Living Together

Mr. Donway deals as a free-lance student and writer with the social implications of certain philosophical issues.

Is laissez-faire an unsociable system? Indifferent to cooperation? Hostile to fellow-feeling? From the abuse laissez-faire receives, one would certainly suppose it was all these things.

Indeed, one might suppose laissez-faire to be something of an ultimate in unsociability. I have seen it asserted, as an obvious truth, that under laissez-faire the majority of people would be reduced to a sub-human level—as though freedom were a type of anti-personnel weapon.

And that was from a Centrist’s point of view. Further Left, they take off the gloves. One popular radical economist speaks unhesitatingly of the "ruthless amorality of laissez-faire," and insinuates that even a moderate capitalist must number Al Capone among his heroes.

Really, it is an extraordinary state of affairs. The system whose very name proclaims a policy of "hands off’ is attacked as a system whose hand is against every man.

Yet the idea of laissez-faire seems simple enough to be understood even by those who disagree with it. Essentially, there is only one operative principle to be grasped: laissez-faire forbids aggressive coercion between people. That is almost all there is to it.

It is just the consistency with which laissez-faire applies this prohibition that distinguishes it from other systems of civil order. The use of force, other than defensively, is forbidden under laissez-faire to all citizens, including public servants. The result of practicing such consistency some call "liberty," and some call "freedom." Kenneth Boulding has suggested we should call it "peace," because the ban on coercion is similar to international nonaggression.

Liberty Is Peaceful

That may be a bad idea, because of the differences between liberty and international nonaggression. But the suggestion does express this one root truth: that liberty is peaceful. It functions by guaranteeing safety from constraint.

Now why would anyone consider that unsociable? What connection is there between forswearing harm and forswearing humanity? Not to shanghai one’s neighbor, not to ravage his land, not to expropriate his property may be less than the last word in fraternity, but it is a start. And in motive, it is more than a start.

If there is any hostility to community, surely, it lies with those who reject the principle of laissez-faire. Their refusal to accept an armistice is somehow unsettling.

When a moderate speaks in favor of this freedom or that, he is certain to say, "Of course, I’m not advocating laissez-faire," and he means to be reassuring. But where is the reassurance? If his auditors took him seriously, I should think, they would leap from their seats and rush the exits. For he has said, in effect, that he accepts no standing rule about dealing peaceably with peaceable citizens. Not knowing his rules for dealing violently with peaceable citizens, his listeners should hardly feel safe in his presence. Perhaps he is inclined to reject laissez-faire when he spots a pocket of poverty in his trousers.

Obviously, things do not work like that. Yet they do almost work in reverse. People really do shrink from an advocacy of laissez-faire as though it were an advocacy of barbarism. They actually hear, in a call for freedom, a cry for havoc. How has so mad a reversal been accepted?

The charge against liberty cannot be like the straightforward charge against a coercive state—that it pushes people around. That much, at least, the explicit ban on coercion spares us. Yet somehow the impression is being given that liberty does, virtually, mean being pushed around, and much worse besides.

Garry Wills, for instance, calls laissez-faire "the law of the jungle," and it is a common enough description. But it is also a curious description—of laissez-faire, to say nothing of jungles. For if laissez-faire is the jungle’s law, it is a jungle where the overriding rule is "Thou shalt not use force," and where violence is the forbidden means of survival. It is a jungle where the lamb can lie down with the lion.

Surely, that is unpromising ground for the enemies of freedom. From such politics, not even the most resourceful could construct a feral image for liberty.

How Will Free People Behave?

In consequence, the attack on "antisocial" freedom generally begins with the nonpolitical side of a free society. It starts with a hypothesis about how free people will use their freedom in their everyday lives.

The hypothesis is usually a wild one, as it happens, made without reference to the historical behavior or actual attitudes of free people. But nevertheless, the hypothesis, or guess, is made.

And how will free people behave? The guess is: Not well. The accusation of "jungle law" implies that free people will deal with one another as warily and as meanly and as uncooperatively as they can. It suggests they will be as vicious as the law allows, and perhaps a little more.

A citizen living under freedom is expected to suffer all the no coercive evil his fellow citizens can inflict on him, and to enjoy as few of the benefits of cooperation as they can arrange. The majority of people will be reduced to a subhuman level, and so forth, and so on.

The obvious question is: Why should free people behave like this? And the typical answer is clear. According to those who make the charge, there is an attitude that gives rise to freedom, and this attitude is at bottom antisocial.

