Hayek Dinner: A (Very) Short History of the Nature of Liberty

by Craig Knoche

Two years ago, and shortly after I joined the Hayek Group, Mark asked that I write a short article on liberty for the group’s website. Since that time I’ve continued to reflect on the topic and learn more what others have said about it. This talk is about what more I’ve learned about liberty and human nature, and why I’ve come to believe that our prevailing concept of liberty is conducive to neither individual happiness nor a healthy nation. I’ll make the point by way of a very short romp through a 2,500 year-old debate. This is a story about how ideas have profound moral and political consequences.

The US Declaration of Independence makes a claim about human nature, “. . . that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights, among these being Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Freedom (liberty) is asserted to be one of the greatest human goods.

Our prevailing understanding is that liberty is the absence of external constraint. This view comes to us from Epicurus, 4th century BC philosopher, by way of the 17th century Enlightenment philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, both of whom provided inspiration for our Declaration of Independence. Hobbes and Locke based their theory of the best political regime upon the character of humans in a “state of nature.” Contrary to the ancient and medieval philosophers, they conceived of humans as asocial and solitary, with no family, friends, or political relationships. In this state of nature, humans are radically free and equal, and are consumed by passion for self-preservation and the satisfaction of bodily wants. The ‘state-of-nature’ concept of liberty is unbridled license, whatever one can get away with.

Unfortunately, this unbridled license, combined with conditions of scarcity, leads to conflict and a life that is “nasty, brutish and short.” 1 So, as the story goes, rudimentary reason leads humans to contract with each other wherein they agree to cede power to a central authority which establishes law and polices conflict. Thus, ‘natural liberty’ becomes doing whatever one wants “just so long as it doesn’t impinge upon the rights of others to pursue their wants.” Saying this another way, it is “Maximize good for oneself with as little evil as possible to others.” 2 Justice is not harming others. 3

Two points about this conception: (1) pursuit of the common good, public spiritedness, duties and obligations all become conditional upon satisfaction of individual self-interest; and (2) reason, which had been considered by the ancients to be the highest and most distinctive human feature, is downgraded to being a purely instrumental in the service of the passions. Reason merely calculates the optimal means to ends determined by passion.

Contemporary commitment to this conception of liberty is bipartisan. Ideological factions differ only in their beliefs about what constraints are objectionable:

  •  Progressive libertinism seeks freedom from constraints to sexual practices, drug consumption, abortion, and gender identity.
  •  Conservative libertarianism seeks freedom from constraints to gun ownership, economic exchange, religious practice, and speech.
  • Everyone seeks freedom from “want”, where want is understood as involving food, shelter, financial security, and more recently, healthcare. 4 Of these, many seem to believe that it is the role of government to give them these things.

After Hobbes and Locke came Jacque Rousseau in the mid-18th century with a critique of the Enlightenment. Rousseau agreed that humans in the SON were born free and equal and that their primary passions are for self-preservation and the satisfaction of bodily wants. But he disagreed that these passions offer a sufficient foundation for a stable civil society. In particular, he argued that a society based on man’s calculated self-interest would only cause human passions to develop further, ultimately leading to either anarchy or tyranny.

Rousseau’s challenge was to reconcile the pre-political conception of ‘natural liberty’ as license with the more robust constraints which he believed necessary for civil society. His solution was to develop a third conception of liberty as abiding by laws that one imposes upon (aka ‘wills for’) oneself. An obvious problem with this position is that individuals can conceive of and impose all kinds of laws for themselves that are unjust for others. To address this, Rousseau introduced the concept of a general (aka collective) will to which all agree to abide just so long as individuals participate as legislators in the creation of these general laws. 5 This is called ‘civic freedom’.

So, Rousseau thought that freedom as license would ultimately destroy civil society, but freedom as self-legislation of the general will would preserve it. While Rousseau’s conception of liberty as self-legislation is somewhat reminiscent of the ancient notion of freedom as self-control, its’ standard of control is based upon a conventional ‘general will’ rather than upon a universal conception of human nature. In other words, it is possible that the general will could be unjust.

The next step in this story comes with Edmund Burke, in the late-18th century at the time of the French Revolution. Burke, in criticism of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, reasserted several ideas about liberty from the ancients: first, that humans are social by nature, consequently they have unchosen duties and obligations to one another, family, friends, community, and nation. These duties are not contingent upon the satisfaction of self-interest or conventional law; 6 secondly, that self-restraint is a natural as individual liberty; and lastly, that happiness is achieved through the establishment of a harmony of conflicting passions under the control of reason.

So in summary, here are four differing conceptions of liberty:

  1. unbridled license to do anything one can get away with (state of nature);
  2. unbridled license that just avoids harming others, aka “Maximizing good for oneself with as little evil as possible to others” (Hobbes and Locke);
  3. willed obedience to a general will in whose creation one participates (Rousseau); and
  4. conformance to a standard which recognizes humans as naturally social, yet having conflicting and unruly passions that can be controlled by reason (Burke and the Ancients)

If there is no limit to human passions, i.e., they are never satisfied, always wanting more, as Hobbes believed, and if happiness is the ultimate objective, as the ancients believed, then our prevailing conception of liberty will never bring happiness.

So there has to be more to liberty than what is expressed by our contemporary conception.

1 T. Hobbes, Leviathan, I.13

2 J. Rousseau, Second Discourse, p.110

3 JS Mill, On Liberty

4 cf. Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address for an articulation of this view of liberty.

5 This conception of liberty was developed further by Immanuel Kant and more recently by John Rawls.

6 cf. Joseph Henrich, The Weirdest People in the World, NYT notable book of 2020. The book describes research that finds 80% of the world’s population to be more in tune with Burke’s than the Enlightenment’s conception of duty.

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