Junior Ganymede
We endeavor to give satisfaction

Notes towards a definition of freedom, part 3

May 15th, 2017 by Vader

In the first part of this series of posts, I proposed a definition of freedom as the ability to make meaningful and consequential choices. I offered some explanation of the three elements of this definition, namely: ability, meaningfulness, and consequence. In the second part of this series of posts, I reflected on the significance of freedom as a gift from God, pointed out that there is strong opposition to freedom, and described liberty as the set of social and legal constructs we are duty-bound to erect and sustain to protect and enhance freedom.

In this post, I will discuss some of the aspects of liberty that support the second element of freedom, namely, meaningfulness.

Exercise of freedom requires the ability to make reasoned choices between meaningful alternatives. This requires cultivating the powers of reason and promoting the transmission of knowledge.

No one is born with the power of discernment, nor with any store of knowledge. These qualities naturally develop as the child matures, but if these qualities are not guided and nourished, they will fall far short of realizing their full potential. It is to this end that God wills each child to be born in a family with parents committed to the welfare of the child. (This is a particularly appropriate point to reflect on this Mothers’ Day: Freedom is learned at a mother’s knee.) Parents must make choices on behalf of the child while she is too young to exercise freedom, due to her lack of discernment. Parents must also cultivate the child’s discernment and equip her with basic knowledge. Since we strengthen that which we exercise, parents must carefully judge which choices a child has become capable of making, and permit the child to make those choices. They must recognize when the safety net is in danger of becoming a hammock, and then remove it. My opinion is that contemporary parents often do poorly in this regard, erring in both directions: They give children premature liberty to make choices they are not yet equipped to understand, while preventing them from making other choices for which they are ready. The type specimen is the girl in shockingly revealing clothing (the current fashion seems to be deliberately threadbare jeans and bikini blouse) headed reluctantly to the ballet class her mother insists on, followed by the soccer practice her father insists on, followed by the tutorial session to help her be admitted to the Ivy League college her grandparents insist on.

This last point requires further explication. By definition, meaningful choices have consequences. Some of these are natural consequences, which would exist without any conscious human intervention. If a child runs into a busy street, the natural consequence is the high risk of traumatic injury. Since a very young child does not understand this consequence, it is appropriate to substitute a consequence the child does understand; namely, the disapproval of her parents expressed through easily-understood forms of discipline. In my opinion, for an action as dangerous as this one, that discipline may justly go as far as spanking.* But some form of easily-understood discipline is required.

Children are natural mimics. The most powerful training they receive may not be any conscious teaching or discipline by their parents, but the behavior modeled by their parents. Economists have noted that the likelihood that a child will be interested in reading is closely tied to the likelihood that he sees his parents reading, regardless of how many books are in the house. Thus good parenting is a multigenerational program, with good parents raising better children who raise better grandchildren still. Unfortunately, it works the other way, and dysfunctional grandparents tend to have deeply dysfunctional grandchildren. I have known households consisting of three generations of divorced women; while I am not unsympathetic regarding some of the particulars, one discerns a pattern of poor choices.

These observations suggest that defenders of liberty will support laws and other social institutions that support the family. This might seem a truism, but some collectivist societies have attempted to replace the family with other social institutions. Even in our notionally free society, the definition of “family” and “parents” has become fluid, primarily for the gratification of adults, to the detriment of children. The choice to place adult gratification over child welfare is an evil choice.

Even those who are committed to supporting the family will differ over the policies most likely to achieve this end. Love for freedom does not guide us in how to resolve all such policy disputes; as Jefferson noted,  there can be disagreements on policy even where there is no disagreement on fundamental principles. One may argue, for example, that there should be tax breaks for parents engaged in raising children; but the precise form such breaks should take, and the correct balance against other considerations (such as the need for adequate revenues, the necessity for all to feel part of the burden of government, and the benefits of a simple tax code) are and always will be in dispute.

Some things are more clear. The current welfare structure in the United States has been devastating for the two-parent family in lower-income brackets. So have changing laws and mores regarding divorce and illegitimacy.

(And I cannot help but draw some mordant amusement from this pair of contrasting headlines: “Marriage Gap Widens With Income Inequality”;  “Marriage Decline Exacerbates Income Inequality”. Correlation is easy; causation, not so much.)

