THE TENSION BETWEEN LIBERTY AND CIVILIZATION
Just ten or twenty years ago if you asked people what their vision of the future you'd get optimistic, excited ideas full of robots, flying cars, lunar bases, and negated diseases. Living longer, healthier lives in a setting of greater comfort and convenience would be the themes, as science overcame all our problems and wonders resulted.
Ask people about the future now and they see misery and disaster. The apocalypse is upon us, whether by meteor, global climate doom, zombies, or what have you. People have a general expectation of things going horribly wrong and disaster on the horizon. Most people seem surprised it hasn't happened yet.
Its been like this before; in the 1980s, the dystopian cybertech visions of William Gibson and movies like Blade Runner were a common perspective, but generally speaking over the years, people have expected the future to be better - much better, in fact - than their present times for centuries.
Part of the reason for this is economic. In the 1970s things seemed so hopelessly awful and everything seemed to be going so totally wrong in America that by the 1980s, most people figured it was over. We'd had our shot, we had a few years of glory and it was all downhill from then on. Ronald Reagan managed to turn that around, but here we are back again expecting doom.
And in a way, I think that disaster is inevitable, although probably not in a form or speed anyone predicts or expects. An objective, calm analysis of modern culture and civilization reveals something basically rotten from the inside out, like an oak tree with a deadly disease. It can look strong and impressive from the outside, but within it is dead and hollow.
I've written about this a few times, such as the examination of what happened to once-great cultures (especially the men in them) with What Happened To Us? I examined the theory that civilization is finite, that it can only advance so far before it is fully civilized, and attempts to go beyond that are actually counterproductive. And I did a short piece on why splintering into tribes destroys civilization, followed by a piece on Somalia and how quickly it can happen.
Living in a peaceful, safe, rich, comfortable, and predictable civilization is easy to take for granted, its just the water we swim through and rarely even consider - if ever. But history tells us that this is the exception, the extreme exception, for humanity. For most of the years mankind has been on earth, in most of the places we live, the rule has been barbarism, danger, instability, war, and misery.
And it seems inevitable that civilization falls, all previous ones, no matter how glorious, have come to an end. Usually there is violence and invasion involved, but those seem to be symptoms, not causes of the collapse. From the Akkadians to the British Empire, all have fallen over time. Its almost as if civilization its self holds the seeds to its own destruction, or to put it another way, as if civilization is innately suicidal.
And I believe that's exactly the problem. I believe that the collapse of civilization is inevitable, and that within the very concept of civilization and its implementation is its destruction.
It seems to me that there's a sort of tension, a tug of war between liberty and civilization. That on one theoretical end there is complete liberty without any restrictions whatsoever, and on the other complete safety and comfort, with all the benefits of civilization. And the more you move along that line to one or the one, the less you get of the other. Here's what I mean.
Civilization by its nature requires giving up some of your personal liberty. You have the right to say whatever you want, whenever you want, about anything you want, but if you do so in a way that damages others, it is destructive to the society and civilization as a whole. You have the right to own property, but you cannot do whatever you desire with that property whatsoever because you live in a community; you can't use it to store radioactive materials right next to an orphanage, for example.
This is the "social contract" which I've written about quite often, and as a concept, it is a good compromise on how to live in a fallen world. You give up some of the free exercise of your rights in order to gain the most benefit of community. This is a difficult exercise, because getting those proportions right - giving up liberty for safety and benefits - changes based on any situation and the times. What is right in time of peace may not be at war. What may be right with a certain technology may be different when the technology changes.
Civilizations begin to tear themselves apart by downplaying or attacking the virtues that built them to begin with, and elevating and celebrating ridiculous and irrelevant side issues that could only be a concern in a culture with that much wealth and safety to begin with. Maintaining that wealth, safety, and civilization is considered a burden, drudgery and frustration, at best. Often, it is attacked as bloodthirsty, a throwback, something people have "evolved past."We've grown to where we no longer need military or guns at all! We don't need to be so concerned about protecting ourselves, we live in the 21st century! Those moral codes and behaviors that allowed us to construct the comfort and the joys we savor are so old fashioned and outdated, we've grown beyond that now.
So even were a civilization able to advance past a certain point, it tends to begin slowing and hindering growth and even self destruct.But there's another problem with this tension. The Social Contract is corrosive, it will always tend more toward the surrender of liberties than the restriction of comforts. Each new generation will demand more given up to have more comforts and safety until liberty is lost entirely or the place falls apart.
This is something I've brought up a few times, but it is a fact that the virtues and strengths that build a civilization are inevitably lost when that civilization is built. The courage, fortitude, honesty, wisdom, and so on that were required to create the comforts and safety of a community are believed to be no longer needed to maintain it, and are abandoned by the later generations who do not need to struggle to keep their benefits.
