Liberty remains liberty, what changes are the menacies

A new look on basic values in a changing economy

Lecture given in Lucca 2001

Robert Nef, Liberales Institut, Zürich

As the director of an institute that calls itself „liberal“ – liberal in the traditional European sense, as I always have to point out in English-speaking countries, I am very much aware of the significance of flexibility in a period of rapid change, and it would be a sign of blindness to attempt to ignore every change in values today. In fact, we are in a period of transformation. But what about new theories on economic change and liberty? Do we have to reinvent liberty?

While much is changing, some things are preserved over centuries and millennia as well. I imagine that it is above all the basic values which are either particularly resistant or even immune to change.

In my opinion, therefore, it is not change, the change in values, which is central, but rather permanence. Liberty remains liberty, what changes are the menacies. For that reason, my contribution would better have been labelled
If values really were to undergo permanent change, it would be easier to justify the uncritical adjustment to the spirit of the age. Anglo-Saxons with their constant scepticism concerning all abrupt surges in development and their sensitivity with regard to continuity and evolution, are in a better position in this respect 6than for instance the German, the inventors of the constant “Wertewandel” and the “Umwertung aller Werte” which takes place from generation to generation.

Consequently, my first proposition is as follows: We are living in a phase of rapid structural change. What is changing are the realities, the facts. By contrast, the basic values of human co-existence are fairly constant.

If we have a look on transformation, then we need to look for values which may be found perhaps beyond such disintegration and, since they serve as orientation, survive such processes. In its essence, this is a conservative challenge. However, the term “conservative” is virtually devoid of meaning unless some reference is established to reality and to a current position. If politicians like Margaret Thatcher and Vaclav Klaus, who both changed a great deal within a short time, are classed as “conservative” this should make us suspicious. Does this prove the conservative Italian Giuseppe di Lampedusa right, who has his “Gattopardo” (the leopard) say: “Anyone wanting everything to stay the same has to change everything” (dt.: Wer will, dass alles bleibt, muss alles ändern). Apparently conservative approval for a basic store of permanent things and approval for a permanent change all around them are not mutually exclusive. Above all, those who make the basic value of political freedom into the focal point are well-advised not to commit themselves too definitively as regards contents. For this reason, I consider the distinction between conservative in terms of structures (Strukturkonservatismus) and conservative in terms of values (Wertkonservatismus) to be meaningful and instructive.

Yet if values do not simply change in the wake of realities, but rather also help shape and steer this change, my second proposition is reasonable.

In order to cope with the problems of the post-industrial age, we need the collective memory of permanent values from the pre-industrial age.

One of my favourite writers, the Polish-born English novelist Joseph Conrad, said the following in his autobiography: “The transient world rests upon just a few very simple ideas, ideas of such simplicity that they must be as old as the hills. Amongst other things, it rests very obviously upon the idea of fidelity.” A society based on contracts has a vital interest, that people keep their promises. The “pacta sunt servanda” of the Roman Law is one of the most important principles in a society based on private law and private autonomy.

My third proposition is as follows: The psychic structures upon which an individual and a common ethical code are based form part of the anthropological legacy of homo sapiens, which only changes in keeping with the slow rhythm of biological and socio-cultural evolution.

With our primeval human “equipment”, we are confronted today with the task of solving the problems of a civilization characterized by an advanced division of labour and by electronic communications which are increasingly being organized into a global network. Perhaps today’s human beings are well summed up by the anecdote on an Indian, who used the railway for the first time and interrupted his journey for one day and a night at each station. When he was asked to explain this strange, time-consuming and irrational behaviour, he replied that his body was perfectly capable of following the pace of the train, but his soul needed more time.

He had to keep waiting for his soul before he could continue his journey. This image is instructive, as it does not negate the possibility of travelling, of changing oneself and developing as such; rather, it merely raises the question of the anthropologically acceptable tempo. Despite, and perhaps even because of their genetic and cultural endowment, human beings are adaptable creatures.

The fourth proposition concerns the relationship between “technical-civilizational progress” and a fictitious primeval nature.

