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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