Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “The Social Contract”
Another book I have started reading but never quite finished, I don’t know whether what I am about to argue supports his thesis or otherwise, but I can promise it will be shorter.
I’m going to re-write that dramatic opening line, substituting the word ‘mensch’, which is respectful to the human being of any sex or gender, and the combination ‘s/he’ to indicate the same. The line thus becomes:
“The mensch is born free, and everywhere s/he is in chains.”
You’ll perhaps see where I’m going with this in due course.
First modification, however: the mensch is NOT born free.
The mensch is born into a society which may be a society of any size or complexity, from the family to the tribe to the state. Regardless of size each such society has rules, and it is this which means that the mensch is not born free. S/he is born to live according to other’s rules and expectations.
The ‘free’ mensch, finding ‘theirself’ hungry, would be able to pick fruit from the tree, hunt animals for food, live where they chose, labour only to meet their own needs. Totally ‘free’ the mensch would be able – as in the far distant past some were able – to hit another mensch over the head and make off with such property as they could take for their sustenance.
Such is not a freedom most of us want, but freedom predicates freedom of thought and action, and few if any of us find that. We settle instead for a compromise and we call that compromise ‘freedom’, though it isn’t.
How much of a compromise freedom is depends on the society in which we live. The undisciplined child has perhaps too much freedom in certain families, the burglar, the rapist has too much freedom in setting themselves apart from the rules of their society, but most of us accept and regard as freedom a compromise which follows particular rules.
We are more free in a democracy than in a dictatorship, but we are still not free. We must work according to the contract insisted upon by our employer, for the hours s/he dictates. We must drive on the specified side of the road, halt at the specified stop signs, give way at the specified signals, stop or proceed likewise. If we are unemployed we must pursue such opportunities as our society allows us to pursue and complete such forms and statements as we are required to complete. We are not free to not follow the rules.
Most of all we are not free to withdraw. We cannot really – a few individuals do try it – resign from society. I was born in England, became therefore automatically a British citizen bound by rules and customs determined by those who had power before, at and since my birth. And whatever my government does, I cannot resign. I cannot go to some piece of the landmass that is not England and say ‘here I shall live as I choose to live with no thought for the rest of my country’, cease paying taxes, cease obeying laws.
I am bound by a contract into which I was entered, at birth, without consent ever being asked for or given.
This is a fact of life which most of us do not even think about, but from the moment we enter any society we are contractually bound to obey its rules and laws, and in being so we are never really ‘free’.
Crucially, this applies to all individuals within a society and always has. The only ones who can escape some of the obligations are those whose wealth raises them above it. They have land and travel opportunity enough not to be too trammeled by laws of trespass, they have money enough not to have to fear unemployment and the social rules and regulations to which the unemployed must submit. No policeman is ever going to knock on the doors of Buckingham Palace to tell them to reduce the noise they make because neighbours are finding it a nuisance, and dogs in hundreds of acres of grounds are never going to result in a citation for fouling the pavement. Even the responsibility for driving on the correct side of the road and in an uninebriated state can be transferred to their chauffeur.
So there are some in every society who have considerably more freedom than others and, essentially, the poorer you are the less freedom you have, the more rules there are to constrain you and the more constrained you are by the boundaries of poverty.
Again, from the moment we enter any society we are contractually bound to obey its rules and laws, and in being so we are never really ‘free’.
We call what we have ‘Society’. Many of us belong or have belonged to other ‘societies’. It may be a professional society, a de facto ‘white collar union’, or it may be a social club, a photographic society, a society of authors or – to borrow an analogy used in the movie ‘Gettysburg’ – a gentleman’s club.
If we belong to such a society and it fails us, if we belong to such a society and see that others for some reason draw far more benefit from it than we do, or if its rules prove inimical to our interests, we can sometimes vote for change but, in the last extreme, we can always resign.
We can resign from a society, but we cannot resign from ‘Society’.
It is that inability to resign which is the final measure of our lack of freedom, which determines that no-one who belongs to ‘Society’ can ever be truly free, that suggests to me that there is an obligation on Society to meet the needs not only of those who most benefit but also the needs of those who benefit the least.
It is and should be a contractual requirement. It is not a matter of taking care of the poorest and most damaged in Society out of humanitarian, moral or other grounds, but simply the fulfillment of a contract, the meeting of an obligation incurred by a Society that allows no resignation, no withdrawal and which, in the process, confiscates as of right the freedom we are supposed to be born with.
Lifting up the downtrodden is not a kindness – though it can and should be kindly done. It is an obligation.