Sunday, July 20, 2014

Liberty and Constraint

The Synchroblog topic this month is "Liberty", a great word to savor on a sunny summer day. Kayaking on my nearby lake, I savor the word and revel in its possibilities: no schedule to answer to, no immediate needs demanding attention, water beckoning for a refreshing swim. 

But even the water around my kayak reminds me of the challenges of balancing liberty and constraint.

Farmers and homeowners whose properties drain toward the lake are free to use whatever chemicals they like, in whatever quantities they like. In consequence, the lake is partially covered with algae bloom, and no doubt slightly toxic to swim in. The green heron I normally see seem to be missing; they like to fish from a branch over the water, but with the water surface green and cloudy, it appears at least some have traveled on in search of clearer waters.

Liberty is a word much in fashion in recent political discourse, with arguments for less regulation, unfettered markets, privatized goods and services.  

What’s less often discussed is the way that attempts to protect one form of liberty often diminish other forms, in the same way the farmers’ freedom to fertilize at will darkens the lake, taints the local water supply, obstructs the herons’ search for food.

President Lincoln, in a speech given in 1864, acknowledged the deep divide between different views of liberty, and the tension when one person's freedom encroaches on another's: 
The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name—liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names—liberty and tyranny.
The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty.
Nearly a century after Lincoln’s address, scholar Isaiah Berlin, responding to a different historical moment, offered his own analysis of types of liberty. His seminal essay of 1958, "Two Concepts of Liberty", defined "negative liberty" as freedom from constraint or coercion, and "positive liberty" as freedom to accomplish or move toward a greater goal or value.

His view of these was not in sync with the terms he used. Born in 1909 to Jewish parents near Petrograd, Russia, he had witnessed the revolutions of 1917, then moved with his parents to London to escape mounting anti-Semitism. In his experience, the idea of positive liberty was too easily linked to totalitarian rhetoric: communism and fascism both spoke of “freedom” and “liberty” while destroying individual rights. 

Berlin’s warnings against positive liberty have been put to good use by Libertarians, who label government initiatives as socialism or communism, describe regulation as a blight on human liberty, and assert that “the free market . . .  is the most just and humane economic system and the greatest engine of prosperity the world has ever known," to quote Ron Paul's Campaign for Liberty. 

Yet, if the language of positive liberty can be misused in the interest of oppressive regimes, the language of negative liberty can be equally misused. In a much quoted and discussed 2011 Guardian commentary, George Monbiot explored "How Freedom Became Tyranny": 
In the name of freedom – freedom from regulation – the banks were permitted to wreck the economy. In the name of freedom, taxes for the super-rich are cut. In the name of freedom, companies lobby to drop the minimum wage and raise working hours. In the same cause, US insurers lobby Congress to thwart effective public healthcare; the government rips up our planning laws; big business trashes the biosphere. This is the freedom of the powerful to exploit the weak, the rich to exploit the poor.
As I consider these ideas of liberty, I find myself thinking about the Apostle Paul’s understanding of both “freedom from” and “freedom for.”
I Corinthians 9:19  Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.

1 Corinthians 10: 23-24 “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.
Galatians 5:13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 
Romans 6: 16-18 Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.  
“Freedom from” insists we can eat what we want, say what we want, shrug off every constraint like a angry teen slamming the door in the parent's face and speeding off, tires screeching. There's a part of us all that craves that kind of freedom.

Yet if liberty is defined only by throwing off constraints, we will never resolve the unyielding tension between conflicting freedoms: between the freedom to pollute or the freedom to enjoy clean air and water, the freedom to forgo taxes and the freedom to enjoy good schools, safe roads and bridges. 

If liberty is defined by removal of constraints, we will never be fully free. As any addict can tell us, as we throw off one set of constraints, we become enslaved to another. We are slaves to sin or righteousness. Constrained by our own disciplines, or by the painful consequences of our lack of discipline.

"Freedom from" puts the individual in the center of a kingdom of one, fighting for rights with the kingdoms that surround us, and with our own exhausted selves. 

“Freedom for” puts us in service to something greater, invites us to master internal conflicts and respect external constraints, so we are more available to accomplish the greater good. 

Yes - there's a danger there. Wisdom, as always, is needed. And an aware and educated public.
"Convinced that the people are the only safe depositories of their own liberty, and that they are not safe unless enlightened to a certain degree, I have looked on our present state of liberty as a short-lived possession unless the mass of the people could be informed to a certain degree." (Thomas Jefferson to Littleton Waller Tazewell, 1805)
Ideas have consequences. Our ideas about liberty and constraint will shape our behavior, our beliefs, our politics.

Green Heron, George Tallman, Exton Park, 2014
My goal in this series is to offer practical applications. But in this, I find myself with questions. Maybe a start would be to think these through:

1. Am I committed to my own personal liberty to the detriment of others?

2. Do I see freedom as avoidance of constraint, or as opportunity to serve?

3. Is liberty a goal, or a tool? 

4. Whose liberty am I willing to defend? From what constraint? For what end?

5. How do my views of liberty shape the way I vote?

This post is part of the July Synchroblog, "Liberty." Other posts are linked below:

This is also the second in a series exploring words that help or hinder our ability to serve our communities in love while helping to renew a web of compassionate engagement. Last week's post: Wisdom

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Just click on   __comments below to see the comment option.