How Do You Know If You’re Truly Free? by Philip Pettit at TEDxNewYork (Transcript)

Philip Pettit – Irish philosopher
I guess everybody in this room reckons that freedom is an ideal. It’s built into DNA of our culture, it’s built into the DNA of our human intuition. But I reckon that freedom, the ideal of freedom, has been captured, in a way, too much by the economists, I suppose. Being users of free markets, free economies, even the free world. I think it’s become a bland and a thin ideal, not the rich ideal it once was and I think it can be again, the ideal that we think of when we talk about whether someone is really a free person, and whether a society is a society of free persons.

I’d like to talk to you about this way of enriching the notion of freedom. And in order to introduce it, let me talk about a play that many of you will know, it’s a wonderful play written by Henrik Ibsen about a 100 years ago called “A Doll’s House.” And those of you who know it will remember the main character is Nora who’s married to Torvald, a young, rich banker.

In the world that Ibsen is writing about, Scandinavia, in about the 1870s, women have very few rights. Torvald has all the legal and all the cultural power in his relationship with Nora. It sounds, as I describe it, as if Nora, therefore, is suppressed. But actually, Torvald worships the ground that Nora walks on, he dotes on her. And hence he allows her basically to do anything she wishes, in the exercise of what we think of as our basic liberties. She can wear what she wishes, she can speak her mind wherever, whenever she wishes, whatever topic she can associate, with whatever friends she wishes to associate. She can go to the theater or not, just as she wishes.

In fact, the only thing he really imposes her as a restriction is that she should not eat macaroons. But even that’s not a problem for Nora, because she hides them in her skirts. So, Nora really has carte blanche. You know, she can act just as she wishes.

Now the question I want you to think about is whether Nora is a free person. And I think she’s not. Let me tell you what I see as the problem and I hope that you share the intuition. The problem is that while Nora is unrestricted, while she’s not interfered with in the exercise of her basic liberties by Torvald, she depends on Torvald for having that sort of freedom. The freedom she has is a lucky freedom. It’s freedom she has in virtue of the good luck of having a husband who is totally indulgent in his relationship to her. So that she depends on his grace and favor in order to exercise her basic liberties.

I say Nora is not a free person because while she is not interfered with, she is total non-interference, she is subject to Torvald’s will as to the will of the master. A dominos, as it used to be called, she is dominated in that sense, or subordinated or subjected to the will of Torvald. It’s his will that rules; she can act as she wishes or she wills, but only because he wills that she should act as she wills. She’s not a free person. That’s the problem, she doesn’t have what you might call robust freedom; she only has lucky freedom, dependent on his allowing her that freedom.

Nora teaches us a lesson in that particular example. Because of course, the problem that I’ve described in that instance – and we’ll recognize it as a problem that she isn’t a free person, I think – that problem arises in all sorts of sectors of human life in our society too. So the freedom remains a challenging ideal.

So for example, of course, it arises in the home. Insofar as the culture is not supportive of the laws we do have that give spouses rights against their partners, women in particular, rights against their husbands; but it also arises in the school, where a child is subject to the potential bullying of those in his class if he or she, the child, is not protected against that bullying. Even if the bullying doesn’t occur. If the child’s, so to speak, has to run the gauntlet, the threat of such bullying, that child’s not free.

Or it arises in the workplace. If the employer has – in many of our states, the employer has – if the employer has a right to fire at will, without cause, without process, then I think that many employees are in this situation where they really depend on the goodwill of the employer in order to remain in employment. And I think to that extent, they’re a bit like Nora. They do not enjoy the exercise of the basic liberties, they’ve got to watch what they say, perhaps they’ve even got to watch for political party they identify with. They’ve got to watch themselves in order to keep the employer sweet. That means that like Nora, they are also unfree.

It also rises for people from another culture and minority culture, whatever, who run always the risk of being taunted or bated in public, where the culture is not going to support them. In order to be free, you have to have a law and a culture that backs you up, that puts backbone in you, that enables you to look others in the eye without reason for fear or deference. That gives you what I think of this personal freedom; freedom as an individual. Unfortunately, that’s only half the story.

Because I said it’s the law and the culture that makes you free in the exercise of basic liberties, but that law and culture had better be under your control equally with others in your society. The law had better be a law that is there on your terms, on the people’s terms, on your terms equally with others. You’ve got to share equally in controlling that law. Else, you’re going to be dependent on the person who does control the law, or the elite that controls it.

So, if you live in the country where you’ve got an autocrat, who, let’s suppose, sets up a decent system of law that protects individuals but where it could be changed overnight by a change of will on the part of the autocrat, you don’t have robust freedom, the robustness disappears again. It’s dependent on the will of the autocrat.

