Freedom in Modern Times
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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