controversially, one may say that the government encourages single women with low incomes to have children and remain unmarried, since those who do so are rewarded with a variety of welfare benefits.


Operant conditioning: how law modifies behavior

The theory of operant conditioning represents our best understanding of how external factors—rewards and punishments—influence behavior. On this theory, punishment aims to decrease a targeted behavior either by adding a painful consequence (called “positive” punishment) or by subtracting a pleasant consequence (“negative” punishment). Note that an influence on behavior is considered “positive” in this technical sense if it adds something, or “negative” if it takes something away.

For example, the laws against robbery aim to decrease thieving behavior by adding prison time as a consequence (an example of positive punishment). And by taking away a person’s license, the law aims to decrease the behavior of drunk driving (an example of negative punishment). Similarly, a child may be sent to bed without dessert as a consequence of rude table manners.

In contrast, reinforcements aim to increase the probability of certain targeted behaviors. Positive reinforcements add something pleasant, and negative reinforcements take away something painful. Reducing the cost of health insurance for those who participate in exercise programs is negative reinforcement: it aims to increase healthy behaviors by subtracting some of the pain of having to pay for insurance. Giving the purple heart to brave soldiers is an example of positive reinforcement. This custom aims to increase the probability of brave behavior in combat by adding the reward of a medal and the public recognition, praise and honor that come with it.


The power of habit

When a law succeeds in modifying behavior in the population it causes or at least correlates with social and cultural changes in people’s habits. For example, the culture of our founding fathers demanded fair elections; and ever since then, the practice of conducting fair elections has produced or is at least correlated with the habit of respecting election results. Almost magically, it seems, no one who voted for Al Gore in 2000, or who voted for Hilary Clinton in 2016, seriously considered overthrowing the new administration, despite their objections to it.

In sharp contrast, the improvised referenda held in Croatia and then Bosnia in 1991 and 1992 were preceded and followed by strident civil unrest and quickly led to war. What the United States possesses, and what independence movements in Yugoslavia lacked, is a long tradition of respect for a fairly administered election, even among those who strongly dislike the result. This is a matter of social and cultural habit.

So when a law is successful in modifying behavior, what is effective is not the mere presence of the law on the books, but the habits in the population that form in the climate of the law. Analogously, one cold spell won’t get a population of birds to travel south for the winter; and no amount of cold weather ever forced any individual bird to do so. What matters is the development of statistical regularity in a population over time.


The power of rewards

From the perspective of an alien visitor, it will seem odd that no pacifist, however ardent, has ever succeeded in raising a protest against the practice of rewarding the purple heart to brave soldiers. Similarly, it will be obvious how generously the political culture of the United States is flavored with references to “the brave men and women who serve in our armed forces.” Yet no critic of US militarization has ever succeeded in raising a protest against this custom.

Policies brightened by smiles pull with as much power as decrees push when darkened by frowns—indeed, we have every reason to believe that they work with greater power on our behavior, together with our hearts and minds. By analogy, think of the constraints on the behavior of a dolphin in a training pool. The walls of the pool prevent the dolphin from leaving the pool and thus clearly place limits on the dolphin’s freedom. But training (and the supply of rewards it involves) place constraints on the dolphin’s behavior almost as strong.

Imagine for example that two short whistles followed by a long one have through training been established as signs that a fish will be offered if the dolphin jumps through a hoop and wags its tail. This is something the dolphin never would have done if left to its own devices; but now after months of training it performs the targeted behavior 87 percent of the time. The dolphin has effectively been constrained to perform this behavior. Some onlookers may say that a trained dolphin, much like a jailed one, has lost its natural freedom, and that it has become enslaved to its master.


Nudge theory and social engineering

Behavior can also be modified by subliminal signs. For example, on some roads bright white stripes have been painted, for a certain distance, at equal intervals. But then the stripes get gradually closer and closer together. This produces in drivers the sensation that they are speeding up, perhaps as they enter a potentially dangerous curve in the road. In consequence, without thinking about it, drivers tend to slow down. Thus the stripes reliably influence the behavior of drivers and help to prevent accidents. But in the absence of any explicit notification, the drivers would never know how their environment had been altered to manipulate their behavior.

