Tuesday, March 14, 2017


Berlin, Arendt and Liberty

Isaiah Berlin gave a number of lectures on liberty. His two concepts of liberty--or freedom (he uses the words interchangeably)--are the "negative" and the "positive." The former, generally professed in the West, deals with the question: "What is the area within which the subject is or should be left to do or be what he wants to do or be, without interference by other persons?" The latter, universally professed and practiced in the Sino-Soviet East, deals with a very different question: "What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, one thing rather than another?" Bottom up versus top down.
Top down is easier, but it may not work as well.

Inherent freedoms and liberties are complex. The argument is what rights are inherent to us as human beings. (Some think the answer is "none." Remember, Natural Rights, according to Bentham, are “simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense, — nonsense upon stilts.” Some think we are so dangerous we must be tightly controlled.)  In On Revolution, in 1963, Hannah Arendt discussed America and its "isonomy," the equality of political rights. She wrote "Isonomy guaranteed equality, but not because all men were born or created equal, but, on the contrary, because men were by nature ... not equal, and needed an artificial institution, the polis, which by virtue of its νόμος would make them equal." 
One must remember how new and fragile this notion is; historically rights were determined by the powerful. (Berlin's "positive liberty")  There is still that element in our lives now, where rights are granted people by the society. This should be held in distinction from those rights that we, as humans, have and are not dependent upon those in power. Those rights that are granted can be "un-granted" and withdrawn. And they may depend upon circumstance; true rights cannot depend upon circumstance. The real question is the nature of man and what rights he has, as a person. The creation of a community cannot create a right. A right cannot be endowed by the community, only preserved. Inherent rights of an individual must exist with or without the community. (I suppose Berlin's "negative freedom") 
You can always tell when something is important; the state when it punishes you takes important things away. It will kill you (life) or imprison you (liberty) or fine you. (property, essential to liberty). Life should be an obvious given. Liberty is a wonderful ideal and the essence of integrity and independence. It is certainly difficult to have liberty without property rights.
But a lot of problems are arising in the U.S. over what is inherent to people and what is merely desirable; what is his by nature versus what is merely very important to him. For example Health Care. Health Care might be very important but does not really fit as a right. Health Care is a circumstance. What about places without health care? What about man before Health Care? It would be a lot more reasonable--and advantageous to its adherents--if Health Care was seen as an aspiration. 

Equality raises a fascinating question because it is so strangely accepted. Equality before the law--isonomy--is an extraordinary concept, a wonderful leap in human thinking. But equality can not exist except before the law. Applying it outside the law is simply irrational. Intelligence, strength, integrity, beauty--all of these elements separate people. But nothing separates like age and health. Anyone who believes equality can be applied outside the law has never been in a hospital or a children's home. It is so unreasonable that it suggests some ulterior motive. And as equality can be approximated only by applying Procrustean distortions by government power at the expense of liberty, it is frequently the battle-cry of the tyrant. The failure of the French Revolution one could argue was the inherent contradiction in the "liberty, equality..." of their standard. 
The essence might be the distinction between man alone and man in community. The rights of man start with him as an isolated individual and are modified and softened by his interaction with the community. (The "Your right to throw your hands about stops with my nose" argument.) But it is focusing, this rights of man vs. demands of community.  Nor can the individual go to the community to enhance the rights he has by birthright. The community has no such power. For example, one can not enhance one's right of free speech by demanding to be heard or to be believed nor can one demand more than tolerance for the freedom of his behavior. 

There is no right that free speech be heard or that behavior be accepted. 

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