[In 2002, after years of intermittent research, I wrote a book-length essay titled “Freedom: A Question.” The question in the title concerned the very possibility of individual freedom, and the essay considered the latest data and analysis on the human brain (for example, on nonconscious processing and behavior) and cultural evolution (for example, Jared Diamond’s thesis that geography is destiny), and examined politics (that is, the conflict of freedom and power) as well. I never intended to get the essay published: I thought of it as a way to think through questions that I found to be of supreme importance. Many of its conclusions are foundational to the way I think and write today.
Below is a lightly edited version of the final chapter. I post it here not because it contains dazzling revelations but as an interesting example of one person’s eccentric intellectual quest. Readers are reminded that the data cited is good but old.]
Freedom is a biological capability of the human race. It may vary among individuals and between cultures and political regimes, but it coexists with us everywhere, at all times, if only as a possibility. And in fact it is impossible to eradicate human freedom with any completeness or finality. We are and must remain free, sometimes despite ourselves.
Unfreedom is also a biological trait – a capability – of the human race. Clockwork mechanisms help every human being to filter the immense number of signals from the world. Powerful desires organize our behavior in a rough and ready way. We are usually cleverest when least conscious.
But this paradox, which has attended us at every step of our explorations, means that we can be doing exactly as we wish and not be free – at least not as we have defined it. We can be driven by irresistible compulsions that bypass or overwhelm any mediation of the inner life and coerce obedience to some desirable object in the world. The resulting behaviors – for example, addiction – can be harmful to us, to others, and to social life.
We began this essay with a debate between the ages. At the heart of this debate is the human organism: driven, divided, bounded, but indeterminately free. How can the concept of community be reconciled with the predictable and repetitive urges of such an organism? How are lawfulness and stability possible? Or the peace of mind that figures so prominently in the record of human aspirations: dona nobis pacem? Given who we are, how must we proceed?
We have pursued the facts as far as they will take us. The answers now at best are guesses: acts of faith. We do not “know ourselves” with any mathematical precision. Freedom and unfreedom as ruling principles can only be justified subjectively. The question is about choice, not knowledge. The debate between the ages has been ferocious, bloody-minded, precisely for that reason.
One side holds that the human organism is beyond redemption. If allowed to roam free, nearly all individuals will become a source of chaos and corruption. Individualism is identical to selfishness; the promotion of one begets the other. The problem is finding a way to maintain order.
The solution is implicit in the vast and obvious inequalities within the human race. Some individuals are strong while others are weak; some are bright, others dim. Among the self-interested and self-indulgent mass of humanity, a few rare specimens can resist desire and act on conscious choice. They alone are free. Therefore, they alone should rule.
The rule of the worthy means the coerced obedience of the rest. Like children, the masses will get into trouble if they escape parental discipline. That has been the traditional view of the relationship of the human organism to freedom, from the time of the pharaohs to that of Pol Pot. Only “the best” can stand the temptations of power. Membership in this exclusive club has varied, depending on the culture and the temper of the times – but it has always been a minority. The most extreme version was surely the “fuehrer principle,” in which “the best” was reduced to one.
For an honest account of this principle, we must turn to Plato rather than Hitler:
“The greatest principle of all is that nobody, whether male or female, should be without a leader. Nor should the mind of anybody be habituated to letting him do anything at all on his own initiative; neither out of zeal, nor even playfully. But in war and in the midst of peace – to his leader he shall direct his eye and follow him faithfully. And even in the smallest matter he should stand under leadership. For example, he should get up, or wash, or take his meals…only if he has been told to do so. In a word, he should teach his soul, by long habit, never to dream of acting independently, and to be utterly incapable of it.”
Total obedience is the logical conclusion of this side of the debate between the ages. Totalitarianism, as we have seen, is a violent reaction against the market culture. But it enlists very old, very seductive styles and rituals to this reactionary cause, even as it reaches for the most modern and sophisticated means of coercion.
The potential of this doctrine to become a nuisance again has already been considered. As we turn to the future of freedom, however, we would do well to remember that the habits of obedience so dear to Plato have deep roots in human history. We don’t pray to an elected heavenly President, for example, but to a “king of kings” and “lord of hosts” or at best to “our Father,” whose will must be done.
The opposing side of the debate agrees that the human organism is beyond redemption but makes no exceptions to the rule. None can stand the temptations of power. To the degree they are exposed to such temptations, the best become the worst. It is as unrealistic to expect a king or an aristocracy to rise above private desire as it is to imagine they can defy gravity and fly. The least dangerous way to maintain order, therefore, is to fragment and disseminate the machinery of power as widely as possible, in part by enlarging and protecting the sphere of individual action.
