Friendship and the Free Society

By Cohen, Andrew I. | Freeman, August 1999 | Go to article overview

Friendship and the Free Society


Cohen, Andrew I., Freeman


Private property and limited government are unrivaled in promoting personal liberty and material abundance. These institutions of a free society also beat the competition in promoting another vital personal and social good, namely, friendship.

Beneath our differences, people understand that self-respect, some wealth, a sense of personal efficacy, and maybe even a dash of luck are among the essential ingredients of a successful life. These values would still seem shallow or pointless without friendship. As Aristotle observed, "No one would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other goods." Our achievements would be emptier and our failures more unbearable without friends by our side. If friendship is then not the supreme good, it is certainly an essential one. Some of us are admittedly less social than others. The companionship that comes in meaningful friendships nevertheless seems to be a key part of the good life.

There are of course many sorts of friendships. Some persons are friends out of convenience. Perhaps our typical "acquaintances" fall into such a category. There are also friendships based merely on what two people find mutually pleasing. Both of these types of relationships help amplify our lives in various ways, but the best sorts of friendships are those where each friend cares deeply and sincerely about the other. In such complete friendships, each friend respects the other person, not as a means to his own ends, but as an end in himself.

A free society is uniquely qualified to promote the most complete friendships because it provides the institutional framework most favorable to them.

Freedom by Degrees

By a "free society," we can speak of a social and political framework with three key features: (1) private property is protected as inviolable, (2) government's role, at most, is to prevent and punish the violation of individual rights, and (3) all human relationships are voluntary. Free societies can exist in degrees. While the United States now is more free than, say, the Soviet Union under Stalin, the United States is not a completely free society. To the extent that a society counts as free, it will provide the best opportunities to nurture and sustain deep friendships.

Consider what is necessary for friendships. Two persons must share some form of good will. There needs to be a certain authenticity to any such mutual affection. This sincere good will helps to nurture a sense of trust and healthy interdependence. Trust is certainly key to building and maintaining any meaningful relationship, particularly in complete friendships where friends have a special respect for each other. But suppose you find yourself in an institutional environment where you have no choice but to interact with someone else. Such a stilted setting will tend to restrict the development of any friendship. While you may still come to be friends with the other person, it is much more difficult for you to do so under such circumstances. First you must overcome some understandable mutual suspicion, but then you must fight the worry that the other merely likes you as a means to some private end.

In all political economies, individuals will sometimes find themselves having to deal with persons somewhat involuntarily. Even in a nearly free society, we may find ourselves working for, going to school with, or just sitting beside persons with whom we would rather have no contact.

Consider just one example. Most municipalities have tightly regulated local telephone monopolies. To a great extent we have no choice but to deal with our telephone repairman. His incentive to engage in gestures of good will, and our reason to show him some sincere regard, are both constrained. The repairman's "have a nice day" rings hollow when we know that we have no choice but to get our telephone service from that one company.

What a free society does is minimize the extent to which human relationships are involuntary. …

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