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Power gives freedom

GJ Boris Allan
2008-02-23 (Revised)

And indeed the use made of slaves and of tame animals is not very different; for both with their bodies minister to the needs of life.
But a state exists for the sake of a good life, and not for the sake of life only: if life only were the object, slaves and brute animals might form a state, but they cannot, for they have no share in happiness or in a life of free choice.

— Aristotle, Politics (translator Benjamin Jowett) [My emphasis]

Aristotle, before any of them, had said that men are by no means equal naturally, but that some are born for slavery, and others for dominion.
Aristotle was right; but he took the effect for the cause. Nothing can be more certain than that every man born in slavery is born for slavery. Slaves lose everything in their chains, even the desire of escaping from them: they love their servitude, ... If then there are slaves by nature, it is because there have been slaves against nature. Force made the first slaves, and their cowardice perpetuated the condition.

— Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (translator GDH Cole) 1762

Throughout history, freedom for one group of people has often implied the subjugation of other groups.

In ancient Greece, citizen freedoms in the city states, such as direct democracy, rested on a bedrock of slaves. Though exact details vary, only property-owning adult males of the correct class could be citizens, and direct democracy meant only citizens could vote on (and propose) legislation, with the task of bureaucrats being to administer the wishes of the citizenry and not to generate policy. Slaves staffed both the city administration, and the police force – very privileged slaves. It thought that Athens had a population of up to 300,000 people with about half of the population being slaves. Most of other half, though not slaves, were not citizens – including women, children. artisans, freed slaves, and foreigners.

The freedom to be so involved in the making of laws required an ease of life that was only available to those who had slaves and indentured servants, because a citizen had to have enough spare time to debate a new law or to vote. Those who deliberated about politics and government were also enmeshed, and dependent on slaves: Plato, author of The Republic, is reported to have owned 50 slaves, and Aristotle (above) saw slaves as means to the end of a good life for citizens.

In any social grouping – from family to city state to nation – unanimity is rare, and so group rules, laws, or values might not have universal consent. Even though some group members might not agree with a specific law, they can still accept its edicts because, to live in a group, sometimes you have to make concessions to the views of others. It is easier to make such concessions if you feel a proper member of the group (committed to the group’s continuance) and if you feel the process by which group laws are established is fair – interpretations of “proper” and “fair” depend upon the individual. If you are coerced then you are more likely to obey even though you feel no commitment to the group. Being in a position of power gives freedom to those with the power.

In Greek city states, only male citizens were proper members, committed to the city’s continuance; slaves were involuntary members, coerced into obedience to the laws, and they probably would have liked to escape the city. Though the ways city laws were established might be fair if you were a male citizen, the views of others were not part of the process. Even though the electorate were both informed and engaged, direct democracy was still tyranny by the free majority (the male citizenry) – such tyranny has always worried those who see many downsides to direct democracy.

Not to be confused with the occasional advisory referendum, “democracy by referendum” is a contemporary approach to direct democracy, with varying mixes of referendums and other forms of legislation. Proponents emphasize accountability to the electorate often with reference to Switzerland – which has a long, and seemingly successful, history of citizen referendums. Seeing another tyranny of the electoral majority, opponents emphasize how the composition of the electorate, the number of referendums, and the frequency of voting are all crucial to the process. A tyranny of male adults, Switzerland did not allow female suffrage at the federal level until 1971, and female suffrage did not arrive in all Swiss cantons until 1990, due to male tyranny. Perhaps the large number of polls lead to voter fatigue and so current levels of participation in Switzerland approach the low levels of the USA.

Simple notions of proper membership, coercion, and fair process can be applied to the following fulmination:

Let us rise to the call of freedom-loving blood that is in us and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South. In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny — and I say — segregation today — segregation tomorrow — segregation forever.
I have been taught that freedom meant freedom from any threat or fear of government. I was born in that freedom, I was raised in that freedom — I intend to live live in that freedom — and God willing, when I die, I shall leave that freedom to my children — as my father left it to me.

— George Wallace (Governor of Alabama), Inaugural Address, 14 January 1963.

I think he means “Segregation is freedom”.

