Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020
426 pp., $35 (hardcover)
Books on the history of freedom are surprisingly scarce. The 19th-century scholar Lord Acton never finished his projected History of Liberty; and Orlando Patterson, who published Freedom: Volume 1 in 1991, abandoned the project before releasing volume 2. Herbert Muller published three books on the subject in the 1960s, but not until 1990, with Donald Treadgold’s Freedom: A History, did an author try to encompass the subject in one volume. Students of liberty, therefore, might approach Annelien de Dijn’s Freedom: An Unruly History with high hopes for a thorough and lively discussion of the origin and growth of this precious idea.
They will be disappointed. Far from a history of liberty, de Dijn’s book is a conscious effort to undermine that concept and to substitute in its place what she calls a “democratic conception of freedom,” which, in principle, amounts to collective control over every aspect of individual behavior (2). She pursues this goal through a narrative that combines misrepresentations, omissions, and cherry-picking from twenty-five hundred years of Western culture.
De Dijn’s basic argument is that the definition of freedom has changed over time: To the ancient Greeks, it meant the political autonomy of the community and the ability to participate in government decision making, whereas modern people think of it in terms of the individual’s right to act according to his will, as protected by limits on state power. This is not a new observation; Benjamin Constant pointed it out in a famous essay two hundred years ago. But where Constant viewed that change as progress, de Dijn regards it as a step backward. The idea that freedom means “the ability to peacefully enjoy one’s life and possessions,” she argues, was manufactured during the 19th century by “counterrevolutionary thinkers”—including Constant—who sought to transform freedom into “a battering ram against democracy” (243, 343). And she laments that their “antidemocratic agenda” has triumphed, so that “we continue to be beholden” to the effort of protecting people’s rights, instead of seeking new ways to “enhanc[e] popular control over government” (260, 343).
De Dijn is strategically vague about her definition of the word “democracy”—even applying it to the proto-fascist oligarchy of ancient Sparta. However, when she euphemistically describes socialism as the belief that “economic equality” is “a form of liberty,” and says the state should do “away with economic domination,” it becomes clear that she uses “democracy” to mean collective control over individual choices without legal limit (37, 313). True, she repeatedly mentions the value of “personal security and individual independence,” but she views these as benefits provided to citizens by a democratic state, rather than as preexisting rights that a properly functioning government secures (34, 40).
She makes little effort to explain why anyone might consider democracy dangerous. She skips past any discussion of the persistent dilemma that ancient democracies faced: the fact that majorities can be swayed by mutual animosity, prejudice, envy, ignorance, and superstition, and thereby act in cruel and unpredictable ways—and can be seduced by demagogues who aim to become dictators. Around 150 BC, the historian Polybius observed that in democracies, “the mob” becomes “habituated to feed at the expense of others, and to have its hopes of a livelihood in the property of its neighbors” and eventually rallies behind whatever firebrand promises them these benefits; this leads to “tumultuous assemblies, massacres, banishments, redivisions of land; until, after losing all trace of civilization, [the society] has once more found a master and a despot.”1 Indeed, the Greeks were so accustomed to this problem that they coined a word for it—stasis—and it was a central preoccupation of philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. Yet de Dijn mentions neither this, nor the famous historical episodes (the Peisistratids, the Mytilenian Decree, the indictment of Alcibiades, the judicial murder of Socrates) that for millennia served to illustrate the dangers of majority rule.
To generations of political philosophers, these incidents seemed such strong proof that democracy was untenable that the actual history of democracy is essentially the opposite of the story de Dijn tells. Instead of being a long-cherished value that only recently was superseded by a focus on individual rights, democracy was considered so toxic that only in recent centuries did constitutional theorists find a way to reconcile its beneficial aspect—government answerable to the general public—with the need for peace and safety.
The key to that reconciliation lay in the classical liberal concept of individual rights, discovered during the Enlightenment, which enabled philosophers and statesmen to confine democracy within legally enforceable boundaries. That discovery paved the way for societies in which the majority rules, but in which people need not live in constant terror that their neighbors will gang up on them.
