AN ATHEIST'S VALUES
3.23. Equality in wealth
In England today the equality most commonly demanded is that of wealth, that is, possession or consumption of material goods or power to possess or consume them. This seems to be what the British Labour Party has always chiefly meant by 'equality', for example in R. H. Tawney's book of that name. It half seems to be what Matthew Arnold meant by it in his essay of that name; for, although he says he means 'social equality ... this Frenchified sense of the term', his slogan is Menander's 'choose equality and flee greed', and his only particular proposal is to change the law of bequest and abolish primogeniture.
The demand for equality in wealth appears to be killed by the following question: If you could double everyone's consumption by making and maintaining a few millionaires, would you do so? This is a question which the demanders of equality in wealth do not face. They imply without realizing it that they would rather have everyone undernourished and equally undernourished, than have everyone well nourished but some very rich; or that they would rather have a society in which everyone was miserable but equally so, than one in which everyone was happy but unequally so. Stale fish for all is better than fresh fish for coastdwellers only.
I see no reply to this except one that nobody would care to make, as follows: 'The imagined society, in which everyone is happy but unequally so, is impossible because men are made unhappy by the mere fact of seeing that others are more happy than they are.' No one would care to make this reply because it reveals something that lurks in the demand for the equalization of incomes, namely the vice of envy.
The sinister side of the demand for equality is that much of it is a new and imposing version of the ancient vice of envy. Those who demand equality of incomes in this country always intend that the richer inhabitants of this country shall be brought down to the level of the poorer inhabitants of this country. They are never thinking of the fact that all the inhabitants of this country are richer than most of the inhabitants of Jamaica. They are never demanding that their own standard of living shall be lowered to raise that of the Jamaicans. They are not pitying those millions of human beings who are worse off than themselves, but envying the thousands who are better off. While they demand the equalization of incomes, they act by their trade unions and members of parliament to prevent poor foreigners from coming here to share in our comparative wealth, and to ensure that skilled workers shall be paid more than unskilled workers and men more than women. From him that hath more than me shall be taken; but to him that hath less than me shall not be given.
He who envies riches values them too much, or works for them too little. It is regrettable that a member of Parliament should be heard complaining that some people can lunch at the Savoy every day. There is too much envious luxury in our hearts; and the trade unions and the Labour Party are powerful organs to give effect to it.
Inequality of incomes, as Dr. Popper has pointed out to me, gives certain people a relatively harmless outlet for ambition and push. Had Hitler had an opportunity to make much money in business he might have settled down innocuously. The wish to excel must be given many different opportunities.
Envy under the banner of equality works against talent as well as against wealth. It works to prevent unusual talent from being encouraged and trained. It works to degrade universities, and other places where unusual talent is trained, into places where only average talent is required. It declares that the President of the United States should be a person whose family and education have not been better than average. It tends to attribute all avoidable evils of society to the talented and successful few, and to turn pity for the common man's distress into mean denunciation of those who can help him.
One should face the fact that some goods would cease to be goods of that kind if they were available to all. If everyone could join Oxford University, Oxford University would not be worth joining, because you would not meet in it a higher average of scholarship than you meet without joining it. The value of a university is that it gives you the society of better than average scholars; and it is impossible that everyone should be a better than average scholar. People had better face this fact, however hard they find it.
One should face also the fact that equalizing wealth involves lessening freedom. It means that people are not left free to acquire and enjoy and give and spend extra wealth. It is not true in general that 'the passion for equality makes vain the hope of freedom', to generalize a phrase of Acton's; but it is true that wealth can be kept equal only by a steady and considerable denial of certain freedoms. It is true also that the prohibitions necessitated by the equalization of wealth tend appreciably to discourage some useful forms of enterprise and responsibility. It is true, further, that, if we maintain equality of wealth by removing excesses as they occur, we thereby favour the lazy and the spendthrift at the expense of their opposites. It may well be, however, that these thrifty and industrious opposites will go on making and saving wealth as before, like the bees that go on working though most of their honey is always removed.
If these sentiments seem unfair to you, that is probably because you are aware that in the demand for economic equality there is much pity for human distress. I fully agree that men are often in distress, and that this requires the pity of us all, and that this emotion has recently operated largely under the flag of economic equality. I urge only that this is a bad flag for it to operate under, partly because it lets in also the bad emotion of envy, which then has a free sail under false colours. It is plenty for all that is desirable, not equal plenty for all. That each may have plenty we should if necessary tax and transfer any luxuries enjoyed by some, and we should ration scarce necessities. But, if we turn this care for a decent plenty for all into a demand for an equal plenty for all, we begin an endless envious bickering, since there always must be some good enjoyed by you that is not equally enjoyed by me, and the attempt to divide it between us will often cause its total disappearance. If you live by the sea and I do not, it will not improve matters to compel you to change houses with me once a year. If your parents are kind and mine are not, it will not improve matters to abolish family life. If you are able to administer a great enterprise and I am not, it will not improve matters to compel you to administer it jointly with me; I must just repress my envy and be content with other joys.
