Liberty and Society

This is the first installment of a series that explores the true nature of liberty, how liberty depends on society, how society (properly understood) has been eclipsed by statism and its artifacts, and how society — and therefore liberty — might re-emerge in the United States.

The typical libertarian — like the one who commented on my post “Not Guilty of Libertarian Purism” — will say something like this:

Liberty is simply defined as “do what you want, constrained only by the harm to others.”

This is just a restatement of John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle,” which first appears in Chapter I, paragraph 9, of Mill’s On Liberty:

[T]he only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

Mill himself reveals the emptiness of his formulation in paragraphs 11 through 13:

[11] …I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being. Those interests, I contend, authorize the subjection of individual spontaneity to external control, only in respect to those actions of each, which concern the interest of other people. If any one does an act hurtful to others, there is a primâ facie case for punishing him, by law, or, where legal penalties are not safely applicable, by general disapprobation. There are also many positive acts for the benefit of others, which he may rightfully be compelled to perform; such as, to give evidence in a court of justice; to bear his fair share in the common defence, or in any other joint work necessary to the interest of the society of which he enjoys the protection; and to perform certain acts of individual beneficence, such as saving a fellow-creature’s life, or interposing to protect the defenceless against ill-usage, things which whenever it is obviously a man’s duty to do, he may rightfully be made responsible to society for not doing. A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury….

[12] But there is a sphere of action in which society, as distinguished from the individual, has, if any, only an indirect interest; comprehending all that portion of a person’s life and conduct which affects only himself, or if it also affects others, only with their free, voluntary, and undeceived consent and participation. When I say only himself, I mean directly, and in the first instance: for whatever affects himself, may affect others through himself; and the objection which may be grounded on this contingency, will receive consideration in the sequel. This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological. The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions may seem to fall under a different principle, since it belongs to that part of the conduct of an individual which concerns other people; but, being almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and resting in great part on the same reasons, is practically inseparable from it. Secondly, the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow: without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong. Thirdly, from this liberty of each individual, follows the liberty, within the same limits, of combination among individuals; freedom to unite, for any purpose not involving harm to others: the persons combining being supposed to be of full age, and not forced or deceived.

[13] No society in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected, is free, whatever may be its form of government; and none is completely free in which they do not exist absolute and unqualified. The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.

The latter two paragraphs (12 and 13) would seem to satisfy the typical libertarian. But they are as empty of content as the bald statement of the harm principle in paragraph 9. What Mill does in paragraph 11 is to pour content into the harm principle — content that the typical libertarian would find abhorrent, for its statism if not for its utilitarianism. The discussion of liberty in paragraphs 12 and 13 cannot be understood without reference to Mill’s restrictive definition of harm in paragraph 11.

To put it another way, liberty — “do what you want, constrained only by the harm to others” — is an empty concept unless it rests on a specific definition of harm. Why? Because harm is not a fixed thing — like the number 1 or your house — it is a vague concept that has meaning only when it refers to specific types of act, which then may be judged as harmful by some and unharmful by others. But until harm is defined and agreed through mutual consent (explicit or implicit), liberty lacks real meaning.

My goal in this post is to outline the social conditions that conduce to actual liberty, that is, a kind of liberty that could be found in the real world, given the nature of human beings as self-centered, quarrelsome, often aggressive individuals, as well as loving, cooperative, and generous ones. (Social behavior, in this context, includes what is usually called economic behavior, which is just a kind of social behavior.) I will try to be realistic (rather than pessimistic) about the degree to which liberty is attainable.

I begin with my definition of liberty, which is

peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior.

That may seem just as vague as the harm principle, but it is not. The harm principle is meaningless without an agreed definition of harm. My definition is operationally meaningful, in itself. It says that liberty is found wherever there is peaceful, willing coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior. Why? Because a society which meets those conditions is a free society to its members, who (by definition) prefer it to alternative conditions of existence. Among other things, they must be agreed about what constitutes harm and how it should be treated.

It is now only(!) a matter of describing the kind of society in which there can be peaceful, willing coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior. Going from broad characteristics to narrow ones, this is such a society:

1. “Society” has many meanings. This one rings truest:

an enduring and cooperating social group whose members have developed organized patterns of relationships through interaction with one another.

The “organized patterns of relationships” will include rules about behavior (a moral code). On the negative side, the rules will specify (if only tacitly) what is allowed, what is not allowed, how transgressions should be treated, and how certain mitigating circumstances figure into judgments about and the treatment of transgressions. On the positive side, the rules will specify (if only tacitly) expectations about how certain members of society should treat others (e.g., respect for elders, voluntary aid to those in need, mannerly behavior of certain kinds). A society, in other words, is inseparable from its moral code.

