Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Guest Blogger: John Dewey

Liberty and Social Control, 1935

...In the second place, the posession of effective power is always a matter of the distribution of power that exists at the time. A physical analogy may make clear what I mean. Water runs down hill and electric current flows because of difference in potentials. If the ground is level, water is stagnant. If on the level ocean, there are dashing waves, it is because there is another power operating, that of the winds, occasioned ultimately by a difference in the distribution of temperature at different points. There is no such thing physically as a manifestation of energy or effective power by one thing except in relation to the energy manifested by other things. There is no such thing as the liberty or effective power of an individual, group, or class, except in relation to the liberties, the effective powers, of other individuals, groups, and classes.

Demand for retention of powers already possessed on the part of a particular group means, therefore, that other individuals and groups shall continue to possess only the capacities in and for activity which they already possess. Demand for increased power at one point means demands for change in the distribution of powers, that is, for less power somewhere else. You cannot discuss or measure the liberty of one individual or group of individuals without measuring the difference of levels.

In the third place, this relativity of liberty to the existing distribution of powers of action, while meaning that there is no such thing as absolute liberty, also necessarily means that wherever there is liberty at one place there is restraint at some other place. The system of liberties that exists at any time is always the system of restraints or controls that exists at that time. No one can do anything except in relation to what others can do and cannot do.

These points are general. But they cannot be dismissed as mere abstractions. For when they are applied either in idea or in action they mean that liberty is always a social question, not an individual one. For the liberties that any individual actually has depends upon the distribution of powers or liberties that exists, and this distribution is identical with actual social arrangements, legal and political -- and, at the present time, economic, in a peculiarly important way.

Return now to the fact that historically the great movements for human liberation have always been movements to change institutions and not to preserve them intact. It follows from what has been said that there have been movements to bring about a changed distribution of power to do - and power to think and to express thought is a power to do - such that there would be a more balanced, a more equal, even, and equitable system of human liberties.

The present movement for social control of industry, money and credit, is simply a part of this endless human struggle. The present attempt to define liberty in terms of the existing distribution of liberty is an attempt to maintain the existing system of control of power, of social restraints and regimentations. I canno go here into the nature and consequences of this system. If one is satisfied with it, let him support the conception of liberty put forth by, say, the Liberty League which represents the present economic system. But let him not be fooled into thinking that the issue is liberty versus restraint and regimentation. For the issue is simply that of one system of control of the social forces upon which the distribution of liberties depends, versus some of ther system of social control which would bring about another distribution of liberties. And let those who are struggling to replace the present economic system by a cooperative one also remember that in struggling for a new system of social restraints and controls they are also struggling for a more equal and equitable balance of powers that will enhance and multiply the effective liberties of the mass of individuals. Let them not be jockeyed into the position of supporting social control at the expense of liberty, when what they want is another method of social control than the one that now exists, one that will increase significant human liberties.

7 comments:

  1. "Demand for retention of powers already possessed on the part of a particular group means, therefore, that other individuals and groups shall continue to possess only the capacities in and for activity which they already possess. Demand for increased power at one point means demands for change in the distribution of powers, that is, for less power somewhere else. You cannot discuss or measure the liberty of one individual or group of individuals without measuring the difference of levels."

    This is an almost medieval and rather static notion of human relations.

    "The system of liberties that exists at any time is always the system of restraints or controls that exists at that time."

    Yet many liberties require no actual, real world system of restraints.

    "For when they are applied either in idea or in action they mean that liberty is always a social question, not an individual one."

    This is basically defining the question so as to game the conversation.

    "It follows from what has been said that there have been movements to bring about a changed distribution of power to do - and power to think and to express thought is a power to do - such that there would be a more balanced, a more equal, even, and equitable system of human liberties."

    That's true and not true at the same time. It rather depends on what one means by "equal." Ex.: The First Amendment's speech clause was never meant as a means to create equal outcomes for speakers; merely equal opportunities.

    "For the issue is simply that of one system of control of the social forces upon which the distribution of liberties depends, versus some of ther [sic] system of social control which would bring about another distribution of liberties."

    See, all social systems are equal and stuff.

    Anyway, what is interesting about the last paragraph is how much it deeply misrepresents the Liberty League as if it were an organization which merely proposed as their platform the status quo circa 1935.

    "Let them not be jockeyed into the position of supporting social control at the expense of liberty..."

    Yet, unsurprisingly, that is exactly what they did.

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  2. 如果成為一支火柴,也要點亮一個短暫的宇宙;如果是一隻烏鴉,也要叫疼閉塞的耳膜。.................................................................

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  3. This is an almost medieval and rather static notion of human relations.

    I couldn't disagree with you more - this is an extremely dynamic view of human relations, which is precisely why it's been so appealing to me lately. I think most people's view of liberty is just an old divine right sort of argument slightly adjusted to avoid Bentham's spot-on criticism. This, I think, is much more convinving. And really it's just a description as much as anything else.

    Actually as a result of Dewey and others I'm more and more coming around to the Proudhoun position on property and on rights more generally. Now, I wouldn't take it in the direction that Proudhoun did - I don't think this is a mark against property so much as it is a statement of the state of things.

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  4. Yet many liberties require no actual, real world system of restraints.

    Of course they do! How else are rights enforced? How do you assert your property rights if not by a system of restraints?

    Libertarians have so twisted these issues around in their own minds that they identify "restraint" itself with some kind of injustice. "Restraint" is not necessarily an injustice, and property rights - not to mention other rights - are founded on a system of restraint. Namely, the restraint of those who do not possess rights from violating the rights of those who are identified by institutions as possessing rights.

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  5. "I couldn't disagree with you more - this is an extremely dynamic view of human relations..."

    What it smacks of is a defense of the proper social order as a result of scarcity (a very commonly discussed notion during the middle ages and the renaissance - many works were written on the subject), and it is a notion of a social order that heavily influenced the dominant mercantilist attitudes that Adam Smith did so much to deflate. It really isn't a remotely accurate description of human relations - which over any real period of time is not based on scarcity at all.

    I exercise liberty or rights on a day to day basis without restraining anyone. Liberals are so Hobbesian in their attitudes that they assume that without all manner of formal rules, etc. that people would slip into wanton violence, etc., when such "real world systems of restraints" are rarely if ever necessary.

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  6. What it smacks of is a defense of the proper social order as a result of scarcity

    Usually I can at least comprehend the way you twist things around. I'm totally at a loss here. How can Dewey be read as "defending the proper social order"??!?!?!?

    Dewey is trivially right on this. If you have the right to a piece of property then by definition everyone else is restricted from that property. It's definitionally true, Xenophon. Your liberty implies restrictions on others. That's not a call for massive formal rules, and that's not a bad, nor should it be a surprising thing. It's the nature of freedom.

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  7. Daniel,

    If it walks like medieval political philosophy, then it likely is medieval political philosophy.

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