Thoughts on Freedom

Now that the combat phase of the war in Iraq seems to be drawing to a close, there’s been (finally!) some attention paid to what sort of country Iraq should become. The most oft-professed goal is to convert Iraq to a democracy, and I assume this means a one-person one-vote system. If we really implement this, I’m betting the Shiites will vote in a theocracy, and I’m pretty sure that is not what we would want. But this line of reasoning made me think a little more about the relation of freedom with democracy.

To get into the discussion, we have to start by figuring out the basic goals of our society. Along with other goals, I think most of us would buy into the notion that our society should allow us the freedom to pursue whatever goals we think worthwhile, subject to as few restrictions as practical given the damage the pursuit of some goals can cause. There are two types of freedom, however, and they are generally the flip sides of each other. The first type of freedom I will call “freedom-to’s”; these are the things we are free to do. In an anarchy with no laws, we are free to do almost anything. In a dictatorship, those in power are free to do almost anything. The second type of freedom I will call “freedom-from’s”; these are the things we are free to not have done to us. The most obvious example is if I am not free to kill someone else, then the someone else is free from being killed. Most political disagreements can be reduced down to figuring the right balance between freedom-to’s and freedom-from’s, along with the right balance between short-term and long-term costs and benefits.

As an aside, laws are almost always written as restrictions to freedom-to’s. Aside from being easier to write, they are easier to administer that way. Notable exceptions are most Bills of Rights, which are usually written as freedom-from’s. Does the U.S. have the most freedom? Well, if you measure the restrictions to freedom-to’s by the volume of laws and regulations, we are perhaps one of the less free countries. Hopefully, this is more than made up by the increase in freedom-from’s. Most of us immediately recognize the value of the law in protecting us by restricting others’ freedoms, and support for our basic legal system is one of the cornerstones of our society. This support is so strong that many groups over the years have hijacked the legal system to push special agendas.

But how is any society to be organized so this goal of freedom is best attained? Even though freedom as a goal of society is a fairly recent creation (think of the Magna Carta, and the U.S. Constitution), the politicians of the day were experienced enough with the nature of men and the nature of governments to be able to provide a structure where freedom might flourish; the principle requirement being mechanisms to prevent the concentration of power in any one part of the society. A partial list of mechanisms follows, and perhaps their value can be better appreciated if they are viewed not as pillars of civil society (although they certainly are that), but rather as mechanisms to divide power among as many groups as possible. Some of the mechanisms are:

  • A codified legal system.
  • An independent judiciary.
  • The tort system.
  • Separation of church and state.
  • Anti-trust laws.
  • Independent financial controls, like the Fed.
  • Federal (and state) separation of powers.
  • The Bill of Rights.
  • Civilian control of the military.
  • Freedom of the press.
  • Freedom to create and join political parties.
  • Elections and secret ballots.

When people talk about democracy, they most often are referring to the last of the listed mechanisms. But remember that the goal wasn’t democracy itself; the goal was freedom. Democracy may be a necessary part of that freedom (especially over the longer term), but the other mechanisms are also necessary. Lots of countries have elections, but without these other mechanisms “democracy” as we know it is not attainable.

When I look at all the mechanisms, and the list above is by no means complete, I think about how long it took for western civilization to discover and then create them. And I think about how difficult it will be and how long it will take for any country with little democratic experience and no history of power-sharing to create all this political infrastructure. Will one full generation, about 25 years, be long enough? Returning to Iraq, will we stay long enough so the Iraqis create all the above? Or will we get tired, declare victory, come home, and leave the job undone?

April 26, 2003

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