As a result, Montesquieu argues in Spirit of Laws that liberty creates civilization; it is the freedom to grow, build, expand, invent, and achieve that makes a civilization arise. And in that civilization, it is the liberty that its people enjoy which creates prosperity to the point of luxury. When that luxury becomes the norm, it corrupts the discipline to cultivate virtues needed to maintain civilization. As a result, liberties begin to be lost, as the culture turns to an increasingly powerful government to protect them from their lack of virtues. And when those virtues and liberties are lost, civilization falls to pieces. As I wrote in my piece on the limits of Civilization:
Civilizations begin to tear themselves apart by downplaying or attacking the virtues that built them to begin with, and elevating and celebrating ridiculous and irrelevant side issues that could only be a concern in a culture with that much wealth and safety to begin with. Maintaining that wealth, safety, and civilization is considered a burden, drudgery and frustration, at best. Often, it is attacked as bloodthirsty, a throwback, something people have "evolved past."
We've grown to where we no longer need military or guns at all! We don't need to be so concerned about protecting ourselves, we live in the 21st century! Those moral codes and behaviors that allowed us to construct the comfort and the joys we savor are so old fashioned and outdated, we've grown beyond that now.
So even were a civilization able to advance past a certain point, it tends to begin slowing and hindering growth and even self destruct.
However, liberty must have restrictions, or civilization cannot be built to begin with. If a civilization has too much liberty, it cannot have civilization because it becomes a playground for the strong to oppress the weak, taking what they desire and destroying anything that is in their way. Civilization cannot prosper in a setting of absolute, unrestricted license; that only results in tyranny and war both large and small.
In an area without civilization, people are split into tribes, warring with each other, banded up for safety and along whatever common grounds they can discover - family, religion, appearance, etc. These tribes reject any attempts at tolerance, unity, and peace, because that means losing the strengths and safety they find by grouping up, and the unity they have within their tribe of having a common enemy. Within these tribes, liberty is maximized, where you can do nearly anything as long as you do not significantly harm your tribe; anything whatsoever you desire is acceptable against people outside that tribe. It is by the slight restrictions of liberty - by moving toward civilization and away from liberty - that you can begin to build societies and cultures.
However, if you move too far toward civilization, then you start to lose too much liberty, and inevitably the more you surrender of your rights in the name of comfort, ease, lack of offense, "getting along," politeness, and safety, the less liberty you enjoy.
And, ironically, there's a cliff at either end of that continuum. If you go too far toward liberty, you eventually lose it by falling under tyranny of the strong. If you go too far toward civilization, it collapses and you lose the culture and stability of a civilization.
What is ideal is a culture where liberty is maximized while not losing the best benefits of civilization (education, literacy, safety, peace, tolerance, and liberty). This would be a setting in which people had as little restriction as possible from government in terms of action and behavior, but were united as a people and worked together for the future. Such a setting is what the United States enjoyed most of in the 19th century, for example, although it was marred by attitudes toward certain groups.
Tyranny is the natural state of humanity; being dominated by a strong, controlling central force, person, or government is how humans have lived for the bulk of our existence and in almost all areas at any given time. This gives the maximum safety and stability at minimum liberty. The only way to avoid this is the exercise the same tools a civilization is built with to maintain it. We have to maintain civilization by continuous effort and discipline or it will inevitably slouch into tyranny. We have to make hard choices, give up some things, and put up with other things that we might prefer not to.
That means we have to deal with people smoking where we wish they would not, eating what we don't like, saying what we don't care for, and doing things we do not like as long as none of this significantly and materially damages the free expression of other peoples' rights.
The maintenance of civilization also means the maintenance of liberty, with the continuum the most toward liberty that we can and yet sustain a culture and civilization. Each incremental step away from liberty is a step toward the collapse of civilization, so we have to fight - and fight hard - every single attempt to take away liberty for the good of us all, no matter how petty or meaningless.
This is not easy, it is not comfortable, and it is not something we can take for granted. Yet without that constant battle, everything is inevitably lost.
Allow me to give you one example from the headlines how this works. The DC City council has decided that certain specific business sectors which happen to align exactly with Wal*Mart and virtually nothing else have to pay a "living wage." This "living wage" is what the council has determined is necessary pay in order to have the necessities of life such as a home and car, internet, etc (they define "necessity" fairly broadly).
Here's the problem with the "living wage:" it is a self-fulfilling failure. It cannot be maintained and inevitably destroys its self. Why? Because if you pay the lowest earners a significantly larger amount per hour, that will drive all prices up across the board, as businesses have to raise prices to pay their workers. As the prices go up, the cost of living rises, and the "living wage" is no longer sufficient to accomplish what it set out to do - give enough money for a certain standard of living. So the wage must be raised to meet this, driving up costs, and requiring yet another raise, and so on, until the number of zeroes on the basic currency note becomes so large, it starts looking like a cartoon.
In the end, if this continues, the economy totally collapses. What seems like such a nice idea to begin with is actually the seeds of destruction for a culture. Each tiny little well-meaning change is a step down the road to tyranny and the loss of civilization.
At least, that's how it seems to me. Maybe I've missed something.
At least, that's how it seems to me. Maybe I've missed something.