The law likewise has an educational function, and much of our law is directed towards imposing obvious artificial consequences for act having serious but less obvious natural consequences. This is, however, far from the only, or perhaps even the primary, function of law. I defer that discussion for a later post.

There is great emphasis in our society on formal education, provided in most cases through government schools. While one may question this  model of education, the conservative liberal* will seek to make the best of the existing system rather than replace it with something untried. I am not entirely unsympathetic to those who choose to home-school, but my observation of children so schooled is sufficiently mixed that I cannot accept this as a panacea. It seems to work best with precisely those parents who are already presenting their children an excellent model of cultivating the powers of reason and building a storehouse of knowledge. With other home-schooling parents with which I am familiar, the results have been dismal.

Formal schooling by private schools is another matter; the system is not untried and it shows every sign of being successful and sustainable. Its critics argue that such schools have an unfair advantage in that they can refuse difficult students, and that they teach sectarian doctrine not in the public interest. But, to the extent that “difficult students” means impoverished students from disadvantaged backgrounds, the available evidence seems to run against the first criticism; while, to the extent “difficult students” means those with severe behavioral problems, the correct response is probably “Yes. So?” The criticism of the teaching of sectarian doctrine has a long and sordid history, and in fact had more to do with the establishment of government schools and compulsory education laws than did any concern for the quality of education, which should give the conservative liberal pause. And it is deeply ironic that an institution whose purpose ought to be the cultivation of the ability to exercise freedom should itself be a matter of artificially restricted choice.

There will always be debate over the best way in which to structure formal schooling to best achieve its proper ends. My chiefest concern is that a system in which government is both the regulator, the provider, and the customer for education (because it is the one cutting the checks) is one that is certain to be bedeviled by conflicts of interest. I would prefer a system in which the government limited its role to regulator of education (and that lightly) and left provision and funding to other civic institutions. These would include various charitable institutions to fund education for the indigent.

Another civic institution devoted to cultivating the ability to exercise freedom is the library. Whether these should be public or private institutions is a question that our understanding of freedom can inform but, I believe, not necessarily definitively settle by itself. But I regard the tendency of urban public libraries today to be transformed into homeless shelters and safe spaces for viewing pornography to be a manifestation of the diabolical assault on freedom.

I fully support the principles of the First Amendment. I do not do so because of any regard for modern media, but because if Trump was given the power to ban National Enquirer, he would certainly exercise it to ban National Review instead. I have little use for most newspapers, though I subscribe to the local paper, which I read very skeptically and with the antacid handy.*** I am mindful of what Michael Crichton dubbed the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect, which is the tendency even for intelligent people to forget how error-laden the news story was on the topic they know very well, and assume the news provider is reliable on other stories.  I also regularly read a small number of online opinion magazines, the best of which are models of reasoned argument. (Though even in these venues, the quality varies with the columnist, and even with what the columnist had for breakfast that morning, so critical reading remains in order.)

I have no use at all for modern television, which increasingly means cable or satellite television. The old joke, “Hundreds of cable channels, and nothing on worth watching” represents the achievement of the Satanic ideal in mass media. This is a pattern we discover repeatedly throughout modern society: The illusion of vast numbers of choices, but no meaningful distinction between them and nothing of consequence on the other side of the choice.  This is a subject to which I will return in a later post.

Television can theoretically transmit knowledge, but the bandwidth is low even under the best of circumstances, and, in practice, the signal to noise ratio is so low as to be useless. Furthermore, the very mechanism of transmission is suspect, for reasons outlined by by Neil Postman in his Amusing Ourselves To Death. I have not watched television regularly in over twenty years. I do not believe parents who love liberty should permit their children much exposure to it.

What makes the difference between institutions that effectively transmit knowledge and cultivate reason, and those that transmit rumor and cultivate the passions? To ask the question that way is to partially answer it, isn’t it? But the particulars are important. I suggest that those knowledge institutions that promote freedom are those that deal with the permanent, while those that are detrimental to freedom are those that deal with ephemera. While I might gain temporary advantage from knowing that the weather report suggests taking an umbrella to work with me,  knowledge of the ephemeral is all but useless as a guide to more morally significant choices. In addition, careful analysis consistent with cultivated reason takes significantly longer than the news cycle.

