Liberty + Responsibility = Freedom

Liberty + Responsibility = Freedom

It can be quite messy when you find you are and anarchist or libertarian. The is a great deal of good writing on the subject and many fora in which to debate the issues of individual freedom and the dangers posed by the state.

The messiness arises from a variety of factors but two are particularly important. The first is a problem of nomenclature. The words anarchy and libertarian mean very different things to different people. In particular there is a problem in that the words have quite different meanings depending on whichever side of the Atlantic Ocean you find yourself living. (Debates on the internet often cross this divide without participants knowing and taking the different vocabulary into account).

Here in Europe anarchy has a long an established tradition with its roots in the writings of Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Krotopkin,  Pierre Proudhon,  and Rudolph Rokker among others. Anarchists split from the socialist tradition because of obvious incompatibility over their views of the state but they shared the socialists concerns for the poor, their egalitarian impulses and their opposition to discrimination and unfairness. Their tradition is seen in America in the writings of such luminaries as Emma Goldman or Benjamin Tucker. It is not unusual to see the term “libertarian socialist” or “anarchosocialist” in Europe, as the dividing line in Europe is the role of the state and personal autonomy rather than the other aims of socialists.

In America such  groupings  (e.g. libertarian socialist) would be seen as unusual and even a “contradiction in terms” as the origins of libertarian thought  are different and follows the works of early writers such as William Godwin and Lysdander Spooner, and later the works of Murray Rothbard, Ayn Rand and Robert Nozik. The philosophical base is also individual liberty but there is an acceptance of the capitalist economic system as the best way to deliver material prosperity to people. In Europe these groups would often be considered “Classical Liberals” , or unflatteringly “Neo-liberals“.

This difference in terminology often leads to messy confusion and  one needs to know a lot more about a someone who calls themselves an ‘anarchist’ or ‘libertarian’ before you can guess at their opinions or moral view of the world. Hence, the proliferation of adjectives to try and explain their positions : left-libertarian, anarcho-capitalist, libertarian socialist, agorist, etc. etc. However, this problem is relatively easily solved. A bit of reading or discussion will normally clarify what the persons views are and how they see the world. A much bigger problem and mess arises when people discuss liberty.

Most people view individual liberty as an obviously good thing. It is something to be fostered and promoted, and when we see attempts curtail liberty most of us try to stop this. However, it is impossible to promote liberty without recognising the need at the same time to promote responsibility. Liberty without responsibility is impossible. Indeed as George Bernard Shaw said “Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it”. Many people are happier to feel safe than to feel free; they would happily subject their freedom to the authority of the state if the state keeps them fed, warm and free from crime.

If a society was going to give up the role of the state as the guarantor of safety then it requires that individuals ensure that safety themselves. They may behave as they wish, but if we are free to pursue our own aims then we must be responsible for our actions, we must accept and deal with the consequences that follow. This responsibility will replace the state. Responsible individuals will want to work cooperatively with their fellows to their mutual advantage. Responsible individuals will want to curtail some of their desires today for safety and security tomorrow. Responsible individuals will want to make friends and allies, will wish to help others, as it may furnish the social capital that they might need to all on in the future. In short, if there is no state then there needs to be a big and effective society. If we need an effective society we need responsible individuals. In the past religion has, in part, provided this, in the future, it appears, we are going to have to find this on our own.

A failure to recognise the essential unity of liberty and responsibility has lead to the many rather sad and tawdry aspects of anarchist and libertarian writings. Often liberty has been mistaken for libertinism and calls for equality of opportunity have been barely concealed brutalism in furtherance of injustice. Libertarians and anarchists must by necessity hold themselves to higher standards, they cannot call on the excuse of duty or law, they must be responsible for their actions. However, being free and responsible is the essence of living as Viktor Frankl  recognised when he wrote the following in his book “Mans search for Meaning.

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our question must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual

Indeed he proposed a Statue of Responsibility on the East coast to remind us of we need both sides of the equation :-




Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Responsibility  on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast




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Peter Tatchell changes his mind.

Peter Tatchell changes his mind.

Peter Tatchell has form as being a clear thinker and one who is able to see through the morass of argument and counter argument to see the moral principles at the core of current debates. therefore when he announces that he has changed his opinion on an issue we should pay heed. He has changed his mind over the issue of the Christian bakers and the gay wedding cake. He had previously supported the penalization of the Christian bakers Ashers, in Belfast, who had refused to bake a wedding cake which had a pro-gay marriage slogan. However, Mr Tatchell has argued in a piece in the  Guardian that, while it is correct to oppose discrimination against people it is wrong to take legal action against the discrimination against ideas.

He is of course correct; our freedom to think as we will is the greatest right we have. It should not be constrained by any  agencies. While some of our acts may be considered unlawful none of our thoughts should be. As Mr Tatchell recognizes, there was no discrimination against the claimants per se, rather the Ashers had refused to promote an idea to which they objected. If the current court ruling stands, the logic is that it would be illegal for a Muslim printer to reject work printing  posters with comic portrayals of Mohammed, or for a Jewish baker to reject making a cake with holocaust denial slogans.

Obviously this case was not brought following any genuine act of discrimination and true feeling of hurt. The cake was designed and offered to a Christian bakery quite deliberately to try and create a legal case in the hope that this would shift and move the law. The intention, no doubt, was to try to make society less bigoted by using the law to signpost good behaviour. However, the law of unintended consequences should never be forgotten. It is precisely minorities who benefit most from recognition of the rights to freedom of thought and freedom of association. These are the rights that protect them from the majority’s desire to compel good and appropriate behaviour as society currently defines it. We must reject attempts to interfere with these freedoms no matter how well intentioned they may appear to be.