Freedom in Society: Why Order is Necessary for Freedom

Discussions on the relationship between freedom and authority in American public and academic discourse often neglect the necessary role of embodied social rules in making freedom and rational action possible. Following John Stuart Mill, many think of the history of politics as one of liberty struggling against authority. Freedom and order are understood as zero sum: the increase of the one decreases the other. In important ways, however, the freedom of the individual is made possible by public order sustained by a form of social authority, an authority that transcends the individual. Simply put, individual freedom requires a socially enforced order, and when this enforcement is absent, the resulting disorder severely limits freedom. The common commitment not to harm another (i.e., the no-harm principle) is not sufficient for the maximization of individual freedom. The individual has freedom not despite the presence of others, but on account there being others. The individual finds freedom in society.

I argue here that sharing a common life in community is necessary for freedom of action in public.  The various places of public activity—the parks, streets (including crosswalks), markets, libraries, theaters, etc.—each have rules of behavior and conventions that make such places possible to use, participate in, or attend. What constitutes these places includes a set of activities—a set of human ends, and the rules of these places are ancillary to the ends of these places. The absence, neglect, or flouting of these rules undermines the freedom to achieve these ends. Only when the people of any society have mutual commitment to rules and the order of places and follow a principle of conformity can one achieve the ends constituting those places. Further, any rational action to achieve the ends of these places must include a reasonable anticipation that others will follow the rules.


Places and their rules

The moment we step out into the public sphere we assume the social rules of behavior for the place in which we stepped; and as we go from place to place, we unconsciously assume each place’s rules of behavior. Driving to the grocery store, for instance, requires multiple transitions to different sets of rules as we move from place to place. We prepared to begin travel by clothing ourselves appropriately; we drive according to traffic laws (and various courtesies); we park between the lines in the parking lot and yield to pedestrians; we avoid hindering others’ activity in the store; and we wait in line and follow all sorts of rules at the cash register. Many more rules could be listed, including many that overlap between these places. Throughout this process we are unconsciously following rules and adopting new rules as we go from place to place, and the rules are brought to our attention usually only when someone violates them. Without such interruptions, we transition without conscious decision or deliberation.

These rules are so often concealed by habit that they escape our immediate attention and, for that reason, it might be difficult to recognize exactly what I’m referring to. But consider parenting. Much of parenting is the disciplining and training of children in the various rules of places. Children are a blank slate with regard to rules of behavior in different settings and places. Something as obvious as waiting in line must be taught. Waiting in line is, however natural it might seem, a convention, and children must be trained into it. We let them scream and run around at the park, but not in the library or church or in the classroom. There are rules for each room of the house and different rules for the front and back yards. There are rules for the street, crosswalk, and sidewalk. This training is done by pure parent/child authority. That is, parents do not reason with their children; they simply tell them how they are to behave in these places. Parenting is bringing children into a way of life—into a shared common life. It socializes them. Socialization is, in large part, accustoming children to the social rules, behavior, manners, and customs of public places and to unconsciously transition to a different set of rules when moving into a different place.

These rules make the various ends of public life practically possible. One end of a library, for instance, is facilitating space for quiet study. Hence, libraries have rules on talking and often have separate meeting rooms for louder activities. Condoning loud continuous loud activity undermines at least one end of libraries. Upon walking into a library (or a church with reverent architecture) we assume a quieter tone. To buy groceries (or any other product) we must wait in line. If there were no social convention of line-waiting, purchasing when among fellow purchasers would be impossible. Everyone would rush to the counter to achieve their end. Only after agreeing to “first-come-first-serve” could the end be achieved. Public parks, including playgrounds for children, are for safe recreation and have various rules, written and unwritten, conducive to that end. Some social rules apply to many different ends. For example, a child cannot ride a scooter in a library or a grocery store.

Now, rational action includes (with few possible exceptions, such as valorous actions) the reasonable anticipation that one can achieve any action’s end. Hence, any rational action in the public realm requires such reasonable anticipations. And since the presence of others makes possible the hindrance or impossibility of the achievement of one’s public end, one must take into account whether others will follow the rules conducive to that end. Not only must one know that there are rules and that others know the rules, but also know that others will likely follow those rules. If there are no rules or if one knows that others will not follow them, attempting the action is irrational, since one cannot achieve his end. For example, if a society collectively and completely flouts traffic laws, one will likely avoid driving. Achieving the end—travelling to another place—is likely difficult, dangerous, or impossible. The failure to follow the rules not only undermines the freedom to drive. It also could both undermine rapid transit and the possibility of doing certain activities requiring significant travel. A more likely example is the situation where teenagers take over a children’s playground, making it dangerous or impossible for younger children to play there. Anticipating this, parents would either go to another park or choose another activity. If all available parks are taken over by teenagers (or by drug dealers), then the freedom for parents to take their children to playgrounds is undermined.

This shows that the freedom to do any given public activity requires a mutual commitment from the society at large to the rules conducive to the activity’s end. It is not simply the lack of constraint, but the positive commitment to rules that makes achieving public activity possible. Further, rational action necessarily must include the anticipation of mutual commitment to these rules. Freedom cannot exist in anarchy. Freedom, then, requires public order and social discipline.


