Herbert London: Freedom As A Natural Condition?

Oct 16, 2013

It has been argued in several of the intellectual journals in the West, that the aspiration for freedom is a universal goal, that most societies admire the freedoms we enjoy and wish to emulate us. As I see it, this proposition is one of the more pernicious illusions we entertain.

Surely there are those who build monuments to freedom such as the 1989 dissidents in Tiananmen Square, but most people have never lived in free societies, nor exhibited any desire or capacity for freedom. In this era, there are many examples of those who have enjoyed freedom yet have abandoned it in the name of a passionate cause. This illusion has been happily indulged by many commentators on the Arab Spring.

There are those who assume, for example, that deep in the heart of a Muslim Brother resides a freedom fighter eager to be untethered. But this assumption is belied by the “umma,” the united Muslim world that opposes individual impulses. The notion of a free Muslim is related to a person deceiving himself into believing he is free because of his religious dedication. However, this is not freedom; it is the exaltation of the faith over the self-expression of the person. Under present circumstances, those who embrace the Koran’s prescriptions must assume a generalized view of fidelity that subordinates freedom.

For many, the idea of individual choice is unsettling. These people would rather have a life plan mapped out for them including when to pray, when to eat and with whom to congregate. Freedom in this context is fear provoking; it is vulnerable to those who attempt to seduce with dreams of perfection. It is a short step from this dream of perfection (read: utopia) to an expansive government that manages most aspects of our lives and relieves the individuals of freedom’s burdens.

There is a balance in our society between rules backed by legal principle and free choice we do not want to see disturbed. Establishing and maintaining that balance is not easy. Since imperfections are a function of human fallibility, there are always those who will promise that increased civil authority can remove social imperfections.

The big government engineer and the religious zealot often have much in common, especially their mutual desire to employ the instrument of coercion to eliminate perceived social imperfections or injustice. A truly free person recognizes the defects in himself and the extension of flaws in the community he inhabits. He resists the attempt to equate freedom and self interest and the desire to redress the wrongs of history with the palliatives of expansive authority. This condition is more often than not the exception rather than the rule.

For most people the signs of inequality in income and status require remediation through the stifling of choice and the superordination of another principle, e.g. justice, redemption, salvation.

It is said that freedom is not to be trifled with. Precious as it is, freedom is not sought by everyone. In fact, freedom is not security, but opportunity; the opportunity to choose. Of course many choose unwisely. Perhaps freedom is what people should strive for; but, in the whirlpool of chaos, freedom is a forgotten muse.

Thomas Paine noted that “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.” That fatigue can surrender to slavishness even for unsuspecting avatars of freedom who have diminished will to defend it. That is the question of the moment: Does mankind have the will to strive for freedom where it doesn’t exist and have the will to defend it where it still exists. It was once easier to answer this question than it is now. 

Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research,  a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org

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