2. Mutual trust, respect, and forbearance allow differences within a society to be resolved through voluntary means, according to its moral code (1).

The means will include compromise; not every member of a society will agree with every rule, the way in which rules are enforced, or every resolution of differences, but every member of society will accept them. When a member of society can no longer compromise his preferences with the enactments of society, and has voiced his discontent to no avail, exit is his only option. Exit, at this stage, is exit from a society, as defined in 1. Unlike the situation that pertains when a person can no longer abide the rules imposed on him by a distant and unrepresentative government that controls a large geographic area, exit from a society need not require physical exile.

3. Mutual trust, respect, and forbearance (2) depend, in turn, on genetic kinship and cultural similarity.

Human beings are, at bottom, tribal creatures. This is a fact of life that cannot be erased by wishful thinking: “Why can’t we just all get along with each other?”

4.  The voluntary institutions of society (civil society) inculcate and enforce a society’s moral code (1), foster mutual trust and respect (2), and help to preserve cultural similarity (3).

The institutions of civil society include families, friendships, neighborhoods, churches, clubs, markets — and interconnected circles of them. Enforcement of the moral code, up to a point, is by voluntary observance (for fear of the social and physical consequences of non-observance. Where unacceptable behavior persists or is egregious, it is dealt with by civil institutions, including ad hoc groups organized for the purpose of controlling, confining, and punishing behavior is uncontrollable through the usual means. Those means include intra-familial punishment, physical retaliation, social signalling (ranging from expressions of approval and disapproval to ostracism, at the extreme). The means, themselves, are encompassed in the moral code.

5. A society’s moral code (1) and culture (3) evolve by trial and error, through the operation of the institutions of civil society (4).

The members of a society perceive that certain behaviors enable the society to thrive, and that others do not. Thriving is a matter of social and economic success, of the attainment of outcomes that the members of society find pleasing, and which they seek to promote by encouraging the behaviors that are consistent with pleasing outcomes and discouraging the behaviors that work against those outcomes. These signals — pro and con — are transmitted through the institutions of civil society (4) and thus become part of the society’s culture (3). Observance of the signals is essential to the maintenance of mutual trust and respect (2).

To summarize: A society coheres around genetic kinship, and is defined by its common culture, which includes its moral code. The culture is developed, transmitted through, and enforced by the voluntary institutions of society (civil society). The culture is the product of trial and error, where those elements that become part of received culture serve societal coherence and — in the best case — help it to thrive. Coherence and success depend also on the maintenance of mutual respect, trust, and forbearance among society’s members. Those traits arise in part from the sharing of a common culture (which is an artifact of societal interaction) and from genetic kinship, which is indispensable to societal coherence.

If the foregoing description is correct, there is one aspect of society — and one only — that a society cannot “manufacture” through its social processes. That aspect is genetic-cultural kinship. To put it another way, it is unlikely that a society’s membership can be drawn from more than one genetic grouping (or cluster), of which there may be dozens. Throw in cultural differences, originating in the geographic separation of otherwise genetically close populations, and the number of distinct genetic-cultural groupings must be very large indeed.

Though it is possible that an occasional outsider can be accepted into a society through acculturation and acceptance, because of bonds that develop between the outsider and insiders, it is far less likely that a society will welcome significant numbers of outsiders. This contention is borne out by the checkerboard and tipping models of voluntary racial segregation:

[E]ven when every agent prefers to live in a mixed-race neighborhood, almost complete segregation of neighborhoods emerges as individual decisions accumulate. In [Thomas Schelling’s]  “tipping model”, he demonstrated the effects which emerge when people have varying levels of perception as to acceptable levels for other ethnic groups in the neighborhood. The model shows that members of an ethnic group do not move out of a neighborhood as long as the proportion of other ethnic groups is relatively low, but if a critical level of other ethnicities is exceeded, the original residents may make rapid decisions and take action to leave. This tipping point is viewed as simply the end-result of domino effect originating when the threshold of the majority ethnicity members with the highest sensitivity to sameness is exceeded. If these people leave and are either not replaced or replaced by other ethnicities, then this in turn raises the level of mixing of neighbours, exceeding the departure threshold for additional people. Domino and tipping models were suggested to be explanatory factors for white flight in the 1960s US. Schelling also noted that in different societies, people have residential preferences, for factors other than ethnicity, such as age, gender, income levels.[41] In 2010 Junfu Zhang found support for both the checkerboard model of residential segregation as the only stable spatial arrangement (arrangement not subject to tipping effects), and for tipping effects, showing how these lead to integrated residential areas being irreversibly tipped into complete segregation.[40]

This is “wrong,” in the “liberal” and left-libertarian view of the world.  That view is not based on what can be, given the nature of human beings, but on what ought to be: a desirable but unattainable ideal (see nirvana fallacy).

