The Madness of King Us: Liberty

A recent article by John Stoehr on the web site Agence Global ( talks about that moment in recent history when Americans began to “think of themselves more as consumers and taxpayers, instead of free and responsible citizens.”

“Thinking of themselves as consumers and taxpayers — instead of citizens endowed from birth with rights, liberties and responsibilities — lent itself to thinking about the federal government as separate from the citizenry. “Government” was something done to people. It wasn’t of, by and for them.”

Mr. Stoehr believes that the present “crisis” may be presenting the opportunity for Americans to revert to an earlier, more generous vision of themselves, as “citizens who consume and who pay taxes” because, “as citizens, we are much more than consumers and taxpayers … we are the ultimate sovereign. … The confluence of national and constitutional crises seems to be forcing some people, perhaps most people, to rethink how they think about themselves.” Americans will be fortunate people indeed if subsequent events reveal that Mr. Stoehr knows what he is talking about.

The ideal of “smaller government” is less popular in Canada, although certainly not absent. We have a highly developed sense of governments at all levels as engines that ought to be doing things for us: providing us with goods and services, protecting us from the myriad evil effects of our economic and social practices, and even changing people’s minds on basic issues of social justice. I live in a deeply conservative part of the country. I often marvel at how quickly my neighbours demand government action when something occurs that they don’t like. I even recall one entrepreneurial person who insisted that the government, having provided infrastructure that made the family enterprise possible, now “owes us a return on our investment.” That is a sweeping assignment of responsibility indeed!

We in Canada are blessed indeed with the range and variety of political and social ideals we have inherited through our diverse ancestry. We can, quite legitimately in accordance with our history, pursue the American ideals of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”. Stephen Leacock himself urged these upon us in his probe into The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, and quite justifiably so in my opinion. These are noble pursuits. The British bequeathed us with “Property, Stability, Conformity”, perhaps not exactly in those words, but quite effectively. The French gave us Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, perhaps not as effectively. We ourselves added Peace, Order, and Good Government. All these add up to a fine portfolio of ideals for individual and collectual well-being, and we would be ill self-served if we ditched any one of them.

If anyone pointed out to me that we do not live up to those ideals,—and someone would surely do that,—I would reply, as I said earlier, that ideals are made to be flawed. The virtue lies in believing in them, and striving for them. The grotesque short-comings that we see all around us come from those who do not believe and do not strive. The outcry against “systemic racism” and all movements of similar weight seem to centre on demands that governments do something about them. I put “systemic racism” in quotation marks not in any judgement against the movement, quite the contrary, but because I have quibbles about definitions that are of no importance to the victims. They may have importance when it comes to taking action.

The late prophet Isaiah Berlin opened our minds to an understanding of two types of Liberty, or Freedom,—he explicitly used the two words interchangeably. He called the two types “Negative Liberty” and “Positive Liberty”, complex ideas encapsulated briefly and respectively by Michael Ignatieff, in his biography of Isaiah Berlin (p. 275) as “freedom of action or thought”, and “the capacity to develop [one’s] innermost nature to the full”.

When I was a young research director working for a government and agency that I will not name, I commissioned what came to be called “the problems study”. This was a deliberately naive piece of work, viewed only as a starting point, arising from the frequently voiced observation that the people in the field where I was working faced many problems. Exactly what are those problems? I asked, and was authorized to find out, as systematically as possible within the budget approved. After a duly diligent process of selection, I sent two qualified people out into the field to find out what the problems were by asking people whose job it was to deal with them. Fortunately for my reputation, career prospects, and self-respect, I added a sufficient number of in-person household interviews to verify the perceptions of the professionals.

The results were consistent: the doctors and nurses said that illness was a huge problem; the addiction workers said that addiction was a huge problem; the police said that crime was a huge problem; the child protection workers said that too many children were being abused or neglected; the social workers said that family life was problem-ridden, and the schools backed them up; the financial counsellors said that money problems were everywhere; the clergy said that spiritual problems were rife. And so it went, through the entire panorama of the helping professions. Everyone said their agencies needed more money. The households interviewed, on the other hand, while acknowledging that not everything was rosy for everybody, said that on the whole life was pretty good, and that most people coped well enough with the hardships of the region, which was a northern one. Later on, in some subsequent research, we were able at least to sense the situation accurately. The number of people on the wrong side of the “problem” divide ranged from 5% to 15%, depending on situation and demographics, and appeared to be distributed randomly. It was the visibility of the “problem-laden”, especially to their articulate helpers, not the number, that created the perception of a society in serious trouble.

I am wondering how to apply the lessons of that research, and its successors, to the two big demands of our immediate present: that the authorities conquer the Covid-19 virus and mitigate its effects, and that they do away with “systemic racism”.

In trying to think and talk about all that, I am finding that Isaiah Berlin’s terminology, while admittedly useful to the understanding of what he meant, inhibits a clear conception of what it means we should do. Both terms contain double negatives. To speak of expanding or contracting negative liberty is confusing. Is it the negative or the liberty that is being expanded or contracted? Positive liberty in any social situation clearly must connote a strong element of moral choice and self-constraint. It is time, I believe, to invent some words, and for that it is traditional in the English language to turn either to the Latin, or to the Greek.

In this case the honours go to the Greek, I believe. I propose that negative liberty be called “adeia”, or more simply “adea”, from the Greek word for “permission” and related things, and that positive liberty be called “eleutheria”, or “elutheria”, from the Greek word for “liberty-freedom”.

This adjustment in terminology will allow us to consider dealing with Covid-19 unambiguously and positively through pursuit of a higher rather than a lower “adealism”, and “systemic racism” through “elutherial” rather than punitive measures. In both cases we would therefore be talking about mitigating evils through positive instead of negative measures, by expanding rather than contacting something, by moving forwards rather than backwards. If we think and pursue that way, we are less likely to incur harmful side-effects, or to emerge from the endeavour with our society in even worse shape than it was before.

As to what all this might mean in practical terms, I promise that I will continue along these lines and report progress as I go along.

I write this article as part of the Fourfold Visions Projectile (see, out of my beliefs in complex thinking about complex matters, and in the positive usefulness of diverse points of view, openly expressed.

Paul Conway, July 31 2020


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