"Freedom," or "liberty," in the atrophy of political imagination

Are we "free" to enter grocery stores without wearing masks?

First, we need to be saying something about the whole concept of "positive" and "negative" liberty that was brought into philosophic focus in Isaiah Berlin's essay "Positive and Negative Liberty." The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes:

Negative liberty is the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints. One has negative liberty to the extent that actions are available to one in this negative sense. Positive liberty is the possibility of acting — or the fact of acting — in such a way as to take control of one's life and realize one's fundamental purposes. While negative liberty is usually attributed to individual agents, positive liberty is sometimes attributed to collectivities, or to individuals considered primarily as members of given collectivities.

Now, of course "liberty" is one of the big ideals of the Enlightenment, as for instance mentioned in a famous passage of the Declaration of Independence as regards "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," by which was meant freedom from the government of King George III of England. So that's a negative liberty. 'Course, if you look at it as positive liberty, you can observe that "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" for participants on the American frontier really meant the ability to kill native peoples (life), take their land (land which, btw, was bought and sold in great Ponzi schemes immediately prior to the Panic of 1837, so that's liberty), and get drunk on the various fermented spirits produced on that land (thus Johnny Appleseed, as a promoter of the pursuit of happiness).

Negative liberty is how Enlightenment thinkers, Thomas Paine for example, are appropriated by present-day libertarians. Paine in his own era might have been a counterweight to the government of King George III; today he's an emblem on the flags of libertarians, those ideological BFFs of neoliberals. So, for instance, you can read the Foundation for Economic Education educating us on why Paine was such a great guy for saying things like:

"Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one."

In the current era, the idea of government as "necessary evil" has led to bloated "defense" budgets, police forces that are mostly well-paid armed gangs, and financial safety in perpetuity for corporations without much protection for the rest of us against the effects of a pandemic.

This negative notion of "freedom" or "liberty" is important now because the libertarian wankers are claiming the "freedom" or "liberty" to go into grocery stores without wearing masks, and without the Big Bad Gubmint saying no you must wear a mask, thus spreading COVID-19 everywhere if they happen to be asymptomatic carriers (and nobody knows one way or another until after the fact). The banner of "freedom" or "liberty" was also that of those proclaiming the premature re-opening of society (in the engineered absence of diagnostic testing), and thus also the extraordinarily high case-count of COVID-19 in the United States as compared to other countries. In such conditions one person's liberty to enter a grocery store not wearing a mask becomes another person's freedom to get COVID-19 and perhaps die soon thereafter. And there it is, folks, negative liberty in action. We can, moreover, expect that, when there is a vaccine, the nice libertarians will be out there defending the "right" of the vaccine owners to charge exorbitant amounts of money for its access, because they have the "freedom" to do as they please with it without government interference. Perhaps all of these applications of "liberty" or "freedom" are unjustified -- they are being used nonetheless.

As I suggested in an earlier diary, the intellectual banner of our era of history is the "complete atrophy of political imagination" of which Cornelius Castoriadis complained, and which afflicts all participants. It is through this complete atrophy of imagination that low-grade concepts like "freedom" or "liberty" are put to use in such inappropriate ways and that such unimaginative applications end up counting as "philosophy."

The imagination-less defenders of negative freedom make a big to-do about "doing harm to others." "Doing harm to others" is the standard word used to justify the "harm principle" -- or as it says in the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen," "Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else." This is another big Enlightenment liberal concept. The "harm principle," however, is actually the principle by which some degree of harm ends up being inflicted upon society, because the hole that expands to drain all society of meaning in light of capitalist domination is to be filled by the "sovereign individual" and his "freedom," and not by the principle of caring in which social problems are solved by good Samaritans, charitable organizations, Food Not Bombs operations, or social safety nets.

Anyone can show, for instance, that the "harm principle" can be misused to claim to allow mothers to abandon their babies. Mothers may abandon their babies because, through such logical extension, mothers who abandon their babies can pretend they are not doing "harm" to them, only exercising their "freedom," and the babies are "sovereign individuals" who themselves have "freedom." The babies thus abandoned retain their freedom to petition other mothers for inclusion by, for instance, crying out loud. But this is what you get when you take principles derived in a conflict between a rising merchant class and an authoritarian monarchy/ aristocracy, and apply them to all human affairs for all time. When libertarians are asked to discuss the relations of mothers to their babies, the idea of caring somehow sprouts anew in their arguments, while at the same time having nothing to do with the dominant philosophy coming out of their mouths.

