Thinking About Freedom
FEBRUARY 01, 1983 by ROBERT LEFEVRE
Mr. LeFevre founded and for years presided over the Freedom School in Colorado and has lectured and written extensively in behalf of freedom and the market.
Human beings, in their present societies, are like groups of children, playing with their toys in the sand. They shout and scream a good deal about favorite notions and invariably confer upon their playthings, such as dolls, tin soldiers and building blocks, certain human attributes.
On occasion, some child manages to win the cooperation of a number of his playmates and for a brief season, his view of the desirable game plan is acted out by most. At such times, the childish uproar is muted to occasional shrill accusations and hoarse denials.
Sooner or later, the arrogance or dominance of the leader or just the plain boredom of doing as one is told, mars the apparent harmony. On these occasions there is often a complete revolution; the game plan is thrown out; the dictates of the leader are rejected and the human attributes assigned to the inanimate playthings are cancelled in favor of an entirely new set of rules and suppositions.
Sandbox organizations for those ranging from four to six years can hardly be viewed as dangerous or threatening. But it is sobering to note that adults have failed to progress much beyond the kindergarten stage in seeking to organize their own societies.
Much the same kind of boisterous posturing and shoving takes place in the adult world. Leaders strive to attract support by ascribing to the electorate attributes of helplessness and poverty of such magnitude as to shatter hearts of stone. Then rules of behavior are marshaled, enacted and enforced by huge armies of regulators. The real nature of human beings is laid fiat on the anvil of political ambition and hammered into a shape deemed compatible with the current leader’s “grand design.”
In the adult world, tragically, these game plans do not vanish in the evening mist when supper- time arrives. They endure into the next day, week or year and sometimes persist for centuries.
Societies are essential. We must have them because no single human being has enough wisdom, strength or time at his disposal to do all that needs doing if he is going to survive even marginally. Our difficulty, as human beings, is that while we can readily admit to our own frailty, each of us seems to cherish a plan, more or less secret and unique, by means of which (if only others would follow) we could create a paradise for everyone else.
We might even say that our difficulty as human beings is that we are human.
It is human to err. We grow up with a marvelous sense of uneasiness. We have made mistakes and are aware that we could make more of them. Curiously, we also appear to be endowed in a parallel manner with confidence. While we are uncertain as to the best way to manage our own affairs, most of us are locked in concrete when it comes to how others should behave. It is astonishing that so many who are willing to admit to uncertainty concerning themselves are so rigidly certain of how the affairs of others should proceed.
This inconsistency is both persistent and profound. The questions raised come to the fore immediately, yet the most tenacious inquiries arch all that is generally understood, into a world not clearly seen or comprehended.
What is a human being capable of doing? This obvious query, however answered, is followed by: What should a human being do? A hundred thousand experiences and twice that number of attempted answers have done more to confuse than to resolve.
Reduced to simplicity to the degree possible it comes down to this: Each human being has been endowed at birth with the ability to think his own thoughts and to act them out. Even though his birth entailed obstacles too many to overcome in what we like to think of as a “normal delivery,” to the degree that the human individual lives, to that degree does he think his own thoughts and act them out.
His thinking apparatus, the brain, may be damaged or impaired one way or another, but the fact holds. No one but he who has it can make use of it. His ability to act may be hampered by lack of limbs, distorted’ arms or legs, grotesqueries and malformations of any and every kind. The truth still holds. To the degree that his physical person can act at all, it acts under the impulses of his own purpose and intent.
However well or badly we may function, every human being individually controls his own thinking and muscular energies from within himself. If he seeks to impose con-trois on other human beings, he is compelled by his own nature to reach out beyond himself. Nature has endowed each of us with self-control. Nature has not endowed us with control of others.
It is reasonable to assert that man’s inhumanity to man arises from this fact.
Could I control others by a simple exercise of my own will I would have no reason to inflict control, punishment or death upon another of my kind. Since my wishes would control others, each and every person would gladly do my bidding. Unhappily, for me, this isn’t true.