Civilization and culture are not the outcome of an alienation from nature; instead, they are the result of an assimilation, which is not always, but in many cases, successful.

With recourse to Rousseau, technical-civilizational progress has repeatedly been interpreted up to now as alienation from an original natural state, whose complexity becomes ever greater and the difficulties increasingly insoluble. Possibly, though, the development of a highly networked technology is following a process of assimilation, which is making possible, producing, facilitating and encouraging what human beings actually need and want: spontaneous communication, freely agreed cooperation, leisure, and personal independence – in short, a practice-oriented conception of freedom. Civilization and culture are the innate creative assimilation of mankind into nature inside and outside human beings. In the course of civilization, a lot of things have become more simple and easy. By its nature, complexity is always infinite. For this reason, it does not increase; rather, it becomes re-directed and not always to the disadvantage of those involved and those affected.

There were good reasons for interpreting the industrial age, which linked human beings to the mechanical workings of machines, as alienation when compared with the concrete nature of handicrafts. Yet when compared with the use of the human body as the main instrument of production, the combination of human being and machinery represented progress. A work environment that liberates human beings from their close physical contact with mechanical equipment by means of the largely electronic self-regulation of machines cannot be seen as the next step towards further alienation; rather, it represents a chance to overcome the abuse of human beings as “components of the machinery” which makes the employee qua blue-collar worker superfluous (I do not regret this in the slightest). But I don’t want to praise the incorporation of employees into a variety of electronic communications networks, the new form of post-industrial work, as a “great liberation” here. It does not remove the curse of having to indulge in other-determined activity in order to earn a wage which is needed to live on. Wage labour continues to be based to some extent on a combination of manual and intellectual skills, whereby variety and change have at least tended to broaden the spectrum rather than narrowing it.

My fifth proposition: Anyone promising that the future will bring a paradise of self-realization without the need to work is a charlatan. Anyone prophesying unemployment, social polarization, sectoral impoverishment and totalitarian control for large sections of the population in the future is a pessimist and scaremonger. Unfortunately, the combination of false scaremongering and making false promises is widespread in politics on account of its popularity.

It is fashionable today to consider the conception of political freedom as the by-product of a given epoch, an epoch described as bourgeois-capitalistic – just as if there had previously been no demand in this respect. Its beginning is traced back to the Age of the Renaissance or the Reformation and its end is supposed to be currently taking place or to coincide with the disintegration of the Industrial Age. What comes next is at all events “post”: post-industrial, post-modern, post-capitalist, post-democratic and in most cases post-freedom as well. I have little sympathy for such a historical system of political elements which places paradise either at the beginning or the end of history. Everything can be interpreted as “post” and “prae” simultaneously and, as a rule, anyone making eschatological predictions will soon be obliged to explain why we are still having to wait for the end to arrive.

Behind all the changeable and historically fixed element, I try to see those anthropological components that are very slow to change, without there being any need to call them “eternal”. The Ten Commandments are still reflected today in all civilized legislation. For me, this “discovery of slowness” is no reason to triumph at being right in my conservatism. Quite the contrary. It is above all humiliating at points where I myself would like to promote changes, in politics and in education. The permanence of the obstacles blocking change can repeatedly drive one to the verge of despair. In particular, this frequently tries the patience of those who would like to help fairly permanent values to prevail in an environment of rapidly changing facts.

This leads into my sixth proposition: Traditions can be both a help and a hindrance in a process of change. At all events, they are suitable for ensuring reliability and as such they represent a strategy against anxiety as regards the future.

If I attempt here to emphasize constant values, ideas which – in Conrad’s view – are “as old as the hills”, I am doing this not in order to hold up or retard change, but rather in order to make it bearable. Those values which I consider so important have already survived a considerable number of phases of change and could therefore provide a suitable means of bridging so-called breaks in tradition.

Seventh proposition: The conception of economical and political freedom which is interdependent – has a concrete physical component and an abstract metaphysical one. For a large majority, the first is more important than the second.

