Ancient liberty is declining. And some are hoping that you won’t notice.
One of the most important essays in the libertarian canon is Benjamin Constant’s 1819 “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns.” Constant draws a key distinction between two different meanings of the word “liberty.” Neither meaning is wrong, definitionally; both remain in common use. Yet the distinction between them remains crucial today, even as the fortunes of the two different types of liberty have changed over time.
Ancient liberty means that a person plays an active role in the deliberations of his own government. A person with ancient liberty has never been conquered, certainly, but it’s more than that: Rather than experiencing government as an outside force that imposes upon him, a person with ancient liberty is a decisionmaker. A person with ancient liberty uses politics to govern himself, as part of a collective.
That self‐government may nonetheless be severe. Constant wrote:
[A]mong the ancients the individual, almost always sovereign in public affairs, was a slave in all his private relations. As a citizen, he decided on peace and war; as a private individual, he was constrained, watched and repressed in all his movements; as a member of the collective body, he interrogated, dismissed, condemned, beggared, exiled, or sentenced to death his magistrates and superiors; as a subject of the collective body he could himself be deprived of his status, stripped of his privileges, banished, put to death, by the discretionary will of the whole to which he belonged.
A person with modern liberty hasn’t been conquered by foreigners either. But modern liberty consists of noninterference in the business of private life. Here’s Constant again:
[Modern liberty] is the right to be subjected only to the laws, and to be neither arrested, detained, put to death or maltreated in any way by the arbitrary will of one or more individuals. 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 or whims. Finally it is everyone’s right to exercise some influence on the administration of the government, either by electing all or particular officials, or through representations, petitions, demands to which the authorities are more or less compelled to pay heed.
The business of the state is hardly a part of modern liberty at all, except for the times when we choose the representatives who will conduct it. And we libertarians like it that way: We like it better when the state sets up fair rules, tells us what the rules shall be, and then lets us play the game. We don’t want to govern everything and everyone. We just want to worship, and make money, and make love, and talk, and write, and fart around and play video games. It’s not a heroic life, but it’s an honest and unbloodied one, and that’s probably for the best. Ancient liberty has always had entirely too much blood about it.
Not all have agreed. Jean‐Jacques Rousseau once claimed that all Englishmen were really slaves – except for the brief moment when they chose representatives to Parliament. By this comment he indicated that he was rejecting what would later be called modern liberty, in favor of what would later be called ancient.
Rousseau is no ally to us, and the aspiration to ancient liberty has never really gone away. Indeed, many purported moderns are nothing of the kind. In particular, today’s “progressives” are, ultimately, the advocates of ancient liberty: They hold that by means of democracy, we govern ourselves, precisely as the citizens did at Athens. So long as democracy functions, and so long as we all participate actively within it, we cannot be unfree. It is we who rule ourselves.
This, though, is manifestly false. For the last several thousand years, ancient liberty has been in decline. It can hardly be otherwise, what with the growth in size of our political units. Tens of thousands struggled to govern themselves at Athens, not always effectively. As if tens of millions could govern themselves today, either collectively or comprehensively.
When the ancient Athenian citizens met to decide the fate of their city, it was not at all unreasonable to expect that perhaps one individual might exercise a decisive role, and that no one might even know beforehand who that citizen might be. On any choice at all, there was a plausible chance that any citizen might shape state policy, or that any one citizen might even directly conduct it. On every choice, it was perhaps possible to feel that one was a part of a collective, a body of which you were personally an active member. A neuron in a brain, they might have said, had they known about such things.
This, for the ancients, was liberty: it’s better to be a decider than a decision, if that’s where the choices lie. The trouble is that ancient liberty doesn’t scale very well. It only appears meaningful in small groups, and one almost never detects the genuine article in modern mass democracies.
The recent Iowa caucuses are remarkable for constituting one of the few seeming exceptions to this rule. Yet even they do not sway puplic policy in an unmediated fashion. The caucuses nominate delegates, who nominate a presidential candidate, who must still win a national election, and who thereafter will nominate the executive officers; these officers will oversee the anonymous bureaucracy that actually governs us.
That’s a long, long, long way from all of us governing ourselves collectively.
As a result, one of the persistently weird features of the American left is that it simultaneously vaunts ancient liberty – that is, it vaunts active political participation – while placing all the work of actual governance as far as possible from the local level, and situating it in the federal regulatory apparatus. “Federalism” – the doctrine that states have a meaningful independent role to play in American governance – is suspect to progressives. And yet only federalism (or better, localism) could possibly deliver to individuals anything like the active participation of Athenian citizens in matters of political consequence. A progressivism that took active political participation seriously would not want, for example, a federal single‐payer healthcare system. It would want a large number of local healthcare systems, because only these would allow for active political participation in a meaningful way.
The left has dismantled many localist aspects of our political system, perhaps not without its reasons. But without localism, active self‐government becomes a farce. A mass polity – a polity of millions or more – cannot possibly enjoy ancient liberty. It still might hope for modern liberty, though, in which representatives manage the business of government, and in which that business is kept to a bare minimum.