Two Senses of Human Freedom
JANUARY 01, 1989 by TIBOR R. MACHAN
Tibor R. Machan teaches philosophy at Auburn University in Alabama.
When we consider whether a capitalist, libertarian society is free, whether it secures human beings their maximum individual freedom or liberty, serious controversies arise. Some agree that, of course, in capitalism, where one’s private property rights are respected, we enjoy the greatest freedom. Despite the fact that such a system does not offer the utmost security in life, nor equality of wealth or even of opportunity, many maintain that capitalism certainly does secure for people the maximum freedom.
But there are those, too, who dispute this contention. Not only do they criticize capitalism for failing to ensure for us well-being and equality of opportunity, they also hold that capitalism is, in fact, an enemy of individual freedom. Marx made this point in the 19th century, and in our time many have followed his lead. For example, in his posthumously published work, Grundrisse, Marx notes that “This kind of [capitalist] individual liberty is . . . at the same time the most complete suppression of all individual liberty and total subjugation of individuality to social conditions which take the form of material forces—and even of all-powerful objects that are independent of the individuals creating them.”
Professor Larry Preston, following in Marx’s footsteps, has advanced a similar claim, namely, that “a capitalist market, understood as a system in which production and distribution are based on the pursuit of private interest through the acquisition and transfer of privately owned property, generally denies freedom to most participants.” Preston defends this position by first advancing the following characterization of freedom: “Free decisions and actions are identified as those in which an agent’s conscious deliberation has played an essential role.” He clarifies this by adding that “The prerequisite of deliberate choice can only be determined with reference to specific activities associated with particular roles.” Furthermore, “A choice is voluntary (freely made) if the persons who agree to it possess, before they decide, the relevant capacities and conditions for deliberation regarding the proposed transaction.”
In contrast, within the Anglo-American political tradition, freedom has been characterized quite differently. According to F. A. Hayek:
It meant always the possibility of a person’s acting according to his own decisions and plans, in contrast to the position of one who was irrevocably subject to the will of another, who by arbitrary decision could coerce him to act or not to act in specific ways. The time-honored phrase by which this freedom has often been described is therefore “independence of the arbitrary will of another.” . . . In this sense “freedom” refers solely to a relation of men to other men, and the only infringement on it is coercion by men.
For Marxists the emphasis has always been on possessing the requisite abilities—including resources and information—to act in any way one might wish to act after necessary deliberation. In Hayek and the classical liberal tradition, however, the emphasis is placed on a choice being that of the agent, that it be “his own” decision. Furthermore, unlike Preston, Hayek does not insist that deliberation has an “essential role” in free choice.
The difference between the two conceptions of freedom seems to be that whereas Preston does not stress personal autonomy and self-determination, Hayek does; and while Hayek seems to accept decisions of any sort (whimsical, intentional, negligent, or deliberate), Preston allows only deliberative or self-consciously calculated decisions to be free choices.
What Is “Real” Freedom?
Preston holds that “real” freedom is not the libertarian, capitalist sort. What his theory, following a very respected tradition, proposes is that one can be really free only if one is on the right path. Consider again Marx on freedom: “[F]reedom . . . can only consist in socialized man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favorable to, and worthy of, their human nature.”
Marx was invoking the idea of freedom which ordinary people invoke when they say they wish to be “free” of worry, trouble, hardship, psychological blocks, bad memories, disease, or whatnot. From the time of Plato this sense of “human freedom” has been a powerful contender, it refers to our capability of attaining full human flourishing, unhindered by such obstacles as ignorance, illness, or sin. In our day many think of this sense of freedom when they refer to Marxist-Leninist type liberation. Unlike the more libertarian sense of this term—within the American political tradition—liberation here means guiding one toward emancipation. Compare the liberation of France to the liberation of Poland! And consider the character of Marxist-Leninist liberation move ments, which all reject libertarian freedom.
Now Preston’s idea of freedom does not state explicitly that his understanding of “free to choose” implies that only those are free to choose who in fact choose properly. But this is the result of his characterization, nevertheless. This is because the “relevant capacities and conditions for deliberations” would in the final analysis include the individual’s ability to select wisely from among the alternatives. It would also include the absence of any impediments to such wise decisions, including ignorance and poverty, whether imposed by other persons, or by nature, or by the social system in force. No doubt, if a social system protects property rights, this also means that those who have no wealth or health, or squander them, will face the obstacle of poverty or ill health in their effort at successful living.
That there may not be any system that could “remedy” this situation is, of course, one of the major problems of characterizing freedom along these lines. But by speaking as if such life circumstances were limitations of liberty, Marx (or Preston) suggests that there may be social systems that do not place any restrictions before persons who might at some stage of their lives aspire to success. Marx hints at this when he points to “the absurdity of considering free competition as being the final development of human liberty.” Presumably there is a final development.
