Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

On liberty

The dictionary defines "power" and "liberty" in very different terms. Power is construed positively, as the ability to do or accomplish what one wishes; liberty is construed negatively, as the absence of constraint. On reflection, though, they are near synonyms, or at least overlap substantially in denotation. Liberty is a precondition for power, obviously; one way to lack power is to be constrained. But we are constrained as well by our inherent limitations: power is equally a condition for liberty. It is absurd to say that I am at liberty to play in the NBA, so long as I do not have the power. I could show up for a tryout, I suppose, but they wouldn't take me.

Power in general is not a zero sum game (or a constant pie, as the political scientists absurdly say). I can increase my power without reducing yours. Indeed, I can augment your power along with mine. For example, if I succeed in finding ways of making physician-patient collaboration more effective, you might end up feeling more powerful, even as I grow more capable in my field and perhaps better paid. (Just dreaming, of course.)

Where disputants often stumble is over not noticing that power over others is a special, and distinct case. Power's sibling liberty has precisely the same inflection point. It is an entirely distinct matter when one person's liberty infringes another's.

It is astonishing how often people miss the obvious in pondering the question of liberty. Homo sapiens derives its unprecedented power as a species precisely from its socio-cultural accomplishments: the accumulation and dissemination of knowledge and technology over generations, the immense achievements made possible by division of labor and organized enterprise, the availability of support and assistance in time of need. The powers which are preconditions for our liberties do not arise from us as individuals, but our created for us by society.

As a microcosmic example, when we go to the doctor, we want that doctor to be very powerful: highly intelligent, stuffed full of the latest information, equipped with special legal authority, resourced with high technology equipment and whole teams of specialists. We want the doctor to have all sorts of powers we do not have. At times, we surrender completely to the physician, allow her to render us unconscious, cut us open, dissect out body parts; bombard us with radiation; or pump our veins full of toxic chemicals. We depend on this extraordinarily powerful individual to preserve our own capacities and secure our own liberty to live independently, perhaps to work or pursue our relationships and avocations.

It can all go wrong, of course. We can end up feeling infantilized, be manipulated, exploited, abused, or just let down. The asymmetry of power can end up constraining our liberty, but it can also expand it. The only solution to that dilemma is to make rules and regulations: requirements for physician licensure, restrictions on the choices physicians can make, ethical norms for the practice of medicine. And that arguably restricts our own liberty to choose doctors who don't measure up and can't get or keep a license. It makes us pay more for physician services. But without such rules we would not be at liberty to surrender ourselves to the potentially empowering power of physicians with any confidence that our choice would succeed.

And here I think is the essential distinction between liberalism and libertarianism. We're all for "liberty," hence the shared etymology. But liberals understand that liberty is not the creation or possession of individuals. It is created and bestowed upon us by society. We need society, we need in fact constraints on our own liberty and that of others, in order to create and preserve the greatest possible measure of liberty, or any liberty at all for that matter. Society can also fail us in this regard, so liberals are deeply concerned with what kind of society we have, committed to using their own individual power and liberty to struggle toward a society that creates and defends liberty. Libertarians think they'll be free if society goes away. That is a fundamental, absolutely fatal error.

1 comment:

Ferdzy said...

Excellent, clear post. Thanks, Cervantes.