When Freedom is a Bowl of Rice
There are Chinese towns near the border with North Korea that send rice across the Yalu River in exchange for girls to marry. It makes sense. North Korea needs rice, because communist farming is a failure. China needs girls, after thirty years of sex-selective abortion and female infanticide. And this neat little arrangement in an obscure corner of the East holds an important lesson for what is left of a Western civilization looking down the barrel of a gun of its own aiming: the feeling of self-determination can be reduced to the satisfaction of having a daughter to sell for food.
As totalitarian dreamers of both the one-party and multi-party varieties have long understood, and have come to count on, humans have an almost infinitely elastic ability to accommodate themselves to conditions that seem inescapable or predetermined. Our natural desire for self-preservation virtually guarantees it—there is almost no degradation that men cannot learn to live with, given enough time.
“Learning to live with it,” however, is both a natural reflex and a great danger. For although self-preservation is not at all the same as acquiescence, the former can devolve into a rationalization of the latter due to the slackening of will and reason that results from battle fatigue and the stretching of the soul’s moral cords by the constant pull of inescapable conditions. And when this slackening of the soul occurs, men may become bound to oppressive rulers more firmly than could ever be achieved with mere chains and fences. For what they are losing is a faculty of perception less obviously vital to our bare existence than others, and therefore easier than others to survive without, namely the capacity to feel free.
I am convinced we are born with a “freedom sense,” a mental faculty which perceives the degree to which our lives are grounded in our own will and judgment. This is not the same as the desire to be free; rather, it is the capacity to perceive whether we are free. It is therefore related to the desires as are all our perceptual faculties, namely as nature’s means of revealing our proper goals. Freedom would therefore stand in the same column of human goods as the beautiful and the euphonious, things which are desirable because they satisfy the natural purpose, or obey the innate “rules,” of the faculties to which they correspond.
This freedom sense is also something distinct from what academic philosophers and psychologists have taken to calling the “sense of agency,” i.e., the mere ability to perceive ourselves as physically in control of our movements. The difference may be clarified by way of the old observation that a man with a gun to his head still has the capacity to make a choice, namely to choose whether to comply or be shot. That is, a man under the most extreme coercion is still fully capable of experiencing himself as an “agent.” In fact, many of our most admirable examples of moral agency occurred under precisely such conditions—and will have to do so again if we are to climb out of the present morass. But we would not call a man in such conditions “free,” except in a specialized, apolitical sense. We would say that the man’s will may be free, as a matter of human nature, but the man himself is not.
The precise faculty to which I am referring is related to the innate self-preservational intentions of a rational animal, the inner necessity which gives rise to what we moderns call our natural rights, which is to say the moral constraints our existence imposes upon other men. What this faculty perceives, then, is specifically the extent to which those moral constraints are being observed or violated. It is not an inwardly-directed faculty of self-consciousness like the “sense of agency,” but rather the conscious awareness of one particular aspect of our relations with other humans, namely whether those relations are consistent with our natural rights.
We may trace the classical liberal argument until it reveals this special perceptual faculty. The natural tendency of all existing things is to continue existing. Among living things, this tendency is called self-preservation, which at the most basic level means preserving and promoting one’s own life. (Let us ignore once and for all the progressive trolls who will respond to this point, as they have for hundreds of years, by asking, “So you think humanity is a selfish, dog-eat-dog species?” These dim-witted sophists either cannot understand that self-preservation admits of as many spiritual sublimations as there are rungs on the soul’s evolutionary ladder, or they think you cannot understand it. In either case they are a waste of your time.) As rational animals, humans must ultimately rely on their minds to determine and initiate the processes of self-preservation, and on their bodies to put them into practice and sustain them. As a matter of principle, then, a human being’s natural intention requires the use of his natural tools, his mind and body. (I have explained elsewhere how this point is logically extended to establish the natural right to property.)