I will next consider several possible objections to my model of a society’s essence and workings. This series will close with a blueprint for the restoration of society and liberty. The first sequel is “The Eclipse of ‘Old America’ “; the second is “Genetic Kinship and Society“; the third is “Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?

Related posts:
On Liberty
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
What Is Conservatism?
Zones of Liberty
Society and the State
I Want My Country Back
The Golden Rule and the State
Government vs. Community
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Evolution and the Golden Rule
Understanding Hayek
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Why Conservatism Works
Reclaiming Liberty throughout the Land
Rush to Judgment
Secession, Anyone?

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Part I

I recently discovered James Fitzjames Stephen’s long essay, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Stephen (1829-94) was an uncle of Virginia Woolf, whose mush-minded feminism was antithetical to her uncle’s rigorous cast of mind.

I am working my way through Stephen’s essay. As I proceed I will post and comment on especially trenchant passages. In this first installment, I offer some excerpts of the Foreword by Stuart Warner, editor of the Liberty Fund edition (linked above). My comments are in bold type; everything else is a direct quotation from the Liberty Fund edition.


James Fitzjames Stephen’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity figured prominently in the mid- to late nineteenth century Victorian debates on two concepts at the heart of politics in the modern world—liberty and equality. Understanding himself to be a defender of an older English Liberalism that he thought to be under assault and weakening at an ever-quickening pace, Stephen attempted in Liberty, Equality, Fraternity to offer a corrective to what he believed were the mistaken views of liberty, equality, and fraternity that were leading the charge. He found these views most fully and powerfully expressed in three of John Stuart Mill’s works: On Liberty, The Subjection of Women, and Utilitarianism. Stephen thus subjected Mill’s political philosophy to intense criticism in Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Yet Stephen was no mere polemicist, and throughout Liberty, Equality, Fraternity we find Stephen’s own understanding of liberty—as ordered liberty—equality—as equality under law—and fraternity—as a value incompatible with a free society—braided around his critique of Mill. And it is this understanding that is the most important feature of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, and is eminently worthy of the attention of anyone concerned with the character of a free society….

The French Revolution gave birth to the creed “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”; however, this creed outlasted the Revolution, finding expression in the nineteenth century, both on the continent and in England. In offering a powerful polemic against this creed in Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Stephen is most emphatically not presenting himself as a defender of, as he puts it, “Slavery, Caste, and Hatred.” But he believed that many exponents of the creed of liberty, equality, and fraternity exaggerated the advantages and ignored the disadvantages of the political arrangements intended by this famed triptych of values, thereby distorting a proper understanding of liberty, equality, and fraternity along the way. In Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Stephen makes a point of revealing the character of these disadvantages….

…Stephen recognizes liberty to be an instrumental value, not a value in and of itself; and the ultimate value that liberty principally serves is the well-being of society. We should be careful not to misunderstand this feature of Stephen’s thought—as a common understanding of Stephen would have us do—as portraying either a disregard for liberty or an authoritarian bent, for Liberty, Equality, Fraternity does not support such a reading. Not to value liberty as an end in itself is not to treat it lightly or to shy away from its endorsement as central to a civilized world. It is rather, as Stephen would see it, an admission that liberty, along with all of the other social elements of human life, has its advantages and disadvantages; and, if we are primarily concerned with the well-being of society, then we should not blindly support any given liberty in those circumstances in which its disadvantages outweigh its advantages.

