In order to look for and understand freedom, it is useful to zoom in on four areas of human activity where she is particularly vital and a powerful shaper of society. These four areas concern
the generation and handling of
- economic sustenance,
- justice, and
- the public.
Of these four areas, the prevalent model of the public may be considered the most elementary criterion by which to judge the quality and degree of liberty in a society. It is no accident that the highest degree of freedom ever attained is inseparably linked up with a particular model of the public. Namely, the democratic model of the public, in which every citizen has the right to participate in the competitive efforts at defining and influencing public concerns.
It is this radically egalitarian, democratic framework of the public that determines in open access societies
- how we handle knowledge,
- how we act in the economic sphere.
- how we delimit the scope and competences of the public, protect ourselves against excesses of power and coercion and keep entry to political contestation open, and
- how we practice law.
For its is this democratic model of the public that includes all citizens which is requisite to bring to fruition
(1) the principle of equality before the law,
(2) the even and comprehensive spread among the entire population of those rights and entitlements to protection that we associate with the idea of personal freedom,
(3) the possibility of leading a private life and pursuing private initiatives including the free formation of organisations (associations, parties, firms etc.), that is: the emergence of vast areas of action, within which the individual can act autonomously, according to his volition, and independent of tutelage and arbitrary interference by government,
(4) the free use of the knowledge accumulated and circulating in society, and the ability to contribute to this knowledge, say, by founding a newspaper or by unimpeded research, by propagating inventions and discoveries, or by participating in a monetary exchange economy, whose members engage in an informationally most effective exchange concerning their choice of preferences in the face of the relative scarcity of goods.
It is inappropriate to speak of freedom unless there is an inclusive and egalitarian demos, i.e. a notion of the public whereby every mature, sane, and non-criminal adult is equal to every other such adult with respect to
- the non-privileging application of the law,
- the right to a protected private sphere,
- the right to acquire and disseminate information (subject to certain qualifications),
- the ability to form associations, including firms,
i.e. participate in the formation and use of economic and political institutions,
including the right to propagate one's views concerning arrangements binding on the entire community and compete for (a) the establishment of the legal validity and (b) the practical implementation of such views.
The robust conditions of freedom listed above may be incomplete, and some of them may overlap - however what I wish to emphasise is the high degree of egalitarian content that inhere in them.
Freedom enables the individual to become the driver of change in all dimensions of human life, from the cultural and political to the economic, rather than the select few.
Freedom can only prevail when her robust conditions are operative.
At the same time, there are innumerable conditions of freedom more special than those contained in the set of robust conditions. What makes these conditions special-and-non-robust is that they are compatible with freedom, while at the same time their absence does not destroy freedom.
The libertarian is inclined to ignore the distinction between robust and non-robust conditions of freedom. It is for this reason that she tends to subscribe to a form of alarmism, according to which freedom is compromised and violated more systematically, more comprehensively, and more ominously than she actually is in a world of fairly well-entrenched robust conditions of freedom.
The main reason for libertarian alarmism arises from
(1) a reliance on principles that may be called (too) rigid in that they are held to be in need of insulation from social and political negotiation and, obviously,
(2) a lack of awareness of the role of political negotiations in the practice of freedom.
The trade-off involved here is one between
- the degree of completeness of a theory of society ("if my principles are heeded we shall have a society of maximum freedom"), and
- the admittance of contingency and indeterminacy in the development of a free society (" if any views and principles may be contested - under robust conditions of freedom - we cannot be sure of, decree, or foretell the development of a free society, especially regarding the set of special-and-non-robust conditions of freedom that remain unobserved and violated.
If freedom is captured in a set of fixed principles, she is brought about simply by the observance of these principles. However, this overlooks that freedom makes possible and practically encourages the on-going contestation and revision of the state of freedom by the members of her demos.
The point of liberty is to empower her demos to define the scope and nature of liberty and to compete for alternative ways of restricting freedom. After all, the only way to define freedom is to restrict her.