As for the harm done to society by people entering grocery stores without wearing masks, it might at first appear as if the "harm principle" prohibits such a thing. But nobody really knows if any particular individual is doing that harm, because nobody in American society knows who is an asymptomatic carrier and who isn't, absent a regime of universal testing. It is basically when a society acts like a society, and takes care of its members socially and not merely as a collection of individuals, that harm reduction becomes possible.

The rest of society's harms become a matter of "freedom" by petitioning the advocates of "freedom" as caring people who are nonetheless "free" to ignore all of the injuries to freedom suffered by other people. This was the freedom exercised by the free world when it was free to ignore Hitler's persecution of the Jews of Germany in the 1930s and of most of Europe during World War II while perhaps condemning it, up to the point at which most of them were exterminated and it was too late. Advocating "freedom" is passive. Defending "freedom" isn't passive, but the logical path that insists that we are all compelled to defend "freedom" leads to the slogan "freedom isn't free," favored of militarists everywhere, which implies in this day and age that what we really need to do for the world is to have our government print a lot of money so that it can afford a bloated military-industrial complex which will for instance commission the making of airplanes which can't fly, because freedom. Perhaps it once also implied, five or six decades ago, that we were being obliged to defend "South Vietnam" with our bodies, or something of that sort. And that turned out horribly. Defending freedom thus represents a dilemma. Are we simply "free" to do what we want to defend freedom, or is freedom really not free. How far are we unfree to refuse to "defend freedom"?

There is also the subsidiary "principle" of "self-ownership," as suggested in the notion of the "sovereign individual." The self-owning individual is the sovereign individual, designed to be a member of one of the dominant classes of capitalist society in the 17th century and beyond. The self-owning individual can be considered a related example of negative freedom; a self-owning individual is someone who isn't owned by someone else, a reality which was painfully obvious during that era in which liberal principles were applied, an era in which much of the working class was enslaved (and, coincidentally, of African origin. Black lives matter). Self-ownership won't do anything for you, however, if the conditions for your survival are not assured, as they aren't when, in an era of subsistence wages, the Employment-Population Ratio drops to Great Depression levels and the Federal government cuts off assistance. Maybe in our grim future-to-come there will be some sort of provision wherein we will be able to survive by selling ourselves into legal slavery, in which we will still be allowed to imagine ourselves as self-owners.

Negative freedom, then, is a concept which appears to have largely been used up, made into a problem in its own right by the inexorable power of history. It might still have good uses, but we have thought of them already and we need, urgently, to think about problems not solved by negative freedom. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy argues:

To promote negative freedom is to promote the existence of a sphere of action within which the individual is sovereign, and within which she can pursue her own projects subject only to the constraint that she respect the spheres of others.

But this isn't really true, at least not in the physical sense anymore. Rather, the concept of negative freedom was a talisman against certain aggressive governing practices as they appeared to the liberal philosophers of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Permutations of the concept of negative freedom said nothing about the prerequisites of a healthy society, and they won't say anything about how these prerequisites will be met today, since they are too busy counseling people to "be free" (which in our era means maintaining the capitalist system in an era of its obsolescence, or worse going into a grocery store in America without wearing a mask). Perhaps the problem with negative freedom ruins the whole concept of freedom per se -- you can see in the rest of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy how the various philosophers twist themselves into knots trying to fit real life on the Procrustean bed made by the concepts of "freedom" and "unfreedom." Or perhaps there is some creative life to be found in the concept of "positive freedom," the notion that you need a decent society to have any freedom at all. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy cannot explore this possibility in any detail because its authors, like (say) the major political parties in the United States, are mentally stuck in the Cold War. I'll let you decide.

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In theory, you can be cited for not wearing your mask in most jurisdictions as a public health hazard, much like storing uranium in your refrigerator or exercising your liberty to drive down the left side of the road if you feel like it. The governmental sanction would be a fine -- but you have the right in most states to demand a jury trial and, if your Libertarian sensibility enjoys being a pest, you can string your appeal along for months.

