Freedom: Taking Account of Human Nature

Freedom — liberty — everyone clamors for it. Few know how to define exactly what it is, or how to get it, or how to handle it when they have it — least of all how to use it sensibly. They think freedom or liberty brings everything else worthwhile in its train. But as that wise old political philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin has remarked, “liberty is liberty, not equality or justice or fairness or human happiness or a quiet conscience.” You can be free to starve to death or to be murdered on the streets. Freedom is a concept which incites people to mouth meaningless slogans or parade inflated rhetoric. African crowds shout Uhuru, uhuru! — their word for freedom — without having the faintest idea what it really means to them, without knowing that in many cases it leads them straight to tyranny, misery and poverty — even in some extreme cases, a return to genocide and cannibalism. “Give me liberty or give me death!” shouted Patrick Henry, the excitable frontiersman, to the Virginia Convention — a silly statement even by the usual standards of tub-thumping oratory. As it happens, Henry got his freedom, and then lived to fight fanatically against the United States Constitution, one of the best structures yet devised by human ingenuity to preserve and guarantee a just proportion of freedom — thus suggesting he really knew nothing about the subject. “Give me freedom or give me death” — these are not necessarily opposites; the history of the last half century, especially throughout the African continent, and in countries such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Burma, Iraq, and Iran, shows that freedom and death often go together. You can have one, then the other. You are free one day and dead the next.

“What stands if freedom fall?” asked Kipling. True enough, and without some degree of freedom, human beings are poor and limited and unhappy creatures. But freedom cannot stand alone: it needs to be supported by other good things — the rule of law, a sense of responsibility, a devotion to duty. Freedom is full of paradoxes. History sometimes shows that men and women are better off when they are unfree, or less free.

Consider, for instance, the strange paradox of African slaves in the 18th century. Most of them came from tribal tyrannies of the most oppressive kind where they were liable to be subjected to unspeakable cruelties at the whim of ferocious and bloodthirsty autocrats, and where life had a way of being nasty, brutish, and short. These autocrats used them as spear-fodder in their armies or, if in need of cash or guns, sold them into slavery to Arab traders, who in turn resold them to European slavers. These unfortunate men and women — chattel slaves, the lowest form of human unfreedom — then faced the horrors and dangers of the Middle Passage in crowded slave ships across the Atlantic, before being auctioned off in the United States or Latin America. Many died on this passage, but if they survived it, the likelihood is that their life in the New World, especially in the United States, was better in many ways than their life in the African interior. Who can say? How can human happiness or unhappiness be measured?

One criterion is longevity, implying as it does a relative absence of violence, adequate food and medical care, absence of over-oppressive labor, and reasonable material conditions. Africans who went from the Congo or Angola regions to the southern states of the U.S., provided they survived the Middle Passage, lived on average twice as long. Clearly, these people, forcibly turned into American immigrants by the slave trade, did not relish their captivity — they often escaped and sometimes, despite the danger, rose in revolt. But few ever showed the slightest desire to return to the “freedom” of Africa. Quite the contrary. Despite all kinds of inducements, few American slaves could be persuaded to go to the new settlements of Liberia or Sierra Leone when these territories were founded in the early 19th century. It appears they preferred to be slaves in America to free men in Africa. And to this day, the number of American blacks who return to Africa even as tourists is few — and virtually none want to immigrate and settle in the Continent which was the home of their forebearers. Ancestral memory teaches them that, for them, Africa was always, and indeed remains a Dark Continent.