Yet Enlightenment-era political thought presents a major challenge to de Dijn’s thesis because it holds that rights take precedence over government power, whereas de Dijn views “the ability to control the way we are governed” as the primary political value (34). Her strategy, therefore, is to downplay the significance of individual rights in Enlightenment political thought and, instead, to characterize “rights talk” as an illicit fabrication of the 19th century (216). In the process, she misrepresents the views of such 17th- and 18th-century thinkers as John Locke and James Madison—claiming that they “by no means . . . indentif[ied] freedom with a set of inalienable natural rights that need protection against government interference” (174). Locke, she writes, “identified freedom (or at least civil liberty) with the ability to live under laws of one’s own making”; and Madison “by no means meant to challenge the classical, democratic conception of freedom or to introduce a new conception of liberty as the protection of individual rights” (177, 218).
To be frank, this is ludicrous. Locke was no democrat; his proposed constitution for Carolina colony was ardently undemocratic, and he certainly did believe that government’s sole purpose was “to preserve [people’s] lives, liberties and fortunes, and by stated rules of right and property to secure their peace and quiet.”2 He held that government cannot claim absolute authority because for people to “give to any one, or more, an absolute arbitrary power over their persons and estates” would put them in “a worse condition than the state of nature, wherein they had a liberty to defend their right against . . . a single man, or many in combination.”3
This simply is a rights-based conception of freedom—and Madison shared it. His most famous Federalist essays, numbers 10 and 51, constitute a virtual manifesto for the idea that preserving individual rights is the source of government’s legitimacy and that democracy must be strictly limited to achieve this end. “Wherever the real power in a government lies,” he told Thomas Jefferson,
there is the danger of oppression. In our governments the real power lies in the majority of the community, and the invasion of private rights is chiefly to be apprehended, not from acts of government contrary to the sense of its constituents, but from acts in which the government is the mere instrument of the major number of the constituents.4
When Jefferson argued that a Bill of Rights could help solve this problem, Madison hesitated only because he feared a Bill of Rights might provide inadequate protection against the majority.
The clearest example of the 18th-century reconciliation of democracy and rights was the advent of religious freedom, a matter especially dear to Madison. Earlier thinkers, including Locke, had admirably defended what they called “toleration,” but Madison and his contemporaries thought that did not go far enough, because, as George Washington put it in 1790, “toleration” implicitly assumes that it is “by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.”5 America’s founders replaced toleration with religious liberty—thus prioritizing rights over the authority of any government, including monarchy and democracy. “The reserved rights of individuals (of conscience for example),” Madison insisted, were “beyond the legitimate reach” of the “will of the majority.”6
Yet aside from a tangential discussion of whether political liberty is an inheritance of Protestant theology—it isn’t—the subjects of religious freedom and how it differs from toleration are never discussed in this book. Neither are other personal rights. The right to possess weapons is never mentioned; neither is the principle of due process. The word “privacy” appears nowhere in the text.
These are astounding omissions, but there is another. De Dijn devotes absolutely no time to antislavery thought. Although she mentions abolitionism (on 5 out of 345 pages), she never examines the substance of the debates over slavery in America or elsewhere. This is significant because one of the central philosophical disputes in the decades before the American Civil War was whether the majority’s power to rule took precedence over individual rights.
Pro-slavery thinkers such as John C. Calhoun, James Henry Hammond, and George Fitzhugh argued that freedom did not mean individual autonomy but, instead, the community’s power to govern itself without interference and to decide who within that community deserved freedom. They self-consciously imitated the ancient Greeks in rejecting the Enlightenment principle of rights. Antislavery thinkers, by contrast, insisted that no government, democracies included, could claim legitimacy while stripping people of freedom. Thus, when Stephen Douglas proposed to let voters in Kansas and Nebraska decide whether to implement slavery, Abraham Lincoln denounced the idea as illegitimate because individual rights take priority over majority rule. Although “the doctrine of self-government is right,” Lincoln declared, it could not justify enslavement, because
when the white man governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government—that is despotism. If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that “all men are created equal” and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.7
This principle was “the sheet anchor of American republicanism,” he said. Yet no reference is made to any of this in Freedom: An Unruly History—except to Lincoln, who is mentioned in exactly three sentences.