Every other person has the same kind of control I have and is as eager for me to act as he wishes, as I am to have him act as I wish.
The result is conflict. And from the days of Plato to Marx, stretching backward and forward from those polarities, the pages of the human record run red with blood and echo with the cries of anguish emitted by those who, at the moment, found themselves under the sway of some human being not content with self-management; seeking always to manage others in a way nature has not bargained for.
What can a human being do; what should he do? The questions beg consideration of an abstract idea called freedom.
Freedom Is a Concept
There is no such thing as freedom. Freedom is not an object, it is a concept. No one is compelled by nature to accept any other person’s concepts. Since the days of Lagash in Mesopotamia and the emergence of Urukägina, humans have been conceptualizing about freedom and as yet have reached no general conclusion as to what it means!
Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met at sea during the era containing World War II and pronounced what they termed the Four Freedoms. Freedom from want and fear; freedom of speech and of religion. The proclamation apparently triggered some semantic games and savants became enraptured with the differences between freedom from and freedom to. To have neither want nor fear was freedom from. To speak and worship as one pleased was freedom to.
With pedantry ablaze the hairsplitters went to work to further fog an issue already cloaked in mist. If every human being on earth had a right to be free from want, did any human being have the countervailing right of keeping what was his when another claimed he needed it to escape want? And if freedom from fear was to become world-wide in scope, what of the fear engendered by the decree that the claim of the needy had a higher priority than the claim of the owner? Was grand theft, on behalf of the poor, to become the order of the day?
As for the freedom to speak and to worship as one pleased, was there also freedom from speaking and from worshiping? Few assailed the principle, the still unspoken issue: What is freedom in itself?. What concept does the word invoke?
Human Energy Motivated
Rose Wilder Lane was one of the few who glimpsed the target. She recognized that the question had to relate to the employment of energy. Who, in fact, controlled how much of what? Who, assuming a free society, should control how much of what?
She sought to divide energy into two broad categories: human energy and non-human energy. She saw that human energy always operates under the control of each living individual. In that sense, each human being is born free. He may not control his energy wisely. But he controls it, even should he run amok. Thus, even the infant, almost wholly dependent upon the adult world for his survival is still free, to the degree that he functions at all. His will is supreme over himself. If an infant decides to cry and you, his parent, decide that he will remain quiet, whose will controls what the infant does? You have the ability to gag the child, to scare the child, to punish the child and even to kill the child. But unless you back up your wish for silence with force of some kind, the determined child will not be still. He rules himself.
This clearly establishes that each human being is free by his nature. To alter that basic, natural condition, you must reach out beyond yourself and physically cancel the control the child naturally has. It also establishes that humans are both frail and vulnerable to outside forces. Each of us has the ability to inflict cruelty, and even death upon others. These are things we can do. But, should they be done? Reason bids us be patient. The answer to should is much farther down the road than the answer to can.
Seen in the light of energy control and management, the semantic dispute as to freedom from and freedom to including freedom of is swept aside. Whether one is free to speak or free from the necessity of speaking, the preposition becomes no more than a direction indicator and we may ask whose energy is involved? If I may speak or not as I please, then it is clear that I am as free as when I was born in respect to speech. The question of my ability to speak does not arise. Nor does the wisdom of my thoughts once uttered.
A human societal condition in which each person is at liberty to express himself or to refrain from expressing himself is within the natural order. Why? Because that is his natural condition due to circumstances arranged by the forces of nature (non-human energy) rather than by the forces of humanity (human energy).
But what if I find myself within a societal framework in which I will be punished if I express myself as I might desire? Then it cannot be said that I have freedom of speech or freedom to speak . . . or freedom from imposed controls on my speech. Instead, I have freedom to speak only in certain ways, at certain times, avoiding certain words and in support of certain ideas exclusively.
