Freedom in Modern Times

Quelle: Flickr/​UK Parliament

Karen Horn reminds us of forgotten, pioneering thinkers on liberty and high­lights the necessary contra­dic­tion within which a modern liber­alism exists: the tension between limiting state influence and recog­nizing that influence as a prereq­ui­site for the liberty of all people. Compe­ti­tion among political parties for the goodwill of voters and the numerous interest groups that champion their causes in a pluralist democracy lead to the perpetual expansion of the sphere of govern­ment. This threatens the space for indi­vidual autonomy and self-orga­ni­za­tion under market economy condi­tions. Yet a liberal society needs public insti­tu­tions to govern its common affairs. Subsidiarity and demo­c­ratic partic­i­pa­tion are two comple­men­tary prin­ci­ples for coping with this contra­dic­tion in a produc­tive manner.

Since we live in modern times,
I want a modern liberty
suited to modern times...

– Benjamin Constant (1819)

The majority of those living in Germany value liberty and feel them­selves to be free. As reas­suring as this survey finding may seem, it is equally difficult to draw any concrete conclu­sions from it: people have very different ideas about what comprises liberty. For many, liberty has more to do with their actual material possi­bil­i­ties than with their civil rights, which they believe to be secure; for others, liberty is more the result of inner, mental exertions than of external condi­tions subject to political influence. Views of this kind might not satisfy the concep­tual standards of political philos­ophy, which distin­guishes between “positive” liberty “to do” and “negative” liberty, in the sense of an indi­vidual right protecting against undue inter­fer­ence the State (Abwehrrechte) and sees the inner life as outside its remit. Still, this persis­tent disso­nance does make it plain that as important as the focus on pushing back the ever-expanding State is, in the long-practiced combi­na­tion of exclu­sivity and lack of differ­en­ti­a­tion, it is just as inad­e­quate as the excessive concen­tra­tion of the concept of liberty on the economic.

In political life, the imper­a­tive of liberty consists essen­tially in preventing collec­tive action from resulting in dangerous encroach­ments to the detriment of indi­vidual initia­tive and spon­ta­neous social coor­di­na­tion. One place that this imper­a­tive expresses itself, though not the only one, is in tax rates which allow citizens financial scope to take respon­si­bility for shaping of their own lives and which can be recon­ciled with the funda­mental protec­tion of private ownership. The imper­a­tive of liberty first addresses what the State should not do. In addition, it also explic­itly addresses what the State should do, how it should do it and which proce­dures are to be used in this connection.

It cannot be about “abol­ishing” the State, as a few anar­chists might still wish. Collec­tive action on the part of citizens within the histor­i­cally developed, arduously won consti­tu­tional and demo­c­ratic insti­tu­tions that we call the “State” is essential given the complexity of the social reality at the stage of civi­liza­tional devel­op­ment in which we find ourselves in the 21st century. Modernity – with its Enlight­en­ment heritage; the appeal to reason; the primacy of the indi­vidual over a collec­tive, one that is no longer envisaged as organic; the openness towards progress; the diverse and differ­en­ti­ated society and the global economy with its division of labour – does not exist inde­pen­dently of State insti­tu­tions. The liberty that is suited to this modernity is, for its part, complex. In addition to the contain­ment of collec­tive violence and the protec­tion of the indi­vidual from the arbitrary exercise of state authority, modern liberty encom­passes political liberty, the right of citizens to partic­i­pate in the collec­tive decision-making process, a now univer­salised right whose basic features have come down from Antiquity.

In a famous address given in Paris in 1819, the thinker Benjamin Constant, born in Lausanne 250 years ago, who, as a politi­cian, advocated a liberal repre­sen­ta­tive system in post-Napoleonic France, warned that these two aspects must be combined in such a way that they enhance one another, if collec­tive action in the modern society is not to become total­i­tarian. In his analysis, the satis­fac­tion imparted by political liberty can be no longer be a compen­sa­tion for enduring arbitrary power under these condi­tions. In a small group of persons, one might be willing to put up with being out-voted and having to bear the unwanted burdens as a result; in the anonymity of modern society, one is left with only the bitter taste of heteronomy and power­less­ness. “Lost in the multitude, the indi­vidual can almost never perceive the influence he exercises. Never does his will impress itself upon the whole; nothing confirms in his eyes his own coop­er­a­tion.” This feeling is the melody under­lying all disen­chant­ment with politics, most recently expressed in the droves of voters who turned to the extremes in order to prove the opposite.

One way forward lies in limiting the rights of the collec­tive to act on the indi­vidual. The other, no less important way forward lies in strength­ening political partic­i­pa­tion. Clearly, it is not enough to call on citizens “to contribute by their deter­mi­na­tions and by their votes to the exercise of power”, as Constant recog­nised. Rather, it requires, wherever possible, insti­tu­tional correc­tions in the spirit of the subsidiarity principle aimed at bringing the collec­tive decisions necessary in the complex great societies of modernity closer to the citizens once more, and thereby to “conse­crate their influence over public affairs”.

A prereq­ui­site for this, however, is that we do not mistrust the political liberty of the indi­vidual alto­gether, as do those critics of democracy who would prefer to make do without a State entirely and without univer­sally binding collec­tive decision-making. Rather, we must under­stand political liberty as a key liberal demand in the here and now and give new impetus to the exercise of this liberty. In respect thereof, it is appro­priate for us to value – despite all the necessary criticism – the object towards which this claim to partic­i­pa­tion is directed: the modern, partic­i­pa­tive, contained State, bound by law and statute. We should think of the State, in essence, as a communal under­taking of all citizens to their mutual benefit. This is not contra­dicted by the fact that, as expe­ri­ence has shown, state activ­i­ties, driven by the zeal of citizens equipped with political liberty, will keep growing and over­run­ning the private sphere unless we occa­sion­ally prune back the intrusion of the collec­tive. Because this pruning, too, is a task that demands political liberty. Yes, the State, in its self-rein­forcing tenden­cies, does regularly endanger liberty, but the State should also be the system­atic place and, ideally, servant of liberty. This tension and complexity must be borne and moderated: herein lies the contin­uing challenge of modern liberty.



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