Apr 192010
 

Libertarians, by their nature, are wont to bang on about liberty, and that it is desirable, and that it is the mother of Order. In the mind of a libertarian, this is all correct and proper, for liberty is the blank slate of the individual; only when he exists in a state of freedom may he pursue those ends which he deems appropriate and suitable for himself.

Thus libertarians take a critical view of those who claim that liberty is an end state, rather than a means – a philosophical ideal to be reserved for a time when material needs have been fulfilled. A person is not free, say these terminal types, until he no longer need struggle for food, clothing, a roof over his head, healthcare, education, employment, transportation – in short, until his physical integrity and livelihood are assured by minimal effort on his part. Western society has, in fact, become so progressive that ‘liberty’ is sometimes defined as ‘possessing sufficient time, money, and energy to expend on leisure rather than sustenance.’

This is, to be sure, a wonderful development in one sense. Rarely in human history has daily toil been considered an irritation to be minimised in favour of pleasure, rather than an essential and all-consuming necessity for survival. Peasant farmers in early medieval Europe had, on the whole, much more liberty than we do today: being unimportant, they suffered little interference from the state, especially those who only farmed enough to feed themselves; being poor, they suffered little interference from others, as they were both inoffensive and had nothing worth stealing. But on the other hand, they had to struggle for food, clothing, a roof over their heads, and had no healthcare at all, or education, or employment, or transportation – therefore they were not free, in the sense that they spent all of their time ensuring their survival and virtually none of their time or effort on leisure.

In essence, then, we have two conflicting modern interpretations of ‘liberty.’ Let’s call them liberty-as-means and liberty-as-ends. Liberty-as-means is a basic state of being in which coercion and unwanted interference by others or the state are absent. This will unfortunately mean that an individual may have to struggle for physical integrity and livelihood. Liberty-as-ends is an advanced state of being in which the struggle for physical integrity and livelihood is absent. This will ideally mean that an individual may therefore focus primarily on the pursuit of that which gives him pleasure.

Enders take a critical view of meansers (libertarians), claiming that those advocating liberty-as-means are able to do so because they are not on the margin of struggling for physical integrity and livelihood. I cannot say with any certainty whether this criticism is valid for all meansers; it may indeed be the case that material comfort breeds libertarianism. On the other hand, it may be that people with a libertarian mindset drive themselves to achieve material comfort. We may never know the answer – counterfactuals can’t be proved – but it might be interesting one day to survey the backgrounds and material circumstances of libertarians.

In any case, we have this situation of liberty in opposition to itself. Meansers cannot have their basic state of liberty because it nearly always has to be infringed in order for the enders to achieve their advanced state of liberty. Enders cannot achieve their advanced state of liberty because meansers are always resisting their methods.

This raises some understandable questions.

First, can liberty-as-means result in liberty-as-ends, and if so, over what sort of timescale?

Second, if not, can liberty-as-ends result in liberty-as-means – and if so, over what sort of timescale?

Finally, if our two conflicting interpretations of liberty are mutually exclusive, which is objectively better and thus more worthy of pursuit?

Stay tuned.

  12 Responses to “In which I begin to consider liberty”

  1. Interesting stuff; although there’s a lot of important philosophy in the gamut between the anarchist “live free or die” and the very progressive “freedom to…” you outline above.

    As an anarcho-capitalist, I disagree, but Mencius Moldbug gives a very very convincing argument that Order is a prerequisite for Liberty, and not the other way round; what kind of Liberty is it, if one is at Liberty to take the Liberty of others? His essays “Against Political Freedom” and “Why I am not a Libertarian” are instructive.

  2. I don’t think there is a conflict. To me, liberty is both, and libertarianism offers both; whereas the alternatives offer neither. Liberty-as-means generates liberty-as-ends.

  3. “Peasant farmers in early medieval Europe had, on the whole, much more liberty than we do today: being unimportant, they suffered little interference from the state”

    But on the other hand, the “state” was much nearer to them in the form of their landlords and their lives were bound up by rules we would find intolerable.

  4. “it may indeed be the case that material comfort breeds libertarianism. On the other hand, it may be that people with a libertarian mindset drive themselves to achieve material comfort.”

    Speaking purely for myself (and thus an unrepresentative sample of one) I’d say it is the latter as opposed to the former.

    I’ve been on my uppers in the past but never have I lost my belief in the ‘rightness’ of libertarianism – although I wasn’t aware of the word at the time. It has never been purely a drive to achieve material comfort as much as the knowledge that the only person who I can truly rely on to make things happen for me is me. This doesn’t discount in any way the efforts of family and friends that we all need at some point in time, but to me the simplest way to achieve something is to take responsibility and do it myself. The material comfort I see as a product of the effort – not necessarily the reason for the effort (although for others that may be different).

    However, the material comfort I have achieved does make being a libertarian somewhat easier. I reliant on neither handouts nor help in any way and as such feel freer to live my life as I see fit – only so long as I do no harm to others in the process of doing so.

    An interesting philosophical question though.

  5. Your post prompted me to write my own post in response. Too long to put here.

  6. “We may never know the answer – counterfactuals can’t be proved – but it might be interesting one day to survey the backgrounds and material circumstances of libertarians.”

    I’d second that. There is a myth that we’re all selfish rich people. As if you must have at least £x,000,000 to be considered a “capitalist”. But rich people have the least to lose from social democracy. It is those who are “just making ends meet” who suffer most from the heavy taxes, and who are unable to escape the consequences of utopian government. These are the people who have the most to gain from a genuine liberalism, as it would give them the freedom to choose how their money is spent. I’m in this group and I suspect many others around here are too.

    • “…It is those who are “just making ends meet” who suffer most from the heavy taxes, and who are unable to escape the consequences of utopian government. These are the people who have the most to gain from a genuine liberalism, as it would give them the freedom to choose how their money is spent. I’m in this group and I suspect many others around here are too.”

      I completely agree with this comment. I make an average salary & work as much overtime as possible to supplement it. It’s the average working person who has the most to gain from any move towards a libertarian society. Great article btw.

  7. I have to say I would view liberty-as-ends in much the same way as I’d the miraculous end-state of communism- that is to say possible, but unlikely to happen.
    Freedom it would be, but the freedom of the free-range chicken rather than the freedom of the wild goose.
    On the other point, if we as libertarians don’t expect freedom as means tt to end up in a better, happier and more well- fed and -leisured life for all then we might as well pack up and go home.

  8. […] bella gerens – In which I begin to study liberty. […]

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