This condition, in which I may speak only in specified ways and about specified subjects at specified times, is contrary to nature. Such a condition can only appear because human beings have reached out beyond themselves (physically) and proclaim that they will impose pain, distress and sometimes even worse punishment not excluding the death penalty, if anyone defies their dicta.
Freedom of Speech
Freedom of speech is natural, the product of non-human reality. Restraints and controls imposed upon ,any person’s natural ability to express his ideas is the product of humanly manufactured and supported human intervention.
The difficulty in defining freedom now appears. Is it desirable for everyone to say whatever he pleases, in any manner that pleases him, at any time whatsoever? The time-worn example of someone shouting fire in a crowded theater which is not burning provides a classic example. Clearly, such an expletive at such a time is not desirable.
Then, let us forthwith proclaim an edict and agree to punish those who may commit a trespass with what they say or how they say it! Very well. But, as we do so, freedom of speech is cancelled to some degree.
This is the difficulty. Because freedom to speak is a natural condition, it appears to be desirable. Therefore, most persons proclaim their support. But at the same time, if we are to be at the mercy of those thoughtless, reckless or even stupid members of society who may abuse their natural birthright, we also see restraint of speech as a desirable objective.
This is scarcely definitive. In seeking to define the true nature of anything we must not let our wishes intrude. Whether free speech is desirable or undesirable does not define it; it merely conveys our personal and subjective viewpoint concerning it. And our difficulty is that in this case, as in most other cases, we are ambivalent. We favor free speech, except in those cases where we don’t.
We end by defining free speech as freedom to speak within societally imposed limits. Even the Russian Constitution sets forth the identical proposition. Under it, citizens of the Soviet Union are free to speak in support of socialism and the government will even furnish the paper if the statement is to be committed to writing.
But we are not ready to take a position as to what people ought to do. What we are prepared to see is that the questions of to, from or of are digressions which take us away from the real question; that of the expenditure of human energy. To discover whether or not a human being is free, we must ask whose energy is at work. If the individual is using his own mind and employing his own energies—singly or in concert with others who likewise are doing the same—then he is free. If he is following the dictates of other human beings, not because he wishes to do so, but because he is restrained by threats and force capable of being applied, then he is not free.
Free or Slave?
It follows that if you think and act as you please and thus practice the self-control with which nature has endowed you, you are free. If, on the contrary, your thinking is directed by my edicts and you do as I command because anguish and travail will be your lot if you disobey, then you are not free.
While it could be true that you will benefit more by obedience to me than by following your own bent does not teach us the nature of freedom; it teaches us the nature of opting in one’s own favor. Thus, freedom means self-control; a loss of freedom emerges because control is imposed on you by a person other than you.
Freedom has nothing whatever to do with benefits to be gained. Freedom is a human condition that exists only in the abstract.
Can a free person do anything he wishes? Obviously not. If a person climbs a cliff, spreads his arms and leaps into space, will he fly like a bird? No. He will crash at the base of the cliff. Doesn’t this prove that the abstraction of human freedom has little merit? If a person is really free, why can’t he fly?
Leaping from a cliff does not mean that a person isn’t free; indeed, it demonstrates that he is free to leap or not to leap as he pleases. The fact that he can’t fly proves that he is not a bird.
The concept of freedom is valid only within the natural limits which have been imposed upon man by nature. Loss of freedom arises if and when additional limits are imposed by others of his own kind.
Thus, many years ago, and well aware that leaping from a cliff could bring disaster even to Icarus, men began to “think the unthinkable,” reasoning that if they created the appropriate device, they might yet fly. The result is aviation. Today, because men were free to leap from cliffs and to think what they pleased, they now fly farther and faster than any bird. They studied the natural order and learned that gravity could be harnessed. So, today, they climb up cliffs and gripping a hang-glider they soar like eagles. In a jet aircraft, in a matter of moments they can fly higher than Mount Everest in air-conditioned comfort.
