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Earth-Hunger and Other Essays/The Disappointment of Liberty

The Disappointment of Liberty

As we probe the idea of liberty on one side and another, distinctions are brought to light. First we have revolutionary or anarchistic liberty, the notion of which is that a free man is emancipated from the struggle for existence, and assured everything he needs (wants), by virtue of his liberty, on terms which he shall not regard as onerous. Secondly, we have personal liberty, which is the chance to fight the struggle for existence for one's self, to the best of one's will and ability, within the bounds of one's personal circumstances, for which other men are not responsible, without any risk of being compelled to fight the struggle for anybody else, and without any claim to the assistance of anybody else in one's own. Third, we have civil liberty, which is a status produced by laws and civil institutions, in which the personal liberty of individuals is secured; it is a status in which all rights and duties are in equilibrium.

Objection has been made to the second and third definitions that a man might steal, by way of liberty to pursue the struggle for existence on his own behalf. The objection only illustrates the difficulty of this order of discussion. It is conceivable that laws and institutions might tolerate stealing, for they have done it; but as there can be no robber without a robbed, and as the definition must apply equally to all individuals in the society, the definition absolutely excluded stealing or other invasion of personal rights. The objection is therefore futile, and does not call for any modification of the definition.

As we go on with the discussion, we also see that in one view of the case all human strength seems to lie in liberty, while in another view it all seems to lie in discipline. At this point a pitfall lies on either side. Anarchists and Nihilists, accepting the notion that in liberty is all strength, elevate revolution to the highest function as a redeeming and reforming force; to destroy and tear down becomes a policy of wisdom and growth; everything which is is in the way; everything which has grown as an institution is an obstacle to that ideal of primitive purity and simplicity, combined with liberty, to which we would be eager to return. Hence liberty of the first species is sought, in practise, by universal negation and reckless destruction. But society cannot sustain itself without stringent organization—organization which coerces its members. Liberty, on this view, is therefore social suicide, for it is war of the society against the most essential conditions of its own existence.

On the other side, the notion that discipline is the secret of all strength is easily convertible into the notion that subordination, submission, obedience to one's fellow-men, is the secret of all strength. That is the fallacy of authoritative absolutism in all its forms. A man without discipline is a boor and a barbarian, but a man who has submitted his will to another mortal's will has broken the spring of moral power. The effect of sound discipline is that it never breaks the spring, but strengthens it, because the individual character reacts with new energy on account of new moral forces which are brought into play, viz., critical reflection and independent conviction. The question which arises at every new crisis in which a man is freed from control is this: if others let go of you will you take hold of yourself? A spoiled boy or man is one in whom a succession of these crises has been decided the wrong way.

At this point the moral problem comes in. It consists in the combination of the two elements of liberty and discipline; and they must be combined according to circumstances. The problem is not, therefore, capable of definite or final solution; it defies analysis and rule. Like other moral problems, it is only a fragment of the great problem of living.

The more widely and thoroughly we explore the field of social fact and relations in which liberty falls, the more are we convinced that liberty in the sense of the first of the above definitions is the grandest of human delusions. That notion of liberty is a part of the great dream that our situation on earth is, to a great extent, a matter of our own choice and decision, or, as the current fashion expresses it, that social questions are ethical. With the growth of social science the old wrangle about free will has been transferred to this domain, and the question whether we make our social phenomena or our social phenomena make us, whether the man is a function of the state or the state is a function of the man, is the question whether social science can throw off the thraldom of metaphysics or not. At present we have to note that our studies of liberty, in all its phases and applications, have forced us again and again to observe that there is no real liberty but that which is an affair of history, law, and institutions. It is therefore positive, and so is capable of historical study and scientific analysis.

The dream of liberty has taken possession of men's minds within the last century to the exclusion of other dreams except that of equality—and with good reason, for if the dream of emancipation from the heavy weight of the struggle for existence were realizable it would supersede all other dreams. Then, again, there has been an unprecedented opening of new chances to mankind, which chances have permitted the human race at the same time to increase in numbers and to advance in comfort of living. Political institutions have advanced at the same time and have been assumed to be the cause of the advance in average comfort. This claim has been almost universally admitted, and has produced the natural inference that political devices can do all for us that we can possibly desire. This is the latest Utopianism, and it surpasses all previous phases of Utopianism in pure silliness. Then, again, any period of advancing comfort is sure to be one of advancing sentimentalism; men who are struggling each for himself, under the pressure of dire necessity, will spare little sympathy on each other—it is when they are at ease that they have sympathy to spare. Distress dissolves the social bond; comfort strengthens it. All these things, then, have concurred within a century to raise and intensify the dream of liberty.

It is not strange that this movement has issued and is issuing in disappointment, neither is it strange that the disappointment should be vented on constitutional liberty, the only true liberty, and never should reach the delusive and fallacious liberty at all. Human history is full of just such errors as that. The last thing in the world to which we attribute our misfortunes is our pet delusions; they stand firm through all.

I say that it is not strange that the dream of liberty should issue in disappointment and revolt, because this liberty has been promised as a cause and guarantee of bliss on earth, and it has failed to give what it promised. Civil and personal liberty help on the evolution of society; they produce growth of individuals and societies. They are not revolutionary, but are hostile to revolution; they stand related to the revolutionary liberty as the truth to the caricature. It stands, therefore, as one of the tasks before our social science to distinguish these two notions of liberty from each other as sharply as possible, and while manifesting the strength and value of the one to show the error and falsity of the other.

Everything, however, which is evolutionary aims to produce the utmost possible, in the next stage, out of the antecedents which lie in the last stage. Evolutionary methods, therefore, have nothing to do with ideals; they aim always at the best possible under the circumstances. Under such methods, therefore, there can be no dreams of universal bliss at all; neither can there be hope in brutal destruction, or unintelligent negation, for any sober reform.

It is most natural that this reduction of all the enthusiastic dreams of the last century to the test of positive truth should be regarded as "cold" and unsympathetic; that a wider and wider gulf should open between "ethical aspirations" and the products of scientific method applied to social phenomena; and that the point at which the cleft opens should be the doctrine of liberty. Any student of social science who accepts the anarchistic notion of liberty will find himself lost in the new forms of the mist of free-will. No such notion of liberty can be tolerated in a scientific discussion, but only that notion which, being a product of social growth, is within the field of the science itself. On every ground and at every point the domain of social science must be defended against the alleged authority of ethical dicta, which cannot be subjected to any verification whatever.

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.