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The Uncertainty of Freedom, and the Freedom of Uncertainty

It likely has occurred to everyone at least once that it would be a wonderful thing to win the lottery. And many of us have indeed bought a lottery ticket at least once in our lives, only to validate the well-known fact that the chances of winning in a lottery are rather small. Some of us, though, may have not put up with this sober conclusion and proceeded on the assumption that if we bought two tickets our chances of winning the lottery would increase twofold, and then perhaps extrapolated the logic to three, five, or even ten tickets. And a few of us might have even entertained the theoretical possibility that if we bought all the tickets we would be assured of winning the lottery.

There is nothing wrong with dreaming of a stroke of luck and trying to maximize one’s chances. But it also pays to use common sense and elementary knowledge of the probability calculus. Buying all the lottery tickets will not only give you an absolute certainty of winning but also an absolute certainty of losing vast amounts of money in the process.

But what, one may ask, does buying a lottery ticket have to do with freedom? Freedom, after all, is arguably not an outcome of a random process like winning in a lottery. It is a conscious choice to believe that men are born with certain inalienable rights and should be thus free to make decisions about their lives. Based on this belief, we build the institutions of a free society, provide them with the necessary checks and balances, and guarantee the rule of law to prevent arbitrary punishment and thwart attempts to hijack our freedom. For all the problems of a free society, we believe with Winston Churchill that democracy, the political system that embodies, maintains, and administers a free society, is vastly preferable to all the alternatives. Living in a democracy, we believe that we have hit the jackpot in the lottery of political systems.

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All too often, however, the pride and the comfort of living in a free society lure us into underestimating dangers it is exposed to and into taking freedom for granted. We are more alert to these threats when they take an overt and brutal form, such as a hostile power or terrorist attacks against people, institutions, and infrastructure. It is clear to us that such attacks come from people who do not approve of or even hate our way of life and would like to replace it with a secular tyranny or with an allegedly divine rule. Although such attacks have caused us immense harm and suffering, we continue to believe liberty makes our societies strong enough to withstand them.

We are, alas, not nearly as vigilant when challenged by political systems that may pay lip service to freedom and democracy and do not act with overt hostility toward us, but which claim exceptions on the grounds of culture, tradition, religion, or state of development to deny the universal character of freedom and human rights. The question, to be sure, is not whether to impose our standards on such societies; that would be rightly seen as cultural imperialism. It is whether by the relativism of acknowledging their claims and making allowances in the interest of international cooperation, commercial advantage, or the accommodation of large numbers of migrants from such societies into our own we do not, often unwittingly, relax our own standards as well.

More seriously still, we seem to be the least aware and most tolerant of threats to free society that come not from the outside, from enemies, but from within our own ranks. I’m not referring so much to dangers stemming from radical groups hell-bent on bringing about a utopia of some kind, though they too exist, as to people more or less like us, who are happy to share in the benefits of freedom and are proud of its accomplishments. Every day we witness all around us the tireless activity of individuals, groups, and politicians, who far from deliberately trying to subvert freedom, are aiming to improve upon it a little here or there, just as the person who buys another ticket strives to improve his chances of winning the lottery.

The flaw such people are trying to fix in one way or another is exactly the degree of uncertainty in the system. Voters abhor uncertainty and crave security. So to improve our job security, admittedly a valuable consideration for any individual, we will introduce more safeguards for the employees, making them less prone to dismissal, and in case such safeguards fail we will have a comfortable cushion of unemployment benefits in place. We will prefer to disregard the fact that such measures may drive up the cost of labor, perhaps to the extent of becoming uncompetitive with other labor markets, with the rise of unemployment and actual decrease of job security as ironic result.

To fight crime and terrorism, we will increase the surveillance over our cities, our citizens, and their communications, perhaps to the extent of decreasing our own perceived level of personal privacy. To prevent a catastrophic epidemic that might never materialize, we mobilize our public health care systems and immunize millions of people at an enormous cost without a perceptible benefit to our collective well-being. And to offset the specter of catastrophic global warming, we engage in pre-emptive policies that might at best make a marginal difference in return for a massive investment. We all witness similar strategies in our own everyday experience.

Another, somewhat less altruistic, internal threat to a free society comes from people who exploit the rules of the system to make sure their number always comes up in the lottery. Rather than taking their chances on the open market, they will make use of the fact that in a typical European country about one half of all produced wealth, fifty percent of the GDP, gets redistributed through public budgets. By means of their contacts, influence, and not infrequently overt corruption, they make sure they will be at the receiving end of a significant portion of that wealth. At its extreme, such an economic system, in a phrase attributed to Milton Friedman, provides socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor.