What has been a greater delusion than the transformation of well-run British African colonies into independent states? Take the case of the Sudan. This was not even a colony, strictly speaking, but an Anglo-Egyptian condominium, governed by a handful of devoted British and Egyptian civil servants. Most of them were young men, working for little pay in an atrocious climate, each responsible for as many as 50,000 souls. They waged successful campaigns against disease, drought, floods, famine, religious fanaticism, superstition, witchcraft, and brutal polygamy; so that, during the condominium, population and living standards rose rapidly, and the country acquired, for the first time in its history, an infrastructure of road, rail and other communications, hospitals, clinics, schools, and libraries. It was progress — real, meaningful, genuine progress. Then in the 1950s and 60s the Sudan was given its freedom, and the consequence has been an increasingly rapid decline into civil war and horrific tyranny, famine, massacre, the most brutal religious and racial oppression, and overall misery. Millions have died of starvation; millions more are trapped, probably forever, in hopeless refugee camps. Who is more free to enjoy life — the colonial Sudanese or the “free” Sudanese?

Much the same story could be told all over Africa, where 50 or more states were transformed from colonies into free and independent nations. Some have done better than others, although very few have higher per capita incomes than they did as colonies, despite the fact that half a century and countless billions of dollars of overseas aid have gone by. This does not prove that they ought to have remained colonies. What it does suggest is that freedom and independence, one-person-one-vote elections, congresses and parliaments — all mean very little in terms of human happiness without the rule of law. In other words, independence and democracy are pretty well worthless without the rule of law.

In England, the cradle of freedom, the rule of law, the supremacy of the law over all other forms of power, came before parliament, long before democracy. These things, important and welcome though they were when they came, were firmly based on a much longer tradition which insisted that the courts should dispense justice fairly, that the mighty should be humbled before the judges, that the law should be clearly written down and honestly enforced, and that it should be supreme. The rule of law meant that King Henry II, himself a great law-giver, should be forced to do public penance and make restitution in 1170 when his men, on his instructions, murdered the Archbishop of Canterbury; that King John should be publicly humbled by his barons in 1215 and forced to sign the Magna Carta, the Great Charter of English laws; that King Charles I should lose his head on the scaffold in 1649, like any other low-born felon, because he treated the law with contempt. All these things occurred long before most men and women got the vote. But the fact that they had occurred, and that their lessons had been well and truly absorbed by all those called to rule England, meant that, when the vote was finally obtained by all men and women in the country, it really meant something — it was a true emblem of freedom and not a mockery of it.

Again, the American colonies reproduced on this side of the Atlantic the rule of law which they had brought with them from England in their immigrant ships. They planted it firmly in the courts of Massachusetts, Virginia, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Maryland — wherever they settled. They had their own codes of law, too, written and endorsed by legislative assemblies from the earliest times of the settlements. Such democracy as gradually grew up in the 13 colonies was invariably based on the proposition that all were equal before the law, and that the law must be equitably enforced against governor and king as well as the least of his subjects. Indeed, it was because the colonists believed the king and his ministers were seeking to be above the law of the unwritten constitution that they resorted to arms, and beat the king and his ministers. Then, to be on the safe side, they imposed a written constitution of their own devising, showing exactly how the laws were to be made, honored, and enforced, and, if need be, changed. All this was long before the vote was awarded on a universal basis. Full-fledged democracy — freedom, if you like — did not come to the United States for a century after the rule of law had been finally established on the western side of the Atlantic. But because the rule of law was built on the rock of custom and usage going back centuries, democratic freedom, when it came, was real and meaningful and enduring. In both England and the United States, then, the right historical order of priorities was observed.

This leads me to another point: the best and surest kind of freedom comes slowly, and is added to over a long period of time; each generation, in its own good time, carefully and solidly places more bricks and masonry on the growing edifice. The poet Alfred Tennyson put the point exactly when he praised this historical process taking place in

A land of settled government

A land of just and old renown,

Where Freedom slowly broadens down,

From precedent to precedent.