Furthermore, liberty in this scenario for all realistic purposes resides with the grocer. It is the grocer who keeps you out of the store and, under libertarian theory, the grocer has the right to set conditions for entry -- no shirt, no shoes, no service.

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This inquiry about "liberty" or "rights" is of academic interest only.

What is more interesting is how this particular rule came to be enforced by the grocery clerks of our nation. After masks first being ruled out, then they were ruled in. Who made that call? Was there a national referendum? No. Was there a debate in Congress or any State Legislature? Not that I know of. Please enlighten me if anybody is aware of that happening anywhere.

Thou shalt wear a mask in public came from "science." You see some of those scientist folks on TV almost every day. Some are medical doctors. Others are researchers. All knowing people know that they are right. Anybody who challenges science is either an idiot or a terrorist or both.

There is no right to liberty from Science -- the font of the authority for the mask. And anybody who doubts that is committing thought crime, and must be silenced. Check out the social media mega-platforms removing "false" information.

On this very board I recently saw a cutesy video proving for the zillionth time that Trump is an asshole -- and the first "fact" recited was that 99% of the deaths from The Virus would have been prevented if somebody other than Trump were President. Disinformation? Not allowed when it lies the other way, but this kind of lie is perfectly acceptable.

It is power, not liberty, that defines the fight against the virus. The rules that require people to be laid off from their jobs, to give up their futures, to be evicted from their homes in the name of public safety are not subject to debate. For all Trump's alleged desire to kill people for his nefarious reasons, somehow or other public life came to an abrupt halt as soon as he declared a National Emergency on March 13.

Whence cometh this power to force one third of productive activity to shut down abruptly? By analogy to war. With lives as stake, with unified action required that will not work without that unity, whoever is in charge has the responsibility to order certain behaviors, like wearing masks, that must be enforced.

Mainly due to general awareness of the hideous reality of your lungs filling up with fluid, there has been almost no real hassle about masks in the grocery stores. Of all the impositions mandated by Science, putting on a mask is by far the LEAST onerous. In my jaundiced opinion, in this era of Fake News we get Fake Arguments like, Wearing a Mask Is Tyranny -- an idiotic cartoon version of the real argument against this regime of Disaster For Profit.

In this "war" against an invisible invader, the total corruption of our society has been exposed, but cognitive dissonance is needed more than ever as we contemplate the chaos to come as a result of how we fought the virus. Our "generals" in this war, starting with Asshole In Chief Trump and all 50 Governors through all the various public health bureaucracies -- they all owe their positions and careers to Big Money.

I am surprised that more people are not objecting to the deprivation of their "liberty" to go about their lives the way they say fit.

Of course, civilization demands cooperation and the Ayn Randian emphasis on The Individual is crap. This invasion from Inner Space is kicking our ass because the orders coming down from the top are incoherent, contradictory and in many cases insane -- sending infected patients to nursing homes, for example.

So when individuals balk at meeting their obligation to join in the universal effort to fight the spread of a deadly illness, I understand. Like the line from Apocalypse Now, "the bullshit piled up so deep you needed wings to stay above it."

Perhaps the survivors of this war against the virus -- which we are losing badly right now -- will build a society based on mutual respect and mutual obligations. Right now, the only reason why anybody ever has any obligation is due to a lack of power.

The powerful have no obligations whatsoever aboard this sinking ship.

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I cried when I wrote this song. Sue me if I play too long.

Cassiodorus's picture

@fire with fire

In theory, you can be cited for not wearing your mask in most jurisdictions as a public health hazard, much like storing uranium in your refrigerator or exercising your liberty to drive down the left side of the road if you feel like it.

Oh, I don't think the idea of going without a mask constitutes any sort of real "freedom" -- but the concept is being used that way.

Furthermore, liberty in this scenario for all realistic purposes resides with the grocer.

