Orion Digest №18 — On Liberalism
Liberalism, as the name implies, is derived from the word “liberty”, and is a philosophy concerned ultimately with freedom. As freedom in regards to society and the law is a very interpretative concept, there are as many, if not more, branches of liberalism as there are conservatism, and so once again, my analysis is inevitably based solely on certain common traits these branches share. Ultimately, we must ask what it means to be completely ‘free’, and if that is a beneficial or detrimental idea in modern society.
Freedom typically refers to the freedom of an individual in society — a social structure that emphasizes as much control as possible over ones own life, and tones down government influence and control over aspects of the lives of citizens. Followers of liberalism would then champion equality in regards to society, democracy in regards to government, and free enterprise in regards to economy. Many of these ideals are agreeable, but inevitably in the argument for freedom, you run the risk of that very same freedom being turned against it’s intent — freedom at the cost of justice.
The difference between freedom and justice, and the need for balance between them, can be summed up like so — in a nation where there is absolute freedom, there is less worry for persecution, and therefore crimes against the citizens become much easier. Peace relies entirely on the ability of citizens to self-govern, to restrict themself from taking what can so easily be acquired, and as we saw with conservatism, the fear that humans in modern society are incapable of doing so causes many to imagine that this absolute freedom would be disastrous. If there was less guaranteed safety from crime, the willingness of citizens to actively follow laws and regulations would diminish, contributing to the problem.
Absolute justice, on the other hand provides you with almost no infractions against the social order, given that it is usually maintained through force. Instead of being afraid of their neighbors violating laws, people are afraid of violating the law, and while they may feel safer, that fear weighs down their lives, as everything they do is under scrutiny. If simple infractions incur more force, then every action will be weighed by citizens very carefully and with caution, even the simple parts of our lives that we take for granted. Keep in mind as well that what ‘justice’ is depends entirely on the moral code of the party that enforces it — in such an authoritarian state, you can only be lucky to get law that favors equality.
In both instances of absolutes, you run the risk of immoral behavior and the negative impact it has on the common citizen, given that there is no incentive for either truly free citizens or truly just government to be altruistic, especially when acting in their own self interest would provide more logical benefit. Either one is a system of ‘might makes right’ — in absolute freedom, you must be capable of defending yourself against injustice, and in absolute justice, you’re either a part of the powerful government or one of the citizens at its mercy. A moral and equal society could handle one of the extremes — such are the common arguments for authoritarian socialism and anarchy. But we need to be certain that we have crafted such a society before we could trust either option.
Continuing from last time, human nature itself is less to blame than societal conditioning — our genes did not tell us to steal or murder, but rather the world we were born into and every interaction from the cradle to the grave is what defines right and wrong. Every person plays into this patchwork layer of education, all thanks in part to what they learned from the previous generation, which learned from their predecessors, and so on back to the beginnings of civilization. Need spurred interaction, and ignorance in interactions bred conflict, and over time, that conflict embedded itself as bias. Now, we are not so ignorant, having learned through the trial and error of history that we can coexist, but we must overcome millennia of compounded conflict and bias that emerged.
Thus, in an absolutely free society, if our current generation is still operating under the conflicting and greed-based mentality of the past — that we cannot trust those who are different and that we must always take for ourselves — there will be those who break the peace because the possibility of gaining more than others is too tempting. When we’ve been brought up, generation after generation, in a world where every opportunity to get the advantage over others is encouraged to be taken, why wouldn’t people commit crime without consequence? On the other hand, in an absolutely just society, the same principle ironically implies — except only for those in power. If you are one of the lucky few to find yourself in control, you still have that innate flame of desire that has been stoked by the world your whole life, and at the very top, there is no one who can try to change your ways. You, too, will seek the advantage as much as possible.
Democracy is often seen as the intersection of the two, though with a bit of a lean depending on the nation. The ability of people to be represented allows for the sense of freedom, given that the populace is less likely to act against their own self-interest, but the government still exists to provide enough force to keep order. Ideally, this sounds like a perfect balance, but liberalism’s idea of free enterprise once again posits a risk to a non-ideal society — the freer a market (or, in other words, the less government interference), the more of a long term threat of a class of elites emerging, and in turn, the threat of those elites being able to swing democracy in their favor to shift things toward the authoritarian.
Economic power affects everyone, and in an absolute free economy, there is nothing to stop people from gaining that power, often by questionable means. If that power affects all, then even those in the government will be inclined to act in their own self interest, and thus, bend to the will of those in power. Thus, while government doesn’t end up being the dealer of absolute justice, over time you will see the free market give rise once more to the ‘might makes right’ point of view, and this time, perfectly engrained in the system to where they can brush aside complaints with the false hope of democracy.
Democracy and enough regulation to ensure social equality are beneficial concepts, but just as we cannot have a society of absolute freedom or absolute justice without assurance that the ‘mighty’ have the best interests of the collective in mind, we also cannot have a truly free market until we know that those within it will ‘play fair’, and act on need rather than greed. In the historic examples that led to our current state of affairs, we genuinely didn’t know any better, and by the time we did, it was too late to fix the issues in society without large scale change.
Liberalism is on the right track, but it relies on too ideal a belief — one that can come true, but only after the world starts to truly believe that we can trust others. And if we are to trust others, there must first be a system that can demonstrate that ‘everyone for themself’ is not the only way society can operate. A democratic system where democracy is implemented within the economy itself — democratic ownership and operation of companies — would cause people to operate collectively to serve their interests, and if future generations learn to act collectively, they’ll value and trust community a bit more.
- DKTC FL