What is this moral freedom business?

Part 4  Solving the government’s problem under agency as freedom

All governments have two main tasks to fulfill, regardless of their culture or political system - provide sufficient personal freedom for people to conduct daily affairs, and maintain social order so that personal freedom can be exercised and the culture can function.  Personal freedom is freedom to buy and sell, make choices about work and leisure.  Social order is conducted via law and regulation and custom and etiquette. Civil society also functions as a mechanism of social control, as a transmitter of values. Governments have to provide for both tasks simultaneously.

Ci Jiwei describes two ways of securing agency for individuals –  agency as freedom and agency as identification.  It is this ability to exercise individual agency that contributes to a sense of human dignity – that one’s thoughts and hopes are considered in the world.  

Both ways are valid approaches to securing dignity if they function as intended. Both can fail.  But there is an aspect to agency as freedom as a social stabilizer that makes the government’s job of providing for freedom and order much easier.  I want to discuss that here.

The distinction between agency through freedom and agency through identification

 Personal freedom is important, but it can be too much.  Social order is important, but it can be too much. Governments have an obligation to provide both and balance the two.  This is true particularly for social order, otherwise, per Max Weber, governments don’t function as government.  

How to accomplish both tasks? Ci explains that agency, this sense of power attribution leading to dignity, is not based in facts but in the individual’s interpretation of experience.  It is the individual’s personal understanding of how agency works that is critical to his sense of dignity.  Ci – When individuals think of themselves and their conduct as free, this will make a world of difference in how they relate to mechanisms of social control …. (p. 50)

The type of agency that is common is a deeply embedded social phenomenon. All societies use both forms of agency, but there is an overriding tendency to a default position. Societies and their governments make a broad choice between using agency as freedom and agency as identification to provide for social order. Governments promote a view of agency and help individuals understand their agency that way.

The US government celebrates freedom, without much thought to loyalty or studying the precious words of the leader.  And the US government certainly does not provide a firm direction toward flourishing or advocacy of the Good.  The Chinese government never speaks of freedom except as something theoretically permitted, and for comparison, as a cultural disaster in the west.  But loyalty and being able to mouth the words of leaders are important.  The leader always has the truth, and the path to betterment.  Ci notes that Chinese have never had moral freedom, the ability to choose agency through freedom.  It is neither a cultural nor a political choice. 

Julia Tao concisely describes the distinction between agency through freedom and agency through identification –

This different understanding of “order” has resulted in contrasting senses of individuality in Western and Chinese cultures.  In the West, the strength with which one feels one’s individuality is a function of the exteriority of norms.  For the Chinese, individuality is achieved through personalized participation in rites and rituals which are essentially communal in nature.  A person appropriates meaning from his cultural tradition through participation in ritual action, and in unfolding the meaning of cultural traditions, he makes real his own meaning as a human being.

Julia Tao.  The Chinese Moral Ethos and the Concept of Individual Rights.  Journal of Applied Philosophy 7:2 (1990), p. 125


We also remember Ronald Reagan describing the difference between freedom in USSR and freedom in USA. Mikhail Gorbachev noted that constitutions in both countries promise freedom.  Reagan’s comment was that the USSR constitution told citizens what rights they were permitted to have; the US constitution told the government what rights it was permitted to have.  I think one can see the difference between agency as freedom and agency as identification.  In Soviet Russia, CPSU was the definer of truth and of the liberties that would be permitted.  Alternatively, the US government was established as a weak governance, with the people dominant and as definers of truth for themselves individually.  

You note the importance, frequency, and opulence of government sponsored celebratory events in China.  Honor for the leader and honor for CCP is always the underlying theme.  I was a foreign guest at the third annual Hangzhou Reading Festival in 2010. The ostensible justification was to encourage Chinese to read – not unlike similar programs in the US.  But the festival had an underlying political theme – furtherance of the Jiang Zemin policy of “lifelong learning” and the furtherance of a Jiang Zemin faction within CCP. It said so, right in the festival program.

My Chinese government students were always surprised, a bit nonplussed, when they attended the Fourth of July parade in Evanston.  This national event, this celebration of novus ordo seclorum, was relaxed and a bit disorganized and a bit playful.  Participants waved to their buddies and families.  Buddies and families waved back.  Where was the pomp and circumstance?  The answer is that it wasn’t needed – in fact, it would have been out of place.  Everyone felt – free – to simply have fun.  There is no such parade in China, and National Day is a serious event.  Few pay attention to it, though.


Agency through freedom as a socializing tool

We should be careful to get the definition of agency through freedom right. Agency is an authorization to exercise power.  Agency through freedom is more than ability to make personal choices – it is a valued way, the valued way, an assumed way, to make decisions, for the individual and for others.  It is a lens through which people in free societies tend to interpret government actions and social actions even when the actions are to their own personal detriment.  It is the way we understand ourselves, each other, laws and regulation and government. The understanding is that for me to be free, others must be free also.  We all make our individual choices and we must negotiate those choices, whether it is in driving habits or voting. 

