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:
 …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….
 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.
 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. 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.
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?”
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
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