It seems unfair to use such a patently irrational example of unrestrained demagoguery because it is so easy to pull it to pieces, but – ridiculous as it now reads – this was a real speech from a real governor of a real US state justifying a real horror. The speech is unrestrained demagoguery but, unhappily, its sentiments went down well in Alabama with the dominant group (the “whites”) because they were told what they wanted to know. Though there were exceptions, Alabama’s whites thought Wallace’s message was quite reasonable and certainly correct. This was not tyranny by the majority of the population, but tyranny by those with power (the effective majority). The message was quite simple: those who did not have power in Alabama (the “coloreds”) were not going to get any power. (I use the terms “whites” and “coloreds” because they were the classic segregationist designations of human beings.)

Freedom and democracy for whites in Alabama equated to tyranny of whites over coloreds. Coloreds were without proper membership in society and were coerced into obeying laws that had not been established in a fair way – they were certainly not involved in deciding their separate status. Wallace spoke against “the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South”, but he did not mean segregation. He threw down the gauntlet at the feet of tyranny to proclaim the eternity of segregation, and that explicit proclamation is the reason why the speech is so well-known. If the tyranny recognized by Wallace was not that of whites over coloreds to produce segregation, who did he think was imposing what over whom?

Wallace had been “taught that freedom meant freedom from any threat or fear of government”, and he did not mean the government of Alabama threatening coloreds. Wallace meant the federal government threatening the Alabama government’s ability to threaten. The notion of freedom from federal government legislation has dogged the USA since its inception. Often known as the doctrine of “states’ rights”, the protection of states’ autonomy was the Confederate position in the US civil war. Taken to its extreme (as by Wallace and other segregationists) the doctrine would limit the extent of federal government to a minimum, leaving the state governments almost total freedom to create their own laws (within limits set by state constitutions).

In 1962 his electioneering, Wallace was reacting to federal enforcement of school desegregation, especially the induction of James Meredith into the University of Mississippi in October 1962. A few months after becoming governor he tried to stop black students enrolling at the University of Alabama by blocking the entrance. Possibly the best explanation of the fraught reasoning behind Wallace’s inaugural address, and similar campaign speeches, came from Wallace himself in a later interview:

Anyone who was running on a platform of integration back then would have been defeated in Alabama. I'm quite sure I would have been defeated if I had supported it.

— George Wallace, “Interview” (with John Kennedy, Jr), George Magazine, October/November 1995

If Wallace was simply a populist, reflecting attitudes prevalent in his white electorate, and he did not really believe everything he said, then that makes his stance even more distasteful.

We have been using terms such as “government” (“federal government”, “Alabama government”), “people'” (“the greatest people'”), “state”, or “rights” that are intrinsically impossible to delineate. For example:

Throughout the US constitution we have reference to the “United States” and the “States”, but neither the United States nor any State is a unitary entity. Though its text refers to unitary entities, the constitution – by its emphasis on the division of powers (checks and balances) – ensures that the entities are complex, and entrenches that complexity. So what does the constitution say about rights of states and people? Though the constitution incorporates a Bill of Rights (Amendments I to X), not all amendments describe what we might call rights:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
— Amendment X, US Constitution, 1787

It seems as if what people term “state rights”' come from come from an amendment about state powers, and state powers have often conflicted with human rights – though the nature of those rights has always been the subject of debate. Ultimately the final accounting of what were people’s rights was left unfinished – to be the subject of later deliberations, and arguments:

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
— Amendment IX, US Constitution, 1787

Which powers belong to the states and which powers belong to people? When individual white males in the ratifying states voted on the amendments in 1787, did they have the same list of powers in mind? I doubt that those who voted on the constitution interpreted it in the same way as the social engineers who designed it, and I doubt all engineers had the same interpretation.

Enacted a year after Wallace’s inauguration, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been proposed by President John F Kennedy in an excellent analysis relating the promotion of freedom abroad to freedom in the USA:

We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettoes, no master race except with respect to Negroes?
I am, therefore, asking the Congress to enact legislation giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public – hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments.
This seems to me to be an elementary right. Its denial is an arbitrary indignity that no American in 1963 should have to endure, but many do.
We have a right to expect that the Negro community will be responsible, will uphold the law, but they have a right to expect that the law will be fair, that the Constitution will be color blind, as Justice Harlan said at the turn of the century.

— John F Kennedy, Radio and Television Report to the American People on Civil Rights, White House, 11 June 1963

And the USA began to emerge as a freer nation.

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