Americans can joke that they made a choice simply because “it’s a free country” and even though that comment is tossed off, it reflects a much deeper reality. 

Agency as freedom has a particular advantage for liberal societies, in that freedom is experienced so often, the use of freedom so pervasive, that it serves as a way to tolerate  government action as well, even when government appears to take away some freedom.  Government has less to do to provide order when individual attitudes, as well as those coming from civil society, promote agency – the sense of dignity - through freedom. Americans can say, well, sometimes you have to give up a little freedom to get something more, and treat that not as a loss of freedom, but a gain of something greater.  Ci refers to this as valorizing of freedom.

This valorizing idea is important.  In justification for doing something – anything – Chinese can never say they are choosing to do it because they want to.  There must be a rational reason for the choice, or some external demand.  Too often, the justification is wo bi xu zuo – I must do it.  Agency as freedom is unavailable in an authoritarian country. The idea of valorizing freedom is anathema to any authoritarian system. 


Social order and personal freedom – the twin tasks

The individual’s experience of freedom can make it easier for governments to perform their core functions – maintaining social order and providing space for personal freedom. 

Government of all kinds must balance two elements of social life – maintaining sufficient order for people to have reasonable expectations about tomorrow, and providing sufficient freedom for people to have reasonable hopes for tomorrow.  This balancing act is juggled constantly, through constitutions and laws and regulations and customs.  Trivially, in the US we expect other drivers to stop when they have a red light, so we may act on the assumption that rule will be obeyed.  At the same time, if we happen to get caught running a red light, the penalty will not be so severe that our prospects are impeded.  In neither case do we feel our freedom imperiled. 

Liberal societies and authoritarian societies make different choices about balancing the two elements of social life, order and freedom.  Liberal societies, with their ability to use agency as freedom, are able to treat order and freedom separately, as independent variables. Government can impose order without jeopardizing the individual’s experience of freedom.  There is a social contract view – in order to have sufficient freedom for all, we all must give up something.  Imposing order might even give us greater freedom to do other things.   If we all stop at stop lights at 2:00 AM, we can be relatively confident that some other vehicle will not hit us as we proceed through the green light.  If we can trust in the SEC to pursue cases of fraud, we can be more confident in the reliability of the stock market. 

Of course, that will not be the experience of some people – extremist libertarians, or anarchists.  Such people are adopting the attitude that any restriction on me is a violation of my moral freedom.  Why can’t I drive my snowmobile anywhere I want through a national park?  Right now, why can’t I get a haircut and just ignore any social responsibility at all?  That attitude ignores effects on others.  How much more commerce and education would there be in poor neighborhoods in the US if guns were rare?    

When a society uses agency through identification, freedom is limited, and there is less freedom to go around.  What matters is loyalty and respect for the leader. Remember that it is the leader, the exemplar, who determines both the truth and the good.  The individual – perhaps freely – submits to an external decision-maker on matters of truth and the good. At the same time, the individual has less experience of personal decision making in matters of civic duty and moral freedom. There is less experience of freedom, it is not treated as a value, and to lose any amount of perceived freedom can only be treated as a loss rather than a potential gain for all.  The twin problems that need to be solved simultaneously can only be experienced as opposite ends of a spectrum.  More order means less freedom.

This positioning creates a tension between freedom and order in Chinese society.  There is less of a social contract that binds people – loyalties are more tribal – and there is no civil society – an alternative source of judgment to government – permitted.  Government must then work harder to provide order.  The result is restrictions on speech, and thought, and writing, and meeting.  To oppose the leader, or the leader’s policies, is a danger to social order in a way that is just not the case under agency as freedom. 

In the red light example, Americans do stop at stop lights, even when there is no obvious car coming the other way.  That act of control by government is not experienced as a loss of freedom.  Some Americans might even experience stopping at a red light at 2:00 AM with no cross traffic as a welcome concession to order.  The twin problems can be solved independently.  A gain in order is not necessarily experienced as a loss in freedom.

That is not the experience of driving in China.  Imposition of rules generates plotting to get around them. There is no accepted concept of merging. There is no concept of a right of way going to one car or the other, and most certainly no concept of stopping at a stop sign unless under the duress of traffic. When lines of cars are stopped – as at a tollway booth – there is no concept of taking turns entering the payment line, even though the loss in time from allowing one car to go in front is only momentary.  To do so is experienced as loss of freedom.  In traffic, sidewalks can become vehicle lanes.  Ci – this use of freedom (as means of securing agency and dignity) is entirely foreign to mainstream Chinese moral culture, both past and present…. freedom is typically pitted against order in Chinese moral culture.  (p. 51)

Unless government imposes order, through metal crowd control barriers, there is no concept of queueing to get on a train or bus or subway or elevator.  When a door opens, it is a mad rush to get on, without regard for people wanting to exit.  I have experience of people getting off the subway or elevator being run over by those pushing to get on. Queueing is a loss of freedom. 