As I have already mentioned, I believe that the history of the notion of political freedom has its origins in the origin of the state or the myth of the state; in other words, it is to be found in early history. For this reason, anyone associating liberalism with the notion of freedom cannot trace its origins back to John Locke, or to the Swiss confederationists swearing their oath on the Rütli, or to the Greek philosophers, or to the exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt (and their covenant with a personal god, based on the idea of a contract); it is necessary instead to go back to the origins of the organization of the state in pre- and early history, to the beginnings of human civilization when institutions such as the language, the market, writing and law were invented or discovered. As soon as human beings became the addresses of political power, opposition arose to all forms of implemented power and force. The notion of political freedom is as old all the attempts to suppress it. For me, this opposition to all manifestations of physical determination by others, the longing for self-determination in terms of time, geographical mobility, and the people with whom one wishes to communicate and cooperate form part of the basic anthropological “endowment” which constantly manifests itself regardless of the forms of society and economic system which exist. It can be summed up in the formula “life, property, liberty” or “self-ownership, spontaneous order, diversity and choice”. The formulae and the English concepts that I have used here may be 300 years old at most; but demand for the values which the denote date back more than 3,000 years. Empirical evidence of the basic need for these values to be respected could probably be demonstrated worldwide for all cultures. While this does not provide “scientific proof” of permanent demand for political freedom, it is an invitation to all those who assert the contrary to provide evidence to substantiate their claim.

The metaphysical component of the political notion of freedom is no less ancient. It is bound up with Aristotle’s great triad of values, which are mistakenly considered to be an achievement of Germany’s culture-conscious bourgeoisie: the true, the beautiful and the good, das Wahre, das Schöne und das Gute. Today, we are almost afraid to succumb to a false pathos in mentioning these values. Nonetheless, I should like to make it the central subject of my contribution. I am convinced, that our common future depends on our ability to cultivate these values, – to cultivate it also in the economic sense of the term.

However, freedom in general, economical and political freedom in particular, is not explicitly contained in the formula of the true, the beautiful and the good.

In my next proposition, I should like to trace the connection between freedom and the true, the beautiful and the good.

Eighth proposition: Freedom may not be the only condition, and not always a sufficient condition, but it is probably the key precondition for the continued existence or the creation of truth, beauty and goodness. The three basic values are subtly bound up with one another and freedom is indispensable in this respect.

The connection between truth and freedom had been noted even before German idealist philosophy. As far back as St. John, we find a reference to the close and sensitive link in the promise that “the truth will make you free”. Anyone who has ever helped maintain an edifice of lies in either the personal, the political or the economic sphere will readily confirm this: it simply will not function, and sooner or later the price of lying and deceiving (including self-deception) will become too high in every respect. Maybe this is the more profound reason for the economic collapse of totalitarian systems. The quest for the economically rational, the reasonable, is linked up in a complex manner with the quest for truth; and here I see an enormous opportunity in the economic sphere of employment. I do not deny that the dissemination of “useful lies” can be quite attractive economically. But thanks to the subtle connection between the rational and the reasonable, the quest for truth in the form of basic research has an economic chance, which means that the reduction of the government-financed quest for truth would not have to signify the end of the professional quest for truth. Research – including basic research – does not have to be an activity lacking material rewards. It could be a booming business, if we have the courage to more deregulation and privatisation.

The linking of the beautiful with the good is one of the great (though not undisputed) achievements of Greek culture. In cultural life today, which to some extent makes provocative ugliness the focal point, this is not given adequate recognition. Perhaps it is overlooked today that even naked truth need not always be ugly and that everything looked upon with a feeling of love can be beautiful. Beauty undoubtedly has an ethical component. In his letters on the aesthetic education of human beings, Schiller returned to classical antiquity’s association of ethics with aesthetics.

Ninth proposition: The disintegration of industrial society is constantly being presented in connection with the phenomenon of unemployment. It is claimed that (industrial) society will run out of work. In every society, there is basically an infinite amount of work (in terms of physics, force multipled by distance). What is limited is merely the readiness in a specific situation – and the ability – to pay for it.

(In his poem “Die Teilung der Erde”(The dividing-up of the earth), Schiller addresses the theme of the finite nature of the material world and the infinite nature of ideas.


