Liberty, Freedom, and Fairness

I’ve been continuing my reading on culture, most specifically David Hackett Fischer and Colin Woodard among many others. One of the other authors is James Loewen whose work is mentioned by Fischer. I’ve also been thinking about Francis Fukuyama’s book on cultures of trust.

What has caught my interest lately is the history of certain words/concepts: liberty, freedom, and fairness.

Colin Woodard mentions the basic distinction between freedom and liberty in American Nations, but David Hackett Fischer discusses all of this more fully in several of his books. In Albion’s Seed, four varieties of freedom/liberty are discussed in terms of the four cultural strains in the American colonies. He goes in more detail about all of this in Liberty and Freedom and Fairness and Freedom.

Etymology is one of the most insightful ways of analyzing cultural values.

The distinction between ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ as words is their origins in Northern and Southern Europe respectively. An important difference in early Europe is that most people were born free in Northern Europe whereas in the areas ruled by the Roman Empire most people were born enslaved and/or without self-rule, a difference that resonates with the separate traditions of common law in Northern Europe and civil law in Southern Europe. These origins play out in the meanings of the words.

Freedom (etymologically related to friendship) implies social connection in terms of community and kinship. A free person is a member of a free people. Freedom goes hand in hand with rights, another word that has origins in Northern Europe. Rights are what a person has who is born into a free society.

Liberty (along with similar words in the Hellenistic world) implies separation and independence. Liberty is about a hierarchy of privileges where there are no universal, inborn rights. Privileges are bestowed upon an individual by a government or other institutions of authority. Having the privilege of liberty is simply the negation of being a slave (i.e., the state of existence prior to being given privileges and following having privileges taken away).

In the earliest sense, a person is only free to the degree he is part of a free society. Freedom isn’t possessed by an individual; rather, it is participated in. Liberty, however, doesn’t require a free society. The Stoics went so far as to see liberty as a state of mind that even a slave could have. So, one can have liberty without freedom. Having based their society on the slave-holding republics of the ancient Mediterranean, privileged aristocrats in the American South correctly saw no conflict or hypocrisy in upholding the value of liberty while enslaving others.

Some mistakenly see the fundamental distinction as between positive and negative freedom. The negative means freedom from and the positive freedom toward. It does seem that negative freedom fits liberty, but positive freedom doesn’t fit the original meaning of freedom. To be a free person among a free people, isn’t so much freedom toward as it is freedom with. A lone person in the wilderness has perfect liberty, although not freedom for social values don’t mean much without a social context. This social factor is almost entirely ignored or else forgotten by mainstream American society, especially on the right (E.J. Dionne discusses this well in Our Divided Political Heart).

Fairness, especially from an American perspective, complicates matters. It originally just meant something being pleasing or good and also referred to how free people should treat one another in a free society. It didn’t mean equality or justice and it’s not so much about laws or rules. Fairness is more subjective or rather more intersubjective and more relative or rather more about interrelationships. To be fair necessitates characteristics such as honesty and authenticity along with requiring an attitude of respect and good intentions, understanding and sympathy. Not just about results, but also process.

The Scandinavians combine the values of freedom and fairness. That is a powerful combination as is attested by the examples of Scandinavian countries. I’d suspect that there is a particularly close relationship between cultures of fairness and cultures of trust. I’d also suspect a resonance with the correlation between economic equality and social health. Fairness seems to magnify the social factor of a free society.

A couple of statements about etymology surprised me.

Apparently, only Western languages have a native origin for single words directly defined according to freedom/liberty and only certain Northern European languages have a native origin for single words directly defined according to fairness. Many languages have since adopted these or similar words, either by borrowing or invention.

The English language is unique in its history. It is one of the earliest languages to form around all of these concepts. Celtic language was related to the languages of Northern Europe and they shared the concept of freedom. Germans and Scandinavians, having settled in the British isles, helped to form the English language and further strengthened the native values of freedom (along with the common law tradition) and introduced the linguistic concept of fairness. The Normans thereafter conquered England and placed an overlay of Latin words on the English language (along with establishing civil law).

In the English-speaking world, these linguistic concepts have become intertwined and overlapping. This is particularly true between freedom and liberty that are often used as synonyms, but the sense of their separateness was still understood during the revolutionary era when the two words would sometimes be combined as if to cover all bases. Even fairness and freedom are regularly paired signifying their vernacular resonance.

David Hackett Fischer looked at the use of these words in published writings.

The words liberty and freedom were increasingly used during the colonial era and their use reached a peak around the time of the founding of the United States. This left a permanent imprint on American culture that has lasted long after the use of those words decreased in Britain. Following the revolutionary era, the word fairness increased in Britain. This increase wasn’t seen as strongly in America, but New Zealand was strongly influenced as it experienced high rates of British immigration in the latter 19th century. This is how the founding effect had a different impact on two similar English-speaking free societies.

