Liberty & Community

James Otteson,

Release Date
June 14, 2011


Role of Government

Does individual liberty threaten community? Some think that it does. As philosophy professor James Otteson explains, some worry that individual liberty undermines moral community, while others worry that it neglects those most vulnerable in a community, such as the poor. But Otteson cautions against thinking this way, for several reasons. As he explains, to take away individual liberty is to take away freedom of association, which interferes not only with autonomy, but with the actual creation of robust and meaningful communities.  While freedom of association means that some people will make choices we don’t like, and that some communities will decline over time, it also allows for the creation of new and different communities which evolve as their members freely choose to be a part of them.

Liberty & Community
One set of problems that people will raise with respect to liberty and community comes from, as it were, both the left and the right in the political spectrum. On the right, people may worry that individual liberty, granting a wide scope of freedom to people to make individual choices, might endanger moral community. If moral traditions are part of what makes us a cohesive social unit, allowing people to make choices on their own about whether to be part of those moral communities might endanger the existence of those moral communities.
Similarly on the left, the political left, people might make the following argument: they worry that if we give people individual liberty, they might tend to think only about themselves or the things that matter only to them. And they might thereby start thinking less about other people who are equally deserving of concern in our communities, like the poor, the disadvantaged.
What do we do about this? Remember that the issue about having a perfect community is not one that’s ever going to happen. As long as we’re dealing with human beings, there will always be problems in society. So the question is not how to create a perfect community. It’s how to create the best of the possible alternatives. And here’s where we need to make a fundamental decision. We need to think about what is the tradeoff that we’re facing with here. We have individual liberty on the one hand, which may well entail the creation of certain kinds of communities and maybe the destruction of other kinds of communities. On the other hand, what are we willing to trade off against that? What’s the alternative?
If we don’t allow people to make and create in communities and associate with people as they see fit and as they would like to, what are we willing to do to prevent that? The alternative to that is restricting their associations, restricting the communities. Now you and I are faced with setting ourselves up as the arbiters of human association. No longer do we have free association. We are going to tell people who they are going to associate with. No longer do we have freedom of movement, freedom of opportunity. I want to work here. I want to work there in this field or that field. We are going to make those decisions for them.
Once you see the question between liberty and community in that light, that is the tradeoffs, what’s the alternative? Then suddenly it doesn’t become so palatable. Once we realize that really what’s going on is people make choices that we don’t like, yes they do. They always will. In a free society human beings will always make choices. There will always be things people do that we don’t all like. But from my perspective, from the classical liberal perspective, that’s a price we must be willing to pay, because the alternative is to give up on human freedom, on the freedom of association, and that’s a freedom that we cannot give up on.
One effect of individual liberty on human communities that’s often overlooked is that it enables the creation of new communities. It’s not just a destructive force. It’s a creative force. What human beings do when they’re allowed is they can associate themselves in new and unpredictable ways that match up with their own schedule of values, their own commitments. In those kinds of communities, because they’re freely chosen and because they connect up with people’s personal schedules of values, the things that matter to them, those kinds of communities can be deep. They can be social, and they can be meaningful additions to human happiness.