Take thence the world!” call’d Zeus from his high summit
To all mankind. “Take, that which yours should be.
As heritage eterne to you I grant it –
Divide it ye, ye brotherly!”

Then did all hands to preparation scurry,
Both young and old industrious became.
The farmer seiz’d the produce from the country,
The Junker through the woods stalk’d game.

The merchant in his stores had riches hoarded,
The abbot chose the noble vintage wine,
The king had all the roads an bridges boarded
And claim’d: “the tithe is mine”.

Quite late, just as division was accomplish’d,
The poet near’d, he came from far away –
Ah! Nothing more remain’d to be distinguish’d,
A lord o’er everything had sway!

“Ah Woe is me! For why should I then solely
Forgotten be, I, thy most faithful son?”
Thus did he make his accusation loudly
And threw himself fore Jove’s high throne.

“If thou to dwell in dreamland have decided,”
Replied the god, “then quarrel not with me.
Where wert thou then, when I the world divided?”
“I was, the poet said, “by thee.”

“Mine eyes did hang on thy expression,
Upon thy heaven’s harmony my ear –
Forgive the spirit, which, by thy reflection
Enrapt, did lose the earthly sphere.”

“What can be don e?” said Zeus, “for all is given;
The corps, the hunt, the marts are no more free.
Wouldst thou abide with me within my heaven –
Whene’er thou com’st, ‘twill open be to thee.”

Zeus distributes the (material) world among human beings according to the principle of self-service or appropriation. Everybody takes what they consider to be useful. The outcome is not fair, but it functions. The poet alone misses his share of the material world because he was listening with his ear to “heaven’s harmony” (and was perhaps dreaming of justice in doing so) and, “be thy reflection enrapt” heaven”, he lost “the earthly sphere”. “What can be done?” asks Zeus, “for all (the world) is given”. This is the solution: the poet is to participate in the act of creation. Heaven is to be open to him, no matter how often he appears there. The zero-sum game of distribution and redistribution in the material world of the quantitative is thus opened up into the realm of the infinite, so that it becomes associated with the formability of ideas, with ethical and aesthetic quality. The exploration of truth is as unlimited as error is boundless. The beautiful and the good remain ideals and as a result unattainable. The poet is confronted with an unlimited abundance of challenges to become active. For poets there is no such thing as unemployment. Should we all discover the poet in ourself, is this the secret of “job creation”?

Did Schiller discover qualitative growth, then? Is the tendentially limited production of (material) bread to be complemented by the unlimited production (at the level of ideas) of games? Will the motto in future no longer be “bread and games” but instead “bread through games”, panem per circenses? If it is objected at this point that no bread can be earned with games, let me remind you that today the best-paid jobs worldwide are to be found in sport and show business.

The creative in the sphere of the true, the beautiful and the good is unrestrictedly open. We are called upon to search for truth and to engage in poetry, in the creative in the broadest sense, not to appropriate matter, but rather to transform it, to improve and beautify it. Of course, the timid yet central question – who is prepared to pay anything for this? – remains unanswered. In the final analysis, isn’t this a plea in favour of what in German is called “brotlose Kunst”? – literally: breadless art, or in other words, something which does not attract material reward. Doesn’t art, poetry in the broadest sense always remain within the realm of “l’art pour l’art”: economically useless activity which creates no paid work, no reasonable exchange value? Does the government need to step into the breach here as a sponsor or as a patron with taxpayers’ money, more or less assuming the role formerly assumed by the wealthy heriditary nobility? The answer is no. Quite the contrary. The government must withdraw as soon as possible from all the spheres involving ideas, poetry and games.

The reason is roughly sketched out in the following proposition.

Tenth proposition: The creation of jobs in the social and cultural areas, which focus on the true, the beautiful and the good, is seriously hindered by so-called state support for these areas.

