Rather, my focus is on the evolving nature of liberty in the modern world.
Now, as Isaiah Berlin pointed out (“Two Concepts of Liberty,” 1958), there are many meanings and shadings of the term “liberty” (and its conceptual sibling: freedom). Berlin focused on two essential aspects of the idea in his essay; distinguishing “negative” liberty, i.e. the ability to do something without interference, from “positive” liberty, i.e., the ability not to be constrained. These can easily be in conflict. My freedom to sleep peacefully sits juxtaposed with my neighbor’s freedom to play dance music at 2 AM. Limiting her freedom will likely enhance mine. But they are not always so. For example, limiting my freedom to ride my motorcycle without a helmet does not apparently enhance anyone else’s freedom to ride/drive.
One can trace the development of these concepts (as Berlin does) over time by reference to the usual canon of political thinkers over the past several hundred years. But it struck me, listening to the anti-vaxxers, that the nature of modern human society and, in particular, our proclivity for science and analysis has made both flavors of liberty more problematic over the same centuries, without concerning myself with their intellectual history.
Our (modern Western) society has become vastly more complex over the past 500 years. Global supply chains are a fine example of the relationship between, e.g., the price of tea in China and the availability of the latest iPhones in Chicago. Whether conceived in terms of transportation, communications, media, markets, or otherwise, more people (and the factors that affect their lives) are connected to my life (and the things, ideas, foods, weather that affect mine) than would have been the case 100, 300, or 600 years ago.
There is a second angle to this complexity which multiplies these (mostly phenomenological) effects. The advancement of science and analysis has radically increased the awareness of the number and nature of these causal chains. In the 16C, the weather in (what is now) Indonesia had visible effects on the price of pepper in Amsterdam. Our tools, however, for understanding (or even measuring) that weather were pretty limited then. Nor were we able to connect the presence of monsoons in the Indian Ocean with the size of peppercorns.
Now, we understand (and measure and observe in detail) the extent to which cutting down Indonesian forests affects local rainfall and local agricultural productivity. Now, we understand how rubber prices or consumer demand for palm oil drives the need to clear Indonesian forests which affect, in turn, the local weather and agriculture. Prior to the discovery of germ theory in the 19C, there was no connection between coughing and communicable diseases. Now, we understand how viruses move from one person to another. Did the elimination of lead from housepaint result in a drop in criminal activity when boys raised in ‘cleaner’ homes grew up unaffected by that poison?
Science has enabled us to see and understand these connections. We even have a conceptual model for such relationships, although we can’t figure out the specifics. The “butterfly effect” tells us that the flapping of a single butterfly’s wings in the Himalaya will have some impact on rainfall in the Andes some time later.
The pandemic and the climate crisis have both slammed us in the face with the complexities of the world. Even if we solve both, we won’t easily ‘unlearn’ the nature of those connections and their appearance in all sorts of circumstances.
This new realization is hard to digest. It is, literally, mind-numbing. And, when overwhelmed, it’s unsurprising that we deny and reject; and then construct a world which is simpler and more manageable. This explains, in my view, much about anti-vaxxers and climate deniers, both on specific topics and science in general. It hurts and they just want it to STOP!
This deeper, richer knowledge also inevitably makes liberty/freedom a smaller, more difficult claim. More difficult because complexity smashes simplistic categories (e.g., race, gender) and understanding these complexities requires brain power and attention. Smaller because, as we learn of the greater range of effects of our actions on others and theirs on us, the choices that preserve/maximize liberty are more constrained. Should I be free to raise peanuts in my backyard? Even if my downwind neighbor suffers anaphylactic shock as a result? Should my freedom to farm be constrained to enable his freedom to breathe?
Stated simply, science (i.e. increased knowledge of causes and effects) is at war with liberty. Awareness of interconnections and interdependency means we have to think more about how our actions fit into the world. And a modicum of conscience means that we will choose not to do somethings we previously saw ourselves as free to do. Alternatively, society will choose to tell us not to do them as it balances our liberty with that of others.
In either case, complexity makes simple models of liberty useless. We are far from the mythic “state of nature” in which there was unlimited freedom. There is no point in blaming anyone for this, or to attack government or science, or to blame “socialists” for valuing community or philosophers for pointing all this out. We will just have to juggle the headache of complexity as best we can.