the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world
Metaphysicians of all sorts, I among them, have posited that freedom is essential to humanity. Free will, the ability to make choices for good or ill, is characteristic of consciousness, and perhaps defines it. Many ordinary folk will go further, believing that free will is distinctively human. We think of ourselves as uniquely able to exercise freedom of choice. And for individuals and peoples throughout the world, the idea of freedom is central not only to their aspirations but to their self-conceptions. Indeed, there are many peoples, like the Franks and the Thais, whose name for themselves is synonymous with ‘free’. My own native culture prides itself on its love of freedom, and the notion is pervasive. Surely I am not the only Yankee who, as a child, justified the gratification of every small desire with the self-serving declarative, “It’s a free country.”; or if I am, then surely I had all the fun.
Libertarians have been all too present in my daily life recently; and that could be a good thing, for I, too, am a libertarian. But I don’t suppose that we are all alike. For one thing, as I implied, virtually everyone in this country, and most countries, will claim to be libertarian if they understand the term. We can judge so by freedom’s enormous popularity in political rhetoric, even in kitchen-table discourse. Any politician will claim to support freedom; this is the empty equivalent of campaigning to protect babies from dissection. We’re all on board.
There is a political party in the United States, for long the third-ranking party in a duopoly, that styles itself Libertarian. (The Libertarian Party has recently fallen to fifth behind also the Greens and the Reform Party; though a battle for third place in a system where only two parties ever win is obviously somewhat academic.) The Libertarians are rather pleased with themselves for being the only party in the United States with a coherent ideology. What they mean, though, is that they are the only party in the United States that can articulate a coherent ideology. The Democrats and Republicans have failed for decades to help anyone, in or out of the parties, to understand exactly what they are about. For the most part, they cannot say. Fortunately, I can.
The traditional political spectrum as understood in the industrial capitalist democracies centers on the idea of change, id est, liberal versus conservative, favoring change versus opposing change. The limit to the usefulness of this spectrum is apparent when we attempt (as we have done) to apply it to societies that are not, or not yet, industrial capitalist democracies, where change therefore means something quite different. Insofar as liberal and conservative often mean open-minded and closed-minded, they do represent something that transcends our particular frame of reference, and allow us to see that, despite the self-image of conservatives, if one placed them in pre-revolutionary Virginia, they’d have been loyal subjects of the king, and if one placed them in Russia in 1950, they’d have been Stalinists one and all. But having grown up conservative in a capitalist nation-state, they are ardent supporters of capitalism at least, and of capitalist reform elsewhere. And so, despite their every action in the developing world during the cold war, the Republicans believe themselves to be libertarians. But then the Republicans also believe themselves to be republicans. Is they is, or is they ain’t?
By one definition, human freedom is already achieved. We are perfectly free to do whatever is physically possible, while at the same time everyone else is free to do whatever is physically possible. We avail ourselves of this freedom simultaneously, and only some of our intentions can happen thus. The situation is more than might making right, for some increase their power, their freedom, through persuasion, through deception, through emotional manipulations of all sorts; and then some, of course, simply use force, as they are physically free to do. And groups, including society, participate as well. There would be no point in advocating for such an interpretation of freedom, a free-for-all of human abilities. We cannot escape it.
So then the libertarian position must be one of agreement on a set of guidelines. Freedom for one is restriction for another. I am not really free to do something if someone is free to stop me. And libertarians, in their own words, want to be left alone, allowed to do (laissés faire) whatever it is they want to do, on the assumption, logically necessary, that all others can do the same, and would want to. But then, as we enter the complexities of arriving at an agreement, we encounter the differences in aspirations which make living in society, or even in proximity, so problematic.
The political spectrum that gives coherence to the beliefs of the usual factions in the West is the question of freedom and regulation, personal and economic. The conservatives favor economic freedom but personal regulation. The liberals favor personal freedom but economic regulation. The Libertarians, not much in the mix, favor economic freedom and personal freedom. As such, they imagine themselves intellectually superior. But this is not the case if there is something else holding together the conservative and liberal factions, and as it happens, there is.