I am suggesting that the demand for economic equalization is a muddled and dangerous form of the demand that he who possesses luxuries shall yield them to him who lacks necessities. The latter demand is good; and, although the boundary between luxuries and necessities is a matter of opinion and shifts from year to year, yet there are plenty of clear cases; and, although the attempt to transfer part of the rich man's riches to the poor man sometimes results in the total disappearance of the riches, yet there are plenty of cases where it succeeds. To think of this as a demand for the equalization of wealth is to lose sight of many impossibilities and to entertain envy unawares. It is to lose sight, for example, of the fact that many men will not undertake extra work and responsibility unless they are given extra rewards for doing so.
Let us beware of supposing that to deprecate the demand for economic equality is to make a demand for economic inequality. We might as well think that to deny that the governors should aim at the prestige of the State is the same as to demand that they should aim at lowering the prestige of the State. There is a difference between saying 'do not seek equality' and saying 'seek inequality'. I am not saying 'seek inequality', but 'seek happiness for all, and take no account whether it makes us economically equal or not'. In economic matters the right to equality is only that each has a right for his necessities and reasonable comforts to be supplied by the State at the expense of whatever luxuries will supply them without a net loss of necessities. We want not equality but a good life for each; and the demand for equality often puts us on the whole farther from the good life. Equality is something to give to the less fortunate than ourselves, not something to take from the more fortunate.
3.24. Equality in respect
I come lastly to equality of respect. The first article of the Declaration of Human Rights asserts that 'all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights'. The word 'dignity' here suggests another kind of demand for equality, and one which is more justified. To be a human being is to have a dignity which requires respect from all persons. In virtue of this there ought to be a certain being on equal terms between any two men whatever, no matter how much one is above the other in some special way. A child is not the equal of his father in wisdom or experience or power or importance or authority. Nevertheless, in all good families the father is on equal terms with the child in a certain way in which in England he is sometimes not on equal terms with the cook.
Respect is opposed to contempt and humiliation. The demand that everyone is to be respected therefore involves that no one is to be fundamentally or utterly contemned or despised. However cruel or disgusting his crimes or his intentions, he is as a man to be respected. If contempt has any place in the emotions of a good man, it can only be contempt for some particular actions or characteristics of a man, not for his essential manhood.
Class snobbery is a powerful enemy of the equalization of men and women in respect. It makes it hard for me to invite my servant for a walk, harder still for him to invite me. It tempts me 'to flatter a blown up fool above, or crush the wretch beneath me' (Otway's Venice Preserved, i. 1). It makes men actually desire inequality, and feel injured when those below them in any way rise to their level. Class snobbery is not confined to certain classes. It often happens that a member of a lower class inhumanly despises or repulses members of an upper class, and a famous example of this is Aneurin Bevan's calling the Tories vermin. Nor is there any class whose members are all class snobs; in every class are found some men and women who give respect to all men and women.
Equalization in respect is fundamentally and greatly good in itself. It is included in 'le sentiment de la vie idéale, qui n'est autre que la vie normale telle que nous sommes appelés à la connaître', as Matthew Arnold quoted from George Sand (Mixed Essays, p. 320). But it is also good in its consequences, and may be recommended by them. 'To live in a society of equals tends in general to make a man's spirit expand, and his faculties work easily and actively; while, to live in a society of superiors, although it may occasionally be a very good discipline, yet in general tends to tame the spirits and to make the play of the faculties less secure and active.... To be heavily overshadowed, to be profoundly insignificant, has, on the whole, a depressing and benumbing effect on the character' (Matthew Arnold, Mixed Essays, pp. 10-11). 'The great inequality of classes and property, which came to us
Here then we find one sort of equality that really should be demanded. Yet this sort of equality is a moral rather than a political matter. It is not primarily a matter for governors or States, but a moral duty for each individual man. It is to be furthered not primarily by political devices but as all moral demands are furthered, by the training of our children and of our own wills. We are to preach and teach this demand, to think out its ramifications, to prepare ourselves by imagination to meet it in different forms. It is largely a matter of manners. As Matthew Arnold has written, 'it is by the humanity of their manners that men are made equal' (op. cit., p. 68). For the ideal of manners is not conformity to any taboo or convention as such, but precisely the achievement of universal dignity and happiness in so far as they depend on common communications.