You know which businesses really don't like mask rules under the current dispensation? Restaurants. Their "liberty" would be to choose to allow anyone to come in with or without a mask, because without patrons they can't have a business, and nobody is going to eat a delicious dish in an indoor setting while at the same time wearing a mask. It wouldn't work, of course, because if enough people patronized indoor restaurants, soon the whole society would be COVID-19-ridden, but the current dispensation didn't allow for any sort of social decontamination like what occurred in much of western Europe. So the "liberty" of restaurant owners is going to be lined up with that of those who claim the "liberty" to not wear a mask in grocery stores and other such public places.

In real life, of course, when I see restaurants open for business, I stay far, far away.

Perhaps the survivors of this war against the virus -- which we are losing badly right now -- will build a society based on mutual respect and mutual obligations.

Right. And instead of trying to base so much of society upon "liberty" (i.e. negative liberty, or freedom from unwanted government intrusion into the life of the individual) and the "sovereign individual" (individual "self-ownership" as a substitute for a decent society), such a society of survivors would base it on something else. This is why I called negative liberty or negative freedom a "low-grade" concept.

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"Faith in philosophy means the refusal to permit fear to stunt in any way one's capacity to think." -- Max Horkheimer

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Oh, I don't think the idea of going without a mask constitutes any sort of real "freedom" -- but the concept is being used that way.

I think it is a breech of my freedom to be told to fog up my glasses if I want to eat. As I said in my response, it is the least onerous infringement of my freedom now, really nothing more than an inconvenience -- but I would not wear a mask without a good reason. You can say that it is the virus that is infringing my freedom rather than the idiots who run our government, and I can relate to that way of looking at it.

My point I believe is congruent with your essay -- "liberty" and "freedom" are nice values but they really cannot under any conceivable social order be absolute. That is not controversial except amongst the looniest of libertarians. There are quite a few of them who reside out where the buses don't run.

So, yes, we have to yield our liberty and freedom every day of our lives. We do disagree about whether calling some liberty "negative" and other liberty "positive" contributes anything to understanding the relationships that humans must have with each other in order to survive.

Regarding the grocer -- I was pointing to who has the "right" to let people through the door. The grocer does. From a libertarian perspective, the grocer has the "property right" to impose whatever rules for admittance he or she likes.

Regarding the "legal" requirement to wear a mask that pisses off some libertarians, I was just stating what I have observed in several months of mandatory masked foraging for food -- everybody obeys without the cops being involved. That is what makes the libertarian whine about masks so silly.

My point is that the "rules" are coming from a society that has lost all legitimate authority. It only has coercion as means of fostering unity. The muscle that keeps almost everybody masked up is fear of the your lungs filling with fluid -- not the state.

Thanks for your response. Although I disagree with significant aspects of your argument, I find it to be reasonable and very well argued.

We need each other and most libertarians and their fellow travelers on the far right make a fetish out of individualism. That is nutty as hell.

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I cried when I wrote this song. Sue me if I play too long.

Cassiodorus's picture

@fire with fire @fire with fire

My point I believe is congruent with your essay -- "liberty" and "freedom" are nice values but they really cannot under any conceivable social order be absolute. That is not controversial except amongst the looniest of libertarians.

Indeed! I might add, though, that "liberty" and "freedom" are being made to substitute for a social order by the neoliberal rulers of society, thus the social consequences I mentioned in my essay, to wit:

In the current era, the idea of government as "necessary evil" has led to bloated "defense" budgets, police forces that are mostly well-paid armed gangs, and financial safety in perpetuity for corporations without much protection for the rest of us against the effects of a pandemic.

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"Faith in philosophy means the refusal to permit fear to stunt in any way one's capacity to think." -- Max Horkheimer

@fire with fire
In Illinois it was by fiat of the Governor citing a Health Emergency and citing Illinois' Emergency Powers Act. Fair enough, but that Act says the Legislature must confirm the emergency within 30 days. they haven't they have been out of session the whole time and refuse to convene. Now Pritzker is talking about imposing fines and further restrictions. I rather like Pritzker and I voted for him in both the primary and the general (would have voted for a chunk of cheese against the incumbent (R) Governor, a hedge fund operator). Yesh, that was our choice, a billionaire trust fund baby or a multi-millionaire hedge fund operator. No Lincoln, or Altgeld or Stevenson to be found.

On the whole, I think he made mostly good calls, but I voted for a Governor, not a King to rule by fiat.

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We are so screwed.