Living Freedom: A Quick Event Review and A Word on Freedom

I was fortunate enough to be selected as one of around 45 candidates for Living Freedom, a political conference organised by the Academy of Ideas, and hosted at the CIEE Global Institute in London. The event billed itself as a “stimulating forum” for social, cultural, economic and political discussion and debate, with topics covered this year including religion and discrimination, identity politics, consumer boycotts and censorship, and the #MeToo movement.

Rather than being an echo chamber for Randian free-market libertarians – I was the only one in attendance – Living Freedom had carefully selected a range of national and political perspectives, mixing Marxists with Tories, Brits with Indians, Americans, the Swiss, and many others. Along with plenty of refreshing, oft challenging discussion with other attendees, there was also a stellar cast of speakers: I was fortunate to speak with a host of them, both in support and to confront, including the IEA’s Kate Andrews, social commentator Frank Furedi, former political advisor Munira Mirza, and a barnstorming Nikos Sotirakopoulos, whose impassioned defence of Enlightenment values was one of the highlights of the weekend.

The schedule for the event is quite intense: taking the form of a series of lectures and panel discussions, around 15 distinct topics were covered, from current affairs like #MeToo and Generation Snowflake, to more philosophical discussions on existentialism or the political writings of John Milton, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill, over the course of two full days.

I am often to be found in the library deep into the night before deadlines, having delayed starting an assignment until the last moment. In few cases have I ever felt mentally or intellectually fatigued. Yet, on Sunday as I travelled home, and Monday as I checked my neglected emails, I felt drained. Living Freedom had worked my mind’s muscles in a way rare to be found in such discussions in Aberystwyth. I had struggled with Hannah Arendt’s political theories. At lunch, I had successfully rebutted Marx’s Labour Theory of Value when proposed, but later, had been savaged on the issue of protection for incitement.

This pattern followed the weekend. It was one of reinforcement, but also of learning. I had entered in the spirit of discussion and challenge, rather than of competitive debate. There was much to gain from this approach, and most took it, to the benefit of all. I would thoroughly recommend that all who wish to know more about freedom and politics in a genuine spirit of enquiry, should apply for Living Freedom 2019 when the opportunity arises.

The Central Question: What is Freedom?

Being a conference focusing on the notion of freedom, it makes sense that the biggest question to arise from it for me was: what is freedom? Specifically, I wanted to work out under what parameters we can consider internal and external limitations a restriction of freedom.

The Objectivist (Randian) position on freedom, set out by Ayn Rand and that I myself subscribe to, is that the necessity to act to achieve an outcome is a universal process of the organismal world – lions hunt gazelles, just as gazelles migrate, just as flowers turn their leaves to the sun. For humans, our means of acting is not photosynthetic like a plant, nor instinctive like an animal, but volitional. In other words, we use our mental faculties to determine our actions based on what we wish to pursue. Because of this, libertarians of my ilk believe that freedom constitutes the ability to act volitionally using one’s own faculties, absent the threat of violent action that would otherwise prevent us from doing so (and to afford the same courtesy to other individuals). We might think of this as the basis for legal and moral freedom, which we will here call liberty.

The first attendee to introduce himself in the initial Living Freedom session declared himself a “proud Marxist”, who believed that freedom is “the absence of the risk of starving to death”. His understanding was that because one must act to survive, we have no choice but to act – that is, the choice between action and death is not a choice at all. We all have certain needs – food, water, warmth, and shelter, say – whose satisfaction is not an automatic occurrence. To obtain these material needs, we must conduct ourselves in a spirit of goal-oriented direction – that is, we must act to gain.

In a capitalist system, this means creating value for other people by providing a good or a service, for which they pay you money to spend on goods and services that you desire. But, of course, not everyone has the immediate capital necessary to own the means of production, which means that whilst people might have the liberty to do these things, they do not have the opportunity. They have to work for someone else, having their surplus value siphoned in return for a wage – the Marxists would call this a form of “wage slavery”, and it is the logic that spawns the phrase, “profit is theft.”

I happen to agree that freedom is, in essence, a two-sided coin – the liberty to act, and the opportunity to act. You may be a superhuman who can achieve any moral aim they desire, but if you do not have the legal right to do so – the liberty to do so – you are not truly free. Likewise, you may be unconstrained by any legal impositions on your actions, but if you are an ordinary person, you are not, strictly speaking, “free” to do as you please – you have constraints and competitions, both within and without yourself, that limit your opportunity to act in accordance with your will.