Although the equalization of human dignity is not primarily a political matter, there are important possibilities of State action in the encouragement or discouragement of it. All passport and visa regulations are an indignity; and their increase in the twentieth century is one of several ways in which we have recently shown less respect for human dignity than our ancestors did. The segregation or subordination of races is another affront of the same kind and much greater degree. The most important part of equality before the law comes in here. Furthermore, the existence of government is by its nature a standing influence in the direction of humiliation. The governor's and administrator's power is a standing temptation to him to humiliate his subjects. We therefore demand whatever arrangements will so far as possible neutralize this bad tendency of all governments; and the outstanding device here is that the ruler holds power for a short period only, after which a new ruler is appointed by a general election. Thus democracy is a device for the equalization of human dignity as well as for the equalization of political power.
It is commonly held that the government can make a further great contribution to the equalization of human dignity by equalizing incomes. The moral basis of the demand for the equalization of wealth seems to be that it is an important means towards the equalization of dignity. But this is probably an error. Degrees of inequality in the respect of man for man do not correlate closely with degrees of inequality in income. For example, the equalization of human dignities is far more closely approached in the U.S.A. than in England; but the equalization of incomes is far less closely approached. It is not inequalities of income that maintain the terrible inhumanity of man to man in England. It is inequalities of class dignity that maintain themselves because they are a religion here, and strive to find inequalities of income in which to express themselves. There is a social disease in England, snobbery, which cannot be cured by levelling incomes.
3.25. The basis of equality
I have been speaking of the demand for equality, of the enterprise of making equal men who were unequal. A great deal of the discussion of political equality, however, has been expressed not as a demand but as a statement of fact. The Declaration of Human Rights declares that 'all human beings are born free and equal in dignity', and 'are equal before the law'. Many defenders of equality have given the impression that they are describing what is so, not proposing what might be so. Their language has justified their opponents in taking them to be anthropologists rather than legislators.
Yet to say that all men are in fact equal in every way would be a stupidly false assertion, and would leave no further possible equality to be demanded in politics. That all men are equally valuable in every way appears to be also stupidly false, though something like it is implied whenever someone says 'I am as good as any man', or talks about 'the infinite value of the human soul'. It is also a plain falsehood that all men could, by some practicable arrangements, be brought to be in the future equal in all ways. We never shall be, and never could be, all equal in height and health and strength and longevity and charm and intelligence.
How is it then that thinkers have appeared to be asserting absurd falsehoods about actual equalities among men? Apparently in two ways. Demands are often made in the form of assertions. What looked like the indefensible assertion that all men are born free has often been in reality the defensible demand that no man be held in slavery. The verb 'is' does duty for the verb 'ought to be'. 'Cannot' does duty for 'ought not'. And so on.
That is one cause why political discussions of equality sometimes seem to be anthropological descriptions of the nature of man. But there is another and a more important one. We feel a need to state some basis of fact for any demand we make. We feel a need to base any demand for the future equalization of men on an assertion of some way in which they already are equal. What we have in mind is the hybrid doctrine that men should be made equal in one way because they inevitably are equal in another way.
What then is the equality in fact, on which we may base a demand for further equalization? It could be a different equality in fact for each different equalization that we demand. But in each case the basis, to be valid, ought to be something in which I am identical with every other human being; and it ought also to be something in which I differ from everything that is not a human being, unless we are prepared to extend the proposed equalization to monkeys and whales.
It is plausible to say that the factual equality on which our demands are based is just that we are all equally human beings, homo sapiens. But we may properly ask for further explanation of this. We may ask why we appeal to the equality of all humans as humans and base thereon a demand for further equalization, when we do not appeal to the equality of all mammals as mammals and base thereon a demand for the further equalization of all mammals.
There is the Christian answer: because men have immortal souls and no other animal does. This is wholly unsatisfactory, because 'soul' is a meaningless word. There is no way of teaching a person the meaning of this word, so that to tell him that he has a soul is to tell him nothing. Suppose we omit this word and say: 'because men are immortal and all other animals are mortal.' We have now a statement which is very unlikely on the evidence; the evidence certainly is that man is as mortal as any other animal. His spiritual life depends on his material body, and his material body dies. But suppose the statement were probable. Then it would weaken the demand for further equalization of men, not strengthen it. If man had a non-political eternity ahead of him, this would provide no good reason for the present equalization of political or legal power or rights or wealth or status. On the contrary, it would be a good reason for regarding all such earthly equalizations as trivial.