Schools can be effective at cultivating reason and transmitting knowledge precisely because it is expensive for a school to deal with ephemera. A school would much rather purchase textbooks that need not be replaced for many years, and its teachers would much rather not have to completely rewrite their syllabuses and examinations every year. This has its drawbacks; at late as 1970, the science textbooks at my elementary school taught that a neutron is a proton bound to an electron and that mountains formed from the slow cooling and shrinkage of the Earth’s interior, like wrinkles forming on an apple baked in the oven. But, for the most part, schools have the right incentives to emphasize the permanent.

The same incentives apply to libraries. Libraries have some incentive to purchase what the public is reading, and this usual means works of fiction of small value. But the library also has no qualms about discarding such books when the public has lost interest, while its collection of enduring works … endures.

The incentives facing newspapers and broadcast media are all the other way. The media themselves are ephemeral. Newspapers are printed on cheap paper that rapidly deteriorates, which I regard as a proof of Heaven’s grace. A broadcast is transmitted in electronic impulses that are gone when the transmission ends, ditto. Thus the competitive advantage of these institutions is in providing “information” that is equally ephemeral.

The friend of liberty therefore will try to direct resources away from the media, and towards schools and libraries. Such media as he does consume will be of the less ephemeral kind, which can generally be identified by their less frequent publication and higher subscription prices.

What then of blogs and social media? At risk of hoisting myself on my own petard, I suggest that social media are the worst of all, and blogs are not nearly as good as one might hope. Blogs at least have useful archives, and I have learned worthwhile things from visitors at discussion threads at the better blogs. Blogs can be cross-linked to give a more lasting audience to the better posts. Those blogs have have something enduring to say will spread “virally” and gain an audience. Or so one optimistically hopes.

I believe that blogs are most useful when their discussion threads are effectively moderated. This seeming paradox reflects the empirical realities of spam and trolls. I have no qualms posting at a blog whose comment moderation policy is “Without mercy and whenever we feel like it.” One does not argue with Satan; one dismisses him without further argument. (And I right readily acknowledge that the trick is correctly recognizing Satan.)

I have mixed feelings about Wikipedia. I use it all the time, but always with deepest skepticism and primarily as a link aggregator to more reliable sources. Wikipedia has committed the atrocity of turning an encyclopedia, once the model of a collection of permanent knowledge, and made it ephemeral.

May I suggest one more, surprising, social institution that supports meaningful choice: The Sabbath. A day devoted to abstaining from ordinary labors and activities is a day in which we can slow down and think. I believe much of the rush of modern life is artificial, and that artifice originates with an Enemy who wishes as many of our choices as possible to be rushed and not reflective.

More can doubtless be said on this topic, and hopefully will, in the comments thread. In my next post, I will return to the most interesting aspect of freedom and of the liberty that supports it: Consequence.

*”Smacking” for our Commonwealth cousins.

**This is not an oxymoron when “liberal” is understood to mean “classical liberal.” See Kirk’s The Conservative Mind for a more in-depth discussion.

***I speak figuratively, of course. Since that unfortunate incident on Mustafar, gastric reflux has been the least of my concerns.

Comments (11)
Filed under: Birkenhead Drill,Deseret Review | Tags: , , , ,
May 15th, 2017 05:19:17

May 14, 2017

By way of personal example on this subject, my parents homeschooled me with an interest towards teaching me to think for myself and (hopefully) make wise decisions, using the library as a major resource. And I have to say, I’ve learned more at my local library than I ever have from textbooks and tests. I feel that what you have to say on the subject of freedom and education is both accurate and thought-provoking.
I hadn’t thought of the Sabbath as a freedom-promoting institution, but I’ve noticed much the same benefit from walking in the very early morning without technology to distract me. It helps me think slow, careful thoughts, something that is all too rare in our culture of distraction. I shall have to think about how I can make my Sabbaths more reflective; it’s unusual that I’m on the internet at all on a Sunday, this being a rare exception.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on definitions of freedom – I’ve been following this series with great interest.

May 14, 2017

I’m blushing.