Often, the desire of men and women for instant and total freedom ignores the precept that the surest liberty comes slowly. In Haiti, for example, the former slaves were given their liberty in the 1790s without any preparation, and without any firm basis in the rule of law. Now, 200 years later, their freedom and independence are still largely meaningless, and Haiti is one of the worst-governed territories on earth — where life is still nasty, brutish, and short. Again, in Liberia, freedom and independence were established in the 1840s without any real attempt to ensure that the basis in law was set in place. Independence is meaningless without security for life; freedom is an empty word if the law is not observed by the powerful and only men with guns are obeyed. One-hundred-and-fifty years after nominal freedom and independence, that is still the case in Liberia — whose very name is a mockery of what goes on. I read recently of a pitiful incident which occurred there while three rival gangs of armed soldiers were fighting for supremacy in the capital, Monrovia, and innocent men, women, and children were being slaughtered in the crossfire. A terrified Liberian went up to a U.S. Marine guarding the American Embassy, clasped him around the knees and said, “Please, Mister American, come and govern us and save us from this misery.” There spoke the anguish of a citizen given a freedom which was meaningless, dangerous, and even fatal.

In some cases freedom has been obtained not on the basis of the rule of law, or even in conjunction with the rule of law, but in hostility to the rule of law. That was the fatal flaw of the revolution which overthrew Spanish rule in Latin America. That the revolt of the Spanish colonies against direct rule from Madrid was necessary, and even inevitable, no sensible person would now deny, but it was carried out with great, and in many cases needless, violence; and that violence dealt severe blows to the rule of law. Salvador de Madariaga’s great book on Simon Bolivar makes this point brilliantly, again and again, and he rightly accuses Bolivar, extraordinary statesman and leader though he undoubtedly was, of being unduly addicted to violent solutions as opposed to gradualist or negotiated ones. He insists that the work of Bolivar, in the form it took, left permanent weaknesses in the body politic of much of Latin America, leading to political instability, constant military coups and conspiracies, suspensions of constitutional rule, and the like. I believe that, for the first time in many decades, most of Latin America is now set upon a healthy and constitutional course; that many tragic lessons of the past are finally being learned; and that a future of marvelous and unprecedented prosperity is opening up. But this progress will be maintained and reinforced only if those who shape opinion in Latin America reflect constantly on its history over two centuries, and remind themselves that liberty is not sufficient in itself — to be morally validated it also needs the rule of law.

And more than the rule of law, it needs something which no law in itself can enforce — a sense of civic responsibility. Personal freedom is a wonderful thing, but a sense of community is also a wonderful thing, and one is no good without the other. We cannot develop this sense of community, indispensable to good government, if we are not taught to exercise responsibility in our families, our churches, our schools, our businesses, and our professions. Responsibility must be inculcated from the earliest age, nourished and reinforced at every turn by teaching and example, and by the wise conduct of institutions. Selfishness and egoism is bad, collective selfishness and collective egoism are the ruin of good government. It is essential that boys and girls being taught history and civics in school should be filled with the notion of service, not just to themselves and their families, but to their communities and their country. Self-advancement is something good in itself and very necessary to promote the general prosperity; but service to the community is just as needful, and the two are most effective and most valuable when they are combined. The most prosperous nation is one where individualism is strong, but nourished within an equally strong communal structure. Such a nation, where the balance between self-service and communal service is equitably struck, is most likely to be a free nation as well as a wealthy one.

A sense of responsibility is closely allied to a sense of duty. In today’s world, “duty” is an under-used and under-worked word. But it is a very important word, because what it describes is the cement of civilization. We hear a great deal about rights. All of us are said to have rights to a great many different and goodly things: the right to be educated; to be treated when sick; to speak, and to write freely; to vote, to stand for office, and to enjoy equality before the law; to travel; to belong to a trade union; to own property, and to dispose of it freely; and the right to happiness. These rights are enshrined in countless documents, constitutions, and universal declarations. Proclaiming rights has been fashionable ever since the French Revolutionaries wrote down the first Declaration of Human Rights in 1789. Such rights (and many have been added since) were regarded as inseparable from freedom and liberty.