Another answer is: Reason. The equalization of men has been demanded on the ground that all men are rational. Whales are excluded because they are not rational. To be rational here means to be able to think, and not merely to think about the present in the bare sense of being prepared for one's prey to flee or for one's predator to spring, but to think abstractly and in concepts, about the absent and the past and the general, the good and the bad, the right and the wrong, the law and the case. To which perhaps we should add the power to send and receive communications of such thoughts.
This conception of man as the rational animal is Aristotelian, and perhaps even Platonic. Neither of those thinkers based upon it any demand for the political or social equalization of all men; but Aristotle does base his conception of political activity as such upon it. According to him City-States exist among men, and not among bees, because men and only men are rational in this sense (Politics A 2, 1253a7-18). Furthermore, he thinks that 'probably every man has a duty towards everyone who can share in law and convention' dokei gar einai ti dikaion panti anqwpw proV panta ton dunamenon koinwnhsai nomou kai sonqrkhV, N.E. viii. 11. 1161b6). If we had asked him whether a being must have reason in order to share in law and convention, he would have understood the question and he would have answered 'Yes'.
Reason gives an extraordinary responsibility and power of action and control, which make those who possess it inevitable controllers of whatever does not possess it. Reason must and will direct the course of events; and it is right that this should be as far as possible the reason of all rational beings. Therefore, the equality in fact of all rational beings as rational justifies a demand for their equalization as controllers of what is done, so far as this is not harmful in other ways. Thus we find a basis in fact for demanding the equalization of the vote and other political and legal rights.
Is reason also the basis for the demand for the equalization of respect? At first it seems to be so, because the possession of reason is a great dignity and worthy of respect. It is, indeed, a much better ground for demanding respect than the supposed immortality of the soul would be. Yet it does not seem to be good enough if we imagine a being who could think but not feel. If he feels no pleasure or pain or emotion, if he has no desire or aversion, then, however much and however abstractly he thinks, the demand for equality seems to have no point in his case. We should no more demand equal treatment of him than of a mountain, because neither of them suffers. The fact that all men are sufferers seems at least as important as the fact that they are all rational, as a ground for treating them equally. That dignity in every man which demands our respect seems to be mainly his capacity to suffer.
But now the whale and the monkey suffer too, and so do many other sorts of animal. We therefore look like having to say that all vertebrates are equal in dignity, and should be given equal respect, because they are all sufferers. This result would greatly sharpen our previous conclusion that the demand for equal respect is not primarily political. It would not be incompatible with man's killing cattle, if war or capital punishment is compatible with proper respect for the dignity of man.
If we wish to avoid this conclusion, the best apparent way to do so is to combine the capacity to suffer with the capacity to think, and say that we demand equal respect for all who are both sufferers and rational. For my part I do not care to put it like that, because when I do so I feel convinced that the suffering matters far more than the rationality. I demand respect for the cat and the rat and the jackal and the sheep, because I know they suffer and suffering is eminently respectable. All vertebrates ought equally to be respected by all men as fellow sufferers.
This does not entail that no man should ever kill a vertebrate. The right use of the power to kill is not to disuse it entirely. The lives of the other vertebrates are to some extent in our hands, both to take and to make. Competition is inevitable. Food is limited, but we can increase or decrease it. To choose never to kill any vertebrate would be, I suppose, to exterminate ourselves. I see nothing hypocritical in respecting the ox that I have bred and intend to kill for beef, or in respecting the rat while I recognize him as an inevitable enemy and intend to kill him.
Thus the only kind of equalization that I can unreservedly favour is so unpolitical that it starts from the individual person, not the State, and extends beyond humanity to all vertebrates. I think it is better called, not 'equality', but 'respect' or 'fraternity' or 'love'. Every being who suffers is my brother or sister. Equality is a political perversion of that fundamentally unpolitical thing, love.
3.31. Freedom is a good
The word 'freedom', like the word 'equality', is a vague, abstract, and relative term which is offered to us as the name of a great political good. A stranger 'approaches you and says: "I am free." You are baffled. Has he just escaped from prison, from his debts, the opening paragraph of Maurice Cranston's book on Freedom. His first chapter will teach you the meaning of the word better than I can do; and I wish it were proper for me to recite it instead of giving my own account.
