Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The ultimate freedom?

What is America doing in Iraq? This is the question British journalist, Janet Daley, asks herself in a recent column.

Her answer is that the Americans are being good-natured idealists and trying to bring freedom to Iraq. Not just any freedom, mind you, like liberation from a despotic tyrant like Saddam.

No, she praises Americans for believing that "freedom is the ultimate human goal" and that the "enemies of freedom" are the "enemies of all that makes life worthwhile."

Such phraseology should alert us to the presence of an ideology at work. After all, looked at in an ordinary way, freedom is not "all that makes life worthwhile". Even under the tyrannical rule of Saddam, Iraqis could still appreciate nature or fall in love or raise families, which are certainly things which help make life worthwhile.

What kind of ideology could make Janet Daley talk about freedom in such unreasonable and absolute terms? Perhaps you've already guessed: the answer is liberalism.

For liberals, the very thing which makes us human is our capacity to fashion who we are from our own will and reason. Liberals therefore understand freedom in very specific terms: it is an absence of anything which impedes our own individual will and reason from choosing who we are and what we do.

This explains, first of all, why Janet Daley presents freedom as the "ultimate human goal" and "all that makes life worth living". Within the theory of liberalism, a particular kind of freedom is what defines our very humanity, so it's to be expected that a liberal would see such freedom as central to human life.

The theory of liberalism also explains what Janet Daley understands freedom to be. For Janet Daley freedom isn't just liberation from a tyrannical ruler. Instead, she describes it as "individual self-determination" made possible by submitting "hereditary baggage" to the rule of secular democracy.

Why define freedom this way? Because the liberal first principle is that we should be able to to create ourselves in any direction according to our own reason and will: hence the idea that freedom means "individual self-determination".

And the main impediments to "individual self-determination" are things we don't choose for ourselves, but which we are born into: hence the hostility to "inherited baggage".

So, what exactly do we have to give up to rid ourselves of inherited baggage? Janet Daley lists a few such things which she claims place "limitations on life".

Amongst the "limitations" are "ancient tribal hatreds, extended family loyalties, religious commandments" and "authoritarian faith, clan loyalties and homogenous local cultures."

Janet Daley is putting things as nicely as she can. It is not just "ancient tribal hatreds" that modern liberalism insists we put aside, but ethnic loyalties in general (particularly the mainstream ethnicity on which traditional nationalisms are based). This is because such traditions form an important part of our self-identity, but are inherited and not chosen, and are therefore illegitimate in an important way within liberal theory.

Similarly, it is not just "extended family loyalties" which liberals seek to overcome, but even the basic structure of the nuclear family. Liberals don't want us to identify as wives and mothers, husbands and fathers because this is a "biological destiny" we are born into: part of that inherited baggage we are supposed to leave at the door upon entering the liberal sphere of "individual self-determination".

All of which raises an important point. The liberal view of freedom insists that we give up our ethnic identity within a nation or tribe, and it insists that we give up our identity within a family structure. Doesn't liberal freedom therefore take away important things in life?

Janet Daley agrees that it does. She writes that there is a "price" to be paid for this kind of freedom, a freedom which she even considers to be unnatural. She believes that liberal freedom has "created huge social unease and chronic anxiety" and that "The disruption and dislocation of American life makes it violent and perpetually unstable in ways that less free societies can never know".

And yet she not only supports liberal freedom but wants it extended to all parts of the world. It is almost tragic, I think, that this is the only way she can conceive of politics: that we have no option but to choose a kind of freedom which perpetually disrupts and dislocates our own society.

Why not instead just think outside of the liberal square, and conceive of freedom in a different way? What if being free is not just "individual self-determination" but the freedom to live an integrated life, in which the importance to us of inherited forms of self-identity is accepted and fostered?

There is nothing stopping us from rethinking freedom in this more positive and rounded way, except the force of orthodoxy that liberalism has achieved over many generations. It's time for intellectuals to really re-examine the underlying principles of modern Western thought, in order to open up better political options that just "a necessary freedom which destroys".

(First published at Conservative Central, 06/06/2004)

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