ADELAIDE - The current coronavirus crisis has thrown into stark relief the inherent tension between individual freedom and social obligation.
This has perhaps been most evident in the United States, where there is now active resistance against demands that individuals sacrifice their personal liberty for the greater good in an effort to control the Covid-19 pandemic that had by yesterday killed 105,000 Americans.
Without going into a long explanation of its origins, there is a fierce attachment to individual liberty in the US together with a related suspicion of authority.
This distrust lies at the very core of how many if not most Americans conceive of themselves as citizens.
In Papua New Guinea, in traditional societies at least, there was no question that social obligations always took precedence over personal freedom.
Indeed, it seems to me that the concept of personal freedom as it is understood in western thought would have been incomprehensible to traditional people.
In fact, the whole notion of individual freedom as we in the democratic world understand it is, historically speaking, a recent development.
For most of recorded human history the freedom of individuals has been constrained in a variety of ways, ranging from family and clan obligations of the type well understood by Papua New Guineans through to outright slavery.
In the Roman Empire, for example, even citizens were obliged to endure a variety of restrictions upon their freedom, for example, there were limits to their ability to participate in the governance of their city or the wider empire.
Roman citizens had certain rights enforced through the law, but they still could be subject to arbitrary arrest, imprisonment or even execution at the whim of the Emperor or his delegates.
The slaves, who constituted about a third of the population of ancient Rome and did much of the hard work throughout the Empire, had no rights or freedom at all.
They were bought and sold as goods or chattels without regard to their individual needs or desires.
In the medieval era, across much of the world, those people not part of the ruling elite were often bound in servitude to others or locked into a specified social position.
Even the great lords of the land had sometimes onerous obligations to their social superiors which they could not easily avoid.
The notion that an individual had a largely unfettered right to freedom would have been regarded then as incomprehensible, laughable or even treasonous.
Attempts to assert such rights, such as the Peasants Revolt in England of 1381 were ruthlessly crushed by force, with the leaders rounded up, tortured and then publicly executed by very horrible means to reinforce the message that the prevailing social order would be mercilessly enforced.
The first glimmering of real change arose in England during the 17th century, mainly in response to the crisis which arose when King Charles I clashed with parliament over the supposed ‘divine right’ of kings.
This so-called right was based upon the long held idea that kings were appointed to their role by God and thus were answerable to God alone.
Even today, the motto on the British Monarch’s coat of arms is Dieu et Mon Droit, ‘God and my Right’, a quaint Latin hangover from a time when it was believed that kings truly ruled by God’s will.
In 1642 the already tense relations between Charles I and the English parliament irretrievably broke down when his demands for additional revenue to be collected by taxation were refused by parliament.
A subsequent botched attempt by Charles to arrest the leading parliamentarians proved to be the trigger for a civil war.
The war raged until 1651, when the parliamentary forces finally crushed all military resistance to its rule. Charles was arrested, tried for treason and executed.
This event signalled to Charles’ astonished and appalled fellow monarchs in Europe the beginning of the end for the long European tradition of rule by absolute monarchs, although the last of them would not be deposed for another 250 years.
Part of the justification for ending the rule of absolute monarchs came from English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704).
In his book, Two Treatises on Government, Locke argued that people are by nature free, and that claims that God had made them subject to a monarch were false.
These days it is very hard for us to understand how radical and shocking an idea this was.
It overturned thousands of years of tradition where the social order was a system into which you were born and social advancement on merit alone was impossible.
Hitherto, God had ordained your position in society and, with very few exceptions, no amount of effort or wealth or inventiveness by an individual could make any real difference.
But in the 17th century it was emerging that not only did individuals have a natural right to freedom but they could, by exercising this right, hope to advance their position in society.
Of course, English society then and for a long time afterwards was neither especially free nor fair. The thinking about personal freedom had changed but the practical impact for most people was very limited.
There were, however, small but perceptible changes beginning to occur which would lead to the emergence of a wealthy and influential ‘middle class’ of merchants, landowners and skilled professionals.
This new middle class, full of what we might now call ‘aspirationals’, was the driving force behind the creation of the market economy we take for granted today.
As this middle class grew in size and power, it forced a gradual extension of the franchise. Some of the ruling elite began to worry that unfettered liberty for individuals might lead to a form of mob rule which might be even more tyrannical than that of a monarch.
Another important English philosopher, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), discussed this problem at length in his book, On Liberty (1859).
In essence, Mill argued that individual freedom was naturally constrained by the requirement to not do harm to others or otherwise disrupt the social order unless this was necessary to resist tyranny.
This idea is central to our current notion of what freedom means, where individual liberty is constrained in a whole variety of ways by the imposition of laws to govern how society works.
This is the basis of what is generally called classical liberalism.
Notwithstanding Mill’s attempt to square the circle between individual freedom and the need for an orderly society, the fear that unfettered individual liberty will lead to anarchy or worse is still alive and well in much of the world.
Many people and societies regard the world’s noisy, argumentative and messy democracies as inherently unstable and very threatening to the overriding need for social order above everything else.