'X is free' is an incomplete statement, like 'X is equal' or 'X is prepared'. X is prepared for what? X is equal to what and in what respect? X is free from what, and to do what? A piston can move about in any direction, so far as the laws of space and gravity go. But, when it is confined in a vertical cylinder, it is only free to move up and down, and not free to move sideways. This is an example of a very general type of situation which gives the word 'free' its use. The piston stands here for any thing or animal which in general can do some sort of action or suffer some sort of passion, so long as it is not prevented from that sort of action or passion by some particular cause. In any such case we say that the thing or animal is free to do the action or suffer the passion for which it has the capacity, when nothing prevents it; but when something does prevent it it is not free in that way. Thus for anything to be free or not free it must have the capacity, in the widest sense of the word 'capacity', to do or suffer something or other; and there must be some cause which does or might hinder it from realizing this capacity. Thus the idea of freedom is enormously general. Pistons can be freed as well as slaves. In fact, the idea finds applications in every field there is. Almost anything can be free or not free from an immense number of things. Some tomatoes are free from scale-insects. Some men are free from moral scruples.
Whenever we use the word 'free' or 'freedom' without mentioning any specific thing that is free, or any specific hindrance that it is free from, we leave open a vast area of undetermined possibilities. What, for instance, is a 'free school'? It might be a school free from control by the Church of England, or a school free from all religious control, or a school free from State control so that it is able to teach Roman Catholicism, or a school which children may attend without paying a fee, or many other things. To be 'absolutely free' would be to be capable of doing anything whatever, and free of every hindrance to the exercise of this unlimited capacity, that is, to be omnipotent, omniscient, omnicompetent, and totally unscrupulous, in a universe in which there was no other such being to hinder one's acts.
If, therefore, there is sense in the promulgation of freedom as a political ideal, certain specifications must be understood. The freedom meant must be freedom for certain specific entities from certain specific restraints. Down to the present, four specific political freedoms appear to have engaged our emotions more than any other. The earliest of these was the freedom of the individual man from arbitrary and unchallengeable control by his State and its officers, a freedom thought to be attained by democracy or by the rule of law, especially by subjecting the officers to law, and making them liable to prosecution in courts of law for illegal government. This is political freedom proper, by right of seniority, because it was already explicitly demanded in ancient Athens, and has been frequently demanded since. The other three kinds are much later, and were not effectively demanded until the nineteenth or twentieth centuries. The first to arrive of these was freedom as opposed to slavery, that is, freedom for every individual man from the restraints by another man involved in his being a legal chattel of that other. Later in the nineteenth century came the demand for freedom of States or would-be States from the restraints imposed by other States. Italy was thought of as a person already existing, although there was no State or government of Italy, but held in slavery by the various governments administering different parts of the peninsula. More obviously, Ireland was a State that required to be freed from England, and Poland a State that required to be freed from Russia. To hold this kind of freedom as an ideal is part of nationalism.
The latest of the great demands for political freedom is the demand for the welfare of all individuals to be achieved by the action of the State. This has been expressed by the phrase 'economic freedom', and by Roosevelt's 'freedom from want'. It is the least properly called 'freedom', and would be better called 'welfare' or 'State-maintained welfare. However, it certainly involves the individual's being free from the experiences and sufferings of poverty and want. These four political freedoms seem to be the greatest yet demanded. Freedom of speech and freedom of worship, however, are also often demanded, and very important.
One man's freedom may conflict with another's. If the first man is free to flood a certain valley, the other man is not free to farm it. Freedom by its generality is full of conflicts. The four main political freedoms involve millions of conflicts great and small. If every man is free from slavery, no man is free to own a man. Above all, freedom as general welfare, the newest of the four, conflicts very much with the oldest, political freedom proper, because the maintenance of universal welfare by the State involves a lot of arbitrary decisions by the State's officers in taking away people's land and restricting their use of it and other matters.
Freedom is often harmful. Any kind of act will be harmful in some cases. Therefore freedom to do a certain kind of act will be harmful in some cases, no matter what kind of act you mention. Freedom of the press, for example, includes the freedoms to ignore important events, to keep silent about evil deeds committed by newspapers or journalists, and to pester suffering persons who are news. Freedom of religion includes freedom to sacrifice human beings, and to prevent them from amusing themselves on Sundays. Freedom is always conflicting with order and uniformity, which some people find a great good. Plato objected to the motley disorder which the principle of freedom produced in Athens. You can often hear a German justifying harsh or tyrannous government on the ground that there must be order, or at least you could before Hitler was put down. You can limit any given kind of freedom by specifying cases to which it shall not apply, but there will always be some harmful cases which you have not yet thought of. That is why governors find it much safer to abolish the freedom altogether.
Someone will object that this overlooks the difference between liberty and licence. Licence is harmful, he will say, but liberty never is. I believe this to be a mistake. I believe that liberty and licence are both equally freedom in the same sense of 'freedom'. The difference is only that we call a freedom licence when we think it ought to be taken away, and liberty when we think it ought to be allowed. Many people suppose that there is some further difference, but they cannot say what it is. They tend to assume that the consequences of liberty are always beneficial, and the consequences of licence always harmful; but any given freedom, whether liberty or licence, will be harmful in some cases and beneficial in some cases.
