Liberty as a Social Construct

There are two main views of the source of liberty:

  • Liberty is innate in humans.
  • Liberty is a social construct.

I am of the second view: Liberty is not in our genes and does not flow from heaven like manna. Nor is it found by applying John Stuart Mill’s misleadingly simple “harm principle.”

Liberty requires a consensus about harms and the boundaries of mutual restraint — the one being the complement of the other. Agreed harms are to be avoided mainly through self-restraint. Societal consensus and mutual restraint must, therefore, go hand in hand.

Looked at in that way, it becomes obvious that liberty is embedded in social norms and preserved through the observance of those norms. There may be societally forbidden acts that, to an outsider, would seem not to cause harm but which, if permitted within a society, would unravel the mutual restraint upon which ordered liberty depends.

The inculcation of mutual restraint depends mainly on the existence of viable families — families in which the parents are present and at least one of them (traditionally the mother) spends a great deal of time inculcating in children the value of self-restraint (also known as the Golden Rule).

Honesty is a corollary of self-restraint, and is implicit in the Golden Rule. Honesty is essential to liberty because the security of one’s livelihood and property depends primarily on voluntary adherence to contracts, formal and informal.

A third familial value essential to liberty is mutual aid — the practice of mutual assistance and defense. The teaching of mutual aid at home spills over into the community. As I wrote here,

the willingness of humans to come to each other’s defense has emotional and practical roots:

1. An individual is most willing to defend those who are emotionally closest to him because of love and empathy. (Obvious examples are the parent who risks life in an effort to save a child, and the soldier who throws himself on a grenade to protect his comrades.)

2. An individual is next most willing to defend those who are geographically closest to him because those persons, in turn, are the individual’s nearest allies. (This proposition is illustrated by the Union and the Confederacy in the American Civil War, and by the spirit of “we’re all in this together” that prevailed in the U.S. during World War I and World War II. This proposition is related to but does not depend on the notion that patriotism has evolutionary origins.)

3. If an individual is not willing to defend those who are emotionally or geographically closest to him, he cannot count on their willingness to defend him. In fact, he may be able to count on their enmity. (A case in point is Southerners’ antagonism toward the North for many decades after the Civil War, which arose from Southerners’ resentment toward the “War of Northern Aggresssion” and Reconstruction.)

What happens to self-restraint, honesty, and mutual aid outside the emotional and social bonds of family, friendship, community, church, and club can be seen quite readily in the ways in which we treat one another when we are nameless or faceless to each other. Thus we become rude (and worse) as drivers, e-mailers, bloggers, spectators, movie-goers, mass-transit commuters, shoppers, diners-out, and so on. Which is why, in a society much larger than a clan, we must resort to the empowerment of governmental agencies to enforce mutual restraint, mutual defense, and honesty within the society — as well as to protect society from external enemies.

But liberty begins at home. Without the civilizing influence of traditional families, friendships, and social organizations, police and courts would be overwhelmed by chaos. Liberty would be a hollower word than it has become, largely because of the existence of other governmental units that have come to specialize in the imposition of harms on the general public in the pursuit of power and in the service of special interests (which enables the pursuit of power). Those harms have been accomplished in large part by the intrusion of government into matters that had been the province of families, voluntary social organizations, and close-knit communities. As Hans-Hermann Hoppe writes in “The Rise and Fall of the City,”

[a]fter the race and the class cards have been played and done their devastating work, the government turns to the sex and gender card, and “racial justice” and “social justice” are complemented by “gender justice.” The establishment of a government — a judicial monopoly — not only implies that formerly separated jurisdictions (as within ethnically or racially segregated districts, for instance) are forcibly integrated; it implies at the same time that formerly fully integrated jurisdictions (as within households and families) will be forcibly broken down or even dissolved.

Rather than regarding intra-family or -household matters . . . as no one else’s business to be judged and arbitrated within the family by the head of the household or family members, once a judicial monopoly has been established, its agents — the government — also become and will naturally strive to expand their role as judge and arbitrator of last resort in all family matters. To gain popular support for its role the government (besides playing one tribe, race, or social class against another) will likewise promote divisiveness within the family: between the sexes — husbands and wives — and the generations — parents and children. Once again, this will be particularly noticeable in the big cities.

Every form of government welfare — the compulsory wealth or income transfer from “haves” to “have nots” lowers the value of a person’s membership in an extended family-household system as a social system of mutual cooperation and help and assistance. Marriage loses value. For parents the value and importance of a “good” upbringing (education) of their own children is reduced. Correspondingly, for children less value will be attached and less respect paid to their own parents. Owing to the high concentration of welfare recipients, in the big cities family disintegration is already well advanced. In appealing to gender and generation (age) as a source of political support and promoting and enacting sex (gender) and family legislation, invariably the authority of heads of families and households and the “natural” intergenerational hierarchy within families is weakened and the value of a multi-generational family as the basic unit of human society diminished.

Indeed, as should be clear, as soon as the government’s law and legislation supersedes family law and legislation (including interfamily arrangements in conjunction with marriages, joint-family offspring, inheritance, etc.), the value and importance of the institution of a family can only be systematically eroded. For what is a family if it cannot even find and provide for its own internal law and order! At the same time, as should be clear as well but has not been sufficiently noted, from the point of view of the government’s rulers, their ability to interfere in internal family matters must be regarded as the ultimate prize and the pinnacle of their own power.

To exploit tribal or racial resentments or class envy to one’s personal advantage is one thing. It is quite another accomplishment to use the quarrels arising within families to break up the entire — generally harmonious — system of autonomous families: to uproot individuals from their families to isolate and atomize them, thereby increasing the state’s power over them. Accordingly, as the government’s family policy is implemented, divorce, singledom, single parenting, and illegitimacy, incidents of parent-, spouse-, and child-neglect or -abuse, and the variety and frequency of “nontraditional” lifestyles increase as well. . . .

It is [in the big cities] that the dissolution of families is most advanced, that the greatest concentration of welfare recipients exists, that the process of genetic pauperization has progressed furthest, and that tribal and racial tensions as the outcome of forced integration are most virulent. Rather than centers of civilization, cities have become centers of social disintegration, corruption, brutishness, and crime.

To be sure, history is ultimately determined by ideas, and ideas can, at least in principle, change almost instantly. But in order for ideas to change it is not sufficient for people to see that something is wrong. At least a significant number must also be intelligent enough to recognize what it is that is wrong. That is, they must understand the basic principles upon which society — human cooperation — rests: the very principles explained here. And they must have sufficient will power to act according to this insight.

The state — a judicial monopoly — must be recognized as the source of de-civilization: states do not create law and order; they destroy it. Families and households must be recognized as the source of civilization. It is essential that the heads of families and households reassert their ultimate authority as judge in all internal family affairs. Households must be declared extraterritorial territory, like foreign embassies. Free association and spatial exclusion must be recognized as not bad but good things that facilitate peaceful cooperation between different ethnic and racial groups. Welfare must be recognized as a matter exclusively of families and voluntary charity and state welfare as nothing but the subsidization of irresponsibility.

In sum, liberty is not an abstract ideal. Liberty cannot be sustained without the benefit of widely accepted — and enforced — social norms. A society that revolves around norms established within families and close-knit social groups is most likely to serve liberty.

Related posts:

The State of Nature
Some Thoughts about Liberty
The Paradox of Libertarianism