Dominion is the exercise of control over the world and its inhabitants. In that belief, we find the commonality of economic freedom and personal regulation. On the former, the dominion believes that the natural world is an entitlement for the race as a whole, that humans have a right (generally taken as God-given) to exploit the earth for our own benefit alone. And by the same dispensation, some humans are entitled to tell the rest what to do. Humanity rules the earth; the dominion rules humanity. There are some in the dominion who will argue that human freedom lies in doing what we can, that only by maximizing our exploitation of our power, our freedom, are we truly free. But most eschew any need for justification, ontological or otherwise. Dominion is the natural order of things.
Stewardship is the assumption of responsibility for the world. It makes no claim of its own to rule, and it denies any such claim by others. And its attention to the welfare of the world and its inhabitants requires it to oppose dominion for the damage done to individuals and nature. Hence, obviously, personal freedom but economic regulation. What individuals do with themselves is their own concern, provided there is no harm to others, or to nature. Beyond that, it becomes a concern of all. We cannot live without affecting nature, and we cannot keep the peace without occasionally using violence, but these are social decisions. And we are both entitled and obliged to take the responsibility for these decisions.
The economic side of the argument is played out in the mainstream between capitalism and socialism. ‘Socialism’ is an unusable word in the United States, but the ideology of social control of common resources for equal benefit is embraced by a large faction nonetheless, and in many parts of the world that faction is openly socialist, and as likely to be in government as the Democrats in the United States. Some socialists embrace Marx, some do not. In either case, the movement predates the revolutionaries of the twentieth century and has always been independent of them, even though, after the successes of those revolutionaries in Russia and China, many socialists in the West became enchanted by their rhetoric and enthralled by their leaders. Just as many did not. And the economic ideology of socialism less deserves blame for the actions of Stalin and Mao than the ideology of capitalism, based on the preservation of individual wealth and power, deserves blame for European colonialism and imperialism. At least in the latter case there was a direct ideological connection.
The personal side of the argument has no clear representation in political discourse. Neither political scientists nor advocates of either position have a consistent terminology. The ideology of personal freedom, political and civil rights, has most often been called liberalism, which in the classical sense brought the world republicanism, democracy, civil liberties, the rule of law, and political equality. The ideology of personal regulation is variously called authoritarianism, totalitarianism, feudalism, and fascism, depending on the mechanisms employed and the degree of disapproval by the speaker. Its advocates more likely call it traditionalism or conservatism, but even in defense of tradition will seldom openly argue for elimination of personal freedom, instead arguing for the preservation of culture and values, in which the elimination of personal freedom is only implied.
Perhaps at some point, in some of the parliamentary democracies, it would make sense to found a Stewardship Party, explicitly dedicated to stewardship principles, espousing personal freedom and economic regulation, and explicitly opposed to dominion. If not or until then, we as stewards should find among existing parties the one, or the several, that can best represent our faction in politics, and teach them to articulate the principles of stewardship, and insist that they uphold those principles. While it seems farfetched to expect much electoral success from an ideologically-pure political organization, we know that elections can be won in virtually every democracy by those whose alignment is towards stewardship and opposed to dominion.
The alternative is to allow parties who represent dominion to claim half of freedom, and parties who represent half of dominion to claim all of freedom. Freedom for one is restriction for another, and the freedom of the few and the powerful to control all of the earth and its resources for their own benefit is the imprisonment of the many in poverty, exploitation, suffering, and inequality. It is a basic requirement of liberalism that every person begin and end life in equal status with every other. The existing private- and state-property dispensation which capitalism is unwilling to challenge rests on a fundamental violation of that principle of equality, having originated in transparently-feudal times and through plutocratic violence. It is not a free world, nor even a free country, juvenile rhetoric notwithstanding.
© O.T. FORD
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and O.T. Ford