It follows that a freedom must not be condemned as a 'licence' merely because it is harmful in some cases, for it may do more good than harm. We have to judge of the effects and values on the whole. It follows also that a freedom must not be approved as a 'liberty' merely because it is beneficial in some ways, for it may do more harm than good. It follows also that, although freedom is good in itself, this by itself is not decisive in favour of any particular freedom. For example, the mere fact that freedom is good is inadequate ground for demanding a freedom for the motorist to go forty miles an hour on a public road; and the Automobile Association's argument, that a speed limit would be a 'serious interference with personal liberty', is an argument against all legal restraints whatever.
What are the values of the four main political freedoms, and are they liberties or licences?
In judging the latest one, freedom from want, we are not just asking ourselves the obvious question whether it is better for people to be happy or miserable, but whether it is better for the State to undertake the task of keeping all its subjects happy and free from want. Freedom in this fourth sense is not just the welfare of all the people, which is good by definition. It is the State taking measures to maintain the welfare of all the people. That is a very different matter, because it could be that State action to increase welfare succeeds only in diminishing welfare.
This question is hard to distinguish from the question of the value of States and governments in general. Why have them at all? Only because in some way or other they increase welfare. Thus it seems that every State is necessarily a welfare State; and yet we think of the welfare State as something new. It is no doubt a matter of degree. It is a great difference of degree whether the State is or is not a universal provider of education, of houses, of medical attendance. It cannot be right to say that the State should try to provide all the elements of welfare. It is certainly right to say that it should try to provide some of them. So we may say that State action towards general freedom from want is certainly desirable to some extent, but the question just what State action is always to be answered anew. I add that I think it is better to classify this matter under the head of freedom as little as possible.
What of nationalism, or freedom for States from States? Are we to adopt Woodrow Wilson's principle of selfdetermination, which seems to be that any area where most of the inhabitants declare themselves an independent State is an independent State? Wales is an independent State if the Welsh say so? And after that Pembrokeshire is a State that must be freed from the oppression of Wales if the men of Pembrokeshire say so? And after that the village of Newport is a State that must be freed from the oppression of Pembrokeshire if the Newporters say so? Wilson's principle seems to be the very one on which the Southern States relied in the War between the States, the very one that Abraham Lincoln rejected. An opposite principle, which is also active in this century, is that all States should lose their freedom in subordination to a World-State.
If we give up worshipping States, and cease to regard them as ends in themselves, and come to regard them only as means to the good life of individuals, we shall settle the question of freedom for States purely by reference to its effects on the good of individuals. Every new State is a new governmental machine interfering with the liberty of individuals. Every additional State further restricts our freedom at frontiers and customs barriers. On the other hand, a State may be necessary to preserve and encourage a desirable culture, and that culture may be important to many individuals. We shall reach our decision in each case by balancing effects like these, all of them concerning individuals. We shall not demand freedom for a State without counting the cost to individuals, as has often been done. We shall not insist either on the principle of selfdetermination or on the principle that all States are subordinate to a World-State.
I need not linger on freedom from slavery. We are nearly all agreed now that slavery is bad and incompatible with human dignity, and that the ownership of slaves is a very corrupting form of power. It does not follow that we should do well to invade and control any parts of the world where slavery still lingers; and it does not follow that the abrupt abolition of slavery is always the best thing to do.
There remains the earliest and most properly so called form of political freedom, the freedom of the individual subject from his governors. Not his complete freedom therefrom, which could only be achieved at the price of anarchy, but the partial freedom consisting in the governors being themselves subjected to laws, being convictable before courts for breaking those laws, and being dismissible by popular vote. This freedom is a very good thing, although it is a negation. It consists in the negation or absence of State restrictions on our powers. At its base lies the positive good of life and power. It is the enhancement of this good by the consciousness that it might have been hindered by the action of officers but is not being so hindered, and this is a huge enhancement. Although we often like to be told what to do, yet all of us like to be free and dislike being restrained or compelled. All of us have experienced compulsion, at least the compulsion that grown-ups exercise on children; and that is no doubt part of what makes us all positively enjoy and approve this negative thing, freedom. Men must act freely if they are to develop energy and enterprise and judgement and originality. Coercion is bad, and permissible only when good consequences outweigh the badness of the thing itself.
Freedom is always in danger. There are very many of us who love to interfere, to boss, to get and exercise power over men. More dangerous, perhaps, than instinctive bossiness is the moralizing temper which believes that people must be made to behave in certain ways for purely moral reasons, which legislates, for example, that you may not do on Sundays anything that I think it morally wrong to do on Sundays. Most insidious is the fact that we often must sacrifice some freedom to some other good, and all legislation does so. Thus gradually arise, in unexpected ways, and for good reasons, many very serious gaps in our freedom.
