Classical Liberalism and its stepchildren—socialism and libertarianism—are founded on error, and no error of the liberals is more manifest than their credulous faith in individual liberty. It is summed up in Rousseau's famous declaration (which begins The Social Contract) that "man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains."
Any normal person who has lived for twenty years knows that the opposite is true, that man, whatever freedom he might eventually secure, is everywhere and always born a slave, to his natural appetites, to the mother who nurses him, and to the family that attends to his every need. Advocates of infanticide have often tried to fix the period during gestation when an infant becomes viable. It is a pointless debate, since no infant or child of five can provide for his own material needs. The best a child of twelve could hope for, if abandoned by relatives and friends, would be to be made the slave—probably a sex slave—by some adult. In simple societies, teenaged boys might be able to fend for themselves, but in our own world, it is the rare college graduate—to say nothing of all those hapless PhD's in universities-- who can take care of himself.
A liberal might retort that Rousseau was not talking about people being literally born but of man's basic nature, as when Aristotle declared that all men by nature (physis, the process of being born and growing) strive to know or that man was born to live in a commonwealth. If this interpretation were true and Rousseau were correct about human nature, we should expect to find moral, social, and political liberty in the most natural, that is, the simplest and least-developed societies.
It is true that some misguided anthropologists have gone in search of freedom-loving savages, and at least one tribe, the "gentle Tasaday," was invented by an enterprising minister of tourism in the Philippines, but the brute fact is that the least developed peoples, such as the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, the forest-dwelling pygmies, and the Eskimos are precisely those that are most dependent on their family and tribe and least capable of even imagining what liberty, in any sense of the word, might mean. Long before states and governments were created, men and women were "enchained" by parents, patriarchs, and tribal elders. Apes and lesser mammals are even less capable of freedom: the only freedom a male chimpanzee enjoys is when he is expelled from his band and forced into an existence so wretched he cannot endure it.[i]
Although we know that the attainment of liberty and autonomy is consistent with something in our nature, there is nothing natural, much less easy about the condition of freedom. It is as artificial as haute cuisine and formal verse. Political liberty can only be achieved by people who enjoy social freedoms, such as the ability to marry, bear and rear legitimate children, and conduct business, with little interference from political authorities, and true social freedom is only possible for human beings who are morally free or at least strive to attain moral freedom. Many people are too mentally deficient, lazy, or corrupt to accept responsibility for themselves, and when they enter into marriage or a business deal, their unreliable character can lead to evil consequences that invite legal or political intervention.
This abstract description can be illustrated by the sort of people who, for example, are continually bringing children into the world and expecting their neighbors or the taxpayers to support them, who work for wages but are forever calling in sick or slacking off when the boss is not looking, who make big financial deals based on false promises that bankrupt their victims. The welfare mother has more in common with Bernie Madoff than is commonly realized.
But if liberty is like haute cuisine and formal poetry, that would suggest it is not entirely artificial. After all, we all like to eat, and much of what we like is determined by a natural appetite for what we need. The rhythms of poetry and music, while they are created within specific societies, appeal generally to our desire for order. In that sense, we might agree that man has a natural appetite for freedom and will even fight not to be enslaved by others, but this appetite can be expressed savagely by anarchist mobs on a looting spree or in a disciplined and purposeful construction of the institutions, the rule of law or constitutional order, that make it possible for us to be free. It is the difference between grubbing for roots and berries—or the bugs we find in a manure pile--and the elaborate skills and rituals required of civilized cooks and diners in France or China.
Liberty in the European sense is a gift of the ancient Greeks and Romans, who had a fuller understanding of the concept. At the most basic level, they spoke and we continue to speak of being free from some constraining force. The slave becomes free when he no longer has to obey a master, the Greek cities of Ionia were free when the Persians were driven out. But the ancients also saw liberty in a more positive light. The truly free were not bound by material necessity to spend their time on menial tasks like digging in the dirt. If they were farmers, they owned enough property and slaves to be able to take part in the religious and political life of their community. Ideally, they would receive the education that enabled them to appreciate poetry, music, and even philosophy. These arts were called technai eleutherioi in Greek, which the Romans translated as artes liberales, the arts that a free man cultivated and in cultivating become truly free.
Freedom, so they believed, was not a natural condition. The natural man was a brutish savage, like the patriarchal Cyclopes described by Homer. They are huge and powerful but also arrogant cannibals. Odysseus, an intelligent Greek, easily disposes of Polyphemus, who has hospitably promised to eat him last. Both Plato and Aristotle use these fictional savages to illustrate the condition of natural men. They were a great deal wiser than the liberal philosophers who concocted the myth of the noble savage. Montaigne's "Essay on the Cannibals" inaugurated a lie that culminated in Rousseau's Essays on Equality and still finds echoes among the more naïve armchair anthropologists.
[i] For a full discussion of these questions, consult the author's The Politics of Human Nature.
Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, and The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors' Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and four grandchildren.