Putting Some There, There

What, precisely, is freedom? Is it a state of being with quantifiable characteristics? Or is it just an absence ' the absence of coercion, the absence of arbitrary, external controls and so forth?

This may seem like a trick or trite question, but it's not intended to be. The answer to it sets the parameters of, creates the context for, and determines the focus of, the struggles to which freedom's advocates dedicate their lives, fortunes and sacred honors (or any portion thereof).

Are we fighting for something . . . or just against something else?

Do we seek victory . . . or merely escape?

Do the alternatives we create and offer fill a void, or simply function as labels for that void?

The utilitarian argument for treating freedom as a mere absence is persuasive. It's much easier, after all, to mobilize general opposition to a thing than to mobilize support for a specific alternative to that thing. Opposition to A as the binding criterion of a freedom movement raises fewer issues between individuals and groups who may, between them, support alternatives X, Y or Z to different degrees and possibly with mutual exclusivity.

But, sooner or later, what we are for must be dealt with. It must out. Differences must be either reconciled or ways parted. And the consequences of alliances shattered for lack of consensus ' or for lack of an agreement beforehand to acknowledge and operate within the context of that lack of consensus -- may be far worse than had those alliances never been entered into.

'Anarchist' or 'minarchist?'

'Left' or 'Right?'

'Socialist' or 'communist' or 'syndicalist' or 'mutualist' or 'capitalist' or 'laissez-faire?'

Annares or the North American Confederacy?

I've spent a good bit of time lately debating various issues on an Objectivist forum which, as one might expect, serves as home to many 'Right' 'minarchists.' As a 'Left' 'anarchist' -- although, some might say, one with a bit more of a pragmatic bent than most ' I've found it interesting to explore just how much (or how little) common ground various visions of freedom share and what ultimate results ill-considered reliance on 'same train, same direction' thinking may produce.

For any movement to proceed toward accomplishing its goals, there must be some sort of general agreement on what those goals are. In the absence of such an agreement ' and I'm not necessarily talking about a formal instrument or contract, but rather a shared understanding ' only single-issue, range-of-the-moment alliances are possible or productive.

A common delusion ' which I confess to sharing in for many years ' is that any individual or group which, as part of a larger vision, seeks to reduce the power of the state (to elimination or to some point short of elimination) is a natural ally of all other such individuals or groups, right up to the point at which state power has been reduced to a level satisfactory to that individual or group.

It just isn't so.

There is no four-lane highway from here to the stateless society, with convenient exits for the minarchists, rest stops for the undecided and stacked interchanges where the socialists, communists, syndicalists, mutualists, capitalists and market anarchists can disentangle themselves without difficulty, proceeding to their chosen campgrounds, hotels and squats.

The real road map looks more like a series of interlinked dirt roads, full of potholes, one-lane bridges and stop signs that hooligans have turned to face in the wrong directions. It is quite clear that there will be points when traffic slows to a crawl, when various factions find themselves racing each other to be first across perpendicular intersections, and where head-on collisions become inevitable.

Agreement on one principle or position ' even one seemingly overarching or controlling principle or position ' is no guarantee of agreement on the correct course of action in any given situation. Into evidence, allow me to offer the war on Iraq .

Most anarchists oppose the war. It is, after all, an activity of the state. How can one support the activities of an entity whose existence one opposes? Surprise, surprise: I know anarchists who support the war because they see it as serving to eliminate a state (Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime) and who, although they oppose the existence of the state as such, see some states as worse than others and thus more deserving of earlier elimination; and some states as better and thus deserving of stay of execution until others are dealt with.

Some minarchists oppose the war because they regard it as an abuse of state power. Other minarchists support the war because they regard it as a legitimate exercise of state power.

I began to notice these conflicts ' and to think about their implications ' in the run up to the war, when I frequently found people I regarded as 'natural allies' on the other side of the protest line.

Think the war is the only divisive issue? Think again. One might find a minarchist supporting retention of a particular tax because he regards it as a minimum required revenue producer for a legitimate state ' while his anarchist compatriot opposes retention of that tax and supports retention of another because he thinks it may be the straw that breaks the camel's back and brings the whole shithouse down ' while yet another anarchist opposes retention of both taxes on principle and yet another minarchist supports retention of both taxes on grounds that they are proper finance devices for legitimate state functions.

Maybe you can untangle that ball of yarn and crochet it into a nice orderly afghan which can be thrown over a single 'freedom movement.' I can't. More importantly, I'm beginning to think that even trying to do so is a waste of time.

Don't get me wrong ' I'll pursue tactical alliances where possible and advocate strategic alliances where there seems to be a reasonable chance that they'll hold together long enough to get something important done ' but it's apparent to me that there's no such thing as a cohesive 'freedom movement' in any real sense of the world.

I think there should be, though. Which brings us back to the question: What is freedom?

Among the billions of human beings on this planet, few are giving much thought to that question. Of those who are, most of us spend more time defining it in terms of an absence ' a nothing, a zero ' than attempting to describe it as a quantifiable, achievable state of being. The latter, however, is the only approach which offers any prospect of mobilizing the support of those billions. People may riot or rise against something they hate spontaneously, but they'll only build something they can envision and desire.

Do I have an answer? No. To me, freedom is very much like that point when, driving one's car over a hill at high speed, one feels part of one's heart leap toward the stars -- as compared to space travel. I can feel it, briefly. I can achieve a sense of something greater out there, waiting for me to find a way to it. Driving one's car over a hill, however, is a far cry from building a rocket that can escape Earth's gravity. I confess my insufficiency to the task . . . for now.

But sooner or later, if freedom is to prevail, someone is going to have to create a vision of it around which those billions will rally.

I am not the first to say this. Wanted ' one utopian vision, hold the pickles.

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Thomas L. Knapp's picture
Columns on STR: 6

Thomas L. Knapp is publisher of Rational Review.