Lacking freedom as a value

What does it mean for China to lack freedom as a value?  Ci says that first of all, freedom is not available to give meaning to what people do.  Freedom is not available as a moral resource. 

Without a sense of a social contract, without a generalized sense of a wellspring of freedom available, a loss of privileges that comes with greater social control is perceived as a loss of freedom. 

Also, freedom is not available as a limit to government power, as a right against government action.  Government determines the law as well as the truth. There are many Chinese who have written or protested in full conformance with the Chinese Constitution,  and later found themselves in jail or disappeared.  Truth and legality are such flexible terms. 

The crux of the issue is that Americans feel free, and Chinese do not.  Make no mistake – personal freedoms are as available in China as in the US.  But all Chinese know the lines of moral freedom they should not cross, whether it is to protest a ruling by government or against a corrupt official, or write something condemning CCP or Xi Jinping, or form a group to press for relief from pollution or corruption or venality.  In 2012, and again in 2017, I told people in China to vote for Li Keqiang (current premier of the State Council and head of the government) for CCP general secretary.  But I couldn’t get enough of a groundswell established. 

There are significant costs to society from lack of moral freedom.  We observe that in normal times, Chinese tend not to volunteer to assist government – and civil society is not permitted.  The broken stop light, the piece of metal lying in the street, the pothole, tend not to be reported.  No one’s job.  It is  the government’s job.  The lack of an ability to express one’s preferences leads to lack of trust in society generally since no one can safely say what they think.  Orwell was accurate in his descriptions of personal relations in 1984. 

When people think of themselves as free, they are in some ways more open to measures of social control.  They are relaxed, and will in fact, Ci maintains, cooperate more fully and act in socially expected ways when pressured.  (In the spring of 2020, one might disagree with this interpretation by Ci, living in Hong Kong, but at this stage of his complex argument, we can give him some benefit of the doubt.)  He suggests that under conditions of agency as freedom liberal government mostly takes the form of self-government.  Individuals understand and are willing to make tradeoffs of freedom for social control, because they understand the benefits to all.  Civil society steps in to assist in modeling good responses to authority.  In any case, the twin problems of freedom and order can be solved independently.  Think of freedom and order as axes in an x-y plane.  Movement on one axis need not imply movement on the other.  

Here is the problem for agency as identification.  Without the practice of freedom, without being able to use freedom as a value, Chinese must protect whatever freedom they might find as a precious commodity.  Freedom, Ci says, is pitted against order in Chinese moral culture.  There is always a built-in tension between freedom and order, and order is always achieved at the expense of freedom. 

One could think of the Chinese concatenation of freedom and order as a solution constructed on a line segment, with one end at freedom and the other at social control.  More of one requires less of the other.

This explains why CCP is so concerned about excessive expressions of freedom.  If freedom is not kept in check in favor of order, then chaos would result. Society must guard against too much freedom, since that poses a threat. 


Make China Great Again

Freedom is always in the eye of the beholder.  Many Chinese today will proclaim their freedom, without stopping to think about it too much, and wonder at the destructive excesses of freedom in America.  For many Chinese, American freedom seems too much the power to destroy.

Frank DiKotter, author of the grim account of the years 1958 through 1962 in Mao's Great Famine notes the distinction in the use of “freedom” in China’s “liberation.” From 1912 to 1949, through all the turbulence of those years, China became a beacon of moral freedom.  In 1949, Mao proclaimed the liberation of China, the new China, China that would become great again.  DiKotter described the liberation in a Foreign Policy article - The People's Republic was born in chains. Prior to 1949, he says,

In many parts of Asia, the Republic of China was seen as a beacon of democracy, not least because of its sustained efforts to separate powers and establish an independent judicial system and promote the rule of law. Freedom of speech may have been curtailed by local strongmen, but Ta Kung Pao, China’s most important newspaper before 1949, regularly lambasted Chiang. Freedom of association was vigorously defended and led to a thriving civil society, with endless associations set up independently from the government, from imposing chambers of commerce to student unions.

China, before 1949, was more closely integrated into the global community than it is now. Several bilingual lawyers became judges at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, while educated professionals were able to match their foreign peers in many other fields, ranging from avionics to zoology. But ordinary people, too, were familiar with the world beyond their community, as illustrated magazines and radio programs disseminated information about every aspect of the modern world, whether new agricultural techniques or the fluctuating price of silk on the international market. Freedom of religion was taken for granted.

Now, the Chinese constitution contains eight articles describing the freedoms that citizens enjoy.  Article 35 is particularly descriptive - Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration

Anyone read the newspapers from China lately?

Rather than liberation, now celebrated every October 1, new China was born in chains.  The chains are composed of the links binding moral freedom. 


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