Do we want freedom, or simply to rattle the bars?

John Jackson
7 August 2001

I was recently invited to attend a discussion about freedom. It was connected to the debates on the pro-Tory right about liberty and freedom, although not all those present were Tories. I listened carefully. To my surprise many of the participants, instead of talking about freedom, talked about rights. The innate entitlement of people to freedom is best secured, they said, by defining their rights. The right to information, the right to a fair trial, the right to speak freely, the right to feel safe and so on; they were all championed and then defined, mainly by identifying their extent.

That approach to rights and their definition produced an uneasy negative reaction in me. Surely, to approach freedom in this way is to limit it – almost to deny it. Rights so closely defined are not the rights of individuals expected to behave as individuals. They are the rules of a community, of society, of the state. They define the boundary between the interests of the state and its citizens. As the state becomes more complex, more intrusive and an increasingly more important provider, that boundary will be defined in increasing detail. Freedoms that are not specifically protected as rights will wither away. The Human Rights Act does nothing to expand freedom. It merely provides a general catch-all brake on the encroachment of the state. It is not an expression of freedom by a free people.

Can we ever really be free?

Most of us leap to affirm our belief in the importance of personal freedom. In a perfect society we will all enjoy it. We should be more cautious. The situation is much more complicated than that. There are strong natural pressures that go the other way.

We are not programmed genetically to use (much) personal freedom, even if we have the economic and social means to do so. It is not even in our nature to behave as free-standing individuals for much of the time, howsoever we may think of ourselves. We may strive intellectually to escape from the evolutionary history which imprisons us, but thinking is one thing, behaving is another. Few succeed in escaping. The champions of rights whom I met at that meeting were, in reality, campaigners for rules within a tribe. The rules are necessary to maintain cohesion – without them the tribe implodes. The true impulses of those champions came not from their libertarian brains but from their dominant genes.

We are social animals and are most at ease with ourselves when banding together in tribes, identifiable communities, or that surrogate community – for most of us – the work place. We are also comfortably conscious of that larger community, the state, to which we relate more indirectly but think of as having its own interests, its own personality. Whatever we may say or think about personal freedom, we are willingly tyrannised by the rules of conformity and we like the anonymity that goes with respectability and political correctness. Moreover, like all social animals, we are selfish: being social gives us the best chance of personal survival. We are also social animals of the modern left. We find our self-respect in egalité and our security in fraternité. But liberté, which we talk about a lot and loudly, scares us stiff.

There is a difference between a society based on a multiplicity of rules in which nothing can be done unless it is pre-permitted and a society with one rule, the rule that anything can be done until others stop it or limit it. This latter case suggests, as Margaret Thatcher once said, that there is no such thing as society. The implication is that there is only a system that depends for its stability on an interlocking web of trade-offs between non-conforming individuals pursuing their own selfish individual interests. This is not correct.

The reason that those societies that attach great value to personal freedom and have strong tendencies in this one rule only direction, eg the United States, are also very strong as societies is that there is a pronounced and fundamentally instinctive communal awareness. As social animals we have different survival techniques from solitary animals. Those techniques involve hunting together. Most of us are dogs rather than cats – Margaret Thatcher forgot that.

Arguably, no harm comes from approaching freedom by identifying rights. Respect for minorities can be expressed as the recognition of a right. So can many other aspects of freedom. Does it really matter if most of us are happy to secure what we believe to be freedom by allowing the state to define our rights and by conforming and being politically correct? There are increasing signs that people think it does matter. Those people have votes and politicians are becoming interested. It could be a way of getting at hugely powerful centrist governments.

There is a practical as well as a political side to the question. Harm can come from too much pursuit and definition of rights, and the conformity in which it is likely to result. Strong and well-organised societies tend to suppress individualism. Individuals are either ejected from or, if seeking entry, rejected by those societies. Non-conformity is the hallmark of true individuality.

History tells us that much creativity, many new ideas – thinking the unthinkable, many inventions and most great art – come from non-conforming individuals. And from non-conforming individuals who pursued their own ideas without, probably, pausing to think “responsibly” about the effect those ideas might have on others, about the community. Ever since we learned how to accumulate transferable wealth, we have been able to afford a dynamic truce between social stability and non-conforming individuality. It is the latter which is the engine of change. Without it we fossilise. Consider what happened to Europe when so much of that engine emigrated as refugees to the United States in the 19th Century. Europe became moribund and most of us admire what was created in the New World – with all its imperfections.

Strengthening the bars of a roomier prison

How should we resolve the conflict between our intellectual conviction that freedom of the individual – with its advantages - is a hallmark of a civilised society and our instinctive drive to secure the stability of that society? One answer is to recognise with confidence, that society, the state, is the conscious creation of us as individuals. It does not have interests of its own. It is our servant, not our master. To accord it mastery is to deny our individuality, to surrender to our genes. Our capacity to overcome our genetic drives by using our intellects is the only thing that distinguishes us from the rest of the animal world – a great evolutionary mystery.

But it requires a great effort of will. We should make that effort, and not hesitate to mould the state and organise its workings. Those democratic societies that have elected to do this, by having a written constitution with a proper separation between the executive, the legislature and an independent judiciary, also have a Bill of Rights included in the constitution. But in America, those rights were declared by the people who created, and were determined to maintain control of, the state. They did not – and should not - flow from the state itself.

Here in Britain, the state has always moulded the expectations of its subjects. Now, thanks to New Labour, it has provided us with a Human Rights Act that will, we are told, be safeguarded by Parliament. But in the British system, without adequate separation of powers, Parliament is an instrument of the state. The basic rights that could advance liberty will not be provided by it. Those rights need to stand apart from the state and be the expression of freedom by a free people. If the Conservative Party wants to stand for freedom, perhaps it should offer us the constitution of a free people.

Those who sweep everything together and define freedom in terms of rights granted by the state are wrong. They are strengthening the bars of a roomier prison. There are other, more courageous, approaches that risk little and would gain much for all of us. If we value freedom, that is.

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