The Marxist case, as far as I understand it, is that there should be a minimum standard for which we can consider a lack of opportunity an immoral restriction on freedom. We can, roughly speaking, sort all human endeavour into two broad categories: Needs and Wants. Needs are those minority pursuits that sustain our existence – food, water, etc. – and Wants are those infinite pursuits of the body, mind or the soul that may enrich our lives but are nonetheless extraneous to their continuation. Naturally, our Needs must be satisfied before we unlock the meaningful pursuit of our Wants. If freedom is volition, as I previously argued, one does not have a choice to pursue one’s Needs if one wishes to pursue one’s Wants. Under capitalism, those who are unproductive, or whose production is not lucrative must dedicate a higher portion of their finite time to fulfilling their needs – thus, Marxists might conclude, true freedom of choice requires the freedom to pursue Wants, which requires limits on the amount of time required to pursue Needs.

But opportunity is as much a product of consequence as of circumstance. To cross-quote George Bernard Shaw and Friedrich Hayek, “liberty is responsibility.” This means, simply, that if you have the liberty to act, then your freedom to act is a transitional by-product of your actions. Opportunities – the freedom to pursue Wants, let’s say – are contingent on behaving with proper restraint, because failing to do so destroys your own freedom. If you don’t work hard, you will be denied a promotion. If you are loud and obnoxious, you won’t be invited to parties. You are free to expand or diminish both your opportunities and your capabilities, and we should not confuse one’s present inability to do something with freedom. In the absence of external imposition, you are free to do everything that you are capable of doing, and you are nothing more than incapable of doing those things that you are incapable of doing.

If we are to accept a distinction between Needs and Wants, then we must first recognise that Needs are an organismal constant, and second, that we do in fact have a choice on how to satisfy them. The rage against Needs is, rather, a rage against risk, and the fundamental argument between libertarians and Marxists seems to rest on that question – is true freedom the freedom from risk, or to risk? I would argue the latter is objectively true, but also practically true.

I’ll give a concrete example. It relates to the issue of rape, and will contain certain phrases or concepts that some may not be comfortable with, so fair warning.

In the opening address for Living Freedom, one of either authors, Joanna Williams or Ella Whelan – I forget which – made the somewhat controversial statement that women have “a right to risk being raped.” Let’s unpack this statement. Firstly, the right to risk being raped is not the right to be raped in any legal and moral sense – rape is quite obviously a sickening act, and should be punished with the utmost severity. But the uncomfortable truth is that, no matter how well-raised our young men are, no matter how many consent classes we offer them, and no matter how universally accepted the immorality and illegality of rape is – some men will still rape.

So, what constitutes the risk of being raped? Well, if we treat the matter as purely one of forced sexual intercourse, the mere existence of male genitalia is a cause for concern. Taking the liberty to assume that we can’t simply start lopping off men’s willies, blanket castration – which was actually suggested by the aforementioned Marxist colleague – might be an alternate, but not one that I or most moral humans would support or submit themselves to. Given that there is nothing we can physically do to men to eliminate the risk of rape, the next step would be to negate their interactions – but by what method and who would advocate for the complete separation of men and women?

There are many things we could do to regulate interactions between the sexes, of course. How about banning alcohol? Or an after-dark curfew? What about mandatory tracker implants? The list of potential aversions of risk are too numinous to name, but they all in varying degrees represent a curtailment of the liberty of each individual. It is objectively true that it would be more difficult to rape a woman in jeans than in a mini-skirt, but how would most women feel at being told they are legally obliged to wear jeans? Women have rightly fought for freedom from the regulation of their bodies and their actions, and should rightly resist calls to return to a pre-modern tyranny under the thin-gruel pretence of “safety”.

The right to risk being raped, as with the right to risk anything, is the acceptance that bad things can always happen, and that it is the choice of the individual to behave in a way that either mitigates or accentuates that risk. Sure, not drinking beyond their capacity, wearing less “accessible” clothing, and travelling in groups may reduce the risk of being raped, but on what moral basis can anyone argue that women must behave in this way? Risk is an inevitability, and it is one’s choices that primarily determine to what extent you are exposed to it – and we must reserve the right to make those choices.

Likewise in the domains of society and the economy. Even if one wished to account for the myriad factors that inform behaviour and success, it is quite simply not possible to flatten risk or equalise outcomes manually, and even if it were, it would not be possible without curtailing liberties in some capacity. Instead, regulation must fall to the self, which must respond according to its own goals when risks and outcomes manifest themselves in the world. If you want to be invited to the party, don’t be a d**k. Put food on the table before whiskey in the glass. Delay gratification, learn from your mistakes, and limit doing what you know you shouldn’t.

If you have liberty, your freedom depends on how you use it. More than that, you have a right to risk failure, because the alternative is meaninglessness. Necessity as conceived of by Marx is a very different beast to that which we experience in modern Western countries. The risks associated with pursuing your basic needs are far less intense as the cost of general consumption plummets under capitalism, and, indeed, pursuing them is now an active supplementary process of self-development, self-regulation and autonomy. To act by volition is to incur risk. The artificial absence of self-generated risk is the forced absence of choice. Without risk – without the freedom to succeed or fail – you have no purpose and no freedom. Be wary of those who say those things are an oppression; they are, in fact, the essence of what it means to be human.