Science in Christian Perspective
The Future Becomes the Present
Freedom in 1984: Facing up to Our Dilemmas
Houghton, New York
From: JASA 33
We are plunging headlong into an unknown future, dragging with us the outworn slogans, attitudes, and institutional apparatus of a world that is vanishing. John Gardner
Whether a nation is or is not classified as a liberal society depends primarily on the nature of its economy and polity. Those economic arrangements historically associated with the term liberal have been based on open markets, free labor, private property, and commercial credit: in short, capitalism. The political arrangements associated with a liberal society consist of "universal" sufferage, representative government, and a relationship of "checks and balances" between intra-governmental functions: in short, republican democracy. In both cases, the chief characteristic of liberalism is the absence of external restraint.
America serves as the proto-typical example of the "free
country." Historically, our citizens have enjoyed the
freedom to initiate economic relationships with minimal
governmental "interference." They have also been free to
elect legislators to represent their interests in the formulation of laws. These basic freedoms and their derivatives are
cherished as fundamental parts of the western worldview; yet there is an ever-increasing realization that something is fundamentally wrong with the system.
As individuals, most of us seem to be doing well; collectively, we're not so sure. For example, in the early seventies all but 3% of a national sample reported that they were at least "fairly happy" with their personal circumstances. Yet nearly 60% also said that they were "dissatisfied with the direction America is generally headed."1 Most of these per sonally optimistic but publicly pessimistic citizens seem to have little understanding of the root causes of their own
split evaluations. As a nation we seem intent on maintain ing a system in which we only half-believe; it's working well for each of us individually but as a system it seems to be faulty in some fundamental way.
The Social Mechanisms of Liberalism
The major task that Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century social philosophers assigned themselves was to discover the mechanisms and processes on which societal order rests. Buoyed by the assumptions derived from the Enlightenment, these optimistic souls believed that a proper under standing of society would reveal certain natural laws. By means of these laws society could be rationally and radically refashioned to facilitate evolutionary progress and to maximize human happiness. They helped to fashion the ideological basis for certain mechanisms which promised to - overcome the greatest of all barriers to this end mechanisms which promised to rationally coordinate the actions of free individuals in such a way as to promote orderly progress. In the feudal world view-still very much in evidence at the time-social order was perceived to be the result of firm centralized control, whether in the form of monarchialism or mercantilism. From this perspective, it was inconceivable that anything other than anarchy could be generated by loosing the citizen from these ties, but this is precisely what the advocates of liberalism proposed.
Liberalism is a world-view which promises that
tion and social order, self-interest and public welfare, task
specialization and coordinated effort are ultimately compatible. In short, rather than being contradictory to the collective good, individualism actually promotes this end. but this does not result automatically. Specific political and
economic mechanisms-based on individualism, and allowing the great promise of progress to be fulfilled-needed to
The political mechanism designed to promote both the natural rights of citizens and the need for public order was, of course, the federal republic. It represented a delicate balance between a federal government which, (at least originally),
Capitalism is a system designed to operate best in an environment blessed with infinite resource.
didn't do much of anything outside of national defense, and a collection of state governments which did just about all the governing that needed to be done.
In 1787, James Madison, author of Federalist Paper #10, started his defense of the newly proposed constitution by facing squarely the inherent problem between individual rights and public order. He stated that the inevitable product of democracy is the creation of factions. In turn, factions just as inevitably generate chaos and, as a result, invite certain tyranny. Madison's solution: a representative legislative body capable of acting as a buffer between divisive interest groups and the legal process.
By means of the republican mechanism, liberality is promoted while orderly progress is insured. By this means, each group is allowed to pursue its own interests. Let selfishness reign-the nation politically regulates itself, not in spite of selfishness but because of it.
What the American political system described here gains in liberty, it loses in inefficiency and the incapacity for long range planning. However, while America remained a technologically unsophisticated nation, these dilemmas did not appear to be too serious. In 1787 the republic promised a solution to the problem of private liberty and public order; the dilemmas it created would go unnoticed for many years.