Same is true if an elite controls the government. For example, a moneyed elite determines really what social policies are going to be in place. Then everybody else depends on that elite. Same is true in the case of a colonial government. Now that’s an instance authoring bills, in the United States in particular, because in 1766, as you remember, or may remember, the Westminster Parliament, because of protest in America, withdrew the so-called Stamp Act. That meant that they were nice, so to speak, to the American colonists, and they answered the complaints they’ve been hearing.

But in withdrawing it, they introduced something called the Declaratory Act which says, while we’re withdrawing this act, this tax, we maintain that we have the right and the authority to tax American colonists as we wish. And that actually is probably the main theme in the complaints of the Americans in the last 1760s, that while Westminster was a gentle master, like Torvald is a gentle master to Nora, it was still claiming the status of master. And while you’re under the will of another, a country in this case, under the will of another country, you can’t be free because the laws that give you individual freedom are themselves not robustly in place because they depend on the will of an alien agent, in this case the parliament of another country.

So we need, in order to get robust freedom, in this second sense, public freedom if you like. We need to have a system under which we the people control the very law that gives us individual freedoms that I’ve spoken about earlier. How do we get that?

Well, of course, we need an electoral democracy. I think that goes without saying, but we need more than that too. We need three things, at least, beyond that. One is, I think, we need a situation in which minorities – ethnic minorities, religious minorities – are protected against, as we say, the will of the majority, the majority culture. An instance of that, for example, is the law is represented in the police. For example, if we have a situation where whole sector of our society, a minority, African Americans, feel that the police are not protecting them equally with others, or are indeed a threat in many of their communities, then that’s a real problem. That means that from the point of view of this minority, the majority are dictating how a government behaves, and that means they do not share equally in controlling the law that is supposed to protect them.

Second thing we need, apart from protection of minorities, we also need the protection of majorities. In this case, we need the protection against an elite in our country, a moneyed elite controlling what government does. Because if that elite is really shaping government policy to answer to its corporate and financial and benefits and so on in taxation and in law, environmental law for example, to that extent the rest of us do not share equally in controlling this law.

So we need that secondly, some means of controlling the influence that currently moneyed elites have over government. And thirdly, what we need, of course, and we have a good deal of that, is a contestatory democracy, not just to protect minorities against majority, majority against minority, but also to ensure that we as individuals can contest what government is proposing and doing. This we often achieve though our NGOs, which have such an important part in our civic life in interrogating and invigilating government. The price of liberty, as it used to be said, is eternal vigilance. This is exactly what’s needed here.

We have elements of that democracy, but not here and not in any other democracy do we have everything required in order for the law to be framed on the people’s terms, in order for us to enjoy public freedom as well as personal freedom. You need robustness in both fronts. I said with the private freedom, personal freedom, a good test of whether you’re free or not is whether you can look others in the eye without reason for fear or deference.

There’s also a good working test for whether or not we’re enjoying public freedom, whether or not we, as a people, share equally in controlling the very laws that are supposed to protect us in our personal lives. And that’s the following. Whenever a legal system exists, a government exists, it’s going to have to pass laws that displease some people. Not every law can please everybody.

Here’s the test, I think, as to whether we feel we live in a proper democracy with our three elements that I’ve mentioned. It’s the following: When the decision goes against us, do we think, “Oh, there we are again. I’m in this corner of society, the government always strikes at us. It’s really the will of an elite or whatever that’s impinging on us.” Or do we think, “Well, it was tough luck. It’s a fair system, it’s a system we all control and it was just how the cookie crumbled. It was just the tough luck that the law was inimical, unwelcome in my corner.”

If we can think it was just tough luck, then we are really living in a society which we believe, hopefully rightly, that we, the people, share equally in controlling it. Personal freedom means freedom under the law, freedom before the law, protected by the law, in a supportive culture in the exercise of our basic liberties. Public freedom that I’ve just been talking about means freedom, means control, means freedom over the law. It means control over the law, that we as people share equally in shaping that law. The idea that the law is actually what makes us free in the realm of personal freedom, well, that runs against what I think of as the libertarian fallacy, which is the fallacy of thinking that only the market makes us free, that government and law is always an intrusion.

On the contrary, if you start with Nora, and you think about what it is to be a free person, you realize that the law is essential to making us free. It’s not an enemy of freedom; it’s a friend of freedom. On the other front, the public freedom, there’s a libertarian illusion, a libertarian oversight, which is not to recognize how important democracy is. China, for example, has embraced the sort of libertarianism which supposedly delivers freedom of the market, indifferent to the fact that it’s a system that the people do not control. It’s really important that we dispel this libertarian fallacy and get over this libertarian oversight and recognize that freedom is rich and spicy and it’s got demands that we all still have to work for, both on the personal front and the public front. Thank you very much.


By Pangambam S

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