A glance at economic reality reveals that worldwide there really is demand for cultural and social activities, and in fact the tendency is on the increase. However, this demand is seriously upset by state interventions of all kinds. Admittedly, redistribution within the welfare state permits higher consumption on the part of the recipients thanks to intervention; while this is primarily manifested in the material area, some effect is felt in the nonmaterial sphere as well. For the most part, however, it goes into quantitative growth. Redistribution levels out and as part of this levelling demand in the social and cultural area also becomes more average, less varied and more primitive. The standardized services supplied by the state in the fields of education, culture and social welfare obstruct the development of novel and more sophisticated commercial services which, since the cost something, may not be used by everyone. Yet they would fuel a creative development, which in the final analysis would benefit the economically weaker members of society as well. Europe’s greatest job-killer in the social and cultural area is the state with its interventionist, subsidizing and redistributive social-welfare and cultural policies.

The wealthy classes in particular feel a great need to make the useful more beautiful and the necessary more pleasant. But the democratic state as a coercive organization legitimated by majority vote is the wrong instance, especially for judging what is sensible, beautiful and pleasant as no universally valid yardsticks exist for this purpose. The more freely a labour market can develop, the more jobs will boom in areas such as healthcare, further education, aesthetics, tourism, and gastronomy, i.e. in areas where social and cultural services are paid for. The networks of the “culture industry” and the “health industry” have grown into important sections of the economy in the United States. Nothing hinders the development of jobs in the service industries more than the misguided notion that the state is the only responsible producer in these areas, as the state alone is able to guarantee an even distribution to everyone. Above the subsistence level, does the claim to equality and justice make any sense at all in these areas? Aren’t the needs ultimately so varied here that the market alone is capable of linking up variety with variety? The greater the extent to which ever more sophisticated technologies can be used worldwide to cover basic needs (food, clothing, accommodation) the more potential job openings will shift to the area of the true, the beautiful and the good. Those very areas which the culture-loving bourgeoisie wanted to keep free from any economic “contamination” whatsoever are now coming under the spotlight of economic interest and are saving society from the disappearance of work. However, we have to abandon the snobbish and elitist notion of culture, just as we have to abandon the notion of economics that focuses exclusively on material interests. Pop music and sport as well as culinary delights are part of culture, and people who in many varied ways search for truth, make what is useful beautiful and the necessary pleasant are not merely materialistic profit maximizers and economic egoists. Anyone who, in return for payment but entirely in the spirit of helping and being useful, does something to assist other people finds his work meaningful and satisfying, in addition to receiving his pay. Yet even if great demand arises for such satisfying activities which offer a high degree of self-fulfilment, wages cannot immediately reach a high level such as that paid for less pleasant work at a computer, for instance. Working for a consideration always requires compromises. The extra social fulfilment in “poetic” work involving the true, the beautiful and the good must, if need be, be brought – on a voluntary basis – at the price of lower pay – regardless of the time invested in studying and the intellectual demands made. The labour market must be able to develop, unencumbered by any educational hierarchies, which tend to disregard the law of supply and demand. In order to ensure that such structures develop in a creative manner, what is primarily needed is freedom. Freedom in the sense of non-intervention and the absence of any attempt by the state to exert influence – including well-meant attempts to exert influence.

Against this background, freedom is not a luxury that can be foregone, but rather something indispensable for solving the problems of the future, especially those relating to work. As far as implementing the notion of freedom is concerned, we are at the start rather than at the end of our efforts, for the central economic significance of the creative, the natural and the spontaneous is revealed above all in the area of the true, the beautiful and the good. Today, the gap between culture and business is becoming ever smaller, and the concept of “cultura” is regaining ever more of its original meaning. Anyone who can only see the commercialisation of culture in this process and not the cultivation of business as well is taking in merely the one halt of the phenomenon. In this process, the three basic values play a central role: voluntariness, variety and openness. Those were pathos-laden words once again. We must admit: Voluntariness, variety and openness also lead to manifestations of mass culture which do not prevent a sophisticated combination of forces and approaches, though; perhaps they even provide the basis from which they can grow. In this context as well, I see more of a “beginning” than an “end”, more “prae” than “post”.

The “economy of liberty” is not behind us, we don’t have to conserve it, there is no way back to “merry old times”, the economy of liberty is a challenge for the future in a society based on the free exchange of services, and the growing sensibility for the specific needs of one’s neighbour.


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