The Future of Freedom

Article excerpt

Ideas: The fate of liberty in the next century is fragile, in part, because the very notion is now so ill-defined. By Robert J. Samuelson

What 20th-century development most altered the human condition? There is no shortage of candidates: the automobile, antibiotics, the airplane, computers, contraceptives, radio and television, to name a few. But surely the largest advance in human well-being involves the explosion of freedom. In a century scarred by the gulags, concentration camps and secret-police terror, freedom is now spreading to an expanding swath of humanity. It is not only growing but also changing-- becoming more ambitious and ambiguous--in ways that might, perversely, spawn disappointment and disorder in the new century.

In 1900, this was unimaginable. "Freedom in the modern sense [then] existed only for the upper crust," says political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset of George Mason University. There were exceptions-- America certainly, but even its freedom was conspicuously curtailed, particularly for women and blacks.

Elsewhere, the picture was bleaker. In 1900 empires dotted the world. The British Empire stretched from Australia through India to Egypt and Canada. It contained roughly 400 million people, about a quarter of the world's population. Lesser empires were still enormous: the Austro- Hungarian (encompassing much of Eastern Europe), the Ottoman (covering Turkey and much of the Middle East), the German (with possessions in Africa) and others. Human subjugation was the rule, not the exception.

Consider the situation now. In 1999 Freedom House--a watchdog group based in Washington--classified as "free" 88 of the world's 191 countries, with 2.4 billion people or about 40 percent of the total. These nations enjoyed free elections and traditional political rights. Of course, there are shades of gray. In this twilight zone, Freedom House placed 53 countries with 1.6 billion people, because either elections or civil liberties were compromised. Russia was "partially free"; China was "not free."

Still, the world's frame of reference has fundamentally altered. Even in societies where freedoms are abused, their absence usually becomes an issue. But freedom has not simply spread. It's also evolved. The freedom that Americans expect as they enter the 21st century, for example, is not the same as the freedom they expected as they entered the 20th.

Traditional freedom historically meant liberation from oppression. But now freedom increasingly involves "self-realization." People need, it's argued, to be freed from whatever prevents them becoming whoever they want to be. There's a drift toward "positive liberty" that emphasizes "the things that government ought to do for us," says sociologist Alan Wolfe of Boston College. This newer freedom blends into individual "rights" (for women, minorities, the disabled) and "entitlements" (for health care, education and income support) deemed essential for self- realization.

The broader freedom is not just American. In a new book, "Development as Freedom," the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen argues that "the expansion of freedom is both the primary end and... principal means of development" in poorer countries. But Sen's freedom eclipses the classic political and economic freedoms. It includes "social opportunities" (expanded education and health care) "transparency guarantees" (a lack of corruption) and more "entitlements" (to ensure basic decency and prevent "abject misery"). …