America is complicated beyond this revolutionary era founding effect. Each of the colonies that formed the regions also had their own founding cultures. The Norman-influenced Cavaliers spread the value of liberty throughout the South as there was a massive exodus from Virginia and into Appalachia and the Deep South. The Puritans, Quakers and Dutch brought a more German culture to the North. This was magnified by the several large waves of Germans that settled in the Quaker Midlands and there moved Westward. Also, Scandinavians combined their numbers with the Germans in the Upper Midwest where communitarianism, social democracy and socialism took hold.

New Zealand is a smaller country with a less diverse history of immigration. They didn’t have colonies founded by the likes of Cavaliers and Puritans, and so they didn’t have the schism that has plagued America. They also didn’t have many border English or Scots-Irish immigrants. I don’t know that they even had many Highland Scots or Irish. From what I understand, they had a more general mix of English immigrants who were of the middling sort. On top of that, they didn’t receive boatloads of criminals as did Australia and America nor did they receive boatloads of slaves along with the slave-holding aristocrats. The lack of ethnic and class diversity may have helped the value of fairness to take hold.

Nonetheless, I wouldn’t underestimate the influence of fairness on American culture and politics, even though it hasn’t been embraced across all populations. New Zealand doesn’t have the German and Scandinavian population like the US. Germans are the single largest ethnicity in the US and one of the most widely spread throughout the country. Scandinavians may be smaller in number and more regionally isolated, but their influence is greater because they settled in areas with culturally sympathetic Germans.

The early colonial and revolutionary strains of grassroots democracy had been taken up by these Northern European immigrants and their descendents. Where they were concentrated in the Midwest, radical politics of populist reform took hold and from there permanently altered national politics. They were very talented with organizing movements and forming institutions. The Midwest was a stronghold of Populism, was the beginning point for much of Progressivism, and was a model of municipal socialism that set the national standard for good governance (it probably wasn’t accidental that the popular t.v. show Happy Days was set in socialist-run Milwaukee).

It is interesting to note that the word fairness has become more often used across the entire English-speaking world, including America. The German and Scandinavian waves of immigration had been particularly large in America during the 19th and 20th centuries which helped to emphasize the component of their cultures within Anglo-American culture (at a time when other ethnic immigrants such as from southern Europe were prohibited).

The World Wars caused many Germans to seek refuge in America, especially scientists, intellectuals and artists. Scandinavians and Germans have also been major players in globalized capitalism as a disproportionate number of international corporations originate from Northern Europe. Along with Germany’s influence on America, the influence also flowed back the other direction when the US helped to rebuild the German economy and industry after WWII.

I suspect the spread of the English language is related to the spread of democratic beliefs, ideals and practices around the globe… even if the putting into practice part is often severely imperfect. Also spreading to other societies would be the failures and hypocrisy, the rhetoric and doublespeak that underlies or is consequent to such linguistic concepts.

David Hackett Fischer discusses both the positives and the negatives.

One particular negative was most personally relevant. A problem of freedom involves the opposite of being a part of a free people. Free societies/communities have often defined themselves by who  is excluded. He references James Loewen’s work on sundown towns in this regard.

I was generally aware that sundown towns existed, although I’m not sure I’ve ever heard them called that. They are basically towns where blacks weren’t (and, in some cases, still aren’t) welcome after dark, so unwelcome that their lives could be in danger (such as being arrested, beaten, or lynched). I was even aware that towns unfriendly to non-whites have existed all over the United States. Racism is pervasive throughout American society. Still, I was surprised by how pervasive these sundown towns supposedly were, especially in the far North and far West.

There was an era following the Civil War where an anti-racist idealism prevailed. It took hold most strongly in the Republican majority areas outside the South. Blacks were very much welcomed into towns across the country and blacks took up the new opportunities available to them. What I never knew before was that blacks had settled in so many small towns and rural areas outside of the South. Like Loewen before he did the research, I just assumed most areas always were lacking in minorities.

For example, a nearby town is West Branch in Cedar County. My brother and his family live in West Branch, and he has noted the old boys network that keeps that town from changing, despite all the other small towns nearby experiencing lots of change. A longtime friend of mine grew up there for much of her early life and she recalls the racism that was common there.

Loewen briefly discusses Cedar County in his discussion of presidential hometowns (as Hoover lived in West Branch as a child). West Branch did and does have a large Quaker presence and the Quakers sought to help blacks after the Civil War. According to the census data, there were 37 black residents of Cedar County in 1890, but only 2 in 1930.

