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Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Status Quo and the Oppression of Liberty

In 1833, a Yale professor named William Graham Sumner wrote a book entitled What Social Classes Owe To Each Other. His writing would, several decades later, become part of the basis for several different veins of conservatism in America. I could try and give you a summary, but Sumner was very capable of saying what he meant:

Society, therefore, does not need any care or supervision. If we can acquire a science of society, based on observation of phenomena and study of forces, we may hope to gain some ground slowly toward the elimination of old errors and the re-establishment of a sound and natural social order. Whatever we gain that way will be by growth, never in the world by any reconstruction of society on the plan of some enthusiastic social architect. The latter is only repeating the old error over again, and postponing all our chances of real improvement. Society needs first of all to be freed from these meddlers-that is, to be let alone. Here we are, then, once more back at the old doctrine-Laissez faire. Let us translate it into blunt English, and it will read, Mind your own business. It is nothing but the doctrine of liberty. Let every man be happy in his own way. If his sphere of action and interest impinges on that of any other man, there will have to be compromise and adjustment. Wait for the occasion. Do not attempt to generalize those interferences or to plan for them a priori. We have a body of laws and institutions which have grown up as occasion has occurred for adjusting rights. Let the same process go on. Practise the utmost reserve possible in your interferences even of this kind, and by no means seize occasion for interfering with natural adjustments. Try first long and patiently whether the natural adjustment will not come about through the play of interests and the voluntary concessions of the parties.


I emphasized the passages for a reason.

First, having embraced the idea of self-determination, it would seem natural to grasp to the "doctrine of liberty". Of course, that would depend entirely upon whether or not the "doctrine" in question really does embrace liberty at all.

I would state emphatically that my idea of liberty gives every person the right to determine their own course in life. The natural limit of that right is reached when it infringes upon another person's ability to determine their course in life. When possible, those limits should be worked out by the interested parties on equal footing - with neither side given any presumption of right or wrong. That, of course, is the basis of our legal system. It isn't exactly how it works in practice, but it is the theory that we like to pretend works.

And that is the problem with Sumner's entire theory. It is entirely divorced from reality. "Mind your own business" is a wonderful rallying cry - and all sorts of abusive people love to shout it at the top of their lungs.

Sumner's theory is built on the ideas of John Locke - who, quite like Rousseau, believed that man lives in a natural state of liberty. Government, or society, through government, imposes limitations on liberty for the greater good of everyone. Rousseau's famous claim "Man was born free, and is everywhere in chains" comes from this idea. It's a good idea and it definitely has an appeal. After all, who has ever felt freer than when they are on vacation with no demands placed upon them but their own desires?

The problem is that it is pie-in-the-sky theory that simply does not reflect the reality in which we all live.

Let's say that you live next to a vacant plot of land. Not to villainize a particular company, but let's say that Koch Refining purchases that property and decides to build a new refinery where they will produce malathion - a nerve agent that is commonly used in insecticides - right next to your house. You and the executive board simply cannot agree to a compromise - after all, you don't want your children to have any sort of birth defects or to suddenly develop hearing problems, chronic sinusitis, or any of several dozen potential problems with possible exposure.

According to a strict interpretation of the Sumner/Locke/Rousseau theorum, you're screwed. Koch bought the land and has the right to build whatever it wants. All of these "meddlers" need to just "let society alone". Koch gets to build its refinery and you get to either watch your children very closely for signs of nerve damage or try and sell your property at an incredible loss of value. Quit your whining - that's the price of liberty!

Of course, there are all sorts of reasons tied to the concept of liberty and self-determination that would be raised against Koch pulling such a move. Doesn't matter. Liberty is non-interference! Damn the torpedoes and refineries!

The fact is that even if you sue Koch Refineries, you will be at a distinct disadvantage. Let's pretend that, for some reason, you are the top graduate from Harvard Law School for the last fifty years. Koch already has several dozen lawyers on retainer, and they can hire hundreds more. If they truly desire that land for a refinery; then they will simply file motion after motion after motion and keep you tied up in court until you give up or die.

Does that sound like two equal parties?

Liberty and freedom are not naturally occurring. They are theoretical constructs that society imposes on itself to protect individual members. You cannot have liberty without a society and a government that guarantees it. To argue otherwise would be to say that Robinson Caruso was the freest man who ever lived.

To advocate for government to simply allow things to happen as they will in all cases is to argue for the rule of brute force. Force is force regardless of whether it is exercised through physical violence, intimidation, extortion, or simply burying everyone under a pile of paperwork because you have the money to buy more lawyers. In other words, it doesn't advocate liberty, but oppression.

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