Friday, 6 February 2015

The Limits of Freedom

It is often assumed that freedom is good.

So if freedom is good, more freedom must be better.

But as a Traditional Conservative I feel very uneasy about this assumption. It is however an assumption that seems built into modern society, an assumption that underpins Liberalism and the lives we live.

Liberalism believes in absolute freedom, in economics (free trade, the free flow of capital and of labour) and in society (freedom of speech, the press and religion) and of the individual (sexual freedom, freedom to choose, freedom to travel, the freedom to be free from obligations).  This absolute freedom says that everyone and everything should be free to choose their own direction and way in life. It is a logical extension of Liberalism and it is entirely consistent with both its theory and practice. However if you asked the average person what freedom was they would probably answer along the lines that freedom is being able to do whatever you want.

If that is correct and I believe it is, then what happens when I decide to murder my enemies? Is that a crime? And if it is, isn't that defining and restricting my freedom? Liberalism has an answer to that, it says that you are free to do as you please as long as it doesn't interfere with the freedom of others. It is a logical and even reasonable qualification, however it isn't consistent. How can someone who is absolutely free have restrictions put upon that freedom?

Here is what Conservative's have come to call the Unprincipled Exception, whereby Liberalism proclaims a universal principle and then makes an exception to it. As Meatloaf said "I'll do anything for love, but I won't do that!". Anything isn't as absolute as it is first implied to be, neither it seems is freedom. However it doesn't change the fact that it is inconsistent and that means that they can use two opposite arguments to advance their cause. First they can argue that they support freedom and more of it, implying that there are no limits. Then they can argue that they don't support people doing just anything they want, of course with freedom comes responsibility. The two arguments are at cross purposes, but the aim is not to be consistent, it is to be all things to all people.

Conservatives have always accepted that freedom is not unlimited, that freedom requires things from us at the same time that we are receiving things. That we have obligations. That one mans freedom can make another man less free. Your freedom to drive at 200 km per hour can have a serious impact on my freedom to have a safe walk. My freedom to learn the drums, might interfere with your freedom to get a good nights sleep. Is driving fast a freedom? Is having a safe walk freedom? Is learning the drums freedom? Is getting a good nights sleep freedom? If freedom is being able to do whatever you want then they are freedoms.

Freedom has always had limits and it is dangerous to let people think that it does not. Many people talk about their rights, which in modern parlance means freedom, the freedom to do as they want. Conservatives have always believed that at the same time as rights we also have obligations. It may be your right to cross the road, but it is also your obligation to keep yourself safe, that obligation can also protects others from harm. Only by mutual obligations between people and between people and society in general are we really free. Freedom is not licence or selfishness, which is what it becomes when there are no obligations. Freedom is being able to live our lives without interference. But we all know that is not how real life works, absolute freedom is impossible and we know it.

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  1. Interesting post. I've just written a blog post in which I argue that our problems are not caused by having chosen the wrong political ideology. I argue that no political ideology will work without a moral framework to underpin it, and that a moral framework cannot be based on vague abstract ideas like "social justice" - they're too woolly and lead inevitably to moral relativism and thence to chaos. The moral framework has be to based on religion because nothing else has ever worked.

    On the other hand if you have the moral framework then most political ideologies would work. That's why classical liberalism back in the 19th century seemed quite workable. It was quite workable back then. Freedom would be constrained within acceptable limits not by force but by a shared morality.

    One of the arguments Peter Hitchen makes in his excellent book A Brief History of Crime (which I'm reading now) is that without the moral framework provided by religion the only alternative is repression.

  2. Mr. Doom

    I'm not sure if I agree or not, I read your post:

    Old time religion worked but the new religion where "Who am I to judge" is now common. Is it really any better than a secular philosophy?

    Although I think your right that without a moral backbone, which religion was once very good at, then how do stop things from sliding away?

    More questions, no answers.

    Mark Moncrieff

    1. Old time religion worked but the new religion where "Who am I to judge" is now common. Is it really any better than a secular philosophy?

      I agree. It's no better, and in some ways worse. Bruce Charlton argues that genuine Christianity disappeared soon after WW2 -

    2. Old time religion worked but the new religion where "Who am I to judge" is now common.

      The new religion has been a complete failure. Empty churches are its monument. 100,000 Frenchmen have converted to Islam (some claim the figure is closer to 200,000). As long as Christianity remains as it is, feel-good atheist socialism, then people who want old time religion will choose Islam.

      The irony is that had there been a real Christian alternative, a genuine old time Christianity, then those 100,000 Frenchmen would not have been lost to Islam. Christian conversion to Islam is proof that many people want that old time religion. They don't want "who am I to judge" moral relativism. A genuine Christian revival is still possible, but if it happens it will happen in spite of the established churches, not because of them.