Do we all want freedom?
Av Theodore Dalrymple
Somerset Maugham once remarked that he found it strange that Henry James was prepared to exchange one of the most important subjects of his day, the rise to world power of his own country, the United States, for the tittle-tattle of the drawing-rooms Europe. But perhaps this is not altogether strange: we are often so wrapped up in our own little lives that we fail to miss the most important political or economic trends around us.
The great English moralist of the Eighteenth Century, Dr Johnson, once said that public affairs vex no man.
So it is not astonishing, either, that so many of us in Europe continue our lives without noticing, let alone thinking about, the seismic shifts in world power that have occurred in the last two or three decades. In part this is because we have already lived with a seismic shift without really noticing it: the transformation of Europe from forefront to backwater. We in Europe are at the front end of nothing, except perhaps taking holidays. Not that I am against holidays: in fact, speaking personally, I rather prefer them to exercising power.
It seems to be an unfortunate fact about the world, however, that one can maintain one’s position in it, reduced as it might already be, only at the expense of effort. You cannot just coast along in the hope of remaining where you are. But our mentalities have not changed with the change in the world situation.
I was reading in Le Figaro yesterday that China will have the largest economy in the world within ten to fifteen years (a position it held, of course, for many centuries). I am not absolutely sure of the importance of this for us in itself, but it does suggest the possibility of challenges that we might not be well-placed to meet.
Most Americans I meet seem rather complacent about the position of their country in the world. They tend to assume that the economic growth of China is not compatible with its political system, and that sooner or later it will blow apart. Ironically enough, this is a very Marxist view.
When de Tocqueville went to America, he soon realised that that the vocabulary of political philosophy and science that he had inherited was not adequate to describe the reality – the new reality – that he was seeing. He struggled to describe the forms of domination, tyranny and unfreedom that he saw developing in embryo under forms of liberal representative democracy.
Certainly, it does not seem to me that the future necessarily belongs to freedom as we have known it, and such as it was, and that therefore China must break apart under demands for personal liberty. It is a mistake, in my view, to assume that all people want to be free, in the sense of the American pioneers.
I think they much prefer to be comfortable; as the establishment of welfare states almost everywhere as the political summun bonum has shown, the greatest of all freedoms, the one that more people want more than any other, is the freedom from responsibility and consequences. It is true that the Chinese have never had the freedoms of speech, etc., that we have enjoyed, and have taken for granted, but I am not sure how much they are missed there.
Moreover, I fleetingly, and no doubt dangerously, wonder whether freedom is as importantly a matter of the soul as of political arrangements. I cannot ever forget Arthur Koestler’s book, Spanish Testament, in which he said that the time he spent in the condemned cell in the Nationalist zone was the time in his life when he felt most free.
These are, of course, night thoughts, that disappear by light of day. But the fact is that I do not feel particularly free by comparison with all previously existing people, not even with my own self of, say, thirty years ago.