Earth-Hunger and Other Essays/Liberty and Discipline

Liberty and Discipline

The proposition that "every man should be free to do as he likes, without encroaching on the similar liberty of every other man," is commonly used as if it were a a simple and final definition of social and civil liberty. It is not so, however. It is only one of those formulas which we get into the habit of using because they save us the trouble of thinking, not because they are real solutions. Evidently any two men might easily disagree as to the limits set by this formula to their respective spheres of right and liberty—if so they would quarrel and fight. Law, peace, and order would not therefore be guaranteed; that is to say, the problem would not be solved.

Civil liberty must therefore be an affair of positive law, of institutions, and of history. It varies from time to time, for the notion of rights is constantly in flux. The limiting line between the rights and duties of each man, up to which each may go without trenching on the same rights and liberty of others, must be defined at any moment of time by the constitution, laws, and institutions of the community. People often deny this, and revolt at it, because they say that one's notions of rights and liberty are not set for him by the laws of the state. The first man you meet will undoubtedly tell you that there are a number of laws now in force in the United States which he does not think are consistent with liberty and (natural) rights—I who write this would say so of laws restricting immigration, laying protective taxes, etc. But it is to be observed that behind the positive law existing at any time, there is the moral reflection of the community which is at work all the time. This is the field of study, debate, and reflection, on which moral convictions are constantly being formed; and when they are formed, they find their way into laws, constitutions, and institutions, provided that the political institutions are free, so as to allow this to take place. If not, there is opened a gap between the positive law and the moral convictions of the people, and social convulsions ensue. It is a constant phenomenon of all exaggerated philosophers of the state, that they obscure this distinction between public morals and positive law. The older abuse was to suppress public morals in the name of positive law; the later abuse is to introduce public morals into positive law directly and immaturely.

If now we turn to individual liberty, still it is true that all liberty is under law. The whole life of man is under law—it is impossible to conceive of it otherwise. It is impossible to understand society except we think of it as held and governed by forces which maintain equilibrium in it, just as we have learned to conceive of nature. The objections which are made to this notion are exactly parallel to those which were formerly brought against the same conception of physics, and it is impossible to argue against them, because, if they were true, there would be no thinking or arguing possible. If social science deals only with matters of expediency,

then there is no social science. It is a question of expediency whether there shall be two Houses in the Legislature or one; whether the Cabinet ministers shall have seats in Congress; whether men shall work ten hours a day or eight; whether we should use more or less paper money inside the requirement of the country; whether university education should be based on Greek; whether women should have the suffrage; and so on. If all the questions of social science are of this nature, there is no social science; there is nothing to find out. All that can be said is: "Go on and try it"; and the people who have "views" may be listened to if they show what they think to be the advantages of one or another arrangement.

In truth, however, the field of expediency is very circumscribed. It is surrounded by the domain of forces, so that when we seem most free to adopt such plans as we please, we find ourselves actually controlled by facts in the nature of man and of the earth, and we find that it is the sum of our wisdom to find out those facts and to range ourselves under them and in obedience to them. Then our science and our art have their proper places and fall into due relation to each other.

Thus we come to this: that there is no liberty for the intelligent man as an individual, or in voluntary co-operation with others, except in intelligent obedience to the laws of right living. His first task is to know the world in which he finds himself. He must work and he must study. He is not turned out to riot in self-indulgence because he is free; he must conform to the conditions in which he finds himself. He must obey. When he has broken all the bonds of old institutions, of superstition and human tyranny, he wakes to find that he can have no liberty unless he subdues himself; labor and self-control are the conditions of welfare. He must not cry out that liberty is only a delusion and a juggle; he must understand that what liberty properly means for the individual, is intelligent acceptance of the conditions of earthly life, conformity to them, and manful effort to make life a success under them.

Not to follow this line of thought into the domain of private morals, I turn back to the relation of individual liberty to civil liberty. Civil and political liberty cannot release a man from state burdens. It is interesting and instructive to notice that free yeomen in the United States have to take up, of their own accord, many of those burdens which, in the Middle Ages, were regarded as the heaviest feudal obligations. The farmers in a New England township have to maintain roads and bridges, do police duty, and maintain all public institutions as much as if they lived upon a manor. A farmer who works out his taxes on a road does not know how near he comes to reproducing a mediæval villain. The burdens are there, because society is there; and they must be borne. If the state does them on a larger scale than the township, then they must be paid for; and when we see men eager to work them out if they can, we must infer that the burden is increased, not lessened, by being turned into taxes.

When the peasant obtains freedom, therefore, and sets up a democratic republic, he finds that that means only that he must turn about and do again voluntarily, as an intelligent citizen, what he did before under human compulsion. When he gets self-government, he finds that it still means government; only that now it is turned into personal discipline instead of being governmental compulsion. If he gets his personal liberty, then civil liberty is nothing but a guarantee that, in doing his best to learn the laws of right living and to obey them, to the end that his life may be a success, no one else shall be allowed to interfere with him or to demand a share in the product of his efforts. That is what the function of the state is; and if it does more or less it fails of its function.

Discipline, therefore, is the great need of our time. It should be the first object of education. By it we mean something much more than the mental training about which we used to hear so much. We mean training of thought, feeling, and emotions, so as to apprehend and appreciate all things correctly; and habits of self-control so as to hold one's self within the limits which enable free men in a free society to live in harmony and pursue their ends successfully without encroaching on each other. Our children need it. Their freedom and fearlessness give them spirit and courage; but they lack form and training—they would not be any less free if they were considerably chastened. We need it as parents; we should discharge our responsibilities in that relationship much better if we were schooled to more patience and to more rational methods of exercising authority or instruction. We need it in social relations, because it is only by virtue of discipline that men can co-operate with each other. The notion that co-operation is a power which can take the place of the intelligence of well-trained men, is itself a product and proof of undisciplined thinking. Men increase their power indefinitely by co-operation and organization; but in order to co-operate they must make concessions. The prime condition is concord, and it is only disciplined men who are capable of attaining to that. It has often been said that men have to surrender their liberty in order to organize; but it is better stated that they gain new power consistently with liberty by organizing. We need better discipline in science, at least in social science. There is a great luxuriance in the production of "views" and notions in this field; and the greatest need is of a set of guarantees and criteria by which this exuberance could be trimmed down. There is one set of persons whose liberty would certainly gain by the production of such tests and guarantees, viz., those who are now likely to have to pay the expense of all the social speculation which is on foot, if any of it should be put to experiment. We need more discipline in public affairs. Our freedom would lose nothing if it were more sober, and if a great many abuses which the law cannot reach were more under the ban of public opinion.

Thus liberty in a free state, and for intelligent men, is limited, first by responsibility, and second by discipline.

This work was published before January 1, 1925, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.