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The Bleak Future of Freedom: Oppressive Governments Are On the Rise

By: José Azel - Nov 14, 2016, 9:08 am
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Negative freedom describes freedom from tyranny and the arbitrary exercise of authority. Positive freedom specifies having the means to act. (wikimedia)

Does freedom have a future? According to the Democracy Index compiled in 2008 by the Economist Intelligence Unit, 14.4 percent of the world population then lived in nations where civil liberties and basic political freedoms were respected and reinforced by a political culture conducive to the thriving of democratic principles. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s latest Democracy Index for 2015 reports that currently less than nine percent of the world’s population can be said to live in “political freedom.”

This trend does not bode well for liberty, but to asses if freedom has a future, it is necessary to probe deeper into liberty itself. Both, social psychologist Erich Fromm in his 1941 The Fear of Freedom and political theorist Isaiah Berlin in Two Concepts of Liberty (1958), draw a distinction between negative and positive freedom.

Negative freedom is understood as freedom from interference by other people. That is, freedom from oppression or coercion. Coercion is present when an individual’s actions are directed to serve, not his own purposes, but the purposes of others, or some supposedly higher end. Freedom from oppression or coercion is the supreme value of the liberal ideal of a citizen free to pursue his or her own idea of the good life without interference from the state provided that they do not cause harm to others. In classical liberalism, the role of the state is mostly to ensure the peaceful running of a society of free individuals. The emphasis is on equality under the law, and equality of opportunities, not necessarily equality of outcomes.

But equality before the law and equality of outcomes are incompatible. To treat people equally before the law ensures that individuals with different talents, skills, interests, levels of ambition, and purposes will achieve unequal outcomes. And apparently, many societies around the world are uncomfortable with the unequal outcomes that necessarily result from equality under the law.

In contrast, positive freedom or freedom to holds that the state must interfere, and treat individuals unequally- and excuse some from the rule of law- to enable them to develop their potential. The politics of freedom to demand that the state seek to change the social phenomena that may prevent individuals from acting freely. In the welfare socialist view, being free — in the to sense — justifies the state to use oppression and coercion to achieve a desired distribution of society’s output and correct the inequalities created by free markets. This view implies that individuals may not be the best judges of what is best for them and thus the state, who knows better, must decide on their behalf.

Negative freedom describes freedom from tyranny and the arbitrary exercise of authority. Positive freedom specifies having the means to act. The interaction of these two conceptions of freedom gives rise to the conflicts about what freedom is. Freedom to necessarily requires government coercion and debilitates freedom from.

Stepping back from these political philosophy aspects of freedom we find a more basic conflict in the perception of human nature. Liberals, as advocates for the supremacy of freedom, believe that generally individuals are more good than evil, and that accordingly society can allow ample space for individual liberties. Socialists take a more negative view of human nature reasoning that a strong authority is needed to curb the intrinsically wicked and corrupt impulses of individuals.

Even among the US founding fathers, the fear of unchecked human nature was prevalent. Benjamin Franklin offers us a classic image: “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.”

And yet, the future of freedom depends on our understanding that sustained societal cooperation and economic prosperity are only possible when individual freedom is maximized in a democratic milieu. The future of freedom hinges on being free from government coercion. Sadly, the current state of freedom in the world suggests that we have not learned that lesson, and that oppressive governments are on the rise. The future of democratic freedom is in peril.

José Azel José Azel

Senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. Azel was a political exile from Cuba at the age of 13 in 1961 and is the author of Mañana in Cuba. Follow @JoseAzel.