Thursday, July 19, 2018

Freedom’s Progress?

When it comes to this blog, I don’t like being tied down.  What do I mean?  I have been asked to co-author papers, even books; submit articles to libertarian publications; write my own book; even “clean up my room,” meaning perhaps better organize blog posts to make certain ones easier to find.

I am humbled by such requests, but…I would rather just write.

I also am uncomfortable making big commitments in terms of what I will write.  I feel I have made one by diving into Rothbard’s Libertarian Forum, and although I have taken a break from this I know I will return to it at some point.

Well, I am about to enter this uncomfortable zone again, via Gerard Casey’s exhaustive work.   Approaching 900 pages, Casey explores the progress of freedom (the question mark is deliberate), beginning 200,000 years ago.  At least he is merely going to review human liberty, leaving the freedom of flora and fauna to others!

Anyone who has heard Casey speak knows of his wonderful sense of humor, and certainly this comes through in the Preface.  For example, in response to many Brits not knowing which Duke of Normandy invaded England and became its king, Casey offers:

…as Will Rogers noted, “Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects…

Per Oscar Wilde:

“In England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever,” before adding, gratefully, “If it did it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.”

Two out of three teenage Americans can’t place the Civil War within 50 years of its occurrence; one in five cannot say who America fought in World War II. 

Memory is how we transmit virtues and values, and partake of a shared culture.

Of course, a culture is stronger if the memories are accurately transmitted and proper lessons are learned from this.  Far from being a failure of the education establishment, Casey rightly labels this ignorance of history as education’s crowning achievement.

Casey offers four concepts of liberty to contrast with his view of liberty – “thin” liberty as he refers to his view:

Metaphysical Liberty: Metaphysical liberty can be understood as encompassing freedom of the will in some sense or other.

How “free” is free will, if at all?  Whatever one’s view on this matter, much of the social and legal structure of society collapses completely to the extent the concept of free will in action is dissolved.  In any case, this is not the notion of freedom that Casey is chasing in this book.

Liberty as autonomy: where autonomy is to be thought of not merely as the absence of constraint but rather as the ability to set one’s goals in a way that is genuinely in accord with one’s status as a rational being.

…nothing outside of oneself can be allowed to determine one’s actions in any way.

This isn’t what Casey is after, either.  Goods inform our choices; in my way of thinking, reality always gets in the way of my free exercise of actions.

Republican or neo-Roman liberty: …as in the writings of Cicero…one is thought to be free if one is part of and able to participate in a political structure in which no other person has the political or legal power to determine one’s actions.

Sounds kind of like classical liberalism.  So what gives?  While classical liberalism is concerned with the use of force or the threat of its use as the only constraint, this neo-roman concept views that dependence itself is a source and form of constraint.  Not for Casey.

Substantive (or thick) liberty: …not just as the absence of external constraints on my actions outside the scope of the zero-aggression principle but as a lack of anything that limits my actual choices.

I think no clarifying statements are needed for this one.

Casey is focused on thin liberty:

…to the extent that an agent is unconstrained in his actions by force or the threat of force, he is free…

Incapacity to attain a goal is not a constraint; freedom is nothing more than “independence of the arbitrary will of another,” as Hayek puts it.

Thin liberty is defined by “not”: not killing, not injuring, not stealing, etc.  This is justice.  Thick liberty requires, forcefully, helping the poor and disenfranchised.

Casey will explore the slow emergence of the free individual, freeing himself from group identity and groupthink.  While he sees this freedom of the individual as fundamental for libertarians, he offers that “liberty is the lowest of social values, lowest in the sense of being most fundamental, a sine qua non of a human action’s being susceptible of moral evaluation in any way at all.”

Citing Murray Rothbard, “Only an imbecile could ever hold that freedom is the highest or indeed the only principle or end in life.”  Liberty does not automatically mean random individuals living in the wilderness, atomized individuals without any social connection or hierarchy. 


Casey’s book traces history with one focus in mind – the “fitful journey” of liberty.  He realizes and admits that this approach is biased.  So what?  Everyone’s approach to history is biased.  Casey’s is biased toward this singular focus: liberty.  To which I say, thank God: 900 pages is long enough!

Casey has allowed the reader the liberty to read the book in order or skip to any section that catches the reader’s interest.  I will take advantage of this freedom and begin with the chapters that cover the medieval period.


  1. "thin liberty: …to the extent that an agent is unconstrained in his actions by force or the threat of force, he is free…"

    In physics the absence of force just means free floating, unable to accomplish anything. Absence of frame of reference.

    Yes I known, a bit... well, whatever...

    More serious: freedom, free will, responsibility; imo they are all descriptions of the same core concept.

    For the moment, take away consciousness and imagine a universe of independent automa. These automa can react to and interact with each other. If these automa do not evolve, are not subject to evolution, then their interactions are purely mechanical. Like atoms in a gas. Bouncing of each other or reacting with each other in accordance with chemical laws.
    If however these auto evolve, are subject to darwinian selection, then these automa will develop a punish & reward system. (In a very real sense, the darwinian selection is the punish and reward system)

    Once the automa become self-aware, this punish and reward system is given a name. The automa may initially be unable to explain it as punishment and reward, and thus invent terms like responsibility, freedom and free will.
    Meanwhile, the self-aware component of these automa may in fact be no more than a stow-away, unable to alter the outcome and unable to steer the ship.

  2. Dr. Casey's book is fantastic. Looking forward to your posts on it.


  3. "While he sees this freedom of the individual as fundamental for libertarians, he offers that “liberty is the lowest of social values, lowest in the sense of being most fundamental, a sine qua non of a human action’s being susceptible of moral evaluation in any way at all.”" - BM

    Exactly. Libertarianism defines only the low bar of ethics: don't defraud, don't steal from, don't hurt, don't coerce, and don't kill innocent others. Liberty is only the foundation; you don't get very far on a bridge comprised of only its supporting pillars.

    The rest is kinda important...

    ...though I'm still very interested in "Freedom's Progress," even if it only deals with this low bar or foundation of the good life, especially as percolated through the mind of Bionic Mosquito. I can't wait for more!