Meaning of Liberty

Triggered in the best possible way by the following, Benjamin Constant, writing on meanings of liberty, ancient vs modern, in 1819 France. Read the whole thing it is shockingly applicable today.

This is related to the idea of todays forming Neo Feudalism and to a degree the concept of the Individual and sovereignty.

Constant lays out that in ancient times liberty (for the tightly defined citizen) was extremely broad and powerful, in Greece and early on in Rome, the citizens as a body had essentially unlimited power to wage war, make piece, expel, execute, as far as their power extended. But as individuals they were controlled, watched, forced to conform. This was possible because the citizens were a smallish percentage of the total population and well enough off to spend a huge part of their time debating.

In a practical sense these citizen assemblies were more like our Legislators than our citizens, though with arbitrary and absolute power. But Constant follows the traditional line and does not make this distinction. In part because he still lived in a world of urban aristocratic elites supported by a huge rural underclass.

In counter to ancient liberty he explains modern liberty as about the individual vs. arbitrary power of any kind. Essentially it is about the individual and their ‘happiness’ in the sense of controlling their own life and own concerns with the expectation that society and the hand of society (the government) has strictly limited power to interfere.

He points out that individual liberty is what humans really want but in the case of the ancients were willing to sacrifice for collective liberty since in their small and always threatened polities it was glaringly obvious that it was cooperate or be enslaved.

That stark choice is still there but hidden by the immensity and generally good living of the modern world. Governments span continents not little seaside towns and in the developed world we never want for goods unless we are ‘unlucky’ in some way. So the real power of gov’t is far from obvious to most, if you go along you get along and only criminals or sociopaths get in trouble…right? If everyone is on the same page maybe, but in a world of oligarchs, elites, yeomen, plebs and deplorables everyone is not on the same page any longer.

During the later 19th and through the 20th century there was, in the west and US, in retrospect, a fairly concerted effort to keep everyone on ‘the same page ‘ But as the echoes of WWI reverberated, the liberal republican concepts came under increasing threat from political philosophies we call communism, socialism, marxism, fascism, and their social outreaches of materialism, deconstructionism, etc. The ‘conservative-liberal’ mainstream dealt with the geo political threats fairly well but the social political attacks came through chinks in the armor that ‘freedom of expression and thought’ leave wide open. Children and Intellectuals are particularly attracted to the avant-garde, new, kind, progressive, and while many of them grew out of it as they moved through life ,all too many became entrapped in the mind fog if they did meet the real world of real people and real trade offs that the schools of hard knocks provide.

And so we are today a country, a civilization under threat of our own success. The varigated liberty of the constitutional republic has been hollowed out due to pragmatic, lazy, risk averse decisions by the interlocking social, fiscal, judicial, etc elites.

We deconstructed education, society, civility in the name of equality but without a consensus of what was going to replace those things and others. Deconstruction occurred in the shadows, the termites were at work on the frame with no replacement under construction because no one could agree on even a need as long as the old structure was there. Unfortunately no one told the termites to stop.

As this became somewhat obvious there were those, maybe many, who said, ‘let it crash,’ ‘let it burn,’ ‘tear it down’ because it represented something that they defined as completely evil, even if the same underpinnings being eaten away kept the roof over their head and provided protection for their food and defined their safety from the wild.

The problem is that the people who most want it torn down least understand what it took to create and what it protects them from.

If you look at things a certain way you can see the US, the West sliding towards something all too like the Chinese model. Perhaps a kinder gentler version but that is no certainty.

Is there a way out? ?

Was there a way in?

My view is that we stumbled and mumbled our way here. Reality is that nothing here was planned. We live with the contingent outcomes of unplanned inputs. it is possible that this outcome was expected by some but they are unlikely to have had any ability to direct it.

It does not really appear possible to plan anything like a society any longer unless it is a subset of self selected actors. And since humans are human no such society will last longer than about half an average human lifetime.


It is what it is.

Don’t see evil around every corner, there is evil in the world but it is rare in the wild. Most people just believe what they believe they learned somewhere. They are most likely wrong (as am i.).

And remember this, over the sweep of time things have been getting better for more and more (in absolute and relative terms) people across time. There have been crashes and horrors but most people most of the time were relatively happy. The up slope was ver, very low ten thousand years ago but it has been steepening as it goes. While the whiners all see disaster ahead the reality is that there are solutions for every problem we (as a world civilization) have. Where we are going in any one part at any one time is always a bit of a random walk but that walk is usually uphill (in the best sense.)

Stay strong, be happy, work at making a difference.

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