Critical to this argument is the imposition of rules of the road. Individuals can be trusted to pursue their private ends. When those ends come in conflict, all parties must accept the arbitration of fair, impartial rules: otherwise, the tyranny of kings is traded for the tyranny of the masses or for a Hobbesian war of all against all. Society exists to inculcate and elaborate the rules. Its styles and rituals aim to minimize the likelihood of conflict. Government exists to protect the rules against private interests. That’s the legitimate purpose of coercion.
The privatization of culture and power is a relatively new event. Less than three centuries separate us from a world ruled by absolute monarchs and divine emperors. Only a generation separates us from the belief that dismal poverty is an incurable disease. We must consider the rule of the private person as an experiment whose outcome is still unknown. Individual freedom, everywhere cheered and celebrated and sung about, is in fact an open question.
Naturally, we want to know how it all turns out: whether the story of freedom has a happy ending. Yet prophecy is fatuous business. Karl Popper warned us against that type of “historicism” – and the human organism, individually and gathered in communities, however bounded, follows a trajectory that is impossible to chart with any confidence.
What, then, can we say about the future of freedom? I believe we can make a couple of observations, with which we may safely conclude this essay. One touches on changes in the environment: it ponders whether freedom can survive. The other explores possible changes in our behavior and asks whether freedom can grow. The subjects are large but will be treated with unseemly brevity. I only wish to show how the facts of the present are arrayed toward the future. As for the future itself – we may define that as the region where irreducible reality fades into irrefutable hope.
In the regions of the world where freedom has flourished, the environment is changing fast. That is our first observation. The change to the environment is not of the kind that worries Al Gore and Paul Ehrlich: it’s in the opposite direction. Long ago the human environment became humanized. Since then, the environmental factors that most powerfully influence our species have been culturally produced, and the most influential cultural factor is probably population density.
Knowledge held by a single person may allow a small band of hunters to survive. A crowded city requires specialized skills, mutual dependency, greater complexity, new behaviors. Mere numbers drive cultural evolution.
The market culture has been both the cause and the consequence of an immense population increase. That trend is about to be reversed. All the richest and freest countries of the world are experiencing a decline in fertility. Soon this will translate into a decline in population.
Consider the following UN estimates. By 2050, Europe will lose 124 million inhabitants. A mass of humanity roughly equivalent to the population of France and Germany today, with all its potential for science and art, will vanish from the scene. In Japan, the population will shed around 40 million persons by 2050; by the end of the century it will be half what it was at the beginning. Japan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare, in a burst of suicidal bravado, published a white paper showing that the entire population of the country will be wiped out by the year 3500. Since publication of the white paper in 1998, however, fertility rates have deteriorated, moving forward by 100 years the day the Japanese go extinct.
The structural reasons for this population decline are fairly well understood. The greater (and longer) investment in each individual that is the decisive innovation of the market culture has everywhere resulted in smaller families. Birth control technologies developed during the last half-century have tipped the scales below the rate of reproduction.
The moral choices involved are far more opaque. The availability of birth control, for example, doesn’t explain the refusal to breed. This isn’t “planned parenthood” at work. It’s little or no parenthood. Population declines are rare but not unknown in the human record. They usually follow catastrophic changes in the environment. That was the case with Ireland after the potato famine of the nineteenth century, and with Communist and ex-Communist countries today. Childlessness is a reaction to life conditions. Why it should take hold among people whose lives are wealthy, healthy, and secure is a profound puzzle. In fact, the strange brew of increasingly rich, highly stable communities with declining populations is unprecedented in modern history.
The consequences are therefore uncertain. We’ve never been here before. Few seem aware that we are here – after all, the pattern of the last two centuries has been population explosion rather than decline. Among those who see the change coming, opinions vary. Environmentalists like Ehrlich, who advocate “reducing human numbers,” consider the decline as the first step toward a sustainable society. Others worry about the “death of the West.” In any case, certain facts are beyond question. Many of the structures and institutions of liberal democracy rest on demographic assumptions that are about to go bad.
The obvious example is social security. There has been an understanding between the generations, entailing the transfer of money from young and middle-aged persons to the old. This “pay as you go” system assumes a population pyramid, with large numbers of the working-aged filling the bottom and far fewer retired persons at the top. But as birth rates drop and life expectancy rises, the pyramid inverts. Ever fewer working-age persons must support ever larger numbers of retired persons.