Authoritarian governments of all forms recognise and use this fear as leverage to sustain their regimes.
They invariably promise to deliver the desired stability, security and certainty, but at the price of a significant loss of individual liberty.
The tension between these supposedly mutually exclusive social objectives can result in significant conflict.
We can see this playing out at the moment in Hong Kong, where much of the citizenry is resisting Beijing’s efforts to impose greater controls upon them.
Unlike the mainland Chinese, Hong Kong Chinese are used to having much more individual freedom. Ironically, this is because the former British colonial regime was much less authoritarian in nature than the current Chinese government.
Meanwhile, in the USA, the generally right wing advocates for largely unfettered individual freedom do not see that they should have any obligation to comply with measures intended to protect the wider community from the ravages of Covid-19.
They claim that their rights take precedence over any actual or implied obligations to the communities they live in.
I should also note here that, in more recent times, individual freedom has been explicitly linked to the functioning of the economy.
This idea arose out of what is known as the Chicago school of economics in the USA. Its principal and most famous advocate was Milton Friedman (1912-2006), who won the Nobel Prize for economics in 1976.
In his book Capitalism and Freedom (1962) Friedman argued that people must be free to make economic choices that best meet their individual needs, unfettered by government regulation or other interference.
Friedman contended that only then could people achieve true political and personal freedom.
There is, I think, some truth in this proposition, especially in the highly materialistic, consumption based economy of today.
That said, there are grounds to believe that this is not necessarily the case for someone living a subsistence lifestyle such as that found in much of Papua New Guinea, where mutually supportive communalism at least ensures that the trials imposed by having little money are more equally shared.
Friedman also believed that government interventions in the economy were invariably bad and that, by individuals exercising their free choices in the marketplace, an inherently efficient and self regulating economy would be created.
This thinking, to my mind at least, is peculiarly American in nature because it plainly appeals to those pre-existing ideas, deeply embedded in the American psyche, that governments are inherently oppressive and inefficient and that individuals should be allowed to get on with their lives largely unhindered by rules and regulations.
In any event, Friedman’s idea gripped the imagination of many economists, politicians and business people across the world and now lies at the very heart of what I and many others call neo-liberalism.
There is much to recommend Friedman’s ideas (to which I can hardly do justice in this short article).
But his belief that a free market is invariably the best mechanism to produce and distribute goods and services has been repeatedly shown to be wrong, most recently during the current crisis.
He did not, in my view, give sufficient attention to things like information differences between the seller and buyer, nor to the problem of market failure in the event of massive economic disruption such as major wars or the global financial crisis of 2008 or the current crisis.
In the case of other common forms of market failure, Adam Smith (1723-1790), who first articulated the basic ideas about how a modern capitalist economy should work, foresaw such problems as the emergence of monopolies and oligopolies which would distort the market in favour of the supplier.
We have in the last 40 years seen the growth of gigantic multinational corporations which are either close to outright monopolies, like Microsoft or Alphabet (Google), or so big (like Amazon) that they can utterly dominate the market on a global scale.
Another example is OPEC, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, which is a cartel that openly manipulates the market for oil and petroleum products to its members’ benefit.
And because its members are all nation states, they are effectively immune to regulatory control.
Adam Smith’s remedy for monopolies and oligopolies was to point to the need for judicious government regulation. This is an anathema to modern neo-liberal business leaders, who see any government regulation as a problem (except, of course, if it is in their interests).
This brings us to today, where individual freedoms and rights are apparently more numerous than ever, at least in the democratic world.
Despite this, many if not most people find themselves heavily enmeshed in a struggle to accumulate wealth.
All too often this process entails the accumulation of debt, the scale of which has increased exponentially to a magnitude never before seen in human history.
The world’s ‘debt mountain’ is now so large that it could disastrously destabilise the entire global economy when that point is reached where it is understood that much of that debt will never be repaid.
If Friedman’s idea of economic freedom being a precondition for political and personal freedom is correct, then it seems to me that most people today are not free at all.
They must sell their labour to earn the money required to service their debts and thus are in a form of servitude that belies their supposed freedom to do as they please politically or in most other ways.
Those corporations and individuals who control the economy have taken many people prisoner through the iron grip of extensive consumerism and debt.
As is so often the way in human history, it turns out that what seem like self evidently true and good ideas can have unexpected or even perverse consequences.
The notion of an unfettered ‘natural right’ to individual freedom, while deeply attractive, comes with more than a few caveats attached to it.
It seems to me that while traditional Papua New Guinean societies may not have got the balance between individual freedom and societal needs quite right, the current demand, both from the political right and the left, for the rights of individuals to take precedence over society’s broader needs is certainly wrongheaded and, potentially at least, downright dangerous.
The current health and economic crisis has exposed these tensions and the way they are resolved will likely have a profound impact on our collective futures.
If, as some people believe, neo-liberalism and the associated belief in unrestrained personal freedom are now dead, we all have a powerful interest in what form of ideology replaces neo-liberalism.
As has happened in the past, our current understanding of personal freedom, especially its linkage to economics, may need revision to better suit the times in which we live.