Liberty and Personal Responsibility

Liberty and Personal Responsibility

Freedom is the best of things
which can be found around the world
if you can bear the burden

Bishop Thomas of Strängnäs, Sweden (1439)

If people were angels, liberty would be assured and societal problems would be non-existent.

If people were rascals, only the head-rascals may enjoy some freedom. A free society would be beyond imagination.

Real people reside somewhere in between. Basically we are self-centered seekers of advantage and pleasure. On the other hand the great majority have been endowed with some measure of good will and empathy besides the gift of reason. Rather miraculously, these meager resources have allowed us to erect institutions, which support fairly free, democratic societies.

Liberty means that we can pursue the meaning of life, choose our settings and select our aims. In other words we are free to search for a higher directive, each in his or her own, inimitable way. Alternatively we can set ourselves up as the object of devotion. Thus the citizen becomes an idol, provided with the prerogatives of power and rights while eschewing the attendant duties. On that track personal autonomy will wither away, democracy will decay and liberty will be lost.

In democracies a continuous tug of war is going on between liberty and equality. In the custodial welfare state, personal responsibility and freedom are constantly losing ground. That is why I am here voicing my concern and taking a stand against government tutelage and inflated egalitarianism.

While we have to care for the indigent, genuine human progress and emancipation can only be based on personal freedom and individual responsibility. The Libera Foundation has been launched as an independent platform for actors of intellectual integrity, pursuing this long-term quest.

Values in action

Vague abstractions like equality, brotherhood, justice – and liberty – can deliberately be stretched beyond recognition. They can be and have been used as vehicles for ruthless agitation. An abstract idea acquires real content as an operative value only in open interaction with competing ideas.

Values are the source of all societal norm systems. They can be understood as tacit meta-rules of the game, structuring our social and political reality. Values are fairly steady, but in due course creeping change will cause a palpable, sometimes dramatic revamping of public governance.

A top-down totalitarian or authoritarian government is incapable of reading or understanding the hearts and minds of the people. Inevitably it will drift into stagnation or regression. The inherent value conflict will sooner or later erupt like a devastating earthquake.

Ordered change

Democracy is founded on the equality of the voters. Basically it is a value-free mechanism for realizing the will of the majority, an empty shell to be filled with some kind of substance. Hence a set of historically conditioned values seems to be indispensable for a sustainable democracy.

More often than not different values are mutually incompatible, at least in part. Liberty against equality is the classic example. According to game theory, a self-consistent rule system can be constructed only in trivial cases. Ergo no intellectually rationally “correct” resolutions can be found for difficult societal conflicts, though mendacious schemes may be falsified.

Joint decisions can be reached only by reconciling conflicts of values and interests ¬– which may have been basically irreconcilable in the first place. This is the challenge of democratic politics, where the art of compromise comes to the fore. Something must always be sacrificed; nobody will ever be fully satisfied.

In democracies the prolonged and complicated decision making can become a serious drawback. The great advantage is that in a free society, changing values do not create destructive tensions. The inevitable structural adjustment does not run out of control. Ample room is provided for the societal dynamics without jeopardizing stability.

Morality is the price of liberty

Through their constitutions, modern democracies have codified and protected an assortment of individual freedoms and rights. But the craving for socio-economic equality is deeply entrenched in the human mind. This inbuilt dichotomy is part and parcel of democracy. The conflict between individual rights and the collective demands of the majority will stay in the focus of democratic politics. This struggle of values cannot and should not be decided, one way or another. Yet the outcome holds the future of democracy in the balance.

Political competition is by its nature a zero-sum game, where myopic self-interest is rewarded but the common cause often suffers. In contrast, a viable society is dependent on voluntary, value-creating cooperation. The success of such plus-sum games depends on mutual trust, which builds on the honesty and openness of the parties. These values constitute the backbone of our collective moral capital, the most vital but scarcest of resources. It preserves the functionality of democracies by keeping zero-sum play within reasonable bounds.

Personal freedom seems self-evident in a modern democracy. But freedom is poisoned when it becomes an end in itself. Short-circuited self-realization is not a sustainable option. We must one way or another serve a higher purpose. Liberty endows power to the individual, but its useful application calls for a fair amount of responsibility for oneself, for one’s nearest, for the community and for the environment. In other words, liberty requires at least a modicum of self-restraint and good faith.

The degree of personal freedom and the success of democratic societies stand in direct proportion to the available moral capital. This is a historical fact, acutely perceived by Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America (1835-40). “I am inclined to think that if faith is wanting in him [the citizen], he must be subject, and if he be free, he must believe.” Morality is the price of liberty.