What is freedom? Does individual liberty come at the expense of community? Is isolation a prerequisite for independence?
I recently saw Frozen, the latest Disney animated film, and I recommend it. For one thing, since watching the film, the above questions have been swirling around in my mind, often to the film’s soundtrack (as sung by my children).
Here’s the story: In the beginning were two sisters, princesses in the kingdom of Arendelle, one with a unique gift, and the other seemingly without. Elsa, the older of the two, has the ability to create ice and snow from nothing. She is taught to hide this gift in fear, which prevents her from developing it further, making it forever uncontrollable. Her gift becomes a curse. It is socially and emotionally damaging to both girls and follows them into adulthood.
After the deaths of their parents, Elsa is crowned queen. At the ensuing reception, a conflict arises between the sisters. “Why do you shut the world out?” Anna challenges. “What are you so afraid of?” Elsa reacts by accidentally exposing her secret to the community. The drama that follows convinces her that she is no longer welcome. She flees into the countryside to live a hermitic life.
As Elsa journeys on her own, she sings a ballad of self-discovery and individualism. In the musical number "Let It Go," she glories in her new-found freedom. She declares that her sovereignty comes as a result of her self-imposed isolation, as she becomes the figurative Ice Queen. She has put off the social niceties required of her as a young princess and finally tests the limits of her power. Elsa very much adheres to a philosophy of negative liberties—that her freedom comes from not being told what to do, made evident by the lyrics, “no right, no wrong, no rules for me. I’m free!” No other person has a claim on her life or her actions. For the first time since her early childhood, Elsa can taste freedom.
But for Elsa, this freedom comes with considerable cost. She has abandoned her community, her family, and all else that she previously knew. She is free, but she is alone. She doesn't want to harm others and therefore feels that she must not interact with them. She is unaware that her isolation holds negative consequences for both her and those she left behind.
As I watched this scene unfold, I couldn’t help but think that this is how most people understand libertarianism from without. You don’t have to look hard to see opponents mischaracterize the doctrine as individualist atomism at the expense of community, independence at the expense of cooperation. To make matters worse, many self-professed libertarians actually perpetuate this philosophical straw man. But they are wrong. Libertarianism is neither about social isolation nor autarkic independence.
This misrepresentation of libertarian individualism is often held up in contrast with some collectivist philosophy disguised as cooperation and community. This is a frequent, yet subtle theme in many popular works of literature, film, and music. And it is repeated because it is effective. Indeed, it is how all collectivist philosophies have been sold to the masses across the 20th and 21st centuries. Fascism was not advertised as authoritarianism, but as organized cooperation. Socialists did not use mass graves and famine to promote their ideas; they used social equality and the spirit of community. For decades, libertarians have believed they must focus on the individual in order to stand in starker contrast against these more destructive economic orders. But when we accept this contrasting caricature, we play right into statist hands.
In Frozen, Anna provides a better view of what the philosophy of libertarianism actually is, though most people will miss that and accept her role as the “let’s work together” collectivist. Instead of isolationism, Anna offers the idea of specialization and voluntary social cooperation.
When the sisters come together again, Anna finds that she has a transformative gift of her own. She has the ability to see the potential good in people that they do not see in themselves. Only after Elsa comes to terms with Anna's genuine desire to help are they able to use their gifts to benefit the entire community, even when at first they acted in their own interests.
A free market encourages voluntary social cooperation. "Division of labor" does not mean that people work isolated one from another, only that they specialize in the jobs for which they have the lower marginal production opportunity cost. In other words, we “do what we do best and trade for the rest.” More often than not, this decision is not something we actually calculate mathematically, but we somehow find our way. We then use the talents we specialize in to work cooperatively by trading labor or goods with others. That is the essence of the free market. And in many respects it is the nature of community, too.
Cooperation is not the domain of collectivism. In fact, the implementation of collectivist philosophies has often distorted the natural incentives that spur social coordination. Instead collectivism has created a climate of distinctive social and economic strata based on political connections and bureaucratic hierarchy. Collectivists of all stripes argue that forced redistribution of wealth is the only way to provide for the “positive rights” of every individual. I propose that redistributionist policies are unnecessary, immoral, and are in fact less effective than the natural mechanisms of a free market and flourishing civil sector at meeting those ends. The philosophy of libertarianism and the free market economic model it embraces build community by promoting economic interdependence and robust civil society.
So what is freedom? Is your definition of freedom one that is cold and isolationist, or one that allows room for the broader questions that libertarians are often accused of ignoring?
I’ve found my answer, and I found it, of all places, while watching a movie with my kids.