Politics & Policy

Liberty, Freedom, & The French Maid

Post-Florida, some valuable distinctions.

Well, the latest word is that the Bush team is considering New Jersey governor Christie Todd Whitman to head up the Environmental Protection Agency. Whitman, a politician of no merit whatever — except for the fact that underemployed and overly opinionated women who drive all-terrain vehicles to buy bottled water worship her — is being given a position where she can do minimal damage while still showing up in photo ops.

I would continue writing about this, but the prospect of spending the next four years watching her play a me-too Carol Browner is so depressing I can barely breathe.

Instead, for something completely different, let’s talk about democracy, freedom, liberty, virtue, and what the French maid saw. Okay, no French maid. But I do love those outfits.

During the Florida fandango there was enough sputtering of platitudes about democracy and voting to smother a midget. Conservatives, just like everyone else, were caught a little off guard by the hoopla. So, maybe it makes a little sense to go back and kick the tires on our vocabulary a little bit. Also, considering the fact that whenever we have a new administration we have a new round of kvetching about what America’s role in the world is supposed to be. Should we export democracy and freedom or just export Schwarzenegger films and Palm Pilots?

“The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty…” observed Friedrich Hayek. “We all declare for liberty: but in using the same word, we do not mean the same thing.” This is of course true about most words, including spicy, sexy, and expensive, but not, say, oblong, fire, or frozen. But never mind about all that. Hayek was of course correct. Liberty is way, way, way too often confused with freedom.

We are all free to do whatever we are capable of doing. We are free to kill, rape, steal, tear mattress tags, and run with scissors. We are free to say what we want, when we want, where we want — if we can get away with it. My dad has spent his working life dealing with copyrighted material and one of his biggest peeves is when people ask him: “What’s to keep someone from just taking X or Y without paying for it?” Exasperated, my dad will say, “the law,” or “morality,” or “Western Civilization,” or “a simple appreciation of right and wrong.” This was a point he used to hammer home with me when I was a kid. Just because you are free to do all sorts of things, that doesn’t mean you should. Freedom is what we have in a state of nature.

Liberty, on the other hand, is not something we’re born with, nor is it a natural state. It is a political condition. All of that stuff in the Constitution ensures liberty, not freedom. A liberal society is one where the power of government or other institutions to coerce or bully is constrained. We are at all times “free” to yell fire in a crowded theater. We are not always at “liberty” to, indeed we are only at liberty to yell fire when there is a fire. Lord Acton put his finger on it when he said liberty is the guarantee that the citizen will be “protected in doing what he believes his duty against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion.”

Note the use of the word “duty.” As I am so fond of pointing out to college audiences, there is a reason we call them the “Liberal” Arts and not the “Free” Arts. The Liberal Arts as defined by Locke and Jefferson are those skills — historical knowledge, intellectual skepticism, etc. — a person needs to be a responsible citizen. The free arts are what they teach you in prison.

Peregrine Worsthorne, the brilliant British archbishop of conservative crankiness saw this distinction very early in life. In an essay (“How Freedom Enslaves Us All,” written in 1992), he remembered how he dreaded “free time” in school. During recess, the “free time” bullies would treat him terribly. “In class the bullies were kept in order by a master who was free to coerce them. Out of class they were free to coerce me. As far as I was concerned ‘free time’ meant only a different kind of coercion — by several bullies rather than one master…” Later, he read Hobbes, who made the case more clearly. “Subjects have no greater liberty in a popular than in a monarchical state. That which deceives them is the equal participation of command.”

Which gets us to democracy. Democracy is not sacred, holy, or divine. The fettishizing of democracy may be necessary in a country like ours to preserve our liberties, but that doesn’t mean democracy is synonymous with liberty or freedom in the positive sense. Democracy, as Churchill observed, is simply the best and most reliable system yet devised for preserving liberty. But no magic is conferred on someone because they get one more vote than another person. An extra ballot is no wand, transforming a hack into a statesman. The idea that the “the will of the people” is always the wisest, noblest, or best option is ludicrous. It’s like confusing the shovel you used to dig out of prison with the freedom it helped you achieve. The shovel is indispensable, but if it takes you to the wrong place, it’s useless. The founders understood this explicitly, explaining that the Parliament of Venice — or maybe it was Vienna, I can’t remember — was just as tyrannical as any despotism.

Virtue’s a tricky concept, and is often paired against freedom — especially in conservative-versus-libertarian debates. People like the sainted NR editor Frank Meyer — the Father of Fusionism — put forward the case that virtue cannot be coerced into people because, unless freely chosen, virtue is meaningless. If someone puts a gun to your head to get you to give up your bus seat to an old lady, you are not being virtuous, you are being coerced. This is the flip side of the “just following orders” excuse. One can see how virtue and liberty are closely tied because without liberty it is almost impossible to be virtuous. And without virtue it is utterly impossible to respect, protect, and defend liberty. But for the purposes of this endless discussion, I will simply say that the difficulty of defining virtue is inverse to the level of obviousness it holds for most people. In other words, we know it when we see it.

So, anyway, why does all this matter? The short answer is that that’s up to you to decide. The shorter answer is that I was sick of reading about Christie Whitman. A longer answer might be that as we enter a world where the threat of totalitarianism has been defeated (yeah, yeah, “for now”), we might want to rethink some of the ways we look at these issues. We’ve now had ten years of imposing or encouraging democracy on other nations. The success has been, to say the least, mixed. In some of these countries it might make some sense to encourage a few more masters to coerce the many bullies terrorizing the people during an eternity of “free time.” In other nations, it may indeed make sense to vigorously encourage democracy. But the one thing that we should never discourage is the development of “liberty.” An enlightened ruler always encourages liberty, albeit at a prudent pace. A corrupt one cannot see the difference between liberty and freedom, and is always and everywhere corrupt.

Closer to home, it may be time to start explaining to people that democracy is not freedom, nor is it even liberty. It is simply a mechanism that works pretty well. And simply obeying its forms will not make our people virtuous or even nice. That takes a lot more work from everybody.


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