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Two Freedoms
One for me and one for thee

by Bryan Zepp Jamieson
July 19, 2009

Isaiah Berlin, the noted political scientist, believed there were two types of freedom people could attain to. The first was positive freedom, the notion that one could gain mastery over oneself and guide others to similar self-revelation, and this in turn could change a society and make it free. The other type of freedom, negative freedom, simply meant freedom from coercion by government and society.

The problem with positive freedom, as Berlin saw it, was that when people didn't change to suit the needs of the new order, the new order would compel change, which obviously meant a loss of freedom. Berlin saw this as the inevitable result of all social revolutions. The ultimate, if fictional example of this was George Orwell's “Animal Farm” in which the pigs, having filled the power vacuum after the defeat of the Farmer, wound up taking on the attributes of the farmer. Orwell had Stalin in mind when he wrote it, but it is a commonplace in revolutions. The new leaders, having persuaded the people to rise above themselves to depose the old tyranny, often become tyrants themselves in order to put the Brave New World into being (think of the Great Cultural Leap in Mao's China, or Hitlers' pure Aryan society). Nor is this new; even the Bible described revolutions that turned into “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Daniel Webster put it best when he remarked that if the Devil were to overthrow God, he would find it necessary to take on the attributes of God in order to rule in Heaven.

After World War II, a simplistic model of human nature, based on game theory, was used to put the ideals of negative freedom into practice. The notion was that we are all essentially meat machines governed by a handful of basic needs and wants, and all that was needed to give us the amount of freedom we wanted was to make it in our best interest to pursue those needs and wants without any government interference.

There's another work of fiction, also dealing with animals, that illustrates this. In “Life of Pi”, by Yann Martel, the narrator, a retired zookeeper, explains that animals in his care enjoyed a level of freedom far beyond any they might have experienced in the wild. The lion never spent several days searching fruitlessly and with increasing desperation for prey. He never had to compete, with tooth and claw and blood, for mates, and his mate never had to fight off another male intent on destroying her cubs. They were free of parasites and had shelter from inclement weather. Nor does the zookeeper act in a coercive manner. The zookeeper noted that many animals, given the opportunity to escape such a life, rapidly return to it.

That's game theory, and negative freedom in a nutshell. The only difference is that in the idea model of the negative freedom, the zookeeper wouldn't even keep the animals locked up, but would simply appeal to their self-interest to make sure they stayed. The zookeeper, in turn, would be rewarded or demoted, based on his success in persuading the animals to stay.

Game theorists tried that in the west, and while it resulted in lots of satisfied and well-fed critters, it also resulted in societies that were self-centered, had little or no sense of moral outrage or justice, and gradually lost many of the most important attributes of a society, such as willingness to take care of the elderly and infirm, educate children, or work in major cooperative ventures. There was nothing in it for them, so why bother?

Some implementations failed catastrophically. When the Soviet Union collapsed, game theorists and negative freedom advocates rushed in to privatize everything in sight. A big part of negative freedom is that government must play no coercive role, but may only appeal to the self-interest of the governed parties. Everything was immediately privatized, resulting in mass starvation, a decrease in population of nearly 10%, a collapse of the entire economy, and a huge fall in the currency. People literally died in the gutters of major cities. Then a criminal oligarchy sprung up, turning Russia into the most corrupt and least productive nation in the west.

Similarly, the US tried the same thing in Iraq after invading and occupying the country. It was called “spreading freedom and democracy,” through the odd and oxymoronic way of imposing freedom and democracy, just as in Russia. Bush even described it as “Freedom is on the march,” an idiotic statement even by his own undemanding standards.

Same results: incredible corruption, and no benefit to the intended beneficiaries, who had no clue what to do with what little of it actually reached them. Instead, ten-ton pallets of hundred dollar bills went missing, and less than 3% of the money spent for reconstruction actually went to reconstruction.

In the United States, an example of it shows in the “No Child Left Behind” act. Having been rebuffed in efforts to simply privatize the entire school system, Republicans settled for a new system, a faux-meritocracy that rewarded schools that performed well, and withdrew support for schools that did not perform well. On a level playing field, it might actually be a meritocracy, but the playing field isn't level: the top influence in academic achievement is the socio-economic index of the child's family. The poorer the family, the less likely the child is to achieve academically. And the only way the administrators could determine how well the children were doing was through standard national testing, so unsurprisingly, the poor schools, faced with losing funding under a cruel system that punished the disadvantaged for not performing as well as rewarding the advantaged, learned to “teach to the tests,” training the kids in nothing but performing well on the tests. It was no longer education; it wasn't even the three “R”s. Teachers often taught students how to make a best guess on a multichoice question. This quickly spread to wealthier schools, who had no interest in losing funding to the poorer schools, with a result that a system that had been unequal was now incompetent and extremely unequal.

The great failing in positive freedom is that it so rarely results in freedom, and generally fails to get there while spilling a great deal of blood. Very few revolutions leave the people better off than where they were before the revolution.

The great failings in negative freedom lie in the fact that you can't attain freedom by reducing government control and coercion; you simply create a power vacuum. And there are entities more than happy to exploit that power vacuum: organized crime, corporations, churches. Further, the carrot-and-stick approach fails to account for the fact that people will game the system in order, at the very least, to avoid the stick, and usually to get as many carrots as possible.

In America, the result is a population, many of which are comparatively free of need or oppression, but who whine constantly nevertheless. The social inequality has grown, because the system is geared to reward “accomplishment” -- defined as playing the system with inherent advantages, and withdraw support for the failures. The society has also lost its sense of moral outrage: most Americans just blink stupidly if told that invasion, torture, letting people die due to lack of routine medical care are wrong and a social safety net is necessary.

Discontent – real discontent, and not just snivels because the president got a blow job – seems to be necessary to the functioning of a society. Without some discontent, societies decline into a pose of the satisfied lion at the zoo.

The trick, of course, is to have discontent without fomenting a second French Revolution.

Yann Martel's zookeeper character from “Life of Pi,” much later in the book, rhapsodizes about animals that have escaped from zoos all over the world and have lived in alien climes unnoticed by humans for months, years, even decades. He says that if you took any large city and turned it upside down and shook it out, you would be astonished at the number of big cats and other exotic creatures who had secretly and successfully taken up residence, unbeknownst to their human neighbors.

Martel is far too good a writer to have written such a contradiction by accident. It was his way, exemplified by the overall plot of the book, to show that neither humans nor animals are truly content to pass their time in upholstered comfort, free of need, but are looking for a middle route in which they can flourish and be challenged at the same time.

Positive freedom doesn't work. Negative freedom also doesn't work, and game theory is a system devised by a paranoid schizophrenic that attempts to make humans into meat machines.

Somewhere, perhaps in some European city, there is an ocelot who, if we only notice him, might have the answer as to what the best compromise between the two types of freedom might be.

Posted: July 21, 2009

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