Another problem with the Marxian idea Preston advances is that a deliberation is a rare process. Most people proceed through their days without deliberation, yet acting intentionally—that is, fleetingly thinking of their objectives and almost automatically using the means to attain them, as when they switch on a light as they enter a room. The intentional character of such actions may be gleaned from the fact that if some mishap is associated with them, persons who took the actions are held responsible for what they did. These, then, are treated as perfectly free actions when they are not forced on the doers by others. For Preston, however, they would be unfree actions since they did not involve deliberation—the self-conscious, self-monitored mental process characteristic of intellectual activities (such as theorizing about freedom).
It is also important that in Preston’s and Marx’s characterization of freedom, there is no consideration of the place of free will. If persons are metaphysically free—possess free will or the power of self-determination—they might not elect to inform themselves about the facts that may make a choice a wise one. They may then be regarded as unfree in the Marxist sense. Nevertheless, in the liberal sense of the term “freedom,” they are free, since they might have placed themselves in a position of being better informed—even though they did not do this—which would mean they are essentially free.
The different meanings of “human freedom” can be more fully appreciated in connection with the women’s liberation movement, in which two meanings of “liberty” are prominent, though not always noted. First, women’s liberation sometimes means the absence of restraints imposed by other people who would keep women under a yoke or treat them as if they were not of age but in constant need of guidance (from males or the state). Second, women’s liberation sometimes means being guided to a higher state of consciousness and human emancipation.
Another way—hinted at before—to distinguish the two ideas of liberty is to recall the contrasting meaning of “liberation” for the Soviet Union and the United States vis-à-vis the countries of Europe they helped liberate in World War 1I. The Soviet Union “liberated” by helping to defeat the Germans and then fully occupying the eastern European countries, while the United States helped cast off the German forces (e.g., in France) and then left, which freed these countries to develop themselves.
Which sense of the term “freedom” is then primary? On the one hand, if we are focusing on progress toward human flourishing, human freedom may well mean what has been meant in the tradition from Plato, through Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, T. H. Green, and many contemporary intellectuals. These thinkers would all join Marx in the view that the liberal/libertarian conception of human freedom is limited and incomplete. To pretend to be concerned with human freedom when one is really only interested in freedom from the aggressive intrusion of other people—as so well expressed in the Colonial slogan: “Don’t tread on me!”—is, according to this line of thinking, to distort an important value in human existence. (Even some neoclassical economists prefer to mean by freedom the maximizing of our options, creating a broad range of possibilities. Our freedom, they say, is enhanced with an increase of our wealth.)
There is something to this, of course. It is arguable that full human freedom—being unimpeded by various obstacles in life in reaching one’s proper goal of self-development—should mean what members of this tradition have meant. Yet, on the other hand, the view that human freedom or liberty, in the aforementioned sense, is a political concern, lack of which ought to be dealt with through law and politics, is highly disputable. This view simply fails to credit individuals with self-initiated effort. It demeans them, treats them as helpless and always in need of guidance from above. It is paternalistic and ultimately self-defeating if we extend it to everyone, including those who advocate totalitarian measures to liberate us.
The ultimate reason behind this drastic and devastating error is that the conception of freedom embraced by the tradition following Plato, and today mostly promoted by Marxists, presupposes a conception of human nature which is contrary to fact. Marx did not credit human individuals with a basic kind of freedom, namely, freedom of the will or the power of self-determination.
Neither do Preston and other Marxists (e.g., Andrew McLaughlin, Charles Taylor, G. A. Cohen). Preston notes that “Capitalist exchanges have become coercive because participants can recognize an alternative situation which would provide them with substantially greater freedom, a situation that the capitalist market prevents them from having.” In other words, people are not acting freely under capitalism because by virtue of the structure of the system—i.e., its framework of private property rights—they are forgoing options that they might enjoy and that it would be beneficial for them to enjoy.
This treats people as helpless, inept creatures, who are unable on their own initiative to come to terms with lacking some of what they might want and benefit from in life. And while such a conclusion is warranted in societies where people face persecution, oppression, and liquidation from the state if they try to remedy their circumstances by individual initiative (in-eluding forming economic alliances), for a society in which no such political limits to liberty are sanctioned, the judgment comes to little more than either stressing the exceptions or demeaning human ability.
The “freedom” Preston thinks people might enjoy involves what people could benefit from in their relationship to others, namely, greater access to information, better conditions for deliberation, etc. For example, they might be better educated, they might possess more wealth, etc. This is, of course, not political freedom but a better standard of living. To obscure the difference is dangerous.
Making the Most of Our Lives
When Marxists say that we lack freedom or liberty under capitalism, they don’t make clear that what they have in mind is something we probably would lack far more under any other system—the ability and opportunity to make the most of our lives. And that is perhaps because if put this way, it becomes clear that at least under capitalism everyone has his or her political liberty-freedom from other people’s forcible intrusion into one’s life- -and in the main this provides most with a good chance of attaining a high standard of living. While capitalism is not preoccupied with the equal distribution of wealth—rather, poverty—it is a system under which those who make a good try have the chance of reaching considerable economic success. (Nor does capitalism assume that everyone would, or even should, want this!)
The Marxist position sees persons as we do trees or flowers that grow not from their own determination but are spurred on by the natural environment. And if there are deficiencies in this environment, there will be impediments standing in the way of growth.
As Preston puts it, “We now realize that the exchanges of capitalism generally do not represent agreements in which both (or all) participants are better off if ‘better off’ is viewed as gaining access to the resources needed to exercise freedom.” Once Preston has defined “free choice” as, in effect, “the best possible choice one could make,” it is no wonder that he views capitalist exchanges as not being “free.” It may not be immediately obvious that Preston and this entire tradition hold this conception of “freedom,” but it becomes so, once it is clear that here the objective is to ensure human perfection, the full emancipation of human beings-not merely their freedom to do what they choose to do, regardless of the outcome. Preston, like others in this tradition, in effect identifies human freedom with human success. Without that identification, human freedom or liberty simply have no value to him.
The liberal tradition, however, sees human freedom (from aggression by others) as valuable in itself, because it is a constituent part of human goodness—without the freedom to choose one’s conduct, one is not the agent of whatever good behavior one might engage in. This is not always clearly put in the liberal tradition, but it is there, nevertheless.
In the liberal tradition, government aims at protecting the individual’s role as the agent of his own conduct. That is why it stresses individual liberty and rights. Once persons enjoy this protection, they will then do what they choose, well or badly. Society is not perfect, but it is politically best if it secures for everyone a sphere of jurisdiction or personal sovereignty. The rest is in the hands of individuals.
In contrast, for the Preston/Marx position the primary task of good government—of those who understand and have the power to upgrade the species—is to free human beings from impediments to growth. This is clearly not accomplished simply by protecting people against the aggressive intrusion of other human beings. No, they need total “liberation”—the prevention of all intrusions such as poverty, disease, ignorance, illness, and even sin. Thus Preston holds that “Physical force need not always be either morally objectionable or a denial of free dom. Efforts physically to restrain drug addicts from gaining access to drugs may be done for moral reasons and in the interest of freedom—to enhance the addicts’ ability to make deliberate choices.”
This is a convenient example for Preston, because even in contemporary near-capitalist societies people are not granted the right to consume the drugs they choose. But for Preston, the scope within which lack of free choice is appropriate is far greater. It is only a short distance to the view that forcing people not to advocate anti-revolutionary policies or the wrong religion, or censoring the viewing of trashy movies and the reading of bad literature, is morally justified because it enhances the ability of people to live properly.
Many people who advocate Marxism but find the Soviet Union politically reprehensible insist that the Soviets have distorted Marx and that a proper understanding of Marxism will avoid the kind of policies that have characterized the U.S.S.R. throughout its brief history. Some of those who hold such views are, nevertheless, wholly disenchanted with capitalism, whether its ideal version or the watered-down type evident in some Western societies. Indeed, some of these people hold out hope for societies whose leaders proclaim themselves to be Marxists—e.g., Cuba, Nicaragua even when these societies are directly allied with the Soviet Union.
The confusion arises from failing to distinguish between what Marx might have liked, and what his views usher in, especially when his vision of the future is not coming about automatically, as a matter of historical necessity. Maybe Marx would have hated Stalin or even Gorbachev, no one knows. But that the policies of these Soviet leaders most closely follow Marx’s views, given that those views are basically wrong, cannot reasonably be denied.
Marx may have thought that capitalist societies will turn socialist without much need for violence. But since this hasn’t happened, socialists have resorted to coercion to force socialism upon various countries in the name of Marx. And there are plenty of concepts in the Marxist edifice that give philosophical fuel to the idea of forced socialization. One of these is the conception of freedom that Marx and his followers embrace. Their idea of liberty may have some grounding in ordinary language. But in one sense that idea is most destructive toward the freedom of one individual from the intrusions upon his life by another. This is the sense in which it encourages the idea that people must be made to be “free,” whether they choose this or not.
2. Larry M. Preston, “Freedom, Markets. and Voluntary Exchange,” The American Political Science Review. Vol. 78 (December 1984), p. 961. A somewhat oblique answer to Preston’s analysis may be found in Paul Craig Roberts and Matthew A-Stephenson, Marx’s Theory of Exchange, Alienation and Crisis (Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1973). Roberts and Stephenson show that substituting rational planning for the exchange system introduces tyranny, The choice, then, may be between market exchange, which can involve some “exploitation,” meaning the opportunity of some to take advantage of the circumstances of others, and totalitarian rule, which guarantees that exploitation will occur, as a permanent and unalterable feature of the system.
6. F. A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1960), p, 12. An interesting group of discussions on the concept of liberty may be found in John A. Howard, ed., On Freedom (Greenwich, Conn,: Devin-Adair, 1984). The most regent “classic” on this topic is I, Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty (London: Oxford University Press, 1958).
9. See George Stigler, “Wealth and Possibly Liberty,” Journal of Legal Studies, Vol. 7 (June 1978), pp. 213-17. Cf. E. C. Pasour. Jr., “Liberty, and Possibly Wealth,” Reason Papers, No. 6 (Spring 1980), pp. 53-62.