Human being as being-with-one-another

For most of our lives, however, we do not intentionally deliberate on whether others will follow the rules for the place of our desired end. We do not approach the cash register wondering whether others will wait in line. We do not even consciously assume that they will. As we encountered and experienced our community and the world, discovering what sort of actions have worked out for us and facilitated the achievement of our ends, we adopt pre-reflective habits of action that make deliberation unnecessary. It permits a sort of thoughtless anticipation, allowing us to conduct business through corridors made familiar by past experience and successes in achieving the same or similar ends. And since there is no need to constantly deliberate over others’ potential actions and their effects on the achievement of our own, our everyday mode of being is a being-with others. In other words, we are pre-reflectively always already going about our business in light of and on account of others. Without reflection, we assume and anticipate what others will do. And, for this reason, our life is usually in a state of confidence. Normalcy is the uninterrupted pre-reflective assumption that others are acting in accordance with the rules of the community.

Further, the “others” in the everyday mode of being are not a concrete set of separated beings as if it were a sum of individuals. It is a type of localized, particularized and collectivized being—what Hubert Dreyfus calls “the one”—and one in which we are integrated and into which we are absorbed—into what one might call the life-world. The people of the community are not a “they” (third-person, plural), but a “we” (first-person plural). Though in the pre-reflective mode of being one has a sense of individuality, there is no conscious distinction between me and them. Hence, most of what we do, we do because that is what one does. Our world in this mode of being is not the universe and its great expanse; it is, rather, the way of life of a particular people—a type of shared world. The ‘I’ does not stand out from ‘they.’ Man is not an ‘I’-thing, some independent thinking thing. Certainly, there is an awareness that I am in the grocery store shopping, but the predication already assumes the facilitation, the lack of hindrance, and the mutually embodied rules of collective action for the activity of shopping. It assumes being with others. The human being is fundamentally a for-others being, one that absorbs the way of life of a culture for the sake of the various activities of a people. Hence, human beings are rule-following and rules-embodying creatures because they and their activity are inextricably bound up with others.



Humans are made for civil community; they are made to share in a common life. If I’m correct about the relationship of freedom and order, freedom can exist only in a community. Freedom is possible only among others sharing a common life. Humans are capable of embodying and absorbing this common life by experiencing the life of the community. Indeed, being human means conducting oneself on account of and in light of others, forming a pre-reflective sense of ‘we,’ not ‘I’ or ‘they’. Life in a community fundamentally involves a communicatio—a sharing and making common—which forms a consociation among men. The 17th century political theorist Johannes Althusius argued that this requires a tacit “pledge” among “symbiotes” (i.e., those living together) to bring together “whatever is useful and necessary for the harmonious exercise of social life.” They then become “participants or partners in a common life” (Politica I.2, 6).

Maximizing freedom in a community is not as simple as rigorously tearing down the obstacles in the way of action, for freedom requires some degree of order. The possibility of any freedom necessitates the conditions for that freedom, which includes others following the rules. And in the performance of a public action, one is already tacitly pledging themselves to (or acting in light of and on account of) others. The attempt to shatter social rules can, depending on the rules, shatter freedom. The most disorderly places in the world are also the least free: people are unable to anticipate the actions of others. Their set of possible actions are diminished on account of a disintegration of unity between the ‘I’ and the ‘they.’

Individualism is inimical to human community. It struggles against that structure of human being that seeks a ‘world’ with others, that which constitutes a shared sense of ‘we’ in the everyday. Though natural to human being, we ought to deliberately emphasis the principle of conformity. I do not mean a conformity to evil, but a recognition that freedom necessitates the mutual conformity to rules of behavior and manners. Our desire should be to conform, not to distinguish ourselves or neglect and reject the patterns of others. Nor is it sufficient to merely pledge ourselves to the tolerance of any and all behaviors or manners. Rather, we must seek, each of us, to the formation and cultivation of shared rules, manners, and behavior for the sake of a common life and freedom.

Given that this social phenomena of symbiosis is somewhat concealed by everyday life and remains only partially understood, the task for the reader is to take up a reflective stance towards his or her pre-reflective experiences. One must seek to see things anew and be called out of one’s everyday mode of existence, to see oneself as always already with others and acting for and on account of others. Begin by recognizing the various rules we unconsciously assume as we move from place to place—in other words, notice how we treat our world not as a series of homogenous sites, but as one of variegated places, each having its own roles, conventions, rules, equipment, and ends.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because political/social philosophy must start with a philosophical anthropology, some answer to the question, what is man? The argument above provides an answer in part: man is a social being that achieves freedom in order, not despite it, and absorbs or embodies the habits of his community people such that he can unconsciously take on and assume roles and rules as he moves from place to place. Additionally, this is the beginning of or at least calls for a phenomenology of place, something that conservatives must consider. (See, for example, Jeff Malpas’ Place and Experience.) It is, most importantly, an alternative to the more individualist approaches that dominate much American conservative political theory.



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