In the realm of economics the same problem presented itself. What economic mechanism could both protect the freedom of the merchant while promoting the common good? In 1776-11 years before Madison published his solution to the political problem-Adam Smith gave his answer to the economic problem in The Wealth of Nations: the self-adjusting market. Let each individual property owner pursue his own self-interest and the wealth of the nation (namely, its productivity) would correspondingly increase. This would happen without anyone deliberately setting out this policy, for each individual property owner
Again, let selfishness reign-the economy will regulate itself, not in spite of selfishness but because of it. Private greed, public good: in both economic and political affairs liberalism, based on individual freedoms, worked reasonably well ... for a while.
. . . neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security, and by directing that industry, in such a manner as its produce may be of greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention .... By promoting his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.2
The genius of capitalism is represented in its unsurpassed productivity. The genius of a republic is represented in the art of political compromise. But each benefit remains such only under certain rather limited structural circumstances. As the systems become more and more technologically sophisticated and thus structurally complex, we can watch both aspects of liberalism self-destruct. The basic point is this: the extent of liberalism's decline can be measured in terms of the degree of rationality required to coordinate action within the system. This is not to say that liberalism is not rational: only that a rational system cannot indefinitely continue on its developmental course without the appearance of some profound dilemmas. Both political and economic liberalism succumb to what will be called the problem of scale-linked directly to the growth of rationality.
Capitalism is a system designed to operate best in an environment blessed with infinite resources. But, since infinity is never possible, the system must at least appear infinite. America's frontier (the west, its "boundless resources," its colonies, outer space, etc.) has provided this illusion for about as long as could be expected. Until recently, we have been operating on what Philip Slater rather indelicately refers to as "the toilet assumption" -i.e., we can flush away any undesirable consequence of our way of life: throw it in the river, bury it in the earth, hide it in the ghetto, or simply avoid it in any way possible. But we can't ignore the refuse of our system anymore. It won't stay down. "There simply isn't any 'away' to throw things anymore."3
Any social system-capitalism and republican democracy included-represents an adaptation to specific, rather
limited, circumstances. As these circumstances change, the
viability of the system must be altered as well. Thus, what
may be seen as a benefit of a system during one phase of a
system's development may be seen as a vice during another.
For example, the capitalist's sense of responsibility for his
own property is seen as a virture as long his search for personal profits does not generate unwanted costs for others,
e.g., pollution. Should this unwanted effect result in
widespread ecological disruption, the perceived benefit of
productivity may be devalued in favor of ecological concerns. Under these changing conditions, virtues (responsibility, productivity) may be redefined as vices (irresponsibility, greed). Furthermore, contemporary capitalism is a
system which inevitably produces problems like unemployment and inflation-problems which can be counteracted
only by more production (i.e., "growth").4 The causal relationship is such that perpetual growth becomes necessary-a "solution" grounded more on religious faith than
The basis of the capitalist's faith is technology. However, technology represents a mixed blessing. Its virtues need not be extolled here; they are obvious to all. But its dangers are also becoming obvious-e.g., acidic rain, indisposable by products of the industrial process, an unappeasable appetite for non-renewable resources, etc. However, the dynamic lying behind these problems-linking technology to the issue of freedom-is less obvious.
After a certain point, technology becomes self-augmenting.5 That is, it ceases to be a means regulated by
human volition and becomes an end in itself, promoting its own exponential growth. There are several reasons for this, but the main dynamic involves the undesirable effects of unintended, technologically-induced consequences. For example, a series of dams are built for an agricultural irrigation project. The water carried to the fields not only waters the crops (desired, anticipated aim) but re-enters the river downstream after picking up various minerals from the substratum-which turns it unto salt water unfit for further irrigation (undesirable, unanticipated consequence). The desalinization of the river requires the further application of technology, and so on.
