What if I told you that some people were better than others?

I don’t mean better at tennis or better at singing or better at math.  I mean a better breed of person, entitled by nature to exercise authority over you.  I’m guessing you would reject that claim, possibly even find it insulting.  I would join you in rejecting it, and that’s one of the ways to understand freedom and its importance.  When 18th-century thinkers said things like “we are naturally free and equal,” this is what they had in mind.  If no one is naturally entitled to power over me, then I’m naturally free.  Being free in this sense is important, because it means that power relations can only be justified consensually.  When someone else says “you must obey me, and submit to my authority, or I will harm you,” it’s right for you to notice that this is unwarranted aggression.

Something strange happened along the way, though: the response to the kings and tyrants ended up missing its own point.   “We do not consent to your authority, we will govern ourselves!”  But: what does “govern ourselves” mean?   There are two ways to think of this.  A lot of people think self-governance means a majority-rule democratic process.  But it’s not at all clear that preserves our natural equal freedom.  Rather than submitting to a king’s power because he claims a natural moral superiority, we are now compelled to surrender our autonomy because some larger number of people say so.  The rationale is that the majority is always (necessarily?) right, yet this is a freshman-level logical fallacy.

But there’s another way to think about self-governance: not as majority rule, but as the social order that arises from the peaceful interaction of free people.  Both theory and history show that self-ordering cooperative systems emerge when people are free to pursue their ends and interact with one another.  These systems include both prosperity-generating features (the market) and responses to predators (the common law).  Freedom is important because it allows us to be ourselves, and to work together while maintaining autonomy.  Freedom is important because its opposite is detrimental to our well-being and inconsistent with our nature.