As the day of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU knocks at the door, it is enormously heart-warming to hear the following statements from the European Council President:
“It is us who today are responsible for confronting reality with all kinds of utopias – a utopia of Europe without nation states, a utopia of Europe without conflicting interests and ambitions, a utopia of Europe imposing its own values on the external world,” Donald Tusk said on Monday.
“Obsessed with the idea of instant and total integration, we failed to notice that ordinary people, the citizens of Europe, do not share our Euro-enthusiasm. Disillusioned with the great visions of the future, they demand that we cope with the present reality better than we have been doing until now … Euroscepticism [has] become an alternative to those illusions.”
I may not be Thomas Moore, but indeed, I am sure the author of “De optimo rei publicae deque nova insula Utopia,” which literally translates, “Of a republic’s best state and of the new island Utopia” would admit the elites of Brussels must have been ardent readers of his magnum opus.
Being blind for so long to peoples’ concerns over unemployment related to “the Eurozone crisis” and ongoing migration from the Middle East, facing the rise of the far-right movements across the continent, the former Polish prime minister expressed the need to return to European People Party’s (EPP) roots in his speech made at its 40th anniversary, which should be followed by “a deeper reflection of a historical, ideological and political nature.”
The anniversary must have been also of great significance to Tusk, as it has been forty years since the President of European Council started his studies at the University of Gdańsk, where he set up an underground anti-communist student committee in 1977 – strongly connected with the Solidarity movement.
“It was also then that we were discovering forbidden words and ideas: liberty, democracy, freedom of religion and expression, the rule of law, free market and private property,” the Polish history graduate revoked lessons learned during his revolutionary school days.
In the time of a desperate need for the new direction for the European project, which would be more attached to everyday realities and needs faced by the common European people, the revision of Isaiah Berlin’s concept of ‘negative freedom,’ could be useful to the ideologically lost politicians in Brussels like Tusk, for whom this may serve as a revision of his long time ago gained knowledge or an explanation of the terms not completely understood at that time.
In his famous essay titled “Two concepts of liberty,” Berlin argued we can discuss liberty only in relation to the political context.
According to the famous philosopher, liberty is not a state of nature assigned to a man only because of the merit of being a human. It is instead the result of a political evolution, which began with the Enlightenment. Therefore, in that sense, it is necessary to refer to the law and social order, because only in this context we can talk about liberty.
“Negative freedom,” in Berlin’s opinion, constitutes the following questions: “To what extent I am ruled?” and “How far reaches the area in which the subject – a person or group of people – has or should have freedom of existing and acting according to its own will, without interference from other people?”
This concept of freedom refers to the sphere within which there are no external obstacles, so that man could act in accordance with his own guidelines, and thus being guided by his own set of values have the opportunity to achieve his goals, which he considers as worthy.
We can easily notice that in the negative concept of freedom there is a strong emphasize putted on one of the constitutive features of liberalism – individualism; human being as a rational individual facing the society. The only real being is not a society in which we live, but the needs of the individuals. There is no such a thing as “the general will” in Rousseau’s understanding, to which individuals subordinate. It is a commonly known fact to every theorist of liberalism. Moreover, they also know that all institutions are the result of actions taken by the people. They are not superior beings, as they cannot realize any arbitrarily imposed goals, but rather allow achieving the individual’s aims.
Coercion, on the other hand, is understood in classical liberal thought as the situation of intentional interference of other people in the person’s private affairs – his or her actions. It is a situation where there is no recognition for other person’s right to be free, or where freedom is limited by purpose. The absence of freedom is a result of other human-being’s activity, preventing the individual from achieving its own goals.
The trouble with the negative concept of freedom is that it brings other concept from the field of ethics to the fore. The good, for instance, is an indefinable concept. For Thomas Moore “good” does not mean “pleasant” or “nice,” but simply “good.” Any other identification, according to this British philosopher, is incorrect. The same rule applies to freedom. Being free means that no one interferes in the individual’s affairs. That there is a private sphere in which one can govern himself.
Furthermore, Thomas Hobbes wrote that a truly free man is the one, whom nothing is preventing from doing what he wishes to do. Bearing in mind that freedom understood in this sense does not have a definitive meaning, it has to be accommodated within the boundaries of legal order. The law is to serve the citizens – it has to protect them from the state, and the state should fulfill a function similar to a night watchman or policeman directing traffic.
The only limits of freedom are the limits of not harming others. In order to be exercised, freedom has to be available and guaranteed for everyone, as well as it must be subject to restrictions. This principle was introduced by J. S. Mill, who wrote that the individual should have the right to say and do anything, provided that it does not cause harm to others.
The only freedom worthy of the name, says Mill, is the freedom to pursue our own good in our own unique way.
The negative freedom means the absence of obstacles. It is passive and objective, and its basic meaning is freedom from the shackles of enslavement, and imprisonment by others.
Trying to better visualize what the negative freedom is, Isaiah Berlin uses a metaphor of the open doors. In his view, a free man faces many open doors, even though he is not required to enter any of them. Freedom in this sense is rather an opportunity for action than the action itself. This includes the ability to choose to refrain from any action, which does not compromise freedom at all.
As Benjamin Constant wrote in “The Liberty of Ancients Compared with that of Moderns” (1816), liberty according to the moderns means, among other things, everyone’s right to associate with other individuals, either to discuss their interests […], or even simply to occupy their days or hours in a way which is most compatible with their inclinations or whims.”
Everyone is entitled to making his own choice in accordance with his own preferences and values, even if his decisions would not be the most accurate in the end. A human being is not free of errors, but that does not entitle anyone to make choices for someone else, even if his intentions are noble. If that would be the case, the very meaning of liberty would lost its meaning. Moreover, any compulsion to choose one of these options has to be perceived as interference in the individual’s freedom. Even if the door had to lead to the best of all possible worlds, there is no justification for such an external interference.
As we know, there were many occasions in the past, when people made strong attempts to make others happy against their will, and modern history of Central and Eastern Europe provides the best examples of where such utopias lead.
“In those days ethics came before politics, or, to put it differently, political engagement was a result of exclusively ethical motives,” Tusk recalled with nostalgia.
He also further added that “we do not need further constructivist and progressive ideologies. Socialists are much better at this. Let us again believe in those ideas which are rooted in our tradition of freedom, in the Decalogue, in our hearts and experiences. What we lack today is a new energy and genuine determination to defend them.”
On that note, it is more than ever apparent to me that indeed the president of the European Council is right that “the strength and effectiveness lies in an old-fashioned and sometimes even banal ideas.” That’s why the Americans, Brits, and in fact every sane nation, should have the same desire to fight for their liberty, sovereignty, and self-dignity as Poles during the Soviet occupation. Exercising this insanity longer will most definitely not give us a different result.