This sequence is necessitated by the fact that we live in a
system in which every part is somehow connected to every
other part. Thus, technological interference in one part of
the system produces unanticipated repercussions in other
areas. The sophistication of present technologies and the
complexity of both biological and sociological systems
guarantee a furtherance of this troublesome spiral. The
problem of scale-represented by the technological capacity to fundamentally alter our ecological and social
systems-has uncovered the basic dilemmas of liberalism: continued freedom threatens to undo the order on which our
But the self-augmentation of technology is not the only relevant feature of modern society. Another feature concerns the operation of industrial systems which Garrett Hardin has recently popularized as "the tragedy of the commons." The term "commons" refers to any potentially scarce resource freely used or consumed by the public. The word is used to denote the fact that everyone privately benefits from the resource but no one actually owns it; that is, there is no inherent responsibility for its consumption built into the system. Thus, the sense of responsibility inherent in ownership (ordinarily found in capitalism) is lacking when resources are publicly utilized. In fact, a logic inherent in the operations of any commons inevitably generates deliberate irresponsibility. The logic-again, linked to the problem of scale-operates as follows.
The people who use the commons all benefit privately. Their benefit may be as a result of resource consumption (e.g., using the water of a river to power generators), or it may be the result of using the commons to avoid more expensive costs (e.g., by dumping wastes into the air, water, etc.). Either way, the benefit of the commons is a private matter. But all social and biological commons have a parameter, or "carrying capacity," which-if exceeded-will fundamentally alter the commons: e.g., a few more cars on the road results in a traffic jam; a little more waste in the river and it becomes polluted; fewer whales in the ocean and they fail to reproduce themselves, and so forth. In other words, roads, cars, whale herds and the like represent a commons, and all have a carrying capacity restricting desalinization of the river requires the further application their usage or consumption to certain mathematically defined limits.
The destruction of the commons which occurs when its carrying capacity is exceeded will, of course, harm every
one. But since the use of the commons privately benefits each consumer, each one will be impelled to continue his
use: the real (here-and-now) private benefit of continued growth to the consumer will always appear more profitable than private voluntary restriction for a hypothetical and future public good. Furthermore, Hardin convincingly argues that any voluntary effort to limit consumption of the commons will ultimately fail. In short, irresponsibility is guaranteed by the very dynamics of the commons system.
This inescapable logic and its destructive potential can be altered in one of two ways. First, a set of norms internalized by all the consumers could cause them to sacrifice their own immediate interests for the long range welfare of the group. Needless to say, capitalism is unlikely to generate this sort of moral perspective. In fact, it promotes just the opposite sentiments: envy for the accomplishments of others, fear of encroaching competition, and greed for a larger share of the goods. To be sure, a religious ethos can provide a collectivistic orientation, but these two orientations are inherently contradictory and cannot long endure together. This is the conclusion of a number of scholars,
Richard Perkins has a BA from Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois, and received his PhD in sociology in 1978from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He has taught at Washington and Jefferson College, Washington, Pennsylvania, and at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania. He is now Associate Professor of Sociology at Houghton College, Houghton, New York, where he heads the Sociology Department.
like Robert Bellah, who has
surveyed the antagonism between religious collectivism and the somber reality of the American political economy. Unless its tendencies to destroy every genuine element of culture and community are brought under control, all else is in vain. The prospect does not give rise to great optimism.6
There is a second way to control the process whereby our system self-destructs: external coercion. Such coercion inevitably comes in the form of bureaucratically organized governmental regulation. Of course, precisely this outcome has been evolving for about a century, and quite deliberately since the Second World War. As a result, we now have a political economy which differs dramatically from the liberal (republican) model with which we started the Nineteenth Century. The new system has been variously named "The New Industrial State"7, "America's Second Republic"8, or "Post-Industrial Society"9 but all agree that a centralized, planned economy is here to stay, largely because of the problems of scale we have already outlined.
