Liberty and Its Limits: A personal reflection
“[Freedom] is my right to have my own opinion, my own conscience. Many can perfectly live without freedom as the freedom of having responsibilities can be scary at times. Freedom is the first our values, and yet, not everyone needs it”
⎯ Liudmila Ulitskaya
I do not feel free.
I had never confessed it to anyone before for fear of being perceived as dramatic or spoiled. After all, I come from the EU, do I even have the right to complain about lack of freedom? But when my Russian teacher asked me this question, I could not lie. We had just read a poignant passage by the Russian novelist Lyudmila Ulitskaya where she describes freedom as the “right to hold [one’s] own conscience”, I could not bring myself to lie this time around. So here I was, after years of careful hiding, now expressing to a Russian that I do not feel free.
As expected, my pronouncement was met with a mix of surprise and subtle contempt. Her expression seemed to say: “What do you mean you don’t feel free? Here you can literally do whatever you want!” From her perspective, I can see why my statement could be seen as the whining of an ungrateful and out of touch Westerner. After all, in my own country I have many more freedoms compared to many other countries where citizens face imprisonment or death for expressing their opinions or simply living in a way that is deemed immoral by the ruling government. I can participate in protests, I can dress the way I like, I can marry whomever I want, and can do so many other things that I’m probably not even noticing from my privileged perspective – and yet, I do not feel free.
For a long time I felt I had no right to assert that I do not feel free. This time though a sudden thought made me rethink my attitude –Why is it wrong to seek more freedom? Why should we put limits on our ambition to be more free? Who has the right to impose these limits?
From Freedom to Liberty
“The individual is increasingly deprived of the moral decisions as to how he should live his own life, and instead is ruled, fed, clothed, and educated as a social unit, accommodated in the appropriate housing unit, and amused in accordance to the standards that give pleasure and satisfaction to the masses” (C.G.Jung).
Open any newspaper, listen to any radio station or television broadcast, and you’ll hear at least once the word “freedom” being uttered. Today the word freedom is pronounced with confidence, nonchalance, as something that requires no characterization. The times where philosophers were inquiring about the true meaning of freedom and trying to seize its elusive nature into a concept are long forgotten. The Western man has few certainties in his life, and one of them is that he knows what it means to be a free man. Yet, what the average modern man refers to when he talks about freedom he actually just talks about liberty.
The first philosopher to point out the importance of this conceptual distinction between freedom and liberty was Hannah Arendt, who considered this differentiation crucial in order to make sense of political life in modern times. More recently, political theorist Hannah F. Piktin talked about the unique opportunity that English speakers have to decide between the words freedom and liberty which grants them the ability to discern between two very different concepts.
As Pikting observes, liberty implies a system of rules within which the individual has the ability to act according to its own will. Freedom, on the other hand, is a much broader, deeper, and riskier condition which presupposes being relieved from any system of rules and constraints. Freedom is better understood as the possibility to transcend what already exists to create something new, or, as Arendt would say, unexpected. While talking about liberty makes sense in a political framework such as that of the State, where individuals are provided a scheme to orient their actions, talking about freedom is misleading, if not entirely nonsensical. Freedom, understood as the possibility to create something new and unexpected, something that truly reflects the conscience of the individual, is something frowned upon in the current political system as anything that deviates from the structure and is heavily limited if not suppressed. Arguably, any kind of political life or social organization would require us to compromise a certain degree of our individual freedom in order to facilitate the smooth flow of social life. However, it is a compromise that should be recognised as worthy of the sacrifice if it is to acquire legitimacy within a society that values individual freedom and autonomy, as, ultimately, the purpose of rules is that of facilitating the life of the individuals and not dictating the rhythms and goals of life itself.