There is no underestimating the damage that corruption causes to freedom. More than two centuries ago, its mortal danger to a free society was recognized by Edmund Burke: “Corrupt influence is itself the perennial spring of all prodigality, and of all disorder; it loads us more than millions of debt; takes away vigor from our arms, wisdom from our councils, and every shadow of authority and credit from the most venerable parts of our constitution . . . . Among a people generally corrupt, liberty cannot long exist.”

Finally, freedom may be threatened, albeit unintentionally, by the actions of the very governments we elect to guarantee and safeguard our liberties. We have proudly and rightly considered human rights and their protection as one of the fundamental values of any society. But a question is increasingly being asked: Are freedom and human rights best served by judicial policies that make us defenseless in dealing with terrorists, criminals, and human traffickers? It is an equally legitimate question to ask whether the cause of freedom is advanced by suspending human rights guarantees for certain categories of individuals. As Vaclav Havel wrote forty years ago, in his play The Conspirators, “It is a natural disadvantage of democracy that it ties the hands of those who wish it well, and opens unlimited possibilities for those who do not take it seriously.”

 

In an effort to protect our liberty, our rights, our prosperity, our health, and our security, our governments often excel at inventing ever new regulations that stipulate how things should be done, and even more how they should not be done, and dictate how many hours a week we are allowed to work, and how long we have to sleep, what we can and cannot eat, which substances are beneficial to us and which are harmful, etc., etc. The increasing volume of regulations makes us safer against a number of risks, real or imagined, but also comes at an enormous cost to our societies and our economies and makes us increasingly uncompetitive with respect to other societies not so burdened. If this trend continues, we are running the risk of becoming exceedingly safe but also pretty much useless.

There is no denying the importance of a basic social security net for well-being and harmony in a society. Neither is it wise to deny that climate changes occur, that they are attributable to human activity, and that something should be done about it. And it would be silly to deny that the complexity of a modern society requires a degree of regulation that might have been unnecessary in earlier times. None of this invalidates the observation that freedom is not a state of grace, the end of history, that it is not granted unconditionally to us who are lucky enough to live in it; rather it is a dynamic equilibrium, comparable to the modern, inherently unstable fighter jets, which trade off stability for maneuverability and are constantly bordering on a state of stall, prevented from falling only by the infinite number of minor adaptations that keep them airborne. Likewise, the greatest and quite unique strength of the democratic system of government is its self-corrective capability, its capacity to learn from the past mistakes and overcompensations thereof and possibly to avoid them the next time. But take away that capability, let considerations of welfare, security, political correctness, or profit outweigh those of the liberties of the people, and freedom will decay and wither away, as it has in a number of places in a number of times in the past.

Which takes us from the uncertainty of freedom to the second part of these musings—the freedom of uncertainty. Statistics, one of the most pedestrian of scientific disciplines, operates with what is conceivably one of the more poetic metaphors in the history of human thought. It is called “degrees of freedom,” and it is defined as a number of variables or parameters in a system that may vary independently. In its essence it expresses the degree of uncertainty we are able or willing to cope with in conducting a scientific experiment or analyzing empirical data. The larger the number of parameters that are allowed to vary, the greater the uncertainty about the outcome of a process or an experiment.

Taken metaphorically, “degrees of freedom” expresses the intrinsic link between freedom and uncertainty. If this model is applied to the area of human conduct, it becomes clear that uncertainty is not just a side effect or an unavoidable drawback to human liberty, a price we have to pay for being free, but its necessary condition. It is not freedom that gives rise to uncertainty, as its enemies would like us to believe, but rather uncertainty that gives rise to freedom.

In the winter of 1968–69, a few months after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, there occurred one of those occasional grand debates of Czech intellectual life that have often occupied a disproportionately large space in our political history, more so than comings and goings of kings and presidents, decisions of the government, or military campaigns. Milan Kundera, already on his way to become one of the best-known Czech and European writers of the second part of the twentieth century, wrote an essay called “The Czech Destiny,” in which he attempted to cement the relatively meager accomplishments made by the 1968 Prague Spring in the few months it had been allowed to exist before the Soviet invasion, by pointing to the allegedly unique and lasting significance of the effort to build a “socialism with a human face,” thus creating a legacy that “placed Czechs and Slovaks in the center of world history.” In Kundera’s mind it was the destiny of a small nation in the middle of Europe, surrounded by big and often aggressive neighbors, to shine as a beacon of light for other nations, even if it was itself destined to live forever under a cloud of oppression and tyranny.

It came as a shock to many people a month later, when Havel, Kundera’s younger colleague and friend, resolutely rejected this argument, along with claims to the exclusivity and