I find myself caught on the horns of a dilemma as I try to determine whether conservatives or liberals make most sense when they talk of human freedom. On the one hand, conservatives insist that increasing social programs will deprive humans of their freedom while on the other hand liberals insist that human beings cannot be said to be free if they have no food on the table or homes to live in. I find the latter position more appealing, but the former one is not without strength.
When I speak of conservatives I speak not of reactionary conservatives such as our fractious leader who takes great delight in spreading hatred among his mindless minions. Nor do I speak of the “dollar conservatives” whose only love is of filthy lucre and who think freedom is all about free enterprise. Rather, I speak of those intellectual conservatives such as Nietzsche and Dostoevsky who thought that socialism, for example, would deprive humans of any real freedom in the name of making them feel more safe and secure. Dostoevsky knew whereof he spoke as he had been condemned to a firing squad as a young man for having radical political ideas and then, after a reprieve, was sent to Siberia for five years to live among convicts in clothing that stank and crawled with lice while he picked cockroaches out of his thin soup. He was convinced that in order to be really free humans needed to suffer and he hated the Church because he was convinced that they took upon their own shoulders the burden of human freedom thereby reducing humans to “denizens of an ant heap.” Socialism, in his view, was nothing more than the stepchild of the Church.
How does one argue against a man who went through what Dostoevsky went through? How does one living in modern day America possibly understand how much we take the easy life for granted when so many in this crowded world struggle to survive? As Dostoevsky would see it, our freedom has been reduced to determining which loaf of bread we will select from the huge variety on the shelves at the grocery store or which car we will lease this year. We fear the risks and responsibilities of true freedom. And Heaven knows we don’t want to suffer in any way. (Where’s the aspirin?) At the same time, however, even in this wealthy country there are those who must scrounge in dumpsters for their meals and live on the streets, it is hard to agree that such people are free in any real sense of the term. There’s the dilemma.
Thus, one turns to politicians such as Bernie Sanders who embraces socialism in the name of human compassion and a genuine concern for others. I take him at his word; I believe he is sincere. He does want to help others. In wishing to do so, however, does he threaten to make us all “denizens of an ant heap”? I would prefer not to give up my freedom in order to dance to the tunes played by the corporations or in order not to have to make moral choices for myself. It is true as Nietzsche and Dostoevsky say that living in a state in which people are taken care of by a powerful political machine does not seem to allow room for any true human freedom.
But what about those who suffer? There’s the dilemma. And the care for others coupled with the compassion we ought surely to feel for our fellow human beings who do suffer — even though we do not do so ourselves (or, rather, because we do not do so ourselves!) would seem to be a demand we make of our moral selves. Must we trade genuine human freedom in order to make sure there are none who suffer to the extent that freedom becomes an empty word? I think we must. I acknowledge the strength of the position taken by Dostoevsky who suffered immeasurably and grew in the process from a shallow human being with a few tattered radical ideas to a genius who knew that what really mattered in human lives was the love we have for once another and who cared about others while he was convinced that they must suffer, as he did perhaps, in order to become fully human.
But I finally come down on the side of those whose care for others would take some of their freedom away in the hope that in doing so they could live meaningful lives and achieve some semblance of meaningful freedom that is denied to them as they seek to keep body and soul together on the streets of our cities. We risk becoming “denizens of an ant heap” in opting for a political system that focuses on the needs of our fellow human beings. But the conservative view of freedom that was held by thinkers such as Dostoevsky has been reduced in our day, as I noted above, to a preoccupation with free enterprise in which the only thing that truly matters is the increase of creature comforts among the few at the cost of misery for so many others. In the end, the escape between the horns of the dilemma seems clear: err on the side of compassion for our fellow humans.