An expanded space for human liberty—free from persecution and degradation—is the measure of whether we, as organized society, are succeeding.
Some take the view that this means no constraint on any person’s liberty can be allowed. The result of this thinking is a strange hybrid radicalism, combining an aversion to all centralizing institutions with a permissive attitude toward powerful private interests that generate harm and cost for more vulnerable people.
There is also the fundamental problem that this professed absolute generates automatic limitations: the absolute freedom from constraint of any person is, by definition, a constraint on the moral, political and personal freedom of others. It also implies that bad actors should not face consequences that limit their future freedom.
And so, the absolutist libertarian often becomes an absolutist in crime and punishment: no person’s freedom can be limited, except for those who have done things that attack the freedom and personhood of others; in those cases, they may be deprived of freedom indefinitely. Such conditional absolutes are never put into practice equally; culpability becomes factionalized, and divisions become entrenched.
For the record, an absolute bar on any constraints against bad behavior is not liberty, but impunity.
Impunity runs counter to democracy, which is by definition the structured ongoing accountability of the powerful to all others, regardless of how little power they might wield. Who gets to enjoy impunity then is a matter of who wins which battle, and of course a system that privileges impunity over democracy is rigged to ensure there are no fair fights. The means of accountability become corrupted, and the free society, which values the right to seek redress for grievances, even against the most powerful, fades from view.
This is how people who think they are standing up for themselves or for their group become facilitators of authoritarian abuses.
Unsustainability, pollution, the unaccountable exercise of power, are all part of an ancient culture of authoritarian rule. Democracy exists to make the projection of needless harm by the powerful onto the vulnerable harder to get away with.
Freedom is not the absence of the power of others; it is the guarantee that power cannot be used to abuse anyone.
Democratic government—“government of the people, by the people, for the people”, as Lincoln called it—is different from totalitarian government in that institutional constraints are placed on the exercise of power, to ensure that less powerful people are also free to exercise their personal and political sovereignty. The protection of that personal sovereignty cannot happen without trusted democratic institutions.
No individual can secure a nation without the help of many others. One person alone does not make an army—or a Congress or an intelligence agency, or a diplomatic corps or the industry-leading enterprise.
Human freedom requires sustainable interrelationship.
Our minds are not more capable, more astute, or better attuned to the work of safeguarding liberty, simply because we recognize no difference of opinion. Without freedom of thought, and the ongoing hot contest of ideas, a society cannot be said to be free, and that means that individual freedom cannot be protected from abuse.
A future of secure human freedom is one in which the elements of the wider societal and security landscape are themselves sustainable over time. A relationship between allies that is fraught by division and innuendo, for instance, is less a measure for securing safety, liberty and prosperity, than a relationship that is cooperative, constructive, and rooted in reciprocal empowerment.
We are, at this moment in history, witnessing a dangerous, unfortunate, and vitally important contest of wills between the abuses of feudal dictatorship and the democratic movement toward sustainable interrelationship. In the contest to standardize the global political paradigm, open democratic societies are confronting a nonlinear insurgency against human progress from mafia-run authoritarian pseudo-states that fear democracy and reciprocity.
- The mafia state requires everyone to operate within the paralyzing constraints of its zero-sum thinking.
- Thriving democracies operate with the knowledge that zero-sum thinking doesn’t work.
The dignity and liberty of the human person can be upheld and well served only if open democratic societies continue to expand the space for individual personal and political sovereignty, while working together to achieve a new global standard of sustainable interrelationship. Our connectedness means we must work together to ensure a future that is safe for what is best in humankind.
[ The Note for September 2018 ]