George Walford: The Two Freedoms

When a conservative government clamps down on people who want to publish books about the security forces, when it restricts demonstrations, strengthen the police and imposes a uniform curriculum on the schools, and does all this while claiming to promote freedom, the reformers and revolutionaries find the combination difficult to accept. When socialists, communists and anarchists propose to restrict the operations of the market, limit the rights carried by private property and even, some of them, to do away with money, all this while claiming to promote freedom, conservatives in turn find their credulity coming under strain. The appearance of bad faith disappears only when it is recognised that the two sides use the word “freedom” with different meanings.

To the conservatives (and to others accepting the principles on which present society mainly operates), the essential freedoms tend to be those connected with material goods, with buying and selling. Rich and poor alike, they hold that those able to make a profit ought to be free to do so.

Reformers and revolutionaries, on the other hand, value mainly the freedom to think and talk, to criticise and to make their ideas known. They speak about the freedom the rich enjoy as a result of their wealth but rarely try to gain this advantage for themselves. They concentrate upon thinking and arguing, showing that for them true freedom means freedom of ideas.

Each side assumes that the freedoms it values can only flourish to the extent that those valued by its opponents are suppressed. Conservatives try to suppress social criticism, believing that it interferes with the freedom to produce wealth. Reformers and revolutionaries try to suppress the pursuit of profit, believing that it limits the people’s freedom to take up socialist, communist and anarchist ideas.

Neither side has won, or seems likely to win, more than temporary, partial and local success. The two freedoms do limit each other, but they also depend upon and support each other.

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WOMEN display more variety than men always realise. Freud’s question: “What do women want?” (with its implication that, unlike men, they all want the same thing) stands as a notorious example of imperceptiveness, but others come readily to hand. Many thoughtful men, for example, suffer from the illusion that all women want the political freedoms valued by the men active in this field. But what of the Women’s National Anti-Sufferage League, led by Mrs. Humphrey Ward (the Mary Ward to whom we owe the Settlement and Centre of that name)? It urged that women had better concern themselves not with national but with local politics (as being closer to housekeeping), and was finally extinguished by a man – Lord Curzon, its national head. (Reported by Jonathan Keates in TLS 9 November 1990).

from Ideological Commentary 52, Summer 1991.