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Are We Free To Give Away Our Freedom?

By: José Azel - Dec 18, 2017, 12:59 pm

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EspañolAre we free to give away our freedom? This is a profound philosophical question with very practical political implications. Yet, even for those of us that hold liberty to be the highest political value, it is not an easy question to answer, and I beg the reader’s patience.

All collectivist ideologies, racism, socialism, nationalism, fascism, communism, and their derivations, hold that people are free to give up their freedoms. For collectivists, the individual is not the holder of rights. For collectivists, what matters are the rights and interest of the race, the class, or the nation. And these collective interests are expressed through the power of the state to which the individual willingly surrenders his freedom.

This question of the legitimacy of the state over the individual was the subject of various “social contract” theories that developed during the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries. Essentially, social contract arguments conceive that we have consented to surrender some of our freedoms to the state in exchange for the protection of our remaining rights.

Some social contract philosophers, such as John Locke and Jean-Jaques Rosseau, argued that when governments fail to secure the natural rights of the citizenry, for example free speech, the citizens can change leadership or withdraw their obligation to obey. But others, like Thomas Hobbes, argued for the absolute authority of the monarch or parliament even if the edicts were arbitrary and tyrannical, as in Louis XIV declaration: “I am the State.”

To Hobbes, absolutism was necessary because if each person was allowed to manage his or her own life freely, chaos would ensue and society would descend into a brutish “state of nature.” An absolute ruler was necessary to impose order on the unruly masses and to have an overall plan for society. Absolutism holds that the ruler is above the law.
Modern collectivist ideologies posit, along Hobbesian lines, that the all powerful state must be able to plan and control economic activities and that citizens must renounce their individual freedoms in exchange for some common good such as security or social justice. Whereas free societies allow for self governance, collectivist ideologies distrust and reject individual freedoms.

But more to the point of my original question, other thinkers, like Hugo Grotius, held that liberty is our inalienable property. “Inalienable rights are things which belong so essentially to one [person] that they could not belong to another, as a person’s life, body, freedom, honor.” If freedom is inalienable, it cannot be bought, sold, or transferred from one individual to another or to the state. Grotius asserted that individuals are sui juris (under their own jurisdiction.)

When we make the distinction between an ordinary right and an inalienable right, we recognize that we do not have the right to give up our liberty by placing ourselves in bondage to the state. All western societies have opted in favor of considering individual freedom an inalienable right. This is perhaps easier to see by the fact that, in modern societies, we do not have the right to sell ourselves into slavery, or even, as was done in antiquity, to risk our freedom by offering it as a collateral to secure a loan.

It seems then, that because freedom is an inalienable right, we cannot surrender it to collectivism for the prospect of avoiding the risks and costs that go with accepting personal responsibility. Philosophically, we are not free to give up our freedom to an absolutist government in the Hobbesian prescription.

Most of us trust that we posses a free will; that is, the ability to choose between different possible courses of action. Thus, when we choose to enter into a social contract, as the best way to ensure our welfare, the presumption must be for liberty. It must be a social contract of democratic self-rule where our individual freedoms are preserved under the rule of law.
This was the case in the United States Declaration of Independence that invoked John Locke’s concept of the social contract. It is only in this context that we are free to restrict our freedoms.

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.