Even so, the old liberal ideologies are still very much of the American worldview. If the structures of capitalism are slowly being refashioned by centralized political control, the ideologies of federal republicanism and capitalism are not. This puts us into a very real bind, for we are defining our system in such a way that changes will either be perceived as illegitimate (and hence make coercive mechanisms necessary) or they will be grudgingly accepted as the only solutions to one or another crisis that frequently arises. Thus, we bail out Lockheed and Chrysler, apply governmentally-enforced environmental controls, and regulate interstate commerce-all with a realistic but reluctant sense that if we didn't do this the system simply would not stay together.10
In short, the pressures of technologically induced growth and the resultant tendency to exceed all sorts of carrying capacities-environmentally and otherwise-will cause the demise of the self-adjusting market, the federal republic, and the measure of economic and political freedoms that went along with them.New Definitions of Freedom
We can credit the general demise of liberal democracy and capitalism to the same force which originally laid the social foundation for their emergence: technology. The world has become too complex to permit the continued excesses of liberalism. For example, who among us thinks that the average voter is capable of deciding whether or not more nuclear power plants should be built? If the plants provide jobs and less dependence on foreign energy sources, we're for them. If their use raises taxes, threatens to blow us up, or makes us all glow in the dark, we're against them. There's surely some wisdom to all this, but what about other more complicated issues? Are nuclear facilities a better investment than the alternatives? How are we to calculate costs in order to answer such a question? Are they safe? How is the average voter to know-except to take the word of physicists hired by either the corporations which build the plants or the government regulatory agencies. 11
However, there are those who argue that democracy will survive because in the long run it is the most efficient form of government. Philip Slater is one of these persons:
. . . democracy is not a luxury but the most efficient mode of organization under conditions of great complexity and chronic change . . . . The "efficiency" Americans usually attribute to autocratic systems applies only to situations involving simple routine tasks. Such systems function poorly when the world becomes intricate and shifting. They have an awkward tendency to run a I 'tight ship" which nevertheless sinks. 12
I hope Slater is correct, but I fear he is not. First, he assumes we will enjoy a future "long run." During this extended period of time the slow grind of political compromise can work out its ingenious solutions. However, I doubt whether a "long run" exists at all, mostly because available technology can already blow up the world-given the present global tensions, the rapid spread of thermonuclear weapons to all sorts of countries, and the ease with which these can be delivered.13
Secondly, he compares existing democracies (like America) with existing autocracies (like the Soviet Union). This assumes a few things that are not true. Aside from the issue of whether or not America is more than just superficially democratic, he assumes that the Soviet Union represents an that autocracy has to offer. But the clumsiness and brutality of Soviet autocracy contrasts sharply with what analysts like Ellul and Marcuse call "technocratic autocracy"-a system that is now developing throughout the world. Such a system of control will be "soft" rather than harsh. It will precisely control all spheres of human activity and, through the techniques of propaganda and what Marcuse calls "one dimensionality," the average citizen will want-even demand-what it has to offer. Therefore, comparing American to Soviet efficiency is misleading.
Finally, Slater has a faith in the analytical insights of the average citizen that is shared by very few other commentators. Representing a contrary point of view, Ellul observes that:
The public, unable to see the real problem ... because it gravitates unerringly to glaring superficialities and wavers between unreasoning fear and false security, never penetrates to the heart of the problem of modern society.14
For these reasons, Slater's argument about the efficiency of democracy is less than convincing.
If technological "development" will drastically reduce
our freedom from external restraint-a development
which, aside from all-out global disaster, is unstoppable for
reasons already discussed-then what can be our response?
One is to deny that humans have lost control over tech- permit the continued excesses of nological development and to insist instead that we still call liberalism. the shots. Hardin, for example, receives great encourage ment from the fact that the American Congress refused to build the SST. He concludes from this one instance that "the Technological Imperative" is false." But to stop development of one airplane is one thing; to stop the development of aerospace technology is quite another. Futhermore, Hardin restricts his analysis to technology. Had he considered the broader implications of Ellul's arguments regarding technique, his conclusion would have to be reversed. For example, Hardin's own analysis of the commons logic leads to the conclusion that the individual's freedom from restraint is increasingly intolerable from a systems standpoint:
The logic of the commons should be plain enough. In a crowded world the freedom of the commons leads to an intolerable and tragic end; we can avoid the tragedy only by relinquishing that kind of freedom. 16
But relinquish it to what or to whom? Why to a bureaucratically organized central government, what else? How
ever, bureaucracy is the most important of the social techniques discussed by Ellul. Moreover, Ellul correctly
argues that technique (and thus bureaucracy) is inherently tyrannical: technique is the embodiment of rationality and
rationality is the antithesis of spontaneity and choice-the essence of freedom.
