Which Freedom?

WARSAW: Before 1989, if anyone asked me what we Poles were striking and struggling for, the answer would have been so simple -- freedom. No shadings, no caveats, just freedom. Some of us had read Isaiah Berlin's famous essays on liberty and the philosophical writings of Charles Taylor. Some of us, of course, were aware of Berlin's distinction between "negative" and "positive" freedom. Yet it crossed few if any of our minds that the difference between the two would shape the course of our lives as free people.

Transition from a closed to free society, however, gives proof, if any is needed, that political philosophy is more relevant to political practice than people imagine.

Negative freedom was the easy part. We abolished censorship; so, too, the midnight knock at the door. Everyone has a right to travel abroad; no one is persecuted because of his or her beliefs. But somehow we no longer want to read the very books that our struggles freed from the censor's imprisoning mind. Few people have money for foreign travel and fewer still, even if the churches are full, have any kind of real faith. We are free, but what are we to do with this freedom except dream of riches?

It is puzzling, but in a short five years we have reached the same moral ennui that troubles so many Western observers when they examine their own countries. We are not "bowling alone," to borrow the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam's brisk, condemning phrase about the lack of community in American life. But this is so only because it is too expensive and too tiring to bother going out to bowl or do anything else. Disoriented, stewing in our tiny flats, perhaps you could say we are "boozing alone."

I do not want to exaggerate our plight and so agree that negative freedom is a precondition of other values. Yet I doubt that Berlin, Taylor and others would suggest that we be satisfied with this level of liberty and nothing more. Indeed, when we resign ourselves to thinking about freedom only as negative freedom, we forget the innate, if moderate, optimism of the classic liberal writers.

John Stuart Mill, for example, understood that few people utilize their liberties in the pursuit of "high" culture. Still, for him, there existed an antidote to this "natural" inequality -- education -- which would lift people above their "lower" pleasures. This enlightened idea of education was, more or less, at the base of liberal thinking. It remained there until recently, when we began to fear education for the demanding choices it placed before us: between true and false, good and evil, beautiful and ugly. To recognize a hierarchy in our choices presupposed, it seemed, a hierarchy of meaning, too. Such a hierarchy may or may not be God given; it may merely be determined by culture itself; nevertheless it is a hierarchy. And nowadays in our received skepticism we are -- across this once divided continent -- deeply afraid of being hierarchic.

This is not merely a matter of philosophical speculation; it is often a problem of a practical choice. Four years ago, my ill-educated neighbor from the country started a trucking business. He was successful, and fast, and now has a lot of money. No doubt this is objectively good, and demonstrates that the free market works and that even if you can barely read and write you may become a capitalist.

My neighbor has three children and now must choose between buying a new Mercedes (he already owns two nice cars) or sending them to a university, which is quite expensive although schooling is in Poland, in theory, free. But in reality there is no choice, either for him or his children. A university is neither necessary, as my neighbor proves, for material prosperity nor does it make it that much more likely. So his whole family prefers the Mercedes. Of course, they have a right to decide as they wish. Their choice, however, demonstrates a distressingly common problem: people do not want to be better. Indeed, they do not even want to know what something better, beyond material possessions, might be. If I tried to influence them they would treat me as an intruder, as they treat anyone that tries to educate them. The hard question facing "liberals" is this: are we prepared to defend this type of freedom?

Western societies have achieved what liberal writers long yearned for: the equality of opportunity that comes with freedom of choice. This achievement was possible due to many restraints and is maintained thanks to a strong civil society. But the very idea of civil society assumes that we want something more than negative freedom, that we want to unite and struggle for common good, even if we do not see in it any immediate profit.

We must think long range, and to do so imposes choices: between what is good (from all possible points of view) and what is bad. Good and bad not only for us, and for our children, but also for all people, the nation, and humanity itself. Happily for Poland, our negative freedoms are largely realized. But I am persuaded that the need for lasting choices cannot be swept away, and I hope will soon become comprehensible for most people. The debate between positive and negative freedom, which has animated the West for two centuries, is -- for us -- joyously about to begin.