There is no escaping the fact that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. We must all be politicians all the time, restraining what Whitman called 'the never ending audacity of elected persons', and still more the never ending audacity of civil servants. We must be constantly reminding civil servants and representatives of their incompetence and our low opinion of them. But vigilance is not enough. We must also always be willing to suffer, that is at least to lose our jobs, and on rare occasions to lose our lives. The greatest safeguard against tyranny is the general knowledge that most people will rather kill or be killed than endure it.
The paradox of freedom is that freedom must be limited in order to be preserved, or that complete freedom is equivalent to no freedom. Complete freedom includes freedom for the bully to bully, for the bossy to interfere, for the unjust to steal or strike or kill. These freedoms must be removed in order to preserve the decent man's freedom to live decently.
The paradox of freedom is the essence of government. The first business of government is to promulgate and enforce laws. This is a restriction on freedom. But government is justifiable if the laws are so chosen that their reign increases the freedoms that all can have without damage to others, and decreases only those freedoms whose exercise destroys the freedoms of others. Freedom from arbitrary force and unjust interference can be obtained by submitting to just force and legal interference, and this can be far better. Laws and governments are like arsenic; they are poisons, but a little of them acts as a tonic.
In the village of my childhood there was a pub called 'The Live and Let Live'. 'Live and let live' is one of the best of all maxims, and suggests most of the right attitude towards freedom and tolerance. That village was in the county where of all counties freedom is most prized, the county of Nelson and Tom Paine, the county of Norfolk.
3.32. Muddles about freedom
The concept of freedom is very liable to muddles, because of its complicated and negative nature and its emotional importance. Let us now notice some of these.
First, freedom has often been confused with power, for example by John Locke (Essay, 2.21. 8). It is easy to fall into the mistake of seeing in freedom only the less complicated and more positive idea of power which it presupposes. Freedom is in truth the absence of other men's interference with my exercise of the powers which I have by my nature. I can by my nature walk all over the land, but by the laws of property I am free to walk only over small parts of it. I cannot by my nature walk over the sea, and so the question of being free to walk over the sea does not arise if we use the word 'free' correctly. It does arise, however, if we simplify the word 'freedom' and make it mean merely natural power, as some people do. Then it makes sense to say that I am not free to walk on the sea but I am free to walk on all parts of the land. In this new sense of 'freedom' man is becoming freer and freer in that his powers are increasing. Though he still cannot walk on the sea, he can proceed across it in a vessel at more than twenty knots, and over it in a plane at more than 200 knots. This simplified sense of the word 'freedom', equivalent to the word 'power', could be in itself perfectly useful and good, since we really have powers to talk about. As things are, however, it is bad and to be rejected, for three reasons. First, we already have the word 'power' doing this job and doing it perfectly well; there is no need of a new word. Second, the word 'free' is needed, and very much needed, to do the job it has been doing for centuries (and indeed, for millenniums, if we include its ancestors along with itself), namely to mean the absence of interference by other men or States with my exercise of my natural powers. Third, the new use is bound to be confused from time to time with the old use, and that brings the muddle of people talking about the extension of man's powers as if it were the prevention of one man from interfering with another. This is part of the origin of the sad spectacle, very common in this century, of men making proposals for the increase of our power and wealth in the form of mean invectives against other men, as if it were due to deliberate interference by other men that we are not infinitely wealthy and powerful. In this way freedom from interference comes to be confused with welfare, and welfare comes to be regarded as something we could all command if we were not being interfered with by wicked persons.
A certain fact has inflated this muddle to enormous size, namely the ambiguous status of the laws of economics. Are they laws of nature or laws of man? If they are laws of man they can be abrogated, and that would give us back a freedom in the enduring and proper sense of 'freedom'. But if they are laws of nature they cannot be abrogated, but at best circumvented or used to our advantage; and using them to our advantage would give us more freedom only in the new and improper sense of more power.
