Freedom From Compression

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“Timid
men prefer the calm of despotism to the tempestuous sea of liberty,” wrote Thomas
Jefferson in 1796. And in 2005, Bruce Springsteen wrote that “Fear’s a dangerous
thing, it can turn your heart black.”

John
Stuart Mill in 1859 said his objective in writing On
Liberty
was to assert a simple principle regarding the degree to which
society should be permitted to control the individual – whether by government
force of legal penalties or the moral coercion of public opinion.

“The
only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a
civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others,” he asserted.
“His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”

It
is against liberty, Mill argued, to deny a person his freedom for “his own good.”
Those who consider themselves to be in the position to deny freedom to others,
he contended, are neither infallible in their judgments nor necessarily principled
in their edicts as to how others should live. The enthusiasm to control, Mill
wrote, finds its origin in “envy or jealously,” “prejudices or superstitions,”
or “arrogance or contemptuousness.”

But
“most commonly,” he maintained, what influences people’s fervor regarding the
conduct of others is their “desires or fears for themselves – their legitimate
or illegitimate self-interest.”

“What
are fears but voices airy? Whispering harm where harm is not,” wrote Woodsworth.
Fear, writes Springsteen, will “take your God-filled soul and fill it with devils
and dust.” In matters of individual freedom, to allow one person or group to employ
fear to deny another his individuality is a clear prescription for autocratic
behavior and repression.

Fear,
any more than jealousy or superstition, does not provide a sufficient excuse for
limiting the liberty of an individual who may not be speaking or living according
to the format of others.

Mill
believed that an individual’s opinions and actions are neither the law’s business
nor the business of society, the state, the church or any other collection of
individuals, so long as the individual wasn’t injuring another. It is a philosophy
of laissez-faireism in ethics, matching the market freedoms that Adam Smith advocated
for the economy, in which the liberty of free and sovereign individuals, aside
from doing harm to others, should be absolute.

The
concept of limiting individual freedom in order to protect society, or to mitigate
the anxiety or needs of others, explains Alan Dershowitz, is quite limited and
does not include the right to be protected from ideas different from one’s own:
“Your right to swing your fist should end at the tip of my nose, but your right
to express your ideas should not necessarily end at the lobes of my ears.”

To
deny the free expression of ideas is an assault not only on individual freedom
but also an attack on the very means by which society ascertains truth and does
away with error. “Truth is not a piece of matter or a unit of energy that will
survive pummeling and emerge unscathed in one form or another at one time or another,”
warns Dershowitz. “It is a fragile and ethereal aspiration, easily buried, difficult
to retrieve, and capable of being lost forever.”

There
might well be good reason for trying to persuade a person to believe something
or take a particular course of action, “but not for compelling him or visiting
him with any evil in case he does otherwise,” Mill argued. “He cannot rightfully
be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because
it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be
wise or even right.”

The
danger for the individual and society is that mankind, “moderate in intellect”
and “moderate in inclinations,” explained Mill, is disposed to knock off an individual’s
rough edges, to prescribe rules of conduct that force everyone to conform to the
same standard, a standard where one is required “to desire nothing strongly.”

The
desired end is a timid conformist; the means, said Mill, is “to maim by compression,
like a Chinese lady’s foot, every part of human nature which stands out prominently
and tends to make the person markedly dissimilar in outline to commonplace humanity.”

With
that compression, we all lose – all of society and every individual.

June
24, 2005

Ralph
R. Reiland [send him mail] is the B. Kenneth
Simon Professor of Free Enterprise at Robert Morris University and a columnist
with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Ralph
R. Reiland Archives

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