Liberty and Bureaucracy

The Rebecca Solnit piece linked below, together with some recent conversations I’ve had with LeFalcon and VThunderlad, have got me thinking about what we twenty-first century types mean when we use words like “freedom” and “liberty.”  I’m wondering if we can’t update Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty” a bit.  Perhaps when we moderns talk about freedom, we are talking about how individuals relate to bureaucracies.  This sets us apart from the ancient Greeks and Romans.  Bureaucracy in the modern sense scarcely existed in ancient times; nor was the individual the  basic unit of society.  It was the household which was the locus of rights and responsibilities.  Challenges which a single household could not meet were met by groupings of households, either traditional groupings based on kinship relations or more-or-less temporary, informal relations based on physical propinquity.  In the absence of bureaucracies that could define their clients and members as parts of a community, it was the ability to form cooperative groupings that made a community.  The ancients, therefore, tended to see freedom as a property, not of individuals in isolation, but of independent households, of men acting as representatives of those households, and of concerted efforts made by collections of households.

If on the other hand we define freedom as the individual’s relationship to bureaucracy, what do we mean when we say that we want to be free? Sometimes we mean that we want to rebel against bureaucracy, to escape from the infantilizing effects of dependence on bureaucracy.  This can lead to absurd extremes; if we do not have a concept of community apart from the bureaucratic organizations that bear the community’s name, this anti-bureaucratic idea of freedom could keep us from calling anyone free but a solitary creature like the Cyclops.  And many among us do not seem to have such a concept of community; the attempt to build a communitarian movement that got so much publicity back in the early 1990s seems to have foundered on the difficulty of talking to modern people about community and eliciting a response that is about anything other than bureaucracies.  Many libertarians seem to be numbered among those who lack a concept of community as something other than bureaucracy.  Libertarians often make penetrating remarks about the dangers of state bureaucracy, but then go on to talk as if corporate bureaucracies were not fraught with the same dangers.  Indeed, if the forces of the market  make the bureaucracies that are subject to them more efficient at meeting the needs of their clients than are bureaucracis that don’t compete for clients, then we would expect market-generated bureaucracies to reduce their clients to dependence, and thus to infantilize them, more rapidly and more thoroughly than do state monopolies. 

Other times we say that we want freedom, and we mean that we want some benefit that a bureaucracy can give us.  So in the 1940s when Franklin Roosevelt spoke of the “Four Freedoms“- freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear, and freedom from want- he clearly thought of these as the products of bureaucratic efficiency.  An effective anti-poverty bureaucracy would ensure freedom from want; an effective national-security bureaucracy would ensure freedom from fear; an effective judicial bureaucracy would ensure freedom of religion and of speech, freedoms which in turn would allow people to express themselves by creating denominational bureaucracies for their religious groups and partisan bureaucracies for those who shared their political views.  When Americans today call for a public-sector guarantee of health care for all, they are asking for this kind of freedom.  When other Americans oppose such a guarantee, some are motivated by a concept of freedom as rebellion against bureaucracy, but others are motivated by a belief that the private sector bureaucracies of insurance companies offer a more efficient way of providing freedom from the fear of illness and freedom from the want that often follows illness. 

Still other times when we say that we want freedom, we mean that we want to play a particular role within a bureaucratic organization.  Academic freedom is an obvious example of this concept of liberty.  Professors are free to use their own judgment in teaching their courses and in delivering opinions about topics within their fields of expertise.  Which courses they will teach, what field of expertise is theirs, and what topics lie within each field of expertise are all questions that are answered by continuous bureaucratic activity.  The idea that freedom is a category of roles within bureaucracies can be found also at the heart of the labor movement.  What rules a union sets for the workforce of its shop is a less vital concern than the fact that there are rules in the shop which came from the union.  What deal emerges from collective bargaining is less important than the fact that management is obligated to sit down with the representatives of labor and come to consensus with them. 

Perhaps the concept of liberty as a way of operating within a bureaucracy has been very influential in making the modern world.  When there was a live controversy about whether women should go out of the household to work in bureaucratic organizations, the women’s movement put a great deal of emphasis on the freedom women would gain by participating in the workforce.  This would have been unintelligible in the ancient world, where work in the household was appropriate to free people, while work for wages was proper only to slaves.  In the modern world, by contrast, going out of the household and into wage labor is a sign of freedom, if that wage labor means an opportunity to have an impact on the operations of a bureaucracy.  

The antislavery movement may be another case of liberty conceived as something found within bureaucracy.  Abolitionism was at once a movement against slavery and a movement in support of wage labor.  While the ancient Greeks and Romans might have seen that as a contradiction, it did not seem so by that time.  The ancients would have understood the slogan “forty acres and a mule.”   A grant of land and the means to support a household by farming it would open the way to the creation of a self-sufficient agricultural household.   That would have chartered the kind of freedom they could appreciate.  The freedom merely to leave the master’s household, to venture out as an isolated individual and to enter the world of bureaucracy, whether as a job-seeker or as a client needing services, would not have seemed to them to be freedom at all.   We moderns, on the other hand, find the purest promise of freedom in the African American elected officials and government employees of the Reconstruction era, and the most natural support of freedom in the operations of the Freedmen’s Bureau.

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