Another response is given by those analysts who do recognize this dilemma; they ordinarily respond by re
defining freedom. They give the coup de grace to liberalism-based upon its concept of freedom from re
straint. This response is based upon the issue of scale; these theorists recognize that in 1780 it was possible to define freedom in terms of individual rights. But technological changes over the last 200 years have caused freedom to degenerate into license-a public license on the part of individual citizens, interest groups, and nations which
threatens to do us all in. Accordingly, freedom must no longer be defined exclusively in terms of individual rights.
Karl Mannheim, who argued three decades ago that our notions of freedom have been antiquated by the effects of
If men who had been molded by (liberal ideologies) had been told that by coordinating social institutions they could bring order out of chaos, they would have felt that this was not only a foolhardy suggestion but an attack upon the freedom of mankind. Although the blind play of social forces is destroying humanity, they regard this destruction as part and parcel of their freedom, simply because it is synonymous and directed by the invisible hand of history.17
When he says "coordinating social institutions," Mannheim is referring to centralized government planning. But
are planning and freedom compatible? Rational planning is an indisputable necessity today. But will such planning-inevitably centralized and bureaucratized-promote any kind of freedom, however the term is re-defined? The crux of this issue has not escaped Mannheim's attention: "All depends on whether we can find ways of transferring democratic ... control to a planned society. If this control is destroyed in the effort to establish a planned society, planning will be a disaster, not a cure."18 The question is straightforward: can we retain democratic freedoms while ridding ourselves of the disruption caused by economic liberalism?
No, says Ellul: technological progress is inevitably antidemocratic.
The democracy of popular "control" is purely formal. The situation in this respect is the same in all representative democracies in which all things technical are taken out of the control of the electors, who must thenceforth repose their faith in an ideology of political function superior to all others and encompassing every human activity. 19
Ellul refuses to redefine the situation. We must have a rational economy, and we can no longer afford a political system based on the average citizen's profound technological ignorance. The old libertarian system allowed people to make mistakes: "therefore, what is at stake here is all of man's liberty, the liberty to make mistakes."20 The inevitable conclusion follows: "The exercise of democracy was the exercise- of choice. Where there is no longer any choice, dictatorship exists."21
A second negative response to Mannheim's question is given, for altogether different reasons, by Milton Friedman. "Democratic socialism . . . is a delusion . . . for a society which is socialist cannot also be democratic, in the sense of guaranteeing individual freedom." This is because "economic freedom is ... an indispensable means toward the achievement of political freedom."22 There are many examples of tyrannical regimes operating on a capitalist economy, but there is no known case of "a society that has been marked by a measure of political freedom, and that has not also something comparable to a free market to organize the bulk of economic activity."23
The reasons for this are straightforward. Freedom, to Friedman and Ellul, essentially means choice. In political terms, it means the possibility of opposition. But political opposition is expensive. "If economic power is joined to political power, concentration seems almost inevitable."" Thus, the only persons wealthy enough to sponsor effective political opposition movements are the political elite-the very persons who are most likely to discourage opposition. Moreover, the appeal to large numbers of less wealthy persons will fail because the appeal itself is expensive.Another aspect of the same issue is what Hardin calls "the Quis Custodiet problem."25 Planning calls for regulation, and regulation calls for regulators: i.e., experts who understand technology enough to at least pretend to chart its course. But who will watch the watchers themselves? "For the foreseeable future the Quis Custodiet
Technology has created a social system that can no longer tolerate the excesses generated by an economy and polity based on individual rights.
problem-still largely unsolved-will be a major political problem of our lives."26In short, technology has created a social system that can no longer tolerate the excesses generated by an economy and polity based on individual rights. Yet the alternatives to liberalism threaten to eliminate not only the excesses of irresponsibility but also those aspects of liberal societies that guarantee at least a minimum amount of self-initiative and individual dignity. Therefore, we are caught in a dilemma in which the major alternatives now facing us are equally undesirable: the suicidal irresponsibility of individualism or the tyrannical excesses of collectivism. It is crucial that we realize, however, that both the irresponsibility of individualism and the tyranny of centralized planning are the effects of uninterrupted technological development.
