Are we witnessing the death of freedom?

Don Trubshaw

There have been voices raised against the flow in recent weeks, decrying the imposition of authoritarian measures in an attempt to bring the coronavirus pandemic under control. Some see in this the death of freedom. While I am sympathetic to these voices, I believe that the present crisis is only exposing a fundamental weakness in our society that has been a long time in gestation. The death of freedom, if it comes, will be the culmination of changes in our culture a long time in the making.

I think that we all accept that in an emergency, the government and police powers are temporarily enhanced for the good of all. More worrying is that there seems to be no clear end to this lockdown, the evidence for the precipitation of such an economic catastrophe in pursuit of an untested procedure is non-existent and, moreover, this is the first time that the citizens of democratic nations have been denied the right to move as they please, assemble and entertain themselves in public in living memory. To see anything even approaching this in the UK we need to go back to Cromwell’s Protectorate, when Parliament was dissolved, theatres and inns were closed and many sports banned.

This much is of concern, even deep concern, but in itself this is not the cause of the claim that we may be seeing the death of freedom. Rather, it is symptomatic of a deeper malaise.

As a society – and I speak primarily about Britain, though this applies equally to many societies – we have become addicted to safety and averse to risk. The expression of this addiction is often focused on children, but it applies generally throughout society. Children today are more protected than ever, but they take – are allowed to take – fewer risks, and are, consequently, less free than previous generations. Paradoxically, this state of safety does not induce calm in families and society, but ratchets up levels of anxiety to a state of near paranoia, where danger and the potential of danger is seen in the most innocuous of situations in the everyday lives of individuals.

Anecdotal evidence from everyone who has dealings with young people will tell you that they are seeing unprecedented levels of anxiety and mental health issues and this is certainly backed up by evidence. Recent polling during the coronavirus pandemic reveals that young people are far more anxious than the over-60s, despite them having far less chance of falling seriously ill or dying from the disease.

The aversion to risk is manifested in the clamour from the public for the government to do something to assuage their anxiety, even if this means denying them their fundamental rights, rights which have been won at the cost of millions of lives over hundreds of years. The initial reaction of the government to take a cautious approach to such drastic measures was met with the demand that they be seen to be doing something. The press, in the guise of an impartial arbiter of news, is feeding the panic with a daily tally of deaths and missed opportunities. In such a climate the habit of freedom dies.

Freedom is an abstract concept in many ways, but like many such concepts, such as goodness, peace, love and truth, has both an individual, interior dimension of experience and a societal expression in relationships both close and intimate and extended through social institutions. Like all these other values also, freedom is never manifest as an either/or: either we have it or we don’t have it. Rather, freedom is in a state of development in the individual and in the society. Individuals and societies both can become more free or less free and there is an intricate symbiosis between the experience of freedom for the individual and its manifestation in the structures of society.

Freedom is, first and foremost, a form of power, although it is probably more correct to say that it is several forms of power, that enable us to choose, make decisions and act with minimal hindrance. Health, wealth and education are obvious forms of power that enable us to act more freely in the world. To take those examples, it is clear that – until the present crisis at least – these are an inheritance of living in the developed world; we take it as an entitlement that we have the right to good medical care, a job that pays enough for us to live comfortably above the level of basic needs and a good education that provides us, hopefully, with the knowledge and skills to prosper.

Clearly, although these are the entitlements of living in countries that have reached a certain level of development (and remember that even 50 years ago, most of humanity did not have access to these), to activate the potential requires individual effort. Even inherited wealth – something which strikes ire into those on the left – can be easily squandered by those who do not have the skills to build on it. Education obviously requires effort, not simply attendance at school. Even health, although we can be differentially advantaged or disadvantaged by our genetic inheritance, is responsive to efforts on our part. All this says that freedom is inseparable from responsibility and responsibility is inbuilt in freedom.

To act responsibly is to act within the limits of freedom in a particular context. It recognises the social dimension of an act, the consequences of which – even when they affect primarily oneself – are felt by others. Therefore, to be free always means having an awareness of the consequences of one’s acts for others. To act irresponsibly is not to act freely (unless we equate that with random and capricious acts), but to act destructively of freedom. We are social beings and freedom is a negotiated state with others in society. That is why freedom is also closely associated with trust. To act responsibly is to engender trust, which is a fundamental value of all free societies.

The Marxist critique of democratic society (certainly in the name of ‘democracy’ or ‘democratic socialism’ but always implacably and with total partiality opposed to actual democratic societies, identified one-dimensionally as ‘capitalist’) is an acid that eats away at the trust in society, by reifying concepts such as ‘privilege’ as embodied in specific persons, fluidly identified collectives and institutions and setting the proponents of ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’ in a power struggle against such bastions and representations. This is a fundamental misrepresentation of both free societies and free economies, in that the currency of both is neither money nor power, but trust. That is not to say that the abuse of power and money do not occur in ostensibly democratic and capitalist societies, for they clearly do and why the leftist critique is legitimate up to a certain point; but this so-called legitimacy only rides on a more basic moral principle that abuse destroys trust and in doing so is exposed and eventually expelled in a free society. It also ignores the fact that in a free society, while authority must be respected and trusted, it is only done so tentatively, as authority rests on the common consent of the people. The trust, therefore is two-way and ubiquitous.

Freedom, finally, comes with risk and in risk is the basis of judgment. To be free is not fundamentally to be safe. By taking on responsibility, judgement calls have to be made. And sometimes the wrong decision is made, and one is invariably called to account. Hopefully, we learn through mistakes and learn to make better decisions. The highest form of freedom is to act intuitively, to choose the correct path in any given situation. But this is a skill that can only be mastered when judgment has been sharpened by having faced and taken risks and learned from one’s mistakes.

