More on the liber in Liberal

Anxious Soren

Anxious Soren

Now that I’ve reclaimed the word Liberal from the barbarian hordes in American television and politics, I thought I should expand the topic so that we are all equally confused again.

Liberal, we agreed, comes from the Latin liber, meaning free. It is a philosophy of freedom. Nuff said.

Actually, no. There are so many ways of thinking about freedom that it quickly makes your head spin.

Political, national and personal

In this course, Rufus Fears, a professor I quite like, distinguishes between political, national and personal freedom. You can have personal freedom without political and national freedom (colonial America, Hong Kong within China) and national freedom without political and personal freedom (post-colonial Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew, in my opinion).

Negative and positive

Another way of thinking about it is negative versus positive freedoms. Negative freedom is about being left alone by somebody powerful, probably the government: no confiscations, intrusions, invasions of privacy, etc. Positive freedom is the opposite: an intervention by somebody, probably the government, to improve your life. Among Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “four freedoms”, the third one is a positive freedom:

  1. Freedom of speech
  2. Freedom of religion
  3. Freedom from want
  4. Freedom from fear

Existential and spiritual

Then there are the likes of Gautama Siddhartha, aka the Buddha, and Soren Kierkegaard, pictured above. They took thinking about freedom to a whole new level. The Buddha (and his contemporary, Patanjali) showed us that oppression comes from our own mind–its fears, craving, anger, and desire in general–so that freedom is about making the mind still. It is internal to every individual.

Kierkegaard and the Existentialists who followed him would agree with that but draw a different conclusion. Because we are free, we are free to screw everything up and we know it. This makes us anxious. So freedom leads to Angst (whereas the Buddha’s freedom comes after Angst has finally become quiet).

The problem of choice

Then there is the entirely new and modern problem of too much choice. Thanks to Richard, I found a TED video by Barry Schwartz, a psychologist, in which he dispels the myth that more choice equals, or leads to, freedom. Instead, it increasingly paralyzes and enslaves us.

When you are stumped

  • in your supermarket aisle by the 175 salad dressings before you;
  • in your electronics store  by the 6.5 million permutations of stereo systems on offer;
  • or with your 401(k) paperwork by the 2,000 mutual funds available,

then you are not really free. You just give up. You will regret whatever you do choose, because the other options might have been better. And you will blame yourself because now it’s your fault that life is not perfect. I think of this as Kierkegaard 2.o.

In summary, I have hereby once again proven how much fun and excitement there is to be had by hanging around… real Liberals. 😉

9 thoughts on “More on the liber in Liberal

  1. Your use of “angst” is a reminder of how foreign words fill gaps in the English language.

    But how nice it would be if English could incorporate foreign words to fill another (and huge) gap surrounding the word “love”. Think of all the pain and misunderstandings we English-speakers would avoid if we had everyday words for the different kinds of love, like the Greek “eros” “philia” and “agape”.

    What does this most restrictive word, “love”, which we think adequate for an extremely complex and conflicting emotion, say about Anglo-Saxon values and culture?

    Regarding our multiplicity of product choices in the “developed” world, we must “decide” when we make our final choice. At first sight, “decide” looks like there’s killing involved (think “homiCIDE” “deCIDE”).

    I do realise that the “cide” parts of the two words have different etymologies (cidium – “act of killing”, caedare – “to cut”). But, if we think about it, when we “decide” on something, we are killing all the alternatives which were presented to us.

    And we wonder why we often experience “angst” when we “decide”?

    • I love your philological leanings, Christopher.
      The case of Angst has always cracked me up, because in German it means just plain fear, with no existential or philosophical connotation. I think Americans read that into the German word, as they read a romantic context into the French rendez-vous, which it does not have in French.
      The case of love is more interesting. If Eskimos really have hundreds of words for snow because they are so expert in it, this suggests that Anglo-Saxon/Germanic cultures don’t know the first thing about love/Liebe because we only have one word for it. Personally, I really do find love confusing, so there is our first corroborating datum.
      Cidium and caedare: You have me thinking now. Deciduous trees are so because their leaves fall down–those leaves are cut and they also die, so both meanings are there.
      Incidentally, do you know if the name Caesar comes from that same caedare? That might explain the C-section (which was not how Gaius Julius came into the world) and the apparent hazing he got for being somewhat thinly haired.

  2. Theodore Kazynski comes to mind. His book, ‘Industrial Society and Its Future’ is really interesting. The idea is that freedom and techological progress are incompatible. Ayn Rand and others would disagree. Of course, Ted is considered to be a total whack job and a prototypical terrorists, so I can’t discuss it (because I’m afraid). The whole thing is on Wikipedia now.

  3. Hey, I personally like what you are writing about freedom – but how does it qualify you as a writer for The Economist? What I first liked – and eventually dislike – about the Economist is the predictabilty of its views (requiring no by-lines ;-). For me as a “liberal” in the American sense, it was like learning from the enemy. That time is over, now. What still makes it comfortable to read it sometimes is the garnish with nice illustrations and a strong sense of humor.
    For true market-liberal economists, both Buddha and Kierkegaard seem to be no real challenge. Buddhism can have a value, if it helps you to sell your products (just consider outdoor equipment or mental coaching). Concerning Kierkegaard, it is just a dead philosopher, who actually never stopped talking about “sin”: But isn’t sin greed – and greed good?
    That leaves, what you call Kierkegaard 2.0. Too much information! This is an issue for economics and The Economist, at least in the “economics focus”, where unorthodox Economist views where featured on a regular basis. But wait, the last times I read the Economist, I could not find this section anymore… Has it been too much information, after all?

  4. Hi Olaf, and welcome to the blog, and to this old post.
    Economics Focus still exists: it’s in every issue. Only now it’s called “Free Exchange.”
    I’m a bit confused whether you like or don’t like The Economist. (That’s OK, btw, we’re all conflicted about that. ;))
    But in this post I was not interested in any “commercial” angle on freedom at all. I was just making associations between how various other thinkers have used the word, and thus the concept.
    You’re right that on certain specific topics we can sometimes seem too predictable to be very fun. But on the vast majority of topics, i find myself quite surprised by what we come up with.

  5. Thanks, Andreas, for drawing my attention on free exchange.The Economist is the best European Newspaper. There are no others.I just do not agree with any of your economic recommendations. But I also agree, there is more to life, to liberty and to The Economist than the economy…

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