On The Limits of Liberty

“The individual is increasingly deprived of the moral decisions as to how he should live his own life, and instead is ruled, fed, clothed, and educated as a social unit, accommodated in the appropriate housing unit, and amused in accordance to the standards that give pleasure and satisfaction to the masses.” -C.G. Jung, Civilization In Transition

Open any newspaper, listen to any radio station or television broadcast, and you’ll hear at least once the word “freedom” being uttered. Today the word freedom is pronounced with confidence, nonchalance, as something that requires no characterization. The times when philosophers were inquiring about the true meaning of freedom and trying to seize its elusive nature into a concept are long forgotten. The Western man has few certainties in his life, and one of them is that he knows what it means to be a free man. Yet, what the average modern man refers to when he talks about freedom is actually liberty. The very first philosopher to point out the importance of this conceptual distinction between freedom and liberty was Hannah Arendt, who considered this differentiation crucial in order to make sense of political life in modern times. More recently,  political theorist 

Hannah F. Piktin talked about the unique opportunity that English speakers have to decide between the words freedom and liberty which grants them the ability to discern between two very different concepts. 

As Piktin observes, liberty implies a system of rules within which the individual has the ability to act according to his own will. Freedom, on the other hand, is a much broader, deeper, and riskier condition which presupposes being relieved from any system of rules and constraints. Freedom is better understood as the possibility to transcend what already exists to create something new, or as Arendt would say, “unexpected.” While talking about liberty makes sense in a political framework such as that of the State, where individuals are provided a scheme to orient their actions, talking about freedom is misleading, if not entirely nonsensical. Freedom, understood as the possibility to create something new and unexpected, something that truly reflects the conscience of the individual, is frowned upon in the current political system as anything that deviates from the socio-economic structure is heavily limited if not suppressed. Arguably, any kind of political life or social organization would require us to compromise a certain degree of our individual freedom in order to facilitate the smooth flow of social life. However, it is a compromise that should be recognised as worthy of the sacrifice if it is to acquire legitimacy within a society that values individual freedom and autonomy as, ultimately, the purpose of rules is that of facilitating the life of the individuals and not dictating the rhythms and goals of life itself.

Distinguishing between liberty and freedom becomes crucial in societies with a centralized power regardless of the type of government implemented. It can be very dangerous thinking about freedom only in terms of those liberties that we can benefit from within a certain framework. We should not lose sight of the fact that the framework has the right to exist only so long as it is able to provide benefits great enough to justify the lessening of individual freedoms. Looking at freedom as the highest possible value of human life should ultimately inspire us to build systems that allow people to play an active and central role in determining the future of their lives and homes instead of reducing them into resources to be managed and administered.

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