Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Why Liberty as it is Commonly Conceptualized is in fact Violence

Today I've been thinking about popular conceptions of liberty/freedom. Tea partiers, liberals, conservatives, and libertarians all claim this concept as an end goal; Yet, I don't even understand what the mean by liberty. Do you?

A blogger named Karnick has attempted to answer what for him is meant by liberty. He slices into the void with a common theoretical distinction, attempting to divide libertarian thinking on freedom from progressives concept of liberty. He draws a line between (his preferred) negative liberty and (his opponent's) positive liberty: with negative liberty supposedly being "freedom from coercion by other people" and positive liberty for him being "freedom from social structures." Apparently, as his blog goes on to say, the critics of libertarianism don't understand this distinction and are therefore unqualified to touch libertarian philosophy. (Perhaps because the critics are unbaptized in libertarianism, and therefore unpure?)

First of all I would just like to say, what a weak argument. Firstly, Karnick fails to actually understand these two concepts before righteously flinging them about. You see, Negative liberty, from it's conception, has meant "freedom from" outside forces; and is opposed with, positive liberty which is "freedom to" do as reason (but not necessarily desire) designates.

I found this metaphor from a paper by Ian Carter helpful in understanding the distinction between negative and positive liberty:

"Imagine you are driving a car through town, and you come to a fork in the road. You turn left, but no one was forcing you to go one way or the other. Next you come to a crossroads. You turn right, but no one was preventing you from going left or straight on. There is no traffic to speak of and there are no diversions or police roadblocks. So you seem, as a driver, to be completely free. But this picture of your situation might change quite dramatically if we consider that the reason you went left and then right is that you're addicted to cigarettes and you're desperate to get to the tobacconists before it closes. Rather than driving, you feel you are being driven, as your urge to smoke leads you uncontrollably to turn the wheel first to the left and then to the right. Moreover, you're perfectly aware that your turning right at the crossroads means you'll probably miss a train that was to take you to an appointment you care about very much. You long to be free of this irrational desire that is not only threatening your longevity but is also stopping you right now from doing what you think you ought to be doing."

In this conceptualization, one component of freedom is external (the freedom from), the other immanent (the freedom to).

Now, that we understand the theory behind the negative/positive binary, let's look again at Karnick's definition of positive liberty. He says positive liberty is "freedom from society." Karnick here conflates positive liberty which is "freedom to" with what is actually one of the many dimensions of negative liberty - i.e. freedom from society! This seriously hurts his credibility.

Furthermore, this distinction (negative/positive) has been wielded for a long time. Hobbe's and Locke both built this distinction into their political philosophies, and both concluded (like Karnick) that negative liberty was the primary concern of politics, yet they both arrived at different answers as to the role of government. One envisioned a near totalitarian monarchy; the other a representative democracy with separation of powers. This demonstrates that there is nothing inherently libertarian about the elevation of negative liberty/freedom.

However, the common socio-theoretical idea is that libertarians emphasize negative liberty, while progressives and conservatives are also interested in positive liberty. Essentially, the idea is that liberals and traditional conservatives want to use government to open-up space for positive liberty, by pushing people to overcome their internal barriers via education and social reform programs.

Really though this whole negative/positive binary is just silly. In fact, every group in the US spectrum of politics assumes that there is something or someone preventing them from doing what they want to do - the actualization of their freedom. Liberals feel that society oppresses the poor and conservatives feel that society encourages immoral behavior and libertarians feel that society limits their market choices.

Furthermore, they're absolutely correct! Coercion is inherent to civilization. We accept this implicitly. For example, almost no one, regardless of their politics, would go so far as to say that murderers and rapists should be given free-reign to do as they please. We can easily justify this proposition by saying that the murderers freedom (the freedom to murder), comes at the expense of the freedom of the victim (the freedom to live).

This illustrates what is commonly accepted, in the US, as the proper sphere of the political - i.e. people's rights (freedoms) should only be regulated insofar as the exercise of those rights could potentially hinder the rights of others. In other words, "do what you want in your basement (where I won't be bothered by your inanities), but don't come trampling on my petunias." Murder is a no-brainer. The rights of the victim clearly outweigh the rights of the potential murderer. However, there is a great deal of disagreement about what other rights should be regulated using this logic.

Now, herein lies the shtick. You see all freedom, all exercise of rights or power, all willing, comes at the expense of another person's freedom/rights/power/will. When I exercise my freedom to watch The Daily Show on the TV, I necessarily remove my wife's power to exercise her freedom to watch Studio 5 on that same TV. Another example, when you exercise your freedom to listen to music, you take away the freedom of others in the vicinity to not listen to music. This logic is infinitely regressive: no matter what you do, you necessarily are removing someone else's freedom to do (or be). Therefore, all human action is within the realm of the political! You can't escape it!

For this reason, the uniquely US obsession with freedom and individuality tends to result in social atomism. (See here for a further discussion on rampant individualism.) Each individual tries to separate themselves from society as much as possible; they do this in order to exercise their desires free from the possibility of intruding (and being intruded upon) by others. Basically, the idea goes, "if I listen to my headphones here in my room alone, then I'm exercising my freedom without interfering with anybody else." Yet this is an incomplete solution, because even by assuming control of a given space (i.e. your home) you must divorce that space from everyone else's control; thereby, removing the rights of another person to use and control that space. Just occupying space; therefore, is an act of willing and potentially conflicts with the will of other people. Therefore all freedom (all existence!) - which is to say all exercise of power and will - comes at the expense of the freedom of other people.

