Maybe our fried ice can help reduce the fever
February 27, 2017 § 130 Comments
I’ve argued before that there are no free societies: that when people use the term “free” or “freedom” in a political context what they really mean is that the “more free” society puts the right sort of people in prison. “Less free” societies put the wrong sort of people in prison; so “freedom” in the political motte has become a way of expressing the speaker’s approval of that society’s rules and customs, while tyranny has become a way of expressing disapproval.
It is sometimes objected that the USA really is more free than countries which live under different variants of liberalism, such as North Korea or Nazi Germany. This is just obvious, it is thought, and refusing to concede it invalidates my understanding of liberalism without any further thought or argument required. (It has even been suggested, amusingly, that my refusal to see political freedom as something ontologically distinct from the constraints implied by every “right” makes me a positivist).
What is good in any given society is as much attributable to what that society forbids and sanctions, in the particulars, as it is to what that society “permits” (which is itself another way to say what a society supports, enforces and destroys opposition to through informal and formal structures of law and custom). To the extent the USA is better than North Korea that is as much or more a function of what isn’t accepted and permitted as it is of what is accepted and permitted. Restrictions on arbitrary confiscation of private property by Communists are, well, restrictions. Every right which empowers carries inextricable corresponding restrictions; in fact each and every single empowerment gives rise to a plenitude of constraints. So the very notion of an abstracted political “freedom” – divorced from the myriad restrictions implied by adopting one set of rules and customs versus another – is nonsense.
One might as well complain that I refuse to concede that the USA is more round-squarian than North Korea, and has more and better fried ice. When one makes an intrinsically nonsensical assertion the only truthful response is that the assertion is – and I mean this quite literally – nonsense. It may seem like it isn’t nonsense on the surface; but that only works as long as we refuse to think about it any further. That one thinks the USA puts the right sort of people in prison and North Korea puts the wrong sort of people in prison may be true enough, but labeling that difference in the details freedom, as if these “freedoms” were one-sided coins which imply no corresponding restrictions, is just self deception.
Whatever one thinks of USA under its current variation of liberalism and North Korea under its current variation — keeping in mind that liberalism isn’t everything — these intramural conflicts between which kinds of liberalism are “better” or “worse” are in my view a pointless exercise, or worse. More immediately benign forms of liberalism (to the extent we even buy that there is such a thing) cultivate, protect, spread, and give rise to more virulent forms. This is the basic problem with “conservatism”, about which much has already been written: what it conserves these days is, for the most part, merely earlier and more larval stages of liberalism.
Is it better to have symptomatic carriers of virulent disease in a quarantine, or asymptomatic carriers wandering around spreading the illness? Even if we grant the premise for the sake of argument, showing that not-yet-symptomatic disease carriers are “healthier” than symptomatic disease carriers – in a truncated and temporary sense – doesn’t have the positive implications that the term “healthier” implies.
 Regular readers might be concerned that I am drifting into the vicinity of claiming that freedom and tyranny are anti-concepts.
You may rest easy though: tyranny is a perfectly meaningful concept, and freedom is a perfectly meaningful concept. In fact if freedom were not a meaningful concept at all then it would not be possible for freedom-as-a-political-priority — liberalism — to be self-contradictory. “Round square” and “fried ice” wouldn’t be self-contradictory if the constituent terms had no meaning.
As always it is important to be aware of qualification-into-vacuity. A retreat into “freedom” as vacuously meaning exercise of authority when it is good to do so and not when it is bad to do so is the tautological motte into which the more assertive forms of liberalism creep away to hide from the burning truth of daylight.