Redefining freedom-from "the absence of external coercion" to "the capability of centralized coercion"-is not a very satisfying exercise. If freedom is the recognition of necessity, then it appears necessary to give up our 18th century delusions about freedom. The system is selfdestructing; we can choose to maintain a national economic system based on individual competition (and an international system based on the same principle-with the individuals now, being nations, regardless of the political economy of each), but the price for this is eventual disaster. In addition, we cannot hope for technology to pull us out of this trap; technology got us into it to begin with, and promises only to dig us in deeper.
But to overcome the idiocy of national and international competition calls for a cure that in some respects is worse than the disease. A political system capable of coordinating the economy must own and operate that economy. Ellul is correct: such control is a dictatorship-whether welcomed by the populace or not. And Friedman is correct: such control eliminates the possibility of political opposition, which is the essence of political freedom. It is doubtful that Ellul and Friedman agree on anything else, but on this point they are univocal: liberalism is finished if the planners take control. And they are taking control.
It is incorrect to assume that we are heading towards a
less free society in 1984 because evil persons have plotted to
deprive us of dur rights. Rather, we are watching the
demise of liberalism because the source of our greatest
hopes-technology-has revealed the basic dilemmas on
which liberalism has rested for two centuries. Our liberal
mechanisms, which promised to deliver freedom and order
simultaneously, have not so much failed as they have simply been transcended. They no longer apply, and we are the
worse off for it.
There's no big surprise in all this for the Christian. If one sneaks a peek at the end of The Book one learns that in the end the world order will be destroyed. The big question for Christians ought not to be "How can we keep the system running for a little while longer?" for we were told not to get attached to it in the first place (Luke 12:13-34). Rather, we should be asking, "What kind of people ought we to be?" Peter tells us clearly:
You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness (2 Pet. 3:12-13).
2Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, 2 vols, Edwin Carman, ed. , Londow Methuen and Company, 1904, p. 421.
3Garrett Hardin, Exploring New Ethics for Survival: The Voyage of the Spaceship Beagle, New York: Penguin Books, 1973, p. 18.
4For example, the Secretary of the Treasury, G. William Miller, recenth stated: "Increased productivity is the best prospect for breaking the vicious cycle of wages chasing prices and prices chasing wages". Conference on American Productivity, Jamestown, New York, Fall, 1979.
5Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, New York: Vintage Books, 1964, chapter 2. Ellul's focus is on technique, a more general concept involving the sum total of all rational methods used to obtain maximal feasible efficiency - a concept which includes technology but extends well beyond it. For example, propaganda and bureaucratic organization are both non-technological techniques.
6Robert N. Bellah, The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial, New York: Seabury, 1975, p. 111.
7John Kenneth Galbraith, The New Industrial State, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1967.8Theodore J. Lowi, The End of Liberalism, 2nd edition, New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1979.
9Daniel Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, New York.
10The discrepancy between what Americans are forced to do and what we still believe is analyzed in George C. Lodge's insightful book, The New American Ideology, New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1975.
11Those who are unconvinced can read Thomas Dye's Who's Running America? Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1979 or G. William Domhoff, The Higher Circles, New York: Random House, 1970.
12Philip Slater, The Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point, Boston: Beacon Press, 1976, p. 162.
13See, for example, Robert L. Heilbroner, An Inquiry into the Human Prospect, New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1975, pp. 43-45.14Op. cit., p. 387.
Capitalism and Freedom, Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1962, p. 6.
23Loc. cit., p. 7.
24Loc. cit., p. 8.
25Op. cit., Chapter 16.
26Loc. cit., p. 140.