The Sabbath as freedom-promoting institution was something of an epiphany, striking me as I was reading what I thought would be the final draft of the post.

What has been your experience with other homeschooled students?

May 14, 2017

I home-schooled my high-school years, so I think I can say it usually turns out very good or very bad. Whether this is because it is bi-modal, or because of a larger standard deviation, is a question for people with more hard data.

I posted a comment in the Arguing with Satan thread, and it became clear to me, that the one thing we can really do well in this life, is CHOSE. Everything else we do in this life is rather mediocre. That makes the choices we make, even more significant.

As for Education, we have very little of that in the World. What we have is Credentialism and that, as so many things you mentioned, is exceedingly ephemeral. Getting more and more people to college accomplishes less and less – the credentials become worthless, while (empirically speaking) grades are inflated while students are actually learning less.

I would welcome more education, but not with our current model. That is just a fancy way for the rich to insulate themselves from the poor.

May 15, 2017

Congratulations. This is a tour de force. it is all immensely “freedom-promoting,” especially in the surprising conclusion.

One quibble. I think your conclusion about schools not wanting to change textbooks relies on a funding model and organizational picture that is out of date. Schools are now educational bureaucracies with school appanages and they churn through new textbooks with every educational fad. Our children have been in and out of the schools and their textbooks have always been woefully up to date.

One understands the liberal conservative impulse to improve what is already there, but institutional repentance seems much more difficult than individual repentance, and our current educational institutions are pretty far gone.

May 15, 2017

@ Vader, my experience with other homeschooled students is about as varied as you indicated in your post. Some of the kids I’ve known were allowed to run completely wild, and weren’t really being educated in any meaningful sense by their parents. Some, I really doubt are literate even now. Others, who I assume had better parent-led basic studies, have gone on to be truly educated, whether or not they had the papers to prove it.
I and my other homeschooled sibling are probably more educated than credentialed, thanks to my parents’ emphasis on mastery of a subject rather than test-taking acumen. They did teach us basic reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic, then let us choose whatever subjects we wanted, which led to a habit of haring off on tangents instead of staying on track with a course of study.
. . . Can you blush, after that regrettable incident on Mustafar?

May 15, 2017

Well, no more than Charlotte Corday. I was speaking figuratively again.

Yes, it seems our experiences are much aligned. I was not myself homeschooled, but have known several such families over the years. My limited data set is consistent with a bimodal distribution, along the lines Zen suggests.

Ivan Wolfe
May 15, 2017

Homeschooling is an issue I generally avoid discussing, despite seriously considering homeschooling my two youngest kids.

Mainly because I discovered early in my internet years, that if you didn’t agree homeschooling was the best option for everyone, period, and even entertained the possibility that a good charter (or even run of the mill public) school might be good for some kids, a horde of homeschooling moms would descend on the blog/discussion board/whatever and proceed to make your life miserable.

May 15, 2017

I thought your sections on family and the Sabbath were great. But I think your discussion of education would benefit from the idea of accountability.

Accountability is a fundamental point of freedom. Part of the reason family is so important to the proper formation of freedom-capable youth is that parents will reap the reward of their children’s choices, for good or ill. Their self-interest is tied to that of their children.

The basic problem with establishing freedom is that some people want it, and some people don’t. The first group sees freedom as the ability to choose between meaningful consequences, while the second group thinks of ‘freedom’ as freedom FROM consequences. The existence of this second group hinders many good plans for producing a free society, particularly when it comes to education. Freedom-promoters must be willing to understand that many will use their freedom to choose and promote captivity in their sphere of influence. The best you can do is to limit that sphere.

I stand with homeschooling for promoting freedom. Homeschooling is not monolithic. The fact that there is diversity of outcome is just a matter of there being meaningfulness in the difference of choices and their consequences of individual homeschoolers. Embracing freedom means allowing choices that lead to failure. It feels unfair to the children, but they aren’t children forever, and being an adult in a society where parents understand they will be held accountable for their own children is better than being an adult in a society where parents are led to believe they can avoid accountability for how their children are raised.

Jef Mallett
May 15, 2017

May 15, 2017


Stay tuned.

Wm Jas
May 17, 2017

The link to part 2 is broken.

Leave a Reply