The laws of economics are not precisely either laws of nature or laws of man. They are not very like Newton's laws of motion; nor are they very like Napoleon's civil code. They are a middle thing. What sort of thing they are becomes most apparent when we immerse ourselves in social anthropology, the study of human culture. They have that partly intended but mainly unintended, that partly alterable but mainly unalterable, character which belongs to the enduring elements of any culture. Our powers over them are much the same as our powers over language. In any given culture a man must use pretty much the language that reigns in that culture at that time, or else lose greatly in effectiveness. He can be an eccentric speaker or writer; but he pays a price for being so, and even then he buys only a very slight divergence from the norm. As to those who can intentionally alter the reigning language, either by legislation or by example or by some other means, they are extremely rare. Alterations are all the time taking place; but how any given alteration occurs is nearly always unknown, and scarcely ever because someone intended it to occur. That is how the laws of economics are. They are like laws of man in that they arise out of man's activities, and that they do not reign for ever but only at certain times and in certain societies. On the other hand, they are like laws of nature in that they are not deliberately legislated by man, nor enforced by the judges and the police, and cannot be abolished by direct legislation. Sociology is a study to which the opposition between man and nature applies very badly. All the phenomena of society, including the laws of economics, are neither artificial nor natural in the ordinary sense of those words.
So much for the mistake of confusing freedom with power. Another mistake concerning freedom is that, from demanding the removal of all interference with our actions, we sometimes go on to demand the removal of all influence on our actions, and say that a man is not 'really free' if he has been influenced at all by another man's arguments or suggestions or wishes. Thus Queen Wilhelmina in abdicating the throne of the Netherlands declared that she was 'uninfluenced by anyone', presumably for fear that, if she admitted having listened to anybody's advice, it would be said that she had not abdicated of her own free will (The Times, 6 September 1949).
This extension of the meaning of the word 'free' is a mistake. It could never become the accepted meaning of the word, for the simple reason that if it did there would hardly ever be any occasion to use the word, since our actions hardly ever are uninfluenced by what others have done and said. To act 'of one's own free will' is not to act without being in any way influenced by others, but rather to act without being interfered with, that is forced or threatened or commanded. To say that you are not 'really free' unless you are totally uninfluenced is a muddle or a dishonesty, as is usual with the adverb 'really'.
Most muddles about freedom arise from being against certain freedoms and being afraid to say so. People who wish to recommend some large new legal restraint on our exercise of our powers, for perhaps a very good reason, often do not dare to admit that they are recommending a large diminution of freedom for the sake of some other good which they believe to be greater. Because of the strong and often thoughtless approval attached to the notion of freedom, they prefer to muddle our conceptions by declaring that 'true freedom' is not the absence of restraint at all but something quite different. But to muddle our conceptions is always a great pity; and it is needless in this case as in all, because every man can be brought to see, if he is reasonably approached, that there is sometimes good ground for abolishing some particular kind of freedom.
Among the more absurd of the current redefinitions of 'freedom', by people who are afraid to say that they are against certain freedoms, is the Marxist account of it, for which I quote from Professor J. D. Bernal in The Social Function of Science, 1939, pp. 381-2:
|The freedom of the nineteenth century was a seeming thing. It was an absence of a knowledge of necessity. Its basis lay in social relations through a market. In liberal theory every man should be free to do what he liked with his own, buy or sell, work or idle. In fact he was tied by the iron laws of economics: laws socially produced but taken as laws of nature because they were not understood. In an integrated and conscious society this conception of freedom is bound to be replaced by another -- freedom as the understanding of necessity. Each man will be free in so far as he realizes that he is taking a conscious and determinate part in a common enterprise. This kind of freedom is most difficult for us to understand and appreciate; indeed, it can only be appreciated to the full by living it.|
There is nothing essentially difficult about understanding a necessity. For example, each of us understands easily enough that he must necessarily die. But it is difficult to appreciate the Marxist proposal that understanding a necessity shall in future be called 'freedom'. There is no good reason for this complete change in the use of the word. The Marxist makes the word 'free' mean something absolutely new, while pretending that he is explaining what it has meant all along and still means. I am afraid there is no doubt why he does this; it is because he is against freedom in the proper sense of the word but does not want to say so. To be free is in proper language to be not interfered with by other men or the State; but the Communist Party wishes to interfere with us all in a great many ways all the time.
The Marxist account of freedom gains plausibility in the following way. Getting to know about a law of nature or of society sometimes gives us more power than we had before. Thus not until the law of gravity was precisely known, perhaps, could we have built flying machines; and when you learn about anxiety-neuroses perhaps you are better able to avoid having one. In this way, then, the understanding of a necessity may give us more power; and the word 'freedom' is sometimes misused to mean power.
It is worth noting that one correct and important application of this is as follows. The better we understand the necessity which the Communists mean to impose on us, the more power we shall have to prevent them from doing it. Freedom from the Communist tyranny depends on understanding the necessity which the Communists wish to impose on us.
So much for muddles about freedom. The fulfilment of our political needs and ideals does not require any abuse of language. We can and should continue to use the word 'freedom' in politics to mean only the absence of other men's and the State's interference with our exercise of our natural powers.