In Japan, the ratio will change from six to one in 1990 to one to one in 2050. Given the broad definition of “working age” used by UN estimates (those aged 15 to 64) and the reality of unemployment, by mid-century each Japanese worker will in fact support more than one retiree. Similar ratios apply in Europe. At that point, only two measures can preserve the system: increasing taxes on the worker or cutting back benefits on the retired. Either way, the understanding between the generations will be shaken if not broken.
Everything about our way of life is scaled to large and growing populations. Even if depopulation turns out to be an environmental boon, for the people involved the transition will be abrupt and difficult. A shrinking labor pool means a more expensive labor market. Heroic growth in productivity will be needed to avoid inflation. But consumption will shrink as well; any gains in productivity are likely to be the result of fierce competition and frequent bankruptcies. Immigration can make up only a fraction of the population loss, and will bring its own problems in tow.
The structures of freedom that have evolved since 1688 will come under severe stress. And we have no assurance that these dislocations will be transitional. We have no idea of what lies on the other side of the population divide. I doubt that faith in economic progress can be sustained if populations continue to decline.
Even if the numbers stabilize, the growth of wealth will have to depend on something other than a growing number of producers and consumers. The temptation to see prosperity as a zero-sum game will be difficult to resist. Control of the levers of government may win secure lives for some groups, while marginalizing others. Public opinion may splinter along generational lines, or between natives and immigrants – and as always between freedom and the desire for special advantage.
If freedom is chosen, we can add one more fact to the mix. To the greatest extent possible, human ingenuity and innovation will be deployed against the problem of smaller populations. The link between freedom and innovation is unequivocal. That’s one of the few clear lessons of this essay. The outcome is unknown and unknowable. That’s another lesson.
The triumph of the market culture and liberal democracy in this century, as in the last, is thus possible though not assured. The preservation of freedom requires the application of freedom: not a paradox or a slogan but a practical observation. And the part played by the United States will again be decisive. Ours is the largest liberal democratic country with a still-growing population. We are yet again the exception.
The question is how we choose to interact with the Europeans and Japanese, whose numbers are declining. We may do so on an “exceptionalistic” basis, which may well be self-fulfilling, or on the basis of shared principles, as democratic brethren and practitioners of the free market, which may offer the principles involved the best chance to adapt successfully to a new environment.
The decline in fertility underscores the importance of individual decisions. Human behavior is generally bounded and repetitive. My tomorrows can be largely inferred from my yesterdays. But every so often something changes: indeterminacy erupts out of nowhere, shattering old patterns, sweeping away all assumptions and predictions. Such tidal changes take place one person at a time. Whether they are driven by a harsh or an indulgent environment – whether they lead ultimately to freedom or unfreedom – they are an assertion of private choice. Options are weighed in someone’s subjective universe; the outcome, in the aggregate, overwhelms and redirects the strategies of governments, cultures, even the species as a whole.
The unwillingness of a free and thriving population to reproduce was unpredictable and, as a matter of record, unpredicted. Even now the causes are elusive. In some sense, however, the event is an expression of human freedom. Given the right technology, we can triumph over the most basic of desires: parenthood. The moral implications aren’t trivial but need not concern us. What is of interest here is the abolition of yet another barrier to human behavior.
We live in a time of tremendously expanded choices and capabilities: I believe, in the great age of freedom. Anything seems possible. Can that trend be sustained – can individual freedom continue to expand? If so, how does one go about growing freedom?
With this highly speculative subject, we will end our long day’s journey into the puzzle of human freedom.
Recall the debate between freedom and unfreedom. One side of the argument maintains that only a fuehrer or an aristocracy can restrain the destructive impulses of the human organism. The other side – the market culture, the “open society” – believes in self-restraint guided by a common set of rules of behavior. If, however, we are looking to an expansion of freedom, a third alternative leaps to mind: one that dispenses with restraint altogether. We have called this approach Proteanism. As a disputant in the debate between the ages, it is a very recent arrival, a child of the twentieth century.
Proteanism isn’t a single doctrine or outlook or way of life. It’s a cluster of contradictory propositions and attitudes that converge on the matter of individual freedom. All loathe any form of restraint or limitation on the individual. Consequently, all reject the validity of shared rules of behavior. To different degrees, all exalt self-expression and “self-overcoming” as the ultimate good and justification of each human life. The point of freedom is to produce such creative butterflies out of the caterpillars that we, as a species, mostly appear to be. To this end, the individual’s freedom can and should be expanded indefinitely. The rules of morality and the marketplace, even the law, are oppressive and deforming forces, crushing our diverse spirits into a single prefabricated mold. They too must be overcome.
Manifestations range from the cosmic to the commercial: from the “artist-tyrant” and “overman” of Nietzsche – for whom the ordinary person is a “laughingstock” and a “painful embarrassment” – to the children’s television network that labels viewers “unique” and “special” and urges each to “express yourself.”