We see the reality of this principle in our day to day lives. People are constantly being coerced and/or denied equal treatment. Furthermore, we accept and even enjoy coercion and unequal treatment (We don't want people to have the freedom and equal access of our living room that possess. I lock my door when I go to work...) Furthermore, whether you think the coercion comes from government (libertarians/conservatives/liberals/leftists), from corporations (liberals/leftists), from private individuals (conservatives/liberals/libertarians), or from society in general (leftists/liberals/conservatives), everyone likes to complain about the coercion at work in US civilization. My church coerces obedience through social pressure and guilt, my parents use a similar tool-kit, my job coerces obedience through economic dependency, and the government coerces my obedience through deterrence and fear. This is further evidence of the reality that there is coercion and segmentation at every level of society.

Yet, everyone seems to be missing this essential point: you're never going to eliminate coercion - you will never eliminate violence - because to do so is to eliminate life! (So unless you're an advocate of the end of civilization via nuclear holocaust just give up!) One type of violence/coercion simply replaces another. I will illustrate with an earlier metaphor, there is the coercive violence of the serial murder, which coerces victims to die against their will; and then, partially replacing and preventing this violence, is the coercive violence of the police. I dub this principle The Law of the Conservation of Violence: In a closed system, e.g. civilization, violence, is never eliminated, it just takes on different forms. However, some forms of violence are more tolerable than others.

Conservatives tend to prefer the coercion of their churches and local governments, liberals prefer coercion from the local farmer's market and centrally controlled agencies, and libertarians prefer the coercion of the economic variety (Adam Smith's firm, yet fatherly, invisible hand). That's fine, to each their own, but the reality remains: there is going to be violence.

Now back to the freedom binary, if negative freedom is freedom from coercion, then negative freedom is a fool's dream only accessible to hermits. You will never eliminate coercion-violence.

Those who conflate free markets with free people tend to ignore the violence of markets. Corporations, in fact, have the potential to be more violent/coercive than democratic governments, because they lack the fetters and constraints built into representative democracy. The federal government has some, institutionally supported, responsibility to the welfare of the people; a corporations only, institutionally supported, responsibility is to profit. (Read Chomsky for a deeper look into this subject)

On the other side of economic policy, liberals also have a tendency to downplay the coercive violence of economic regulation. Kelo vs. City of New London, a rather disastrous supreme court decision, is a good example of the coercive violence of governmental involvement in economics. Furthermore, conservatives are absolutely correct in saying that the health care reforms of 2010 are coercive. I happen to think this coercion is necessary; and not particularly onerous; and somewhat alleviates/replaces the built-in structural violence against which the poor of the US struggle; therefore, I support the legislation. However, I still recognize the inherent violence/power/coercion at work.

Also disdainful is the liberal fetish with "education." As though all of societies ills could be solved by enlightened self-interest: "The liberation of the mind!" Baa! All that education has ever done is taught people unique and clever methods for exercising their will to power - New devices for cruelty and coercion. Honestly, is their any environment more coercive than a classroom!? (Perhaps, it's sister the prison? - the reform school of last resort.) To "educate" people to lose their violence, and to police themselves ("self-discipline") is an act of domestication which requires thousands of prods, pokes and cruel Pavlovian tactics.

Likewise, I disdain the libertarian/conservative crowd which wears liberty and freedom as a mask, yet perhaps more than any other demands utter ideological purity. Libertarianism, rather than being individualistic and wild, is at bottom puritanical, paternalistic or both. There is never enough libertarianism - the only law they respect is private property rights of the master class. Furthermore, Libertarianism desires strict discipline via capitalist forces, and abhors collective economic action (outside of the totalitarian organization known as the business or corporation). Libertarians desire fatherly kings who guide their little fiefdoms (companies) with a strong, yet gentle hands, free from the interference of a centralized government. Hence, they are guilty of Puritanism and paternalism.

Let's quit dancing around the subject of violence and coercion in politics - every one of us desires to bend the will of others to fit our own designs. Politics is a competition of wills. Perhaps the founding parent's genius (if there is one) is that they embraced struggle and competition; and were thus able to redirect the will to power into institutional (rather than mortal) struggles. (One of my fears is that they were all too successful. Now we don't even recognize the violence inherent in ourselves and our politics.)

Peaceful politics is an oxymoron.

Feel free to disagree. But, if you do, I challenge you to articulate a social system free of coercion. Whatever you draw up, I feel confident will either embrace some form of coercion and violence, or else be Utopian and silly.

What we need now is a reconceptualization of "freedom"; because, if all that we mean by freedom is "doing," free from the interference of others, then freedom ultimately collapses into violence and struggle. In which case, hurrah!, we're free!

Freedom is violence. This seems silly, but ultimately I think there is a hard kernal of (un)reality in this realization. Embrace violence? If we were to integrate and sublimate violence in ourselves and our politics, then we might be on the path to a freeer path. (On the precipice of the impossible possibility?)

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