De Dijn also ignores the document Lincoln was quoting—the Declaration of Independence—although she does briefly discuss its author, Jefferson, whom she farcically characterizes as believing that freedom “ha[s] nothing to do with the extent to which government interfered with one’s life” (190). This is the same Jefferson who said in his first inaugural address that “the sum of good government” is one that would “restrain men from injuring one another, [and] leave them otherwise free.”8 De Dijn quotes from that speech but omits this language and implies that Jefferson’s sole concern was with voting rights: “Jefferson explained in his inaugural presidential address,” she writes, that he “stood for ‘a jealous care of the right of election by the people’ as well as ‘absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority’” (271). But Jefferson also said that “though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail . . . the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate which would be oppression.”9
Listing all the distortions and omissions in this book would grow tedious. Hitler’s name appears in only one sentence. She makes no references to Stalin, Mao, or the Gulag. Although she lauds Franklin Roosevelt for “believ[ing] in a broader conception of liberty” than his predecessors, she does not specify whether his “broader conception” was best represented by his policies of censorship, conscription, confiscation of property, persecution of political opponents, or the internment of Japanese Americans in prison camps (329). She does not even mention purely technical problems with majority rule, such as the Arrow Impossibility Theorem or the phenomenon of rent-seeking. The closest she comes to addressing such matters is when she resorts to sloganeering: “The danger of democratic despotism,” she says, can “best be combated with more democracy” (260). But that isn’t political philosophy—it’s a bumper sticker.
One silence, however, looms above the rest. Never does de Dijn examine why people care about “popular self-government” in the first place (251). The answer freedom-minded statesmen generally have given—and to which de Dijn barely gestures—is that it is more likely than the alternatives to secure the individual’s right to pursue happiness. To discuss this fact in detail would, of course, upset her entire argument, because it would show that what she euphemistically calls “the use of state power to enhance collective well-being” is often a source of immense injustice (345).
Whether it be the Greeks fighting the Persians at Marathon or Hong Kongers being gassed in the streets while protesting Chinese Communism, the dream of freedom always has been about the right to live a life of one’s choosing, without having to ask permission from one master—or a million. The history of that dream is a fascinating and often moving tale. It is a shame that Annelien de Dijn has chosen not to tell it.
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1. Polybius, Histories, in The Historians of Ancient Rome: An Anthology of the Major Writings, edited by Ronald Mellor (New York: Routledge, 1998), 53.
2. Peter T. Manicas, “War, Stasis, and Greek Political Thought,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 24, no. 4 (October 1982): 673–88.
3. John Locke, Second Treatise, § 137 in Two Treatises of Civil Government, edited by Peter Laslett (New York: Oxford University Press, rev. ed., 1963), 405 (emphasis added).
4. James Madison, letter to Thomas Jefferson, October 17, 1788, in Letters and Other Writings of James Madison, vol. 1 (New York: Worthington, 1884), 425.
5. George Washington, letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport, August 21, 1790, in George Washington: A Collection, edited by W. B. Allen (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1988), 548.
6. James Madison, Sovereignty (1835), Letters and Other Writings of James Madison, vol. 4, 393 (emphasis added).
7. Abraham Lincoln, speech in Peoria, October 16, 1854, in Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832–1858, edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher (New York: Library of America, 1989), 328.
8. Thomas Jefferson, first inaugural address, in The Portable Jefferson, edited by Merrill Peterson (New York: Penguin, 1975), 293.
9. Jefferson, first inaugural address, 291.