But “rights,” like freedom itself, can prove illusory. Many of those who drew up that first declaration of rights in 1789 were slaughtered in the terror four years later, or imprisoned, or killed in the Bonapartist tyranny which eventually took its place time and again. The revolutionary Saturn devours its children, as the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the Chinese Revolution have demonstrated with horrific plentitude. During the 20th century something like 100 million men, women, and children have been put to death by regimes nominally devoted to liberty and human rights. The process continues. In theory, no people enjoy more rights, greater liberty, or the chance of higher prosperity, than the 1000 million people who live under the constitution of the People’s Republic of China. But the constitution is not worth the paper it is printed on. In practice, no people on earth have a stronger chance of ending up inside a concentration or labor camp. About 20 million are in the Chinese Gulag at this very time. Most of them are slave-laborers. Few, even if they serve fixed sentences, are ever again likely to enjoy even the limited freedoms which uncriminalized Chinese possess. The rule of law means nothing in Communist China. So the right to vote is meaningless and the ordinary Chinese, while theoretically enjoying independence, are in reality less free than during the colonial period when large enclaves of the country were run by Europeans and North Americans.

The claim to rights, then, should always be treated with suspicion. This applies even in western countries which do enjoy the rule of law as well as one-person-one-vote. Most countries with written constitutions have freedoms which are rights-based. Most have a Bill of Rights or Declaration of Rights or some such basic document. But rights are more easily talked about in theory than realized in practice. The trouble is that there are too many rights, real or imaginary. Idealists are constantly, and optimistically, inventing new rights, without thinking seriously enough about whether they are realizable or even necessary. Everyone, we are told, has the right to a job. But who or what can guarantee everyone a job? The state cannot do so without creating jobs, which are likely to be phony jobs, sustained only by huge and increasing sums of public money. The Soviet Union guaranteed and, in a sense, provided everyone with a job, but it went bankrupt in the process, and all ended in misery; and now there is massive unemployment as well as hyperinflation and almost universal criminality.

If the state cannot in practice guarantee jobs, who else can? The answer is no one. So it is better not to talk about rights to a job. Equally, we now hear about children’s rights — including the right to divorce their parents. These theoretical rights of children cannot be guaranteed in practice either, without seriously infringing upon the rights of parents, teachers, or others in authority. This is already the lesson of the 1989 Children’s Act in Britain, which has only been in full effect for a year and is rapidly proving inoperable.

The trouble is that more rights are now enshrined in statutory form than there is justice to satisfy them. There is a limited amount of justice in the world — in practice — while the demand for rights is limitless and insatiable. So you naturally end up not with an enforcement or enjoyment of rights but with a conflict of rights. More and more of these conflicts of rights are occurring and increasingly holding society in a moral gridlock. The right of a woman to “control her own body,” and so to have an abortion, is in conflict with the right of the unborn child to live. The right of the poor, whether deserving or undeserving, to enjoy welfare benefits which are a fixed percentage of the average wage, is in conflict with the rights of all citizens in employment to retain a reasonable proportion of their earnings after tax. The right of underprivileged racial minorities to have their grievances redressed by Affirmative Action or Positive Discrimination or special employment quotas is in conflict with the right of the majority to equal treatment in job-seeking, welfare provision, education, and statutory entitlement. You cannot ensure rights for some by dispensing privileges without detracting from the rights of others.

To those who may argue that the U.S. political system is rights-based and has worked reasonably well for 200 years, I reply that the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights have worked only because the Founding Fathers knew that America was a fundamentally religious country where all citizens were brought up from infancy to have a deep and lively sense of their duties. The family, the church, and the school, all instilled duties in the young. And the young grew up to perform their duties to their families, their communities, the state, and their fellow-citizens. And when duties are regularly and conscientiously performed by the majority, there is less need to insist on rights. Indeed, in a perfect society where everyone always does his or her duty, there is no need for rights at all — everyone gets their due automatically.