The second feature of Stephen’s conception of liberty is that liberty is fundamentally a negative concept. Stephen understands liberty at its core to be an absence of restraint; however, liberty cannot be understood to involve an absence of all restraint; for Stephen, like Hobbes, recognizes that it is impossible for a society and, therefore, liberty to exist in the absence of all restraint. Restraints are required if there is to be any society at all, if only because the human condition is one in which the actions of some frequently and inevitably conflict with the actions of others. This understanding of the role of restraint in society is the basis for Stephen’s distinguishing between liberty and license, and it encourages him to understand liberty as an “absence of injurious restraint.”In this conception of liberty, morality, law, and religion are understood to restrain an individual’s actions, but not injuriously, and hence do not constitute an infringement of his liberty. In fact, in the deepest sense, it is these restraints that make liberty of action possible. And since these restraints constitute a realm of power, Stephen can maintain that, “Liberty, from the very nature of things, is dependent upon power….”…

Stephen is promoting an understanding of ordered liberty or liberty under morality and law. Part of the value of liberty lies in its allowing individuals to pursue their own choices or, more exactly, a certain set of choices rather than others, for this contributes to the well-being of society. Importantly, some sets of choices must be excluded. Genuine options are possible for human beings only within the context of a web of restraint provided by the moral, political, legal, and religious institutions that form the social arrangements in which individuals can pursue their own ends in concert with one another. Therefore, on Stephen’s analysis, the character and value of liberty reside in the restraints that frame it: there is no liberty outside of restraint.

Morality is foremost among the restraints that shape society generally and a free society in particular. For Stephen, morality is constituted in some measure by the fear of disapprobation, the fear of the opinion of others, the fear of being ostracized. Thus, Stephen remarks that “the custom of looking upon certain courses of conduct with aversion is the essence of morality.” And this aversion or disapprobation Stephen understands as being coercive. Although morality on this account might therefore be considered a system of force, the force in question is the pressure imposed by others and not punishment (or the threat of punishment) inflicted by government. Here we must underscore the idea that, as Stephen sees it, the restraints imposed by morality are vastly more extensive and important than those of law in establishing the web of restraint in which liberty is formed and has value:

Criminal legislation proper may be regarded as an engine of prohibition unimportant in comparison with morals and the forms of morality sanctioned by theology. For one act from which one person is restrained by the fear of the law of the land, many persons are restrained from innumerable acts by the fear of the disapprobation of their neighbors, which is the moral sanction; or by the fear of punishment in a future state of existence, which is the religious sanction; or by the fear of their own disapprobation, which may be called the conscientious sanction….

Given that liberty is of instrumental value for Stephen, it is easy to understand why he rejects any categorical, simple principle of liberty, one that would specify exactly which liberties should be protected, and where and when. “We must,” Stephen writes, “proceed in a far more cautious way, and confine ourselves to such remarks as experience suggests about the advantages and disadvantages of compulsion and liberty respectively in particular cases.” However, there are certain liberties that Stephen highlights in Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and in other of his writings that he believes to be of paramount importance to civilized life. The first is property: “Of all items of liberty, none is either so important or so universally recognized as the liberty of acquiring property.”  The second liberty of great importance to Stephen, perhaps surprisingly, is privacy: “Legislation and public opinion ought in all cases whatever scrupulously to respect privacy…. To try to regulate the internal affairs of a family, the relations of love or friendship, or many other things of the same sort, by law or by the coercion of public opinion, is like trying to pull an eyelash out of a man’s eye with a pair of tongs. They may put out the eye, but they will never get hold of the eyelash.”

Essential to protecting these liberties and others is the rule of law. And so closely linked is the rule of law to various liberties that Stephen suggests the rule of law is itself a liberty; for in a significant way, the procedures afforded to individuals by the rule of law specify the liberties that an individual has.

For Stephen, the rule of law is a remarkable moral conquest, a monumental achievement over despotism and the desires of some to enslave others for their own purposes. The rule of law both constitutes and vouchsafes liberties that Stephen, although holding them to be instrumentally valuable, embraces and understands to be of paramount importance to the civilized world he deeply valued….

Legislate how you will, establish universal suffrage, if you think proper, as a law which can never be broken. You are still as far as ever from equality. Political power has changed its shape but not its nature. The result of cutting it up into little bits is simply that the man who can sweep the greatest number of them into one heap will govern the rest….

Whatever may be the benefits of democracy, it also levies severe costs that render it a languid business. For the “wirepullers” need only satisfy an ignorant multitude, and this, Stephen feared, would ultimately lead to a debased and mediocre culture, one predicated on sordidness and vulgarity. In order to satisfy the unenlightened, these new rulers would extend government into the deepest recesses of the lives of individuals, willingly abandoning certain liberties along the way.

The final paragraph is a diamond, in a field of precious stones.

I have written so many posts which touch on the themes sketched by Warner that I can only refer you to a sample of them:
The Paradox of Libertarianism
On Liberty
Democracy and Liberty
The Interest-Group Paradox
Inventing “Liberalism”
What Is Conservatism?
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Law and Liberty
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Line-Drawing and Liberty
The Divine Right of the Majority
Our Enemy, the State
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?