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  • Twenty Years of PostcommunismFreedom and the State
  • Ghia Nodia (bio)

In many developing and postcommunist countries today, friends of democracy find themselves wrestling with problems that are at once staples of abstract political theory and sources of the all too real, urgent, and even agonizing quandaries faced by societies in transition.1 How does one reconcile security and liberty? How is it possible to forge a state that is at once potent enough to govern yet feeble enough to be restrained for the sake of liberty and individual rights?

In order to answer this question, it is necessary to think about a prior one: Is the state at bottom a force for freedom, or freedom's foe? Does building governmental institutions that are at once liberal and efficacious form a necessary first step toward achieving and securing freedom? Or is the state—any state—such an intrinsic and incorrigible enemy of liberty that the latter's champions must always be on the alert against state encroachments and ready to fight for freedom at a moment's notice?

This is a central problem—perhaps the central problem—for classical liberal theory and its crucial distinction between the state of nature and the civil state (which today might be called "the state of 'stateness'"). Which is better for liberty: nature or the state? For Thomas Hobbes, the answer was clear: Man is freest in the state of nature, but at the same time suffers unbearably from excruciating insecurity, facing at every turn a life that is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short," in Hobbes's most famous phrase. In the civil state, we give up liberty, but gain security. Rational individuals make this trade willingly because security is prior to liberty and the benefit of the exchange is all [End Page 136] too obvious: What is freedom to the dead? In today's terms, Hobbes supported autocracy for the sake of security. But he was also a precursor of liberal democrats insofar as he derived policy choices from the interests of individuals.

John Locke, Hobbes's younger contemporary and the intellectual father of modern Western liberalism, understood the same trade-off in a different and much less dramatic way. According to Locke, handing over one's natural rights in order to join the state does not buy greater security: On the contrary, life under a tyrant is actually less secure than life in the state of nature. The real benefit of the civil state is the rule of law. In the state of nature, people have a sense of justice and a natural right to punish offenders, but they cannot do this properly and systematically. In executing justice, they may be moved by rage or revenge rather than good sense. By specializing in the task of executing justice, state institutions introduce the concept of due process. The immediacy of moral feeling gives way to regular and impersonal legal procedures; nature gives way to civilization. If the liberal state as a vehicle for the spread of civilization suppresses anything, it is this spontaneous, unfettered, emotional upwelling of the human psyche (Locke calls it "license"). The state does not attempt to deny or destroy moral outrage, but instead subjects it, as needed, to rational control guided by a longer and larger view of the individual and public good.

Except for those, such as bohemians or ideologues of the "generation of 1968," who prize unfettered spontaneity above all, Locke's vision does not suggest that liberty and the state must always be at loggerheads, locked in a zero-sum game. Rather, Locke lays the basis for an optimistic view: Liberal order does not crush human nature, but rather helps to bring out what is best in it. From the murky mash of heedless natural license, liberalism's civilizing influence distills the clear and precious spirits of liberty and responsible individual self-government. And does not liberty merit being cherished and fought for precisely because it is a better and rarer thing than mere license?

Hobbes and Locke wrote centuries ago. Has experience best corroborated the former's pessimism or the latter's optimism? On balance, Locke looks like the winner. Liberal democracies have proven...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 136-143
Launched on MUSE
2010-01-21
Open Access
No
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