More specifically, the ethos behind liberty is said to take life as a competition for survival, and winning that competition as the highest value. From this, the internecine fray is inferred.

That is the slander, and apparently it is effective. How it can be effective, though, is something of a mystery. The odds against the slander’s even surviving, I should think, are overwhelming.

After all, the ethos of liberty that actually gave rise to liberty has not been lost in oblivion. The conception of a free community that actually gave us free communities can still be learned. One would imagine that documents recording these things might, on any day, give the lie to accusations about freedom’s unsociability.

Shared Reason and Goodwill

To take a simple example: the Declaration of Independence does not begin with a premise of battle royal. It begins with a decent respect to the opinions of mankind as its self-proclaimed motive; which is to say, it begins with an assumption of shared reason and goodwill.

The writings of John Locke, too, are not antisocial. They do not assume that people will be at each other’s throats. As a matter of fact, they assume that free people will generally associate in "Peace, Good Will, Mutual Assistance, and Preservation."

That the charge of unsociable liberty has survived in the face of this history is a wonder, but that it has survived the scrutiny of common sense is a marvel. For the allegation of "feral freedom" is unbelievable on its face.

The first part of the charge, remember, says that free men consider themselves to be engaged in a war of all against all. And the second part says that, consequently, they place a total ban on coercion. Why would people fighting a life-or-death struggle do that? Why would they enforce greater decorum than prevails at the average sporting event? Just psychologically, it is not a plausible sequence of action. Yet no one seems to notice.

I think we should ask why no one notices. The allegation is a smear, undoubtedly. But if it were a smear only, the smear would have been exposed long ago. The charge is so outlandish that it could not survive without help, and especially without inside help from its victims. Unfortunately, such help is easy to find.

To begin with, a notion of universal competition was once adduced in behalf of freedom, by the Social Darwinists of the late nineteenth century. It can be said that their idea of competition was very different from the savagery depicted by the enemies of freedom. It can be said that the Social Darwinists were not the true heirs, philosophically, of those who authored our freedom. Nevertheless, they did tie freedom to universal competition, even as charged.

And perhaps that tie is still made, here and there. A few apologists for sharp practice, I suppose, still use the phrase "competition for survival" as a dodge and an excuse.

But if these are things that cannot be changed, they are at worst minor difficulties. They are the kind of aid that can be ‘dragged up in support of any straw man.

A second type of aid is much more dangerous, and it is also given to the enemies of freedom. Probably, it is the most dangerous sort of aid that can be given to one’s detractors, for according to an old rubric it actually implies consent. This aid, of course, is silence.

A Weak Defense

Defenders of liberty have simply not avowed some of the things that go with freedom, like sociability, cooperation, and goodwill. It is a common habit among defenders of freedom merely to recommend the prohibitions against coercion without mentioning what sort of society those prohibitions govern.

By way of example, that was exactly the approach used above here to recommend laissez-faire. What can a listener make of such a presentation? How can he weigh a political ethic that says nothing about the tenor of its proposed society? Will his fellow citizens, in this proposed society, treat him as an ally, or as an enemy, or will they treat him with total indifference? It is a matter of legitimate curiosity.

But commonly, a person who is asked to accept freedom cannot tell in the least what sort of existence he is being asked to accept. Is he being asked to join with peaceful producers, or harmless nomads, or pacified flower children? If you are going to live with people, the differences are important. The "look" of a free society, surely, must be part of the argument for a free society.

If it is not, if such details are not filled in, the enemies of freedom will fill them in for us. In what manner, we have seen.

Before discussing the free society’s "look," however, an objection to any such discussion must be noted. It is a simple and worthy objection. A free society, after all, is a tolerant society. It does not prescribe its citizens’ peaceful behavior. How then can we depict any general patterns of such behavior?

Evidently, the answer must lie in the context of freedom. We should know, for we have only too much occasion to see, that liberty does not grow anywhere, anyhow, under any conditions. It has emerged, when it has emerged, from a fairly definite attitude toward man and society. It has been rooted in an outlook, and it has waned with the waning of that outlook.

Attitudes and Beliefs

The enemies of freedom are right in this regard, and they have grasped what few defenders of laissez-faire have grasped. There is an ethos that gives rise to liberty, and it does tell us something about free people. By noting the attitudes and beliefs that generate freedom, we can know something about the attitudes and actions of free people in their everyday lives.