In between, we encounter a curiously disjointed group. There’s postwar existentialism, which paired absolute personal freedom with the need for commitment. There are cultural anthropologists like Margaret Mead, who around the same time found behaviors rooted in sex, temperament, and family structure to be “socially produced” and easily reversible. There have been Freudians seeking to cure parental and sexual repression, Marxists working to overthrow political and economic oppression. More recently, postmodernists and multiculturalists have concluded that all boundaries to the human spirit, including reality itself, are subjective and therefore elective.
And no doubt there are unhappy persons who wish to change – caterpillars craving to become butterflies – children and even adults flattered to be designated unique and special. Proteanism is sometimes a consoling faith. It is always, in all its varieties, a doctrine of liberation. If we are looking to extend the boundaries of personal freedom, we are essentially on a Protean quest.
But what (we may ask) is the liberation against?
A believer in any of the creeds listed above would reply: against vast and oppressive but impersonal forces, such as capitalism, sexism, Eurocentrism, Christian morality. But what (we ask again) follows the overthrow of such ancient and pervasive forces? A metamorphosis follows. The consequences are transcendental: nothing less than the justification of human life. “The overman is the meaning of the earth,” writes Nietzsche in Zarahustra. Sartre makes the same point more democratically: “the ultimate meaning of the acts of honest men is in the quest for freedom as such.”
But what (finally) is the practical effect of all this sound and fury? How is behavior different? What changes in real life? Here we come to the root of the problem. The questions boil down to one: Who is entitled to liberation? Individual interests will differ. Individual actions will collide. The conflict of freedom against freedom will either be mediated by rules of behavior or dissolve into a Hobbesian melee, in which the strong will bend the weak to the desired posture and behavior. In other words, the more individual freedom expands, the fewer the individuals who can enjoy that freedom.
These are not profound observations. These are trivial truths. Nietzsche had no problem expressing his contempt for the market culture and liberal democracy. He believed in an aristocracy of the spirit. Whatever his “overman” meant to represent, he was a rare flower in the immense compost-heap that is the human race. Furthermore, like a true aristocrat, he was a law unto himself. Equality before the law Nietzsche derided as a sign of weakness and the “herd instinct.”
Margaret Mead was probably less witting of the consequences of her ideas, yet their logic led by a different path to the same aristocratic place. In Sex and Temperament, she assumed the aim of society to be “greater expression for each individual temperament.” Barriers to expression rest on arbitrary “social fictions” such as sexual roles. These can be abolished. “There would be ethical codes and social symbolisms, an art and a way of life, congenial to each endowment.”
Mead concludes the book with this remarkable statement: “If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place.” Sex and Temperament was published in 1935, two years after Adolf Hitler brought his bit of the “gamut of human potentialities” to total power in Germany. That unfettered self-expression must end in holocausts seems not to have occurred to Mead.
Pushed to its logical extreme, Proteanism is nothing more than the fuehrer principle applied to moral choice. It subjectivizes the world of objects and allows desire mastery over all things. What began as the release from all restraint quickly becomes the tyranny of desire: that’s cause and effect. Any expansion of individual freedom is temporary and illusory. Restraint will be reintroduced by the strong and the guileful, the “overmen,” the few, the one. Proteanism isn’t a third way in the argument between freedom and unfreedom. It represents the argument from unfreedom in its most primitive form.
If I extend my freedom outward, I will encounter two obstacles. One is Marx’s “kingdom of necessity.” Since the rise of our species, that has been the decisive barrier to choice: lack of food, clothing, shelter, knowledge. Today, however, I will scarcely be sensible of external necessity. The market culture has multiplied the choices available to me and to many ordinary persons.
We haven’t reached perfection, we aren’t gods – we still sicken and die, and the poor of choice are ever with us. But most of us don’t spend our day fretting after food or protection from beasts and the weather. We have transformed the conditions of our own existence. We have enlarged the field of play. In the liberal democratic world at least, we have flattened this barrier to a considerable degree.
The second obstacle is the freedom of other individuals. Being free, they compete and collide with me; they block my way. How I deal with this problem will largely determine my attitude towards freedom. The Protean way, for example, favors self-expression at all costs. It exalts love of myself and despises freedom as a shared ideal.
Now, I’m a child of liberal democracy. I prefer the rule of law. Better yet, I prefer generally understood but self-imposed rules of the road. The rules arbitrate my path through the community as I aim toward my private objectives. No doubt they will make illegitimate certain means and certain ends. I can’t legitimately lie, steal, or murder. I can’t legitimately become a tyrant: say, the owner of a slave plantation.
