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“Freedom” is among the most central concepts in our political vocabulary. I think it is deservedly so. But it’s also a concept with a notoriously large number of meanings. Libertarians identify freedom simply with the absence of state coercion; by contrast, the most widely used Sanskrit term with an equivalence to freedom is probably mokṣa, liberation from the suffering of worldly existence. And the most common use of “freedom” today is something different again: the ability to make unrestricted choices, to decide for oneself what one will do.

Freedom in this sense of choice played a fairly limited role in premodern political thought, and I think this is because the ancients understood its limitations. Human beings often do not make the best decisions for themselves. At a large scale, we get addicted to alcohol and other drugs; we fall into paralyzing depression and even suicide; we get misled by demagogues into murderous hatreds. At a smaller level, we lash out in anger at minor annoyances; we procrastinate the things we know it would be best for us to do; we get bitter and vain about matters of social status and material possessions. Given all this, the ability to make choices can be bad for us, since the choices themselves are so often bad.

All this is the view, shared by Xunzi, Augustine, and Freud, which I have referred to in the past as chastened intellectualism. (I have tempered my enthusiasm for chastened intellectualism on the grounds that the good elements to human nature should not be ignored, but the bad ones remain there as well.) It is well known that Xunzi also endorsed a political system which greatly restricted freedom (in the sense of choice). Looking at all the terrible things people do, how can you trust them to make decisions for themselves?

Now it seems to me that Xunzi’s position on human nature, while it might lead one to a suspicion of democracy, should also lead to a suspicion of fascism, absolute monarchy, or any other kind of tyranny that entrusts all power to a single leader. For if people are that bad, you can’t put it all in one person’s hands either. You need a system of checks and balances, so that the single ruler’s own bad tendencies do not cause even more damage than individuals on their own. But that system of checks and balances still should put significant restrictions on what the people can and can’t do, which from our liberal vantage point looks bad enough. And from what I know of Xunzi, it sounds like even this may not have been the position Xunzi actually took; he seems to have written about a strong single leader. (Because of Xunzi’s politics, many of those who endorse Confucianism in the contemporary age take pains to distance themselves from him.)

I do think we have reason to endorse the liberal view of freedom as maximum choice – not, however, because that freedom is a good in itself. People are often their own worst enemies; sometimes structure is exactly what they need, having someone tell them what to do. Fiddling With Disaster, the autobiography of Canadian Celtic-rock fiddler Ashley MacIsaac, tells the story of a great musician from a small Nova Scotia town who had the opportunity for stardom. His family and friends were afraid of his going to follow the opportunities presented when Philip Glass discovered his talent, precisely because he would have too much freedom, the ability to do whatever he wanted. And it turned out they were entirely right. After a few years on top of the Canadian charts, MacIsaac wound up literally as a penniless crackhead on the streets of New York, having sold nearly everything to feed his newly acquired addictions. Freedom was not kind to him; his freedom was exactly of the kind described by Janis Joplin.

The question is: what kind of restrictions on freedom are good? Different people screw themselves up in very different ways. Aristotle – not exactly a great friend of modern liberal freedom – thinks of the best politics in terms of allowing each person to fulfill a highest end or telos, all being the best they can be. Some thinkers would consider this teleology a higher and truer kind of freedom than choice alone. But it seems to me that the freedom of choice is a vital part of the freedom to be what you are. Who would know what you’re meant to be better than you yourself? That question is not entirely rhetorical. The chastened intellectualist critique shows us that people are frequently not the best judges of what’s best for them. But then who is? The deep problem with a politics like Xunzi’s – or for that matter Rick Santorum’s – is that it allows decisions about the best life to be made by the large, impersonal, bureaucratic institution that is the modern (or medieval Confucian) state. And I don’t see any reason to trust such an institution with knowing individual people’s lives better than those people do themselves. To the extent that there is a need for such authority is far better vested in the likes of therapists, parents, or superiors within a monastic institution – those who know a person well enough individually that they can make a decision for that person, not for a generalized society as a whole. In the words of Ashleigh Brilliant, freedom is not the goal — but you need freedom to figure out what the goal is.

The view I have just articulated has some affinities with political libertarianism, which is similarly suspicious of government attempts to make decisions in the name of people’s individual best interests. It is not the same, however. A critique of libertarianism could take its own post. Suffice it to say here that given the importance of money and property in creating possibilities for action, insofar as individual choice is a good, that good is not actually best realized by a social system that keeps many people in abject poverty.


I will be taking a break from posting next Sunday for the American Thanksgiving weekend.

EDIT, 2 January 2015: it says above that “Xunzi’s position on human nature, while it might lead one to a suspicion of democracy, should also lead to a suspicion of fascism…” The post originally left out the “a suspicion of” and merely said “should also lead to fascism…” Which is of course exactly the opposite point from the one I intended to make.