Modern Liberty and the Limits of Government

By Ebeling, Richard M. | Freeman, April 2007 | Go to article overview

Modern Liberty and the Limits of Government


Ebeling, Richard M., Freeman


Modern Liberty and the Limits of Government by Charles Fried WW Norton * 2007 * 217 pages * $24.95

Reviewed by Richard M. Ebeling

In calling his book Modern Liberty and the Limits of Government, Charles Fried, professor of law at Hrvard University and former solicitor general of the United States in the second Reagan administration, was inspired by the early nineteenth-century French classical liberal Benjamin Constant. In 1819 Constant delivered a lecture in Paris called "The Liberty of the Ancients Compared to the Moderns."

Among the ancient Greeks, Constant explained, freedom meant the ability of the free citizens of the citystate to debate and vote on the affairs of their community. Liberty, in other words, referred to collective decision-making to which all individuals were bound, since through the "democratic" process they had given their consent-regardless of how tyrannical the outcomes might be for their personal lives and fortunes.

Constant contrasted this majoritarian and communal conception of "freedom" with the nineteenth-century classical-liberal ideal of liberty: "It is the right of everyone to express their opinion, choose a profession and practice it, to dispose of property, and even to abuse it; to come and go without permission, and without having to account for their motives or undertakings. It is everyone's right to associate with other individuals, either to discuss their interests, or to profess the religion which they and their associates prefer, or even simply to occupy their days or hours in a way which is most compatible with their inclinations and whims." For the moderns, Constant said, liberty consisted of "peaceful pleasures and private independence." Modern men want "each to enjoy our own rights, each to develop our own faculties as we like best, without harming anyone. . . . Individual liberty, I repeat, is the true modern liberty." (see my review of Constant's 1815 book, Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments, in the June 2004 Freeman.)

Fried wants to restore Constant's ideal of liberty against the statist trends of our time. Indeed, in his preface he expresses hopes that his book can do for the contemporary world what F. A. Hayek's Road to Serfdom did more than 60 years ago in helping to stem the tide of government power. Unfortunately, while many parts of his book are insightful, Fried shows that he too has been captured by a great deal of the "ancient" notion of liberty.

He defends the idea of self-ownership as the most fundamental basis for individual liberty. He argues that the most intimate aspects of self-ownership are control over our own minds and bodies. What meaning can be given to liberty if the individual is not respected and secure in his right to think, speak, and write? If you don't own your own mind and have the liberty to express your thoughts free from government control, then at the deepest level freedom does not exist.

Likewise, if you don't own your own body, then surely you are a slave to whoever claims the right to use and abuse your physical person. One of the most intimate forms of such physical self-ownership, therefore, is the liberty of consenting adults to choose sexual partners and sexual acts. Fried therefore defends both heterosexual and homosexual relationships as a fundamental right of any individual to decide with whom to share such intimacy-even though some people will find another's choice of partners offensive.

The trouble arises, Fried says, when self-ownership over mind and body is extended to the physical objects around us. Fried understands that without private property, all issues of self-ownership fall to the ground. What meaning is there to freedom of speech if individuals may not have some degree of ownership and control of the resources through which speech may be expressed? He understands that property has been the engine of prosperity and innovation that has raised man up from barbarism. …

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