Here are the irreducible barriers to my freedom. I embrace them because I believe in the idea of justice: the proposition that no one subjective universe, not even my own, has primacy over another. And I believe in justice in public and private interactions, because the only alternatives are chaos and terror. I must choose between these models of behavior: between justice and terror, between self-imposed rules and unfettered self-expression. Early on, the outward extension of my freedom becomes a series of moral choices.
Morality is about public rules and behaviors, privately embraced. At the moment of moral choice the quest for freedom turns inward, to grapple with the forces that control each subjective universe. The obstacle we encounter here is ancient and unyielding: human biology.
Nonconscious processing of data drives much of my behavior. Part of me is pure machine; part is pure unmediated desire. The kingdom of internal necessity is powerful but its frontiers are unstable. Night networks with Day: the machine and the human who struggles toward morality belong to a single open system. The question is how, and to what extent, a model of behavior can be imposed on that system. Put somewhat differently: the question is whether the conscious bits who feel like me can make the case for the rules of morality, in such a way as to direct my actions with any consistency.
To expand the influence of conscious data, two approaches are possible. The first proceeds indirectly, by altering the environment. Human biology responds to signals from the world: if we remake the world, we can eliminate those signals that urge us to transgress. This approach is not without merit. It subscribes to the principle of “lead us not into temptation.” If I live in a placid, sheltered neighborhood I’ll have less opportunity to transgress than if I live surrounded by crime and vice.
Any attempt to construct a universally placid, sheltered environment will quickly run into difficulties, however. Above all, the entire approach begs the question. A high level of self-control will be required over a considerable length of time if we are to construct such a thing as a “moral environment.” But if we can claim such self-control, why do we need the changed environment? And if we don’t own the requisite self-control, what kind of change will we bring about?
The only viable path to morality is direct: that is, internal. The rules must be realized one person at a time. Each must confront the confusion of subjectivity and the power of nonconscious data. Each must wrestle with his angel. The results will be uncertain at any given time. Human life is largely a muddle. But it is a muddle struggling toward a theme – toward meaning, cosmic and personal.
Some individuals and communities have managed to approximate in their behavior certain abstract ideals: we need only recall Victorian England as documented by Gertrude Himmelfarb. Morality isn’t all hypocrisy. On occasion, people live by the rules. The question is whether we can advance beyond where we are today: whether consciousness and symbolic reason, on behalf of the rules, can push deeper into the kingdom of internal necessity, represented by clockwork biology.
Himmelfarb would say yes, and her arguments are at least plausible. The Victorians surely surpassed us in moral consciousness and self-restraint. They had lower rates of crime, illegitimacy, divorce, and cohabitation. They were more in control of their actions, and in that sense freer than we are. We are less bound to preconceived behavioral formulas – for example, about women’s place in the world – and in that sense freer than they were.
If the objective is the expansion of freedom, we should aim for the greatest degree of openness in behavior consistent with the greatest degree of conscious adherence to the rules. That would define the morality of freedom touched on in the last section.
We should be honest about the implications. To say that we won’t when we can is difficult and often painful. To pass judgment against oneself is agony. To pass judgment on others is awkward, alienating, and (to those judged) annoying. We all know it’s easier to look away, to mind one’s business, to pretend we each live in a separate but equal moral realm. That was the response of most Germans to the Nazi slaughter of Jews, Slavs, and gypsies: “I had nothing to do with it. I didn’t know.” Courage, even more than uprightness, is the foundation of morality – and morality, let us remember, is the only gateway to a multiplicity of legitimate ends.
At bottom, all discussion of freedom is really about its restraint. Once we move beyond the Protean cult of personality, human life becomes a balancing act between consciousness and desire, private goals and public demands, the individual and his family, his profession, his country, his culture, his God. In this matrix of possibilities, freedom means having the opportunity to choose when to surrender freedom. Thus the husband chooses his wife while giving up the freedom to bed others. Similarly, the athlete chooses a tyrannical training regime to achieve automatic (but consciously learned) behaviors like the overhead smash in tennis.
Even the acts of the greatest transformative geniuses, like the Buddha and St. Paul, involved what William James called “self-surrender,” the yielding up of the will. Is this a paradox? We have no way of knowing, but I suspect not. Something as convoluted as the aspirations of a single individual will embrace the aspirations and interests of many others. The husband freely gives up his freedom for his wife, the wife for her husband, parents for their children; the human soldier, unlike the termite, freely gives up his life for his country; and only a zealot, I expect, will see a contradiction.