The question is, therefore: what outlook gives rise to liberty, and what does it tell us? How does it suggest free people will behave? Specifically, can we say with any confidence how free people will view one another, and what use they will make of their fellows?

Obviously, I think we can.

A few general facts about man and society, variously expressed at various times, have been the groundwork of freedom. To put it simply, we might say that freedom is based on three commonplace beliefs.

The first of these holds that human life is at bottom individual. To live—to discover what man needs and produce it—is something done by a person. It is a problem for the mind, and the mind is individual.

The point must be stated carefully, for it is easily misrepresented. Few of us could live outside society, and fewer of us would want to try. But the reason why is important. It is not, as some collectivists think, that man exists like an ant, only as a member of his group. In fact, it is not a problem of what we are at all. It is only a problem of what the task is, namely, Herculean. Strip away the aid, the arts, and the artifacts of civilization, and what remains is a brutal struggle, if indeed anything remains.

The second belief, then, is equally commonplace: human association is the greatest of all the tools that can be used to make living easier. Through the division of labor, through the accumulation of knowledge, and through the accumulation of capital, human association can act as an enormous lever on the energies a man devotes to his attempt to live. And the results are obvious, attested by the presence of some four billion people. In society, survival is merely a man-sized task.

Friendship and Love

Nor is productive cooperation the only benefit of society. To the material aid that arises from association, we may add all that can be said about friendship, camaraderie, loyalty, and love. These, too, make living easier and are part of society’s promise.

In short, if we want to live, with each other is the way to do it. Living is the task, "with each other" is the tool. And the tool is practically indispensable.

The third belief of liberty builds on this. It is: that association must not be turned against an individual’s attempt to live. The tool must not be turned against its purpose. To observe this is not to disparage association, but to care for it. It is to insist that association not be perverted from its ends.

Admittedly, the task of ensuring that association does not turn against life can be a difficult job, and it becomes more difficult as society becomes more complex. Yet one principle remains perspicuous throughout the complications. We cannot allow anyone to constrain another from acting on his own judgment. That, we can say, undercuts the attempt to live at its source; and above all, it undercuts the attempt to live together. If we are going to live together, in the full sense of both terms, we must insist on living peaceably.

The consistent application of this principle is laissez-faire.

When one understands freedom as emerging from such beliefs, one understands in addition how much can be fairly said about the look of a free society. It is by no means the closed book it is sometimes considered.

We can see, for example, what sort of mutual admiration is likely to bind people in a free society. As liberty is rooted in the problem of living, esteem is likely to follow productiveness, and the great producers, who make our lives qualitatively easier, will obviously tend to be major figures. The Jeffersonians, we know, gave great honor to those who discovered practical knowledge, and that estimate will probably be part of the Jeffersonian outlook whenever it reappears.

Again, by understanding the roots of liberty, we can see why a free society is a generous society. Alexis de Tocqueville remarked on this aspect of liberty. He said of the free citizen, vis-a-vis his fellows: "As he sees no particular ground of animosity to them, since he is never either their master or their slave, his heart readily leans to the side of kindness."

And at that, Tocqueville was thinking of freedom only as "live and let live," as being neither slave nor master. When we think of freedom as "living together," with each of our fellow citizens an actual or potential ally, how much more our hearts must lean toward kindness.

But most of all, by seeing the ground of freedom, we can see how intensely sociable it is. The idea that liberty is based on a competition for survival becomes ludicrous. Liberty is based on a cooperation for survival.

Even the specific economic phenomenon of competition exhibits this cooperativeness. For economic competition is essentially the struggle to be chosen as a trading partner. And, as trade is mutually beneficial, economic competition is thus essentially a competition to cooperate. It is a struggle to reach what is mutually beneficial.

So finally we see, by looking at the roots of liberty, what a shame it is that defenders of freedom are silent about this sociability. Proponents of a system that is based on cooperation ought not wince at the word "society," whose origins are in the notion of an alliance. People who understand how humans can truly live together should not be shy of conviviality.

Great evils, undoubtedly, have been committed in the name of community and fraternity. The words have been used to damn the individual’s attempt to live, and they have been used to cover all manner of coercion. But it is terms of association that have been used precisely because, in proper context, those terms stand for great values. These values of community should be reclaimed for liberty, not only because the coercive state perverts them, but because the free state does not. 

Further Reading