If self-preservation is our natural inclination, and mind and body our natural tools, then having control of the use of those tools is the minimum requirement of living fully in accordance with our nature. The desire to have such control is therefore coextensive with the innate desire for self-preservation. And, therefore, the feeling of having such control is the proper object of what I am calling the freedom sense. This conscious awareness of practical self-determination is thus our most direct experience of ourselves as rational animals. While other experiences fulfill our nature in other ways, this is the one that tells us that we are human. In a very strict, non-poetic sense, “I am human” means “I am free.”
In addition to being the feeling that accompanies a social existence suitable to our nature, the freedom sense is also a natural means of self-protection. Just as our sight is naturally repulsed by the ugly, and our hearing by the cacophonous, so our freedom sense, when functioning properly, recoils from the feeling of forced dependence or violated will. This explains, at the everyday level, why some of us feel excessively annoyed at having our sentences completed for us by loved ones who know us too well, or at being “rushed” into doing chores we had every intention of doing anyway.
At a deeper level, it explains why children, whose freedom sense is developing along with their rational agency, bridle at even the most reasonable limitations placed on their behavior by responsible guardians. Still deeper, it explains why the great philosophies have all been (though in very different, often conflicting ways) dedicated to achieving some notion of liberation from the bonds of man’s oppressive irrationality, and why the West’s great religions have defined the human good in terms of transcending earthly restrictions and human injustice. From Socrates’ ironic demolition of the Athenian elite to Locke’s analysis of natural rights, and from Exodus to the Resurrection, escaping or being liberated from restraints of one form or another has been the theme of all the great teachings of Western civilization.
Time and chance inevitably put up obstacles to the completely unhampered use and disposal of our minds and bodies. Collectively, we call these obstacles “reality,” and while we hope to overcome some of them, maturity involves learning to accept those which cannot be overcome. When, however, such obstacles are put up before us by other rational animals acting voluntarily, i.e., by moral agents, they become violations of our natural rights. Thus the basic natural equality of men, so emphatically stated by Locke, Jefferson, and others dedicated to political liberty, is essential to grounding a moral community of free men whose coexistence mutually constrains their legitimate behavior, creating a social realm of voluntarism, and naturally underpinning a system of law and justice.
We feel oppressed (figurative sense) by time and chance; we are oppressed (literal sense) by other men. We rage against nature or our own limitations when we experience the first feeling; when we experience the second, we defend ourselves, in words or in action. Hence Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death.” Hence Tocqueville’s ingenious warning about the dangers of “soft despotism.” Hence Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. Hence Spinoza’s pithy summation of public education in Tractatus Politicus (Ch. 8, para. 49): “Academies that are founded at public expense are instituted not so much to cultivate men’s natural abilities as to restrain them.” Men who still live and feel as men—that is, men in whom the freedom sense is still fully functional and healthy—know when their nature is being undermined or attacked, and pursue the most effective available means of resistance.
What happens, however, when oppressive violations are systematized, and take on the aspect of insurmountable obstacles which leave us physically intact while flatly denying us the basic ownership of body and mind that is the minimum requirement of natural self-preservation? What happens, in other words, when coercion and violation—the normal methods of humans who choose to live as irrational animals—evolve towards a totalitarian form?
In such circumstances, the choices before us are more complex. These “progressive,” insinuating forms of oppression force us to accommodate ourselves to the situation—to learn to live with it—as the only means of maintaining any sense of normalcy in our lives. Just as we have the capacity to adjust the receptiveness of our sight to filter out flaws and ugliness that disturb our view of things, or to acclimatize our hearing to ignore monotonous or ugly sounds that would otherwise distract us from our thoughts and pleasures, so we are able to train our minds to overlook encroachments upon our will in the name of maintaining a more palatable perception of our circumstances with regard to freedom.
We train ourselves in this way out of necessity—one has to live, and remain hopeful, after all. In the process, however, we risk developing a habit of overlooking violations, dulling our freedom sense for the sake of avoiding the disturbing moral cacophony of perceived oppression.
