November 18, 2005

Freedom in a Partly Free World

Peter's previous post raised a very interesting question: how does freedom fare in countries with weaker civil societies or without the long history of continuous constitutional government? In that light, it's worth reading Adriana Cronin's account of her participation in the Velvet Revolution in the former Czechoslovakia fifteen years ago. One can argue that the participants in that revolution didn't have a sophisticated understanding of exactly what a free society is or how it works. But it's clear they understood that they were living in a profoundly unfree society at the time, and that they wanted something better.

Freedom and unfreedom don't seem to be sharply distinguished states of being, except at the extremes. There is a large zone of gradiation in between in which much of the world's population lives. No Anglosphere nation enjoys perfect freedom today, as the libertarians among us are never slow to elaborate in detail. For all we bitch and moan about Continental Europe on this site, by world standards, and certainly by historical standards, the majority French and German populations live pretty free lives in pretty strong and prosperous civil societies, at least for now. The debate we are having between the Anglosphere and the Eurosphere is about things like the difference between four percent unemployment rather than ten or fifteen, and about the percentage of GDP that can be run through the state without the nation eventually running on the rocks of unfunded obligations, not about whether multiparty elections should be allowed. Events like the French riots show that this debate is not trivial or inconsequential, but we need to maintain a sense of perspective.

You can read the historical record either with pessimism or optimism. The pessimist says that Anglosphere civil society arose through a particular set of historical accidents over a long period of time, and that it is unrealistic to expect others to do as well any time soon. The optimist grants this, but points out that other societies can and have created strong, robust civil societies with constitutional government. Some, like Switzerland or the Scandinavian states, have evolved their own distinct, non-derivative versions of civil society over long periods of time. Others, like Taiwan and South Korea, created it over a few decades from social roots that were very different from ours. True, those nations developed under heavy American influence and pressure, but very few nations have ever developed without external influence and pressure from various sources. It might as well be ours as anyone else's.

Some people see freedom as a rare and fragile flower that blooms only occasionally and under exceptional circumstances. Others see it as a sort of crabgrass, that sprouts everywhere with no need for cultivation. I think it is more realistic to see it as a hardy perennial, that does require care and tending, but that given reasonable amounts of such, can bloom in a wide variety of places.

Posted by James C. Bennett at November 18, 2005 11:08 AM
Comments

I prefer a different metaphor than botanical for freedom, one that is topological. Every society is a network of human beings and institutions, interacting physically and mentally. The degree of personal freedom in such a society is the degree of CONNECTABILITY within the network.

The human beings possess something called "free will" even in slave-owning societies. That is God's gift to every one of his creatures.

So FREEDOM is maximized in those societies where the human beings in it can make physical and mental connections with each other AT WILL.

This means it is not a "rare flower" but an unconscious, natural choice only repressed by some evil twin.

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Posted by: bcxbgcbc at April 5, 2007 03:21 AM
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