Of course, we do not live in a perfect society, so rights have a statutory basis. But their practical chance of being enforced increases pari passu with the voluntary performance of duties by the mass of citizenry. In a deeply religious society like 19th-century America, where duties were freely acknowledged and usually performed by all, there was less need of rights and therefore less talk of them. In the 20th Century, where religion is in decline in certain parts of America, especially in the big cities, there is more need for rights and much more talk of them. That is a fact of life which we ought to acknowledge more readily. The free practice of religion involved a large element of self-discipline, and where people keep their egos and their appetites in check, there is less infringement of other people’s rights, and so less demand for them to be enforced by statute. The more people perform their religious duties, the less need there is for laws — positive or negative — and therefore, men and women are more at liberty. Self-discipline is always preferable to discipline by authority.

What I am leading up to is a very simple but important point: there is no true liberty, or complete liberty, without God. People often foolishly associate religion with restrictions on freedom, with compulsion and conformity to rules. That is a very superficial way of looking at it. Civil society is infinitely more secure and attractive if men and women go in awe of God than if they go in awe of the police. We need to be in awe of something or somebody because we are flawed creatures — that is a historic fact which once went under the name of Original Sin. You can call it what you like, but it remains a fact about mankind: we are flawed and, therefore, have a propensity to sin or to break the law or to offend. This flaw can be corrected or held in check by criminal law, by the police, the courts, and the prisons. But to the extent that men fear God and therefore restrain their passions, we are less in need of restraints and punishments of the state, and so more free. That is what St. Paul means when he refers in his Epistle to the Romans to “the freedom which men find in Christ.” By disciplining ourselves, by holding our appetites and our egos in check by voluntary restraints, we attain a kind of freedom over our passions which is the most valuable freedom of all, and a freedom which no constitution or statute can create.

Any consideration of freedom, therefore, must take account of man’s divided nature. Let me remind you of what Pascal wrote:

What a chimera is man! What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth, depository of truth, sink of uncertainty and error, pride and refuge of the universe! . . . The greatness and wretchedness of man are so evident that true religion must necessarily teach us that there is in man both a great source of nobility and a great source of wretchedness. It must then give us a reason for these astonishing contradictions.

Without God, this dichotomy in man, this contradiction, this terrifying dualism, cannot be resolved. It is only in the context of God, or religion, that the fragmented parts of man come together and fit. No set of human statutes, no constitution, no bill of rights will suffice. There is a passage in the works of the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner which is particularly relevant to the concept of man’s liberty. If the contradictions in man remain unresolved, he writes, then liberty fails, freedom becomes meaningless. The existence of the word and concept “God,” Rahner argues, is the only thing which brings man face to face with the single whole of reality and the single whole of his existence in it. If that word “God” did not exist, those wholes could not exist either. Like the lesser creatures, we would be conscious only of the separate fragments of reality and of our lives. If God disappeared, man would become less self-conscious. As Rahner puts it: “Man would have forgotten the totality and its ground . . . would have forgotten that he had forgotten. He would have ceased being a man. He would have regressed to the level of a clever animal.” The race might survive in a biological sense, might even retain its technology, but it would “die a collective death and regress back into a colony of unusually resourceful animals.” As such, and granted its high technology of destruction, its ultimate fate would be too horrible to contemplate. In short, it is not enough to be free as the animals are free: we need to be free within a moral universe which we understand and accept. If we cannot be meaningfully and genuinely free without God, without morality, without the acknowledgment of duty, then it is plainly someone’s or something’s responsibility to ensure that we are taught these things, and taught them with all the subtlety and conviction which these complex notions demand.


  • Paul Johnson

    Educated at the Jesuit independent school Stonyhurst College, and at Magdalen College, Oxford, Johnson first came to prominence in the 1950s as a journalist writing for, and later editing, the New Statesman magazine. A prolific writer, his books are acknowledged masterpieces of historical analysis.

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