This means that freedom, although an abstraction, is meaningful. Because we had the example of many an Icarus, we were free enough to think and act, to run risks, and sometimes to fail. But, finally, we flew. In the end, we did it right.
If a person walks into a forest and lightning strikes a tree which falls on him, pinning him to the ground, has he lost his freedom? No, he has lost his mobility. He is still free in the sense that his plight arises between himself and the laws of nature.
If a man is cornered in the African bush by a hungry lion, has he lost his freedom? No. He is merely confronting a hostile manifestation of nature. His battlefield is one ordained by nature, not by intruding humans.
If a man is felled by a virus and ends flat on his back in bed, has he lost his freedom? No, his health is imperiled, but he is still free. Again, the arena is a natural one.
Working with Nature
In this sense, survival on this planet is a struggle against the forces of nature. There are many natural things that could injure, impair or kill us. What experience and reason have taught us is that nature is neither kindly nor malevolent. It simply is. The more we can learn about the nature of things as they are, the more we learn how to harness and work with nature, rather than simply opposing it. It is because we are naturally free to think and act as we please that we are capable of learning these lessons.
Imagine, if you will, a single human being living on a deserted island. You will have to imagine it. Human beings are endowed with gender, either male or female. For a human being to arrive on this troubled sphere, we can reasonably conclude that he had two parents. Further, in view of the relative helplessness of the infant, we can conclude that his parents (or some other adults) did a great many things to and for the infant as he was growing to maturity. Lacking such attention, nature would probably have finished him off.
But let us imagine a mature Crusoe, shipwrecked on a fertile but deserted island. There are no other human beings present. And in this imaginary example, none will ever come.
The concept of freedom, as I am seeking to define it, would probably never come to our Crusoe’s mind. He might dream of escaping his island but there would be no likelihood of thought concerning escape from the presence of other humans. Indeed, he might view freedom as escape from his island so he could be in the company of others. He might view escape from rain, escape from wild animals, escape from famine and so on as a kind of freedom. Indeed, in this case, the question of freedom could be answered by from. A synonym for this kind of freedom could be: rid of.
By learning about and working with nature, our solitary inhabitant might rid himself of a number of unwelcome effects nature might inflict on him. But his relationship with others of his kind is non-existent and always will be.
A Societal Context
This means that the particular context in which I use the word freedom, is a societal context. No single human being ever has need of it. No more than a single human being has need for the word theft, or murder, or war, or ownership, or profit. Lacking the presence of other humans there can be no theft nor tour-der nor ownership nor profit nor freedom. Nothing can be stolen if there is no person from whom to steal. Nothing can be owned if there is no one else who might own the same item. No one can have his natural ability to think and to act ira-paired by other persons, if no other persons are or ever will be present.
This is the crucial, critical area. By his nature, each individual has the natural ability to think and act as he pleases. But man’s life span is short, his wants almost endless. To survive, not only in the cradle, but as an adult, depends upon the efforts others will make, as well as upon his own. Even the thief, who is totally non-productive, cannot be a thief if others do not produce what he can steal.
Freedom is a natural condition; each individual controls himself.
It is also a condition of total risk. Each individual has the ability to impose cruelty and even death upon his fellows. This ability conceals a two-way street. Each individual is vulnerable to the thoughts and actions of others of his own kind. A free society is a society in which anyone could do as he pleases with himself or with others. Given a “society” of only one person, risk between all persons disappears. In such a society, the word freedom could not possibly have a social context.
But now we imagine a society in which total freedom reigns yet there are many persons in it. Each individual can think and act as he pleases; at the same time, any other person has the ability to impose upon him by a little or a lot.
Take one further step. Imagine a free society in which the capacity for man’s inhumanity to man is not impeded by any human organization . . . but yet the violation of one’s person or property does not occur.
Such would be a free society, and only such. A society in which free men interact, retaining all their natural capacity to be free, and yet do nothing to limit the freedom of their fellows, ah, that is the goal yet to be achieved.