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Freedom vs. the Collective

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In a famous lecture delivered in August 1819, the great classical liberal Benjamin Constant contrasts the ancient and modern conceptions of liberty. By the “ancient conception,” Constant means the liberty of the citizens of a state to rule themselves, as opposed to rule by despots, whether foreign or domestic. He has primarily in mind the ancient Greek city-states. He says that ancient liberty

consisted in exercising collectively, but directly, several parts of the complete sovereignty; in deliberating, in the public square, over war and peace; in forming alliances with foreign governments; in voting laws, in pronouncing judgments; in examining the accounts, the acts, the stewardship of the magistrates; in calling them to appear in front of the assembled people, in accusing, condemning or absolving them. But if this was what the ancients called liberty, they admitted as compatible with this collective freedom the complete subjection of the individual to the authority of the community….All private actions were submitted to a severe surveillance. No importance was given to individual independence, neither in relation to opinions, nor to labor, nor, above all, to religion. The right to choose one's own religious affiliation, a right that we regard as one of the most precious, would have seemed to the ancients a crime and a sacrilege.

He contrasts this with the liberty of the moderns.

For each of them it is the right to be subjected only to the laws, and to be neither arrested, detained, put to death, or maltreated in any way by the arbitrary will of one or more individuals. It is the right of everyone to express his opinion, choose a profession and practice it, to dispose of property, and even to abuse it; to come and go without permission, and without having to account for his motives or undertakings. It is everyone's right to associate with other individuals, either to discuss their interests, or to profess the religion that he and his associates prefer, or even simply to occupy their days or hours in a way that is most compatible with his inclinations or whims.

In brief, the contrast is between political autonomy and personal liberty. It’s clear that Constant prefers modern liberty to its ancient predecessor. It’s sometimes overlooked, though, that he includes an element of collective self-rule in the modern conception: “it is everyone's right to exercise some influence on the administration of the government, either by electing all or particular officials, or through representations, petitions, demands to which the authorities are more or less compelled to pay heed.” This type of representation, he says, is a modern development:

called as we are by our happy revolution (I call it happy, despite its excesses, because I concentrate my attention on its results) to enjoy the benefits of representative government, it is curious and interesting to discover why this form of government, the only one in the shelter of which we could find some freedom and peace today, was totally unknown to the free nations of antiquity.

I’d like to discuss an objection to Constant’s “modern conception” that the intellectual historian Quentin Skinner and the philosopher Philip Pettit raise against it. The objection has to do with taking the modern conception as a normative goal. Whether Constant’s account is historically accurate about the beliefs of the ancients and moderns is a separate issue that won’t be addressed here. The objection is that we could imagine an absolute monarch who believes in “modern liberty” and leaves his subjects free to lead their lives as they wish. Even if he did, Skinner and Pettit argue, the people in his state wouldn’t be free in a sense we would accept as adequate. The monarch would be at liberty to change his mind and impose more restrictions on his subjects. They would be aware of this and would be careful to avoid offending him.

You might object that Constant already covers this point by building a representation condition into his conception of modern liberty, but that is easily answered. We simply remove the representation condition and take the Skinner-Pettit objection to be to what remains of “modern liberty.” The objection, taken this way, isn’t a straw man argument. There were theorists who did say that people who live under an absolute monarch who leaves them alone in their daily life have all the freedom they need. The historian Annelien de Dijn, in her Freedom: An Unruly History (Harvard, 2020), gives an example an essay published in 1784 by the Prussian philosopher Johann August Eberhard. He

claimed that political and civil liberty were not only different from each other but often inversely related. Experience taught that when a people enjoyed more political liberty, it had less civil liberty, whereas a people living under royal absolutism often had a great deal of civil liberty…[I]n the Swiss Republic, people enjoyed less freedom of thought than in an absolute monarchy such as Frederick the Great’s Prussia. (De Dijn, pp. 232–33)

Skinner and Pettit say that to answer their objection, we must include in an acceptable notion of freedom that the people in a society set the terms under which they live. If they do that, their freedom is not dependent on the whim of an absolute ruler.

Skinner and Pettit are right that if people enjoy civil liberty under an absolute monarch, their liberty has a precarious base. They are like “happy slaves” whose master leaves them free to do as they wish but who has not emancipated them. Unfortunately, their own solution to the problem they raise is also unsatisfactory. If people collectively set the terms under which they live, this leaves each person at the mercy of the collective. Your civil liberty isn’t guaranteed: an absolute monarch can’t take your property away but society as a collective body can do so.

Skinner and Pettit wouldn’t be too concerned with this complaint against them, because for them the collective or “republican” liberty they favor far exceeds individual liberty in importance. Those of us who follow Mises and Rothbard will disagree.


Contact David Gordon

David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and editor of the Mises Review.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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