This is just one example of how knowledge in the field of empirical psychology can be employed to shape the environment and influence behavior without people being aware of it. The use of such techniques has been called social engineering, subliminal advertising, choice architecture, and most recently nudge theory. Questions have been raised and debates continue about how effective these techniques are, and about whether they are acceptable from various political and moral points of view.


Deceptive constraints on freedom

The relevant issue here is not whether psychological techniques should be used, but rather the extent to which they already are being used. The prevalent use of credit cards presents a helpful example. No law has ever been introduced to ban the use of credit cards; their use has been allowed under the cover of free market economics. Yet they very effectively prey on certain features of human psychology.

Once you have a credit card, you are rewarded in the short term with the power to purchase things you would not or even could not when you only had a savings account. So there is a very strong incentive to get and to use a credit card. You are told of course that in the long term you will have to pay for the items you purchase; indeed, you will have to pay significantly more because you have to pay interest on the money you have borrowed. Furthermore, your contract tells you that certain penalties will be placed on any late payments. So a naïve observer might say that the consumer’s freedom and autonomy have been fully respected, given that the terms have been fully spelt out in a written contract.

However, you may not be aware of the powerful cognitive bias that has been discovered in human decision making, which gives much more weight to surely obtained short-term benefits in comparison to uncertainly risked long-term costs. And even if you do possess rational knowledge about factors that influence decision making, you may be no better able to resist their psychological power. You may even naively think: “I know all about how this works on the human brain, so I’ll be able to use it safely.”

This and many other features of our so-called “free market” economy constrain our behavior to our own detriment. Our homes are filled with things we hardly ever use, with things we certainly do not need, with things that easily distract and entertain us, things which inhibit spontaneous creativity, face-to-face social interaction, and regular physical activity. Many people are effectively tied to chairs in their offices, cars and homes. The television and computer screens we stare at encourage us to buy more things of the same sort—things that come in large amounts of easily disposable packaging which crams more and more toxic waste dumps full to the brim. In the name and under the cover of economic freedom, human behavior has been sorely and sadly constrained, to our enormous detriment and to the peril of many other forms of life on Earth.

Policy makers in positions of power who have engineered this “free market” economy may call themselves “conservatives,” but these policies are not conservative; they are wasteful and destructive.


Liberation: Power and Paradox

A person who wants to lose weight still craves high-calorie snacks. A person who wants to be free of drug addiction still longs for just one more hit. So some people who aim to make difficult changes in their habits willingly submit themselves to programs that constrain their freedom in the short term in the hope of attaining true freedom in the long term. They know all too well the difference between the false freedom to engage in their bad habit and the true freedom of winning liberation from that habit’s dominion. Yet how difficult is the road to recovery they choose to take!

So what in the world can be done with people who feel that freedom is nothing more than the freedom to indulge in their bad habits, people who do not recognize the chains that bind them, and who resist any intervention to free them? If we try to force them into freedom, they will fight us, their would-be liberators, as fiercely as they’d fight their most malign oppressors.

For example, imagine we legislate a limit on credit card debt—say, $2,500. So if you already have accumulated $2,500 of debt, you won’t be able to buy anything more until you pay off some of the debt. Consumers who would otherwise go on spending themselves into the dark pit of unmanageable debt will fight us for taking away their economic freedom. If we tell them we’re only trying to prevent their falling into a trap, they will not hear it.

Not only that, but everyone complicit in the consumer economy will fight us too: producers, vendors, investors, bankers and stock market traders will all conspire against us. And we shall also find that our political representatives are in truth much more the representatives of those economic interests than ours—we, the small minority who aim for a way of life that would be environmentally sustainable, healthier, and more humane. The representatives of entrapped people are of course themselves entrapped by the cravings of the people they serve.

From this perspective, it may seem that liberal democracy has enabled us to bind ourselves to a runaway train, belching toxic smoke as it gallops towards the abyss. But imagine that something could be done to right this wrong. We would need to reimagine freedom as the opportunity to serve a good cause. We would need to raise people to desire noble service under strict limits in pursuit of what really is good for people and for our planet. We would have to learn how to conserve and how to become truly conservative in the name of true freedom.

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