Superman and Freedom

Email Print


If man is really
free, how can we account for his inability to fly, to travel through
time, to leap across the ocean, for not being omniscient or omnipotent?
In short, wouldn't man have to be more like Superman to actually
be free? Man is constrained in some ways, isn't he? Is man
really free then?

In The
Ethics of Liberty
Murray Rothbard makes a crucial,
yet subtle, distinction that we will get to later. It is an important
insight, and essential for the libertarian to understand and explain
libertarian philosophy.

to the original u201Cdilemmau201D: What then can we say about the limits
of man's abilities? Rothbard discusses this in his section on u201CA
Crusoe Social Philosophy

Some critics
have charged that this freedom is illusory because man is bound
by natural laws.

It is true
that man is bound by natural, or u201CGod-given,u201D laws. He does not
possess certain abilities or powers — he is bound by scarcity all
around. Examples are abundant.

The power
to leap across the ocean is not given to man. However, man's ingenuity
has led him to search for and find ways to travel across the ocean
by boat or submarine. Man realized his limits, i.e., not being able
to breathe underwater for long periods of time, or swim great distances
without rest or sleep; he does not have the power to do so. Man
submitted to natural laws and through obedience used them to construct
boats and ships.

The power
to fly is also not given (naturally) to man. Yet man has found ways
to achieve flight according to natural laws, which, when heeded,
have allowed man to fly in any number of ways, e.g., hang-glide,
helicopter, airplane, parachute.

The power
to lift extremely heavy objects is also not found in man's (bodily)
abilities. Man has learned natural laws to design mechanisms that
can lift objects that weigh over a thousand times what man could
lift alone.

Man has operated
within natural laws, and those who best understand and adapt to
natural laws are those who can use them to their advantage. But
how does this affect man's freedom to act?

in answering critics who construct an argument to (attempt to) show
that man is not ultimately free, points out how man is free:

We have
seen that Crusoe, as in the case of any man, has freedom of will,
freedom to choose the course of his life and his actions.

Man may choose
his actions — but what about the constraints of nature and scarcity?
Here is where Rothbard's subtlety and insight comes in. The argument
is not whether man is free in regards to natural laws u201Cimpedingu201D
his abilities. Rothbard clarifies:

Man is free
to adopt values and to choose his actions; but this does not at
all mean that he may violate natural laws with impunity — that
he may, for example, leap oceans at a single bound. In short,
when we say that u201Cman is not u2018free' to leap the ocean,u201D we
are really discussing not his lack of freedom but his lack of
power to cross the ocean, given the laws of his nature and of
the nature of the world. (Emphasis added.)

other words, man cannot escape or overcome natural laws, but this
has nothing to do with freedom; it has to everything to do with
power, or the ability to perform a given task. Man is free to exercise
his agency, to make free choices regarding his actions and values,
despite u201Climitationsu201D placed on him by natural laws. If we put this
another way, says Rothbard, u201Cit is patently absurd to define the
u2018freedom' of an entity as its power to perform an act impossible
for its nature!u201D

In other words,
man is not Superman but make no mistake: Man is free to choose!

28, 2008

Brown [send him mail]
is a lecturer at the Australian Graduate School of Entrepreneurship.
He also centrally plans the Austro-libertarian

Email Print