This appearance and disappearance of blacks happened all over around this time. During the 20th century, blacks increasingly became concentrated into big cities. Loewen was unable to find any legal documents, newspaper accounts or oral history about what caused the  blacks to leave Cedar County, but he did find plenty of evidence to explain what happened in other places. In some cases, white mobs forced entire black communities to vacate a town, a county or larger area (Oregon was a sundown state in that there were anti-black laws enforced to keep any new blacks from becoming residents). Whether through official decree or unofficial policy, many of these places remained all white for most or all of the 20th century, some still remaining all white to this day.

The Deep South didn’t have this problem as its culture was never based on the ideal of being a free society. Instead, the Deep South aristocracy idealized liberty which doesn’t require equal rights for all citizens. Sundown towns were rare in the Deep South because their entire economy and lifestyle was dependent on cheap black labor. So, there was a vested interest in keeping their black populations close at hand. It’s for this reason that one finds the South to be well integrated in the basic sense of living in close proximity, even if blacks and whites typically go to separate churches and schools.

This difference among the regions can even be seen in the settlement and residential patterns among whites.

I’ve always had this sense that there is more diversity even among whites in the North, but this diversity goes hand in hand with the same kind of segregation seen with blacks. In the North, a single ethnicity (Irish, Germans, Czechs, etc) would tend to all live together in a single neighborhood, town or county. A defining factor among Scots-Irish in the South is how early on they were more open to intermarrying with those of other ethnicities, as the Scots-Irish based their social organization more on kinship than on community (and if you married into a Scots-Irish family you were kin). This also has to do with the fact that much of the white immigration in the North (and on the West Coast) happened in the 20th century such as with the influx of Germans during the era of the world wars whereas the influx of Scots-Irish in the South happened much earlier.

With my German ancestry, I’ve given this much thought.

Germans were among the most idealist of immigrants, including a streak of anti-racism, which is why the Germans felt at home in the Quaker Midlands. For centuries, Germans came to America with very clear notions of the freedom they sought. This sense of freedom had it’s roots in the linguistic history involving the sense of being a free people. Being free was tied up with their sense of nationality. Germans congregated together and enforced their culture and language onto the communities they were a majority in, that is until the WASP oppressiveness of the Cold War Era.

There is a clear resonance to the pattern in northern Europe and northern United States. Both areas were distant from the populations of those of African and Hispanic ancestry. Both areas have been centers of industrialization and globalization which are, as Fukuyama points out, related to cultures of trust.

I sense that cultures of trust are key for understanding much of this.

Some people have noted that societies with strong cultures of trust often are ethnically homogenous. At least in Western countries, this appears to be based on or influenced by the national sense of being a free people (according to Fischer, a nation isn’t the same thing as a country, but instead simply means a shared culture). A free people aren’t just free. They are united in a collective sense of belonging to a shared free society. This requires immense trust (along with social capital in general) and in turn creates the groundwork for the continuance of trust.

A culture of trust seems even more important for the Scandinavian countries that reinforce their sense of freedom with a demand for fairness. Scandinavian countries are probably even more ethnically and culturally homogenous than Germany for they are, along with being far away from the Mediterranean, further away from Eastern Europe. This might be why Scandinavian countries are so small. It might be part of what makes them successful as cultures of trust.

This presents a dilemma for the United States. The US is neither small nor ethnically homogenous. The US at an earlier time could have chosen to have remained smaller and more ethnicially homogenous, but the Westward expansion and concommitant acquisition of former territories of France, Spain and Mexico irredeemably ended the dream of a permanent WASP supremacy. Nonetheless, Americans have managed to create a reasonable level of social capital, enough so that a free society can function to a minimal degree.

Maybe the trick isn’t lack of diversity in and of itself. Sundown towns tend to lack ethnic diversity, but that also makes them insular and so less well assimilated to the larger American culture. Cultures of trust don’t seem to fit well into insular communities. Sundown towns are often so insular as to be antagonistic to anything new and different. It reminds one of how the Nazis took over Germany, and Loewen does point out that Germany experienced a similar thing with towns putting up signs forbidding Jews.

What makes the difference between a society becoming an insular society and a society becoming a culture of trust? Which direction is the US moving toward? It makes me wonder about what freedom means or could mean. Our concepts of freedom/liberty arose prior to democracy and the entire Enlightenment Age.

Cultures most often change slowly and not easily. I have doubts about the ability of cultures to be changed from within. When forced by external forces, though, cultures can sometimes change quickly and dramatically. So, what kind of external forces could put pressure on American culture to expand it’s ideals of freedom and liberty? Or even what could make more Americans see the failures and problems of their own ideals?

9 thoughts on “Liberty, Freedom, and Fairness

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