MARCH 01, 1968 by H.B. PHILLIPS
Dr. Phillips, now retired, was for many years head of the Department of Mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
As usually presented, freedom is a negative idea, the mere absence of restraint. That does not seem to be a very valuable notion. A baby left entirely alone would be under no restraint but would not have much freedom. All it could do would be to die. I prefer to measure freedom positively by the things an individual can do. The greater the range of activities in which he can take part, the greater is his freedom.
The actions of an individual can be limited in two ways. First, they may be restricted by the orders of a dictator, by the government, or by his neighbors. These are external restraints and absence of this kind of restraint might be called external freedom. Second, they may be limited by his own capacities or lack of capacities. These are internal restraints and absence of this kind of restraint might be called internal freedom. Without internal freedom the external form is not worth much. I therefore discuss internal freedom first.
Perhaps many people would ask, how can the freedom of an individual be self-limited? This is best shown by examples.
A skilled workman has greater freedom than an unskilled one. For the unskilled can only do rough work. A skilled workman can also do rough work if he wants to, but he does not have to. In addition, he can do work which requires skill. A wider range of activities is available to him. He has greater freedom.
An educated person has much more freedom than an uneducated one. For an uneducated person can only do manual labor. An educated person can also do manual labor if he wants to, but he does not have to. In addition, he can do work of an intellectual nature. A much wider range of activities is open to him. He has much greater freedom.
A person of good moral character has more freedom than one who is lacking in this respect. Criminals do not believe this. They say they can obey the moral rules if they want to, but they do not have to. But for this slight liberty they give up far more than they get. Suppose, for example, a man has been guilty of stealing. He can never get a position in a bank or any other position of trust. By a single transgression he has excluded himself from the most desirable opportunities in life. He has greatly reduced his freedom. Similar effects follow from any other violation of the moral code. The reason for this is simple. When people live in close contact, efficient cooperation requires that their conduct conform to certain rules. These rules constitute the moral code. For its own success society automatically develops mechanisms which favor those who conform and oppose those who fail to conform to this code.
Education toward Freedom
The examples I have given all belong to the field of education. Even good morals is a form of education acquired by those who have the good fortune to be born in and grow up in a suitable environment. And it is only through education that a person can expand his capabilities and so increase his freedom.
By education I do not mean merely what is learned in school. That is only a start. Handling the affairs of a nation involves a mass of "know-how" learned in the street and in the factories, much of which exists only as custom. A good illustration of this is West Germany at the end of the second world war. At that time there was widespread destruction of industry in West Germany. To make matters worse the United States and its allies for some years after the fighting ceased stripped machinery from the few factories that were left and shipped it to Russia. Yet 10 years later West Germany was the most prosperous country in Europe, industrially second only to the United States in the whole world, and people from other parts of Europe were flocking into West Germany to enjoy the greater opportunities existing there. The reason for this is clear. When the fighting ceased, the Germans were not a mob of untrained people but a group containing individuals capable of doing anything needed in a modern state. Given control of their own affairs, in a short time they had the business of the nation operating smoothly and productively.
Compare this with the Congo. Under pressure from the native population and well-meaning outsiders the Belgians, who had been directing the affairs of the nation, withdrew. There was immediate chaos. The great mass of the people had none of the qualities needed in a modern state. Left alone, such a people can only sink into savagery, victims of starvation, disease, and superstition. Under outside management they could be given the necessary training, but this would require at least a generation and during that period they certainly would not be free.
The conclusion is that without education no worth-while freedom is possible.
This brings me to the second part of my discussion, the limits on freedom imposed by external agencies. Left entirely alone, a person would have very little freedom. All of his time would be needed to keep alive. Some form of cooperation with others is thus a practical necessity and this requires some restriction on individual action. The problem is to devise a type of cooperation which permits the individual to do his best. The difficulty in doing this is due to the rapid advance in human affairs which quickly makes any detailed arrangement obsolete. The speed of this advance is indicated by certain facts.
The first fact is that more than half of all we now know has been developed during my lifetime. This has been the work of science, for science is merely man’s understanding of the universe, including his understanding of man as part of the universe.
The second fact is that more than 90 per cent of all the scientists who have ever lived are now alive and working, and the number is steadily increasing. Through the efforts of these people the advance in the future will certainly be much more rapid than during my lifetime.
Under these conditions any detailed plan devised by a government quickly becomes obsolete and must be revised. Under government operation this revision is merely the choice of one individual or small number of individuals. Under freedom the best methods suggested by anybody, because of their superiority are quickly adopted.
The effect of freedom is thus to produce maximum diversity in human affairs. Because of the large number of unknowns, the value of any suggested procedure cannot usually be determined by reason but must be tested by trial. The number of suggestions, the number of trials, and consequently the number of superior methods found is greatest when each individual makes his own choice.
This is the reason for freedom and the reason why freedom will ultimately prevail.