Monday, March 26, 2007

The Trap: What happened to our dreams of freedom?

Having missed the first two of these programmes, I was pleased to catch the third. I hope that my profoundest observations on it weren't lost during Desperate Housewives which was on immediately after.

The thesis was, in short, that there was something missing from Isiah Berlin's negative liberty concept, which has led to failures in imposing negative liberty in Russia, Iraq and elsewhere. Cicero provides a good defence of Berlin and negative liberty.

I think you could take Curtis' arguments and arrive at the rather different conclusion that negative liberty just can't be imposed. He makes the point that when it came to the Iraq war, we were so steeped in the culture of self-interest, that we didn't trust Blair and Bush. This is what perhaps led them to fabricate the evidence of a threat from Iraq.

And here's the problem. Freedom suffers if we can't rely on legislators and politicians to be honest brokers, rather than self-interested rational men. And of course we can't rely on anybody not to be self-interested, but we can, if we have elections and a true democratic culture, create the right incentives for politicians and vote out those that fall short.

An attempt to impose negative liberty cannot introduce this kind of check on power. Without democracy, politics becomes corrupt and self-serving whether done in the name of negative liberty, of socialism, of God, or of any other cause you care to mention.

Curtis argues that negative liberty relies on people being self-interested, and that positive liberty seeks to do better than that. But this is wrong. Negative liberty allows people freedom to choose their own values - so long as that doesn't interfere with the freedom of others - and so people are perfectly free to be altruistic without undermining the system. It is positive liberty that makes some reliance on people behaving appropriately and can go wrong when they don't.

The lesson I take from The Trap is not that negative, or positive liberty is prone to fail, but that the imposition of values is prone to fail. The imposition of values is of course against the principles of negative liberty, whether negative liberty is one of the values being imposed or not. Revolutions make things worse. The way to enhance freedom, of either kind, is not to tear down the system, but to reform it incrementally and democratically.

Curtis' description of Pol Pot's murder of the entire Cambodian middle class reminded me of this quote:
As an eco-Marxist I believe that only a socialist society will meet human needs and sustain ecological diversity, politics is based on class struggle, it isn't a matter of changing a few laws we live in a social totality that is utterly destructive and must be replaced.
- Derek Wall, principal speaker of the Green Party
I discuss an alternative approach to environmental problems, offering more freedom, negative and I daresay positive as well, here.

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