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What is Freedom?

Mark Curtis TV film, "The Trap: what happened to our dreams of freedom?" the first part of which was broadcast on BBC2 last Sunday, was genuinely good television. It asked difficult and profound questions in a new and interesting way, a sharp contrast to the sloppiness of Mark Durkin's hatchet job on environmentalism. for Channel 4 the "Great Global Warming Swindle" .

Curtis' big idea was that contemporary ideas of freedom fail to recognise critical elements of human psychology, and in particular they treat human behaviour is simply a stimulus-response mechanism. In its most reductionist form, Curtis has a point- human beings often act altruistically and the whole idea of free will admits the possibility that humans will behave in ways that may appear to be against their ostensible interests. Curtis thesis was informed by a variety of different sources, using ideas and images from game theory to the NHS to Hayek. It was almost hypnotic - and a wonderful use of the medium of television.

To some extent I see his point. The ideology of Freedom is rooted in a fairly pessimistic view of human nature- the constitution of the United States explicitly sets limits on the activity of different parts of the constitutional process to avoid a natural tendency to reach for dominance. It is not that human beings exist without compassion or altruism, it is simply that humans are neither reliably nor predictably compassionate or altruistic. When systems have been created that do rely on those characteristics, the result has either been short lived or tyrannical or both.

The Liberal approach to freedom does not deny the place of compassion- and is therefore radically different from the Thatcherite thesis "there is no such thing as society"- we know "society" does exist within our social values, but incompletely and unevenly. Unlike the Realist school of the American Neo-Conservative movement, we do not have a grand theory of human behaviour. Liberalism is a partial grand theory- it seeks to explain aspects of human political interaction, but since we admit the idea of humanity as an open system- with essentially unlimited capacities, both for positive outcomes and for destructive outcomes, Liberalism does not presume to have the answers to the human condition.

We see that there is great happiness in those who follow selfless paths- whether religious or not. We accept that material possessions may be more of a burden than a freedom, but it is up to every individual to follow their own path. Once again I find myself using P.J O'Rourke's great definition of freedom given at the 1993 Cato Lecture: " There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences."

It is in those consequences that all the debates of politics and history and indeed philosophy lie.


JH said…
James, I sadly missed this last week and will miss it again this evening as I am venturing out to Brick Lane (don't ask). Do you happen to know if anyone's recorded it?

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