Distinguishing between liberty and freedom becomes crucial in societies with a centralized power structure. It can be very dangerous thinking about freedom only in terms of those liberties that we can benefit from within a certain framework. We should not lose sight of the fact that the framework has the right to exist only until it is able to provide benefits great enough to justify the lessening of individual freedoms. Looking at freedom as the highest possible value of human life should ultimately inspire us to build systems that allow people to play an active and central role in determining the future of their lives and homes instead of reducing them into resources to be managed and administered.
The Limits of Liberties in Liberal Democracies
“Open no matter what book of sociology, what book of jurisprudence, and you will always find that the government, its organization, its acts occupy such a great place therein, that we accustom ourselves to believe that there is nothing else but government and statesmen. […] And yet, as soon as you pass from printed matter to life itself, as soon as you cast a glance at society, you are struck by the infinitely minute part that the government plays in it” (Pëtr Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread).
What makes me feel unfree even in a liberal democracy is the fact that I lack the ability to express my conscience in a truly satisfying way – I do not have the ability to see my conscience materially reflected on the world around me. I can only express my values and ideals in the most superficial way.
I can write about my views, I can share them with other people, and even publish my thoughts in journals. However, I am prevented from taking initiative on making my values a reality. And yes, I can always vote for my political representative, but how does that concretely ensure that my views will be represented correctly? Even in the unlikely event there is a candidate I truly believe in that makes it to the government, there is no assurance they will end up doing what I voted them for. Everyone knows this, and that is why more and more people are growing tired of politics. Voting for representatives has little impact on the lives of people who are mainly preoccupied with making ends meet, finding a job, and living in a healthy environment.
Politics is so far away from the concrete experience of people that it fails to inspire any trust or hope for change. But in the end, even with the best intentions, how can a few people have the knowledge and necessary experience to make decisions over matters they know little to nothing about? How can a minister of agriculture, who has never farmed a hectare of land in their life, make right decisions for farmers across an entire country with different climates and terrains? Why should it not be the people that are directly implicated in decisions, the ones who have direct experience of the challenges they are facing, who are the ones to make decisions?
The disenfranchisement of people is usually justified with the claim that people, unless forced by a higher authority, would only care about themselves. However, if the government is made up of people, how can we trust that the interests of a community that they have never even heard of will be taken at heart? Someone who has a stake in a certain issue and is part of a community has higher incentives to take a decision that will allow them to preserve their economic, but also their social capital. If they were to take a decision that would result in the degeneration of the very community they are a part of, they would be forced to leave, or endure the resentment of all their countrymen. But when a representative of the people makes a wrong decision, who is to blame? How are they held accountable?
If people were allowed to care about their interests and to freely associate, we would be living in a very different world. Who would allow a multinational to come into their home and pollute their water, as it happens in Formosa (Texas) and many other places around the world? No one in their right mind would. And yet, we think that people would not be able to come into agreement when their interests are at risk!
The world we live in is highly regulated, where the excuse of “maintaining order” kills any spontaneous collective action and association that would naturally arise between people sharing the same environment and challenges. We see time and time again, how people are naturally coming together to solve issues they care about. We can see it in the people of Cheran, organizing themselves against violence, or the people from Ka’apor, taking matters into their own hands to prevent deforestation. These are not exceptional cases, this is what naturally occurs when people care about something and are allowed to act on their moral beliefs. Our natural tendency to cooperation and free association has been well documented by Pëtr Kropotkin, as well as by David Graeber & David Wengrow in more recent times; humans naturally tend towards free association rather than purely individualistic behavior. But in a society like ours, where thousands of laws are regulating every aspect of our lives and different institutions, and governmental bodies are the ones taking care of everything, how can our freedom of conscience be expressed? What does it concretely mean to be free in a world where the fundamental areas that shape our lives, the way we organize socially and politically, are basically out of our control?
These were the thoughts that, in a much less eloquent way, I expressed to my patient Russian teacher, to which she replied: “Well, but indeed, why do we even need huge organizations for? I trust my neighbor more than I could ever trust any president.”