Some of you will have read this post from two years ago. But I thought it especially relevant in light of the last post I passed along which takes “radical liberals” to task for going too far in their enthusiasm for freedom. I suspect many of them have not thought about what freedom is. Above all else, it requires restraint. I have expanded the discussion quite bit. I felt free to do so.
Consider, if you will, the Tory philosopher Edmund Burke who expressed a fundamental truth about human freedom. Freedom, Burke suggested, is chaos if it is not restrained by wisdom and virtue.
There are two sorts of freedom according to the philosopher Isiah Berlin: positive and negative freedom. Negative freedom is the freedom we brag about, the freedom to choose any cereal we want from a shelf filled with countless varieties. The freedom to come and go as we please. It connotes, simply, the absence of restraints. But taken to the extreme, negative freedom is “folly, vice, madness.” Imagine a throng of people trying to get on a tow line to reach the top of a ski hill. If they do not line up and take turns it will be hell to pay. Order makes true freedom possible. Freedom without restraint is chaos. In the political arena it is law that makes freedom possible, as John Locke noted many years ago.
And that leaves the other kind of freedom, positive freedom. This requires thought, “wisdom and virtue,” as Burke suggests. This is true human freedom based on the assumption that we are not free at birth and we are not free simply because our hands are untied, or we have a huge variety of cereals to choose from. Freedom comes with effort, self-discipline, and education. Freedom comes with knowing which of those cereals are worth eating, which are healthy and which will make us obese and eventually sick.
One of the winning cards that was played in the most recent political game we call an election was the freedom card. There are many among us, more than we had imagined, who have felt restrained and held back by “the establishment,” those with money and power who control the strings of government. A man came along speaking in tongues but somehow making clear that if he were elected there would no longer be any restraints, the game would be changed and the disenfranchised would be empowered. These desperate people bought into the lies and empty promises that were tossed about; they huddled together screaming obscene epithets at their political opponents and the power-brokers. All in the name of “freedom.” And they made themselves heard. For better or worse, there are more people who feel free today than they did a year ago.
But that freedom is negative freedom and it may well lead to “folly, vice, and madness,” because there is no suggestion that it will allow for restraint and the tempering effects of wisdom and virtue — two words that have become lost in the din caused by the screaming hatred coming from the mouths of those who demand more and more freedom.
Given that the ideal of the founders to establish a Republic was based on their understanding that true freedom requires wisdom and restraint, as Burke suggested, we can say with confidence that we are growing further and further away from that ideal. Our system of government is in the hands of a demagogue at present who has no sense of history and has exhibited a total disregard for wisdom and virtue. “Restraint” is not in his vocabulary. His promise of greater freedom translates to the removal of restraints and the encouragement of unfettered feelings, including hatred of those who differ from themselves. The freedom he promises is just a nudge this side of chaos.