Learning Liberty

Support for liberty does not appear to be natural.  It has to be learned.  Everyone is inclined to preserve his or her own autonomy, but that is not the same as protecting the autonomy of other or supporting the principle of liberty in the abstract.  From a narrow self-interested perspective, the rational thing is to protect one’s own autonomy while being indifferent to the oppression of others.  As long as you are free to pursue your interests, why should you care if others aren’t?

Of course, it could be argued that you should promote liberty for others so that your own liberty is protected.  But this ignores collective action failure.  As long as a person can protect one’s own liberty why should he or she endure the risk and expense of protecting others?  Notice that the press did not become alarmed about Obama Administration actions until it was revealed that AP phone records had been secretly obtained. This greater interest in preserving one’s own rights is actually quite typical.

So, how do we overcome collective action failure and get large numbers of people to support liberty as an abstract principle for all and not just for themselves?  We are in  paradoxical situation where our self-interest does not construct and sustain a system by which we are free to pursue our self-interest.  We need non-self-interested ideas and actions to lay the foundations for a system where self-interest can flourish.

Tocqueville gave a fair amount of thought to this problem, but current supporters of liberty pay little attention to the issue.  Tocqueville noted that institutions like religion, family, and community help lay the foundations for liberty.  It’s interesting that all of these institutions that support a system where liberty is protected are themselves illiberal.  For the most part, one does not choose one’s family, religion, or community.  And even when one does choose a spouse, to convert to a new religion, or relocate to a new community, in all cases one must still submit to the authority of others.

The reason why these illiberal institutions help lay the foundations for liberty is that they induce one to subordinate one’s narrow self-interest for abstract principle — just as liberty requires some sacrifice of self-interest for the principle that other people’s self-interest is also worthy of protection.

In addition to these illiberal institutions, another mechanism by which support for liberty is cultivated is through art.  Research that I am doing with Brian Kisida and Dan Bowen is finding that exposing students to art promotes support for liberty.  The reason for this may be that art helps us reflect on the human condition, much like religion, and may lead us to subordinate some of our self-interest for the abstract principle of liberty.  Perhaps the important thing about art is that it is not “productive” in a narrow economic sense.  So it trains us to think that there are things of value other than the acquisition of material goods and power for ourselves.  This then helps create and sustain a system where we are free to acquire material goods and power for ourselves.

Whatever the mechanism is by which we learn to love liberty, we need to pay more attention to promoting those mechanisms if liberty will continue to flourish.  Liberty will not protect itself.  It must be learned.


3 Responses to Learning Liberty

  1. Duncan Frissell says:

    Are you going to be doing any publication on the study of Art promoting liberty?

  2. Greg Forster says:

    Lord Acton said “liberty is the delicate flower of a mature civilization.” His lecture on the history of liberty is very well worth a read.

    I do have to object to the characterization of family, religion and community as “illiberal.” This implies liberalism is confined only to the realm of short-term, easily reversible choices – liberalism is about gratifying your immediate desires. Rawls certainly wished so, which is why he taught everyone to think in these terms. The result of this mode of thinking you can see by looking around you.

    Tocqueville noted that political liberty and democracy in America were not the result of keeping these institutions the way they had traditionally been, but just the opposite – they were the result of reforms to these institutions. He wrote extensively on how the family, religion and community were different in America than they had traditionally been (and still were) in Europe, in ways that gave rise to liberty and democracy. Political liberalism can only be upheld by these non-political institutions, but these institutions must in turn be liberal in their own right or they will not uphold political liberty.

    That having been said, Tocqueville did note that the leveling influence of democracy was a threat to these institutions, because family, religion and community require submission to others, and democracy cultivates a spirit of equality that hates submission. But Tocqueville identified this threat mainly as coming from democracy and its attendant spirit of equality, and less from liberty and its attendant spirit of freedom. At the very outset of the book he identifies the tension between freedom and equality as the main feature of American life, and asserts that equality is ultimately the stronger of the two. I think this is the main reason for his ambivalence about the future of democracy. Tocqueville is much more a liberal aristocrat offering a (sympathetic) critique of democracy than an illiberal democrat offering a critique of freedom.

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