The death of freedom is not found so much in the policies of governments or the actions of their agents and forces, as much as these should be subject to our vigilance and called to account, so much as our willingness to accept victim status in place of resilience, fear and suspicion in place of trust and safety in place of risk.

There is a very clear indication that young people generally are less resilient than the older generation, seen in the statistics for the growing occurrence of anxiety and mental health problems. By the way, this is not necessarily a moral judgment, as in many respects the young may be kinder, more tolerant, more sensitive and more affectionate than older generations. These are rather matters of generational shifts in culture. But my perception is that there is a loss of individualised power – although there may be a concomitant rise in collective power – among the young compared to older generations.

For one thing, the young do not experience death, suffering or privation to the same degree, or at all. That is welcome news for the most part, but as these are inevitable aspects of life, the irruption of these into a largely comfortable existence creates a sense of existential angst. The young are also not generally as physically robust as the older generation. I’m not talking about healthy eating and visits to the gym; the older generation walked more as children (there was no parent taxi to school), played outside more and spent less time sitting in their rooms. The older generation were better educated in many respects. They read more, remembered more and embodied knowledge, especially expertise, more. They did not have the luxury of outsourcing their knowledge and memory to global digital corporations. They were able to entertain themselves, rather than relying on commercially created entertainment.

Today, there is less trust in society. As Kant reminds us, we humans exhibit the quality of asocial sociality. It is natural to both trust and not trust people, sometimes different people, sometimes the same people. We tend to measure and calibrate the amount of trust we put in people. Society in toto is a different kind of thing than family or community, for it requires a type of abstract trust in people we do not know personally and in the institutions of which we are not a part. Trust and vigilance at the same time. There are indications, though, that this ‘tension’ between trust and vigilance is being replaced by an indolent cynicism – if not outright hostility –  towards many social institutions and forms of authority.

The media play a vital role in bridging that gap between the general citizen and the structures of authority, such as government, civil service, judges and the judiciary, the forces and the police, schools, hospitals, and so on. Some argue, though, that the  media are ideologically undermining the foundations of trust in society, although I am not inclined to give this belief much credence. Rather, it seems to me that the role the media play in the undermining of trust in society is a function of how it operates, as a form of entertainment. Lurid stories and focus on the degenerate, the illicit, the abnormal and so on, create the sense that there is more danger in the world than there really is, particularly from other people. In result, as a society we have become increasingly perceptive to risk and averse to activities that involve risk, whether real or imagined.

When we deprive people of the opportunity to undertake risky activities, we also deprive them of the opportunity to develop judgment. It is not just the media who are complicit in this. A whole industry has been allowed to flourish around the prevention of risk and the punishment of risk, to the extent that individuals, communities and and especially companies now self-police themselves, under threat of litigation. There are many consequences of this, all of them bad for the state of freedom.

The gradual erosion of the qualities of resilience, trust and judgment undermines the foundations of freedom. That is because these are the very qualities which we must embody in sufficient numbers in a nation in order for freedom to flourish there. In my more despondent moments I wonder whether the very idea of freedom has outlived its usefulness in the social evolution of the human race. In the same way that the piety of the middle ages gave way to the values of modernity, perhaps the pursuit of freedom was the illusion of modernity that will give way to the values of the postmodern world. Perhaps a totalitarian digital society of the sort being established in China is the future towards which humanity is willingly racing, in which we relinquish all responsibility to the state, which tells us what to do and we willingly obey, in return for comfort and security.

There are three things that make me draw back from this bleak conclusion. One is the universality of the desire for freedom, which has driven social development throughout history. The second is the the fact that totalitarian governments, rather than ensuring the comfort and security of their people, have always been willing to sacrifice their own citizens in order to maintain their absolute hold on power. The third reason I am more hopeful for the free world is that ultimately freedom brings out the best in people: the best minds, the best hearts, the creative spirits, the finely honed skills. Totalitarian regimes crush the human spirit, rule by fear and decree and ultimately deprive themselves of the full qualities of their people. They may gain short-term advantage but ultimately never prevail. In the current crisis we may have stumbled in being dragged from our bed of complacency, been misguided by the seeming success of our totalitarian competitors’ strategy, but the way out of this will be, as is starting to dawn on us, when a free people act freely for the common good.

I believe we are going to have to make a choice: either we embrace freedom and the requirement for vigilance, for resilience and for risk, or we embrace safety and comfort. As the present crisis illustrates so well, we cannot have both, certainly not maximally, and the choice to embrace safety and comfort is only ensuring that we will have none of these goods in the end. Choosing freedom is risky; we may lose the lottery individually, but as a society we will be stronger, which is our gift to future generations.

By Don Trubshaw

Don Trubshaw is a co-founder of the website Societal Values. He has a PhD in the philosophy and sociology of education and teaches in Higher Education.

One comment

  1. The “Karens” as they are now known, scold and tisk-tisk with the best in class at least as far back as the Salem Witch Trials. They would stone you or burn you to death if they could. So long as they were properly abiding the rules and you weren’t, they’d feel righteously justified. Nowdays, to be judged as safety-affiming, compassionate and woke in general, a mask must be the first thing you present as a passport to civilization. Shelter in place or run towards the fire; which one of these strategies is most often associated with weak, decaying civilizations and which one is most often associated with civilizations that still have red blood flowing through their veins?

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