But “overlooking violations” is too loose an expression. We cannot, strictly speaking, avoid seeing these encroachments entirely; rather, we slowly train ourselves to downplay their significance, to see them as mere inconveniences—unavoidable nuisances as opposed to challenges to our humanity. Putting up with them, even embracing them, begins to feel like self-preservation itself. That is to say, extended accommodation of generalized oppression denatures men in a very specific (and very intentional) way: it detaches their natural impulse to self-preservation from the reasoning and feelings that naturally flow from it. Rather than relying on, and defending to the death, the tools nature has provided them as means of preserving and promoting their existence, men under totalitarian rule learn to relinquish those tools (mind and body, rationality and self-determination) in the name of merely staying alive and having a “normal life.” Self-preservation is reduced to acquiescence.
Detaching oneself from the sense of self-ownership in the name of mere survival entails more than merely not trying to climb over the barbed wire fence. (This, of course, is not always practically feasible, even for the most uncorrupted soul.) For true acquiescence to coercive claims against our own mind and labor necessarily involves the weakening of those feelings with which nature has equipped us as warning signs of our loss of freedom. Just as the faculty of sight can be corrupted to prefer ugly sights to beautiful ones, and the faculty of hearing to prefer monotonous rhythms to delicate melodies, so the faculty of freedom can be trained to mistake the avoidance of immediate physical harm for self-determination, and submission to a “benevolent” protector for the assertion of one’s rights.
To demonstrate what is thus lost, consider, on the one hand, the American founders, men whose freedom sense was developed to a level comparable to perfect pitch in hearing. They were so acutely sensitive to encroachments upon the individual’s natural need for self-determination, and so offended by these unnatural disturbances, that while differing on the precise means, they were united in literally seeking to banish the most serious and offensive of such violations—those deriving from political authority—from their midst entirely, at the risk of their reputations, wealth, and blood if necessary. “Give me liberty or give me death” may be said by anyone; it may only be lived by someone with a heightened sensitivity to the loss of liberty, meaning someone whose nature has not yet been diluted by the gradual distortion of self-preservation into acquiescence, as described above.
On the other end of the spectrum, consider those exchanges of girls for rice along the Chinese-North Korean border. Here, “learning to live with it” has been carried to its final, sad outcome. Self-preservation means not dying. All sense of self-determination, of resistance to violations of natural freedom, is reduced to the imperative of eating, regardless of the cost. For men at the extremes of submission, freedom is a bowl of rice.
And consider our Western progressive majority, their freedom sense well along the downward arc from the peak of the American founders to the bleak degradations of North Korea. What has progressivism wrought?
Today, even the heirs to the American founders have seen themselves subjected to degradations and injustices more extreme than the affronts which compelled their forebears to stage a revolution. And progressivism’s grand prize, socialized medicine, has forced in the door at last. Americans who fantasize that Obamacare’s failure will be its undoing have missed the point. What does “failure” have to do with anything? All progressive programs fail. If the successful provision of societal benefits were a necessary condition of its continuance, socialism would no longer exist. The necessary condition for the continuance of progressive policies is a ruling elite motivated by power lust—and time for men to denature themselves in the name of “learning to live with it.”
Socialized medicine teaches that you must not value your life above that of other men. Not only should no doctor care about your personal survival, but you yourself should stop thinking your survival is any kind of priority. You should wait your turn in the only line in town, and be grateful if you do eventually get what you need from central command. After all, what choice do you have? Finally, this degradation—this total denial in principle of the most basic instinct of all living things, the instinct to preserve oneself through one’s own effort—causes one to see “fairness” in this universal abject self-denial, to bow one’s head before the objective hand of government.
This is what becomes of the desire for self-preservation under progressivism. Indeed, this is the purpose of progressivism in all its forms—from socialized education to the bureaucratically micromanaged economy, and from the moral relativism and collectivist sentimentalism of “mass entertainment” to the protection of a permanent ruling elite through cronyism and a state-manipulated press. The aim is to produce the sort of citizen for whom “I am human” no longer essentially means “I am free.”
The goal is to degrade your natural perception of freedom to the level of being content with your bowl of rice—or, at the intermediate stage, with your smartphones, music videos, and entitlement programs —purchased with your daughter’s future, your reason, your self-ownership. That this goal is as close to global achievement as it is today is astonishing—though no more so than the fact that there are still men and women left who are able to perceive what has been lost, and to mount a resistance.
(Originally published in November 2013)