Enlightenment Liberty and its Children

The website Aeon recently posted a solid article from historian Josiah Ober.  In the article Ober makes the point that democracy and liberal government — that is, rule of law, free speech, protection of minority rights, etc. — do not always go hand in hand.  Indeed, we have seen many good marriages between the two concepts over time.  But at times democracy has not produced liberal government, and historical examples exist of other forms of government ruling in a liberal way.

Ober states that liberal ideas that limited the power of government and enthroned the autonomy of the individual came from the Enlightenment, ca. 1650-1750.  I have no qualms with this, and I applaud Ober pointing out the tension that sometimes exists between democracy and liberalism.  But we should pause for a moment to consider the implications for the minority protections the Enlightenment sought to enthrone.

I’ll start by saying that rule of law brings a huge amount of good to a society.  But a quick scan of the heritage of the Enlightenment will confuse us.  For as we saw the rise of political and individual liberty enshrined in democratic regimes we also see a rise in slavery — at least in America.*  Surely many reasons exist for the rise of slavery ca. 1700-1860 — too many for me to explore or fully understand.  But we cannot deny the confluence of political liberalism and oppression of the natives and African Americans.  Does a link exist between freedom and slavery?

We often hear arguments such as, “Of course pornography is bad for society.  But the remedy for the evil (i.e., making it illegal) would be worse than the disease.”  We hear these kinds of statements all the time, they roll off the tongue without thinking.  But not long ago people used similar arguments to justify slavery.  “Yes slavery is bad, but in order to have freedom we cannot give government the power to curtail it.”  I don’t want to over-spiritualize the issue, but the fact remains that pornography enslaves the passions and the basic humanity of hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of men and women.  The abortion issue has similar rhetoric. I had a college professor argue that, “Yes, abortion is a terrible thing, but what you pro-life people don’t understand is that without abortion, women would not have the rights and opportunities they have today.”  All over the Enlightenment view of individual autonomy we see this ghastly trade-off between “liberty” and death — be it physical or spiritual — again and again.  We may have to entertain the notion that slavery often comes on the coattails of this kind of freedom.

In our history, at certain times at least, we definitely lacked the will to restrain ourselves.  Historian Pauline Maier notes that at the Constitutional Convention George Mason wanted to include a provision to have all trade laws pass by a super majority.  He foresaw that northern commercial interests, combined with its more numerous population, would alienate southern agricultural interests. In exchange, he willingly hoped to grant Congress the power to abolish slavery.  He lost on this issue, according to him, because Georgia and South Carolina would not agree.  In exchange for precluding even the possibility of the banning of slavery until 1808, trade laws would pass with simple majorities.

Sure enough, in 1860 such states complained of laws that favored northern manufacturing interests as one motive for secession (the issue also came up in the Nullification Crisis during Jackson’s presidency).  Of course, they complained as well about Republican plans with regards to slavery.

In a recent interview the Archimandrite Tikhon said that,

Today . . . we talk not of the possible limitations of the freedom of speech, but of the real everyday criminal abuses of this freedom. Who are those that shout of the threat of ‘limitations’ most of all? Those, who have monopolized information and turned the media into real weapons, which are meant not only for manipulating the public conscience, but also aiming at ruining personality and society.   . . . Of course, I’m for limiting speech that ruins freedom, as well for limitation of drugs and alcohol, for limitation of abortions – and everything which causes loss of health, degradation and ruin of nation. And the opportunity to watch vileness on TV, the right to be duped, the ability to develop a brutal cruelty and the lowest instincts in oneself – this is not freedom. Plainly, it is an absolute slavery.

In spite of any prohibitions man will have the right and possibility to choose evil anyway, nobody will take away this right, don’t worry. But the state must protect its citizens from aggressive foisting this evil upon them.

The man interviewing him got quite nervous at such a response, as would many in the United States today.  Who should make the decisions, and to what degree, remains a very thorny question.  One might even successfully argue that no good method of making that decision exists today, at least in America. But the fact that, at least in theory, we should certainly limit liberty in certain respects, appears obvious.  To say otherwise is to bring pure selfishness and greed into the fabric of our lives  Many would say that this has already happened.

Once we realize this we must re-evaluate the whole heritage of the Enlightenment view of liberty and the individual.  The rule of law seems a nearly unqualified good.  But I don’t think it need go hand-in-glove with a view of liberty that inevitably leads to slavery in some form.  Law after all, by its very nature, asks us to give up some form of liberty for the good of others.

Aristotle’s Politics adds another perspective.  He discusses the concept of proportionality in the state and teases out how imbalances even of virtues can cause harm.  The concept of “the golden mean” drips throughout his writings.  When even certain particular virtues assume too much of a place in the life of the state, it will cause harm.  In this situation, the inevitable counter-reaction will cause harm, because it too will lack balance and proportion.  One might posit that the whole “snowflake,” “safe space,” and trigger-warning phenomena present on some college campuses is just such a misshapen and destructive reaction to the abuse of freedom.

Tocqueville made the boring but true statement that, “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.”  Aristotle would add that such liberty must exist in proportion to other necessary virtues of the state.

Dave

*I know that of course slavery existed before the Enlightenment.  But slavery had generally disappeared during the Middle Ages, and revived again only during the Renaissance, when certain Roman concepts of law, property, and a classical idea of liberty made its way back into the stream of European civilization.  The Enlightenment built off this Renaissance heritage in many respects, and so it is no surprise that its heirs practiced a revival of slavery — something worse even than Roman slavery.

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One comment on “Enlightenment Liberty and its Children

  1. […] referenced George Mason’s strenuous objections in another post, but to quickly recap, Mason believed that the South should have required a super-majority to pass […]

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