Jackson Doughart
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Splitting hairs on liberty

Prince Arthur Herald, 26 July 2013

The discipline of political philosophy is consistently imbued with debates about the nature of liberty. Questions such as ‘Are liberty and equality in opposition?’, ‘Is there a distinction between negative and positive liberty?’, ‘Is liberty advanced by wealth redistribution?’, and ‘Is liberty the fundamental democratic value?’ are some of the most hotly contested among political theorists, as well commentators in non-academic media. But I would argue that while many of these questions are interesting, their utility in a grander analysis of political right, i.e., good governance, is limited.

In fact, the basic idea of personal liberty, to separate matters from the idea of an entire society’s liberty as manifested in self-government and absence of foreign rule, is not so complicated, and is in fact quite easily understandable to the average person. Essentially, the principle of individual liberty entails that good people who behave well should be left alone, and that a society whose government does not respect and protect a good person who behaves well cannot be described as a liberal one. It is intrinsically connected to the idea of self-determination and autonomy but does not inherently prohibit the possibility of one’s freedom being restricted in some respect, such as when the liberty of one person conflicts with the liberty of someone else.

Perhaps there is nothing wrong with the ambiguities being unpacked and examined at length by people with competence in the history of political thought. As I mentioned above, there have been some instances of the liberty debate being truly important. Examples would include Benjamin Constant’s lecture “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared to That of the Moderns”, Isaiah Berlin’s essay “Two Conceptions of Liberty”, and G.A. Cohen’s paper “Freedom and Money”. But such important contributions are rare, especially when one considers the sheer number of philosophical papers produced annually on the subject, not to mention all of the articles written and speeches given on behalf the various ideological groupings claiming to represent the voice of liberty, including libertarians, left-liberals, liberal-egalitarians, neoliberals, and of course, conservatives, among others.

But I would submit that there may indeed be a consequence to splitting hairs over liberty. Namely, the focus put on this subject lends credence to the view that liberty is the central, and perhaps the only, political value that is worthy of such careful scrutiny. It elevates liberty, which is only one part of justice, to the totality of justice. And it elevates justice (as conceived as the “proper” view of liberty, whatever that may be) to the totality of good governance or political wisdom. So much so, I would argue, that many people just frame their arguments about politics in the language of liberty when their argument has little to do with liberty at all. For instance, many of the arguments about social policies — abortion, homosexual marriage, euthanasia, legality of cannabis etc. — are framed by their discussants as the subjects of “inalienable individual freedom”, when they are in fact the subjects of other values, often with little relation to liberty as understood politically. Ultimately, all of this distorts the degree to which liberty is one political value among many, and respect for liberty is one political (or civic) virtue among many.

This tendency is analogous to the way in which democracy has been elevated to such a high level of adulation, to the point that it may cloud our ability to accurately discern how democratic decision-making fits into the larger picture of governance. In arguments about constitutional bills of rights, for example, proponents often claim that the judicial overturning of democratically-elected legislation to accord with rights provisions is defensible on democratic grounds, which if read in logical terms would amount to an argument of nearly perfect circularity. Yet there is of course an argument to be made on this and other questions that involve “checks” on democracy, but they cannot be articulated properly when it is effectively believed that democracy is above philosophy, or that all political philosophy must answer to democracy.

This kind of category error is prevalent among much of today’s political thought, especially when combined with the similar elevation of liberty mentioned above, and the internecine quarrels that absord the various claimants to the individual freedom mantra. And a further consequence is the potential rise of various “utilitarian” alternatives which strip away the complexities of liberal-democracy that many theorists have tried to understand, but to such an extent that they have lost the need for a more complete view. Those “utilitarian” alternatives, which collapse all of the relevant distinctions and complexities into a simple calculation of the “greatest good for the greatest number”, are just one of many challenges to liberal democracy that are most concerning.

The corrective to all of this would involve some kind of return to a more distant vantage point for the study of politics in the normative sense. In the Republic and the Politics, Plato and Aristotle offer insights into the political thought which, to say the very least, suggest a far greater appreciation for complexity. There is no one single value or virtue that, if put into a formula, would guide the best practicable regime. If anything, they (and especially Plato) placed knowledge or wisdom as the supreme virtue. But that prescription would have little purchase on those contemporary thinkers who want to find the definition of liberty that can effectively trump the other aspects of governance which, while not directly concerning freedom themselves, certainly have an impact thereon. None of this is to say that we can simply transport the Platonic and Aristotelian approaches to today and the debates would be solved. Far from it. But it is to say that today’s thinking about politics would be greatly improved it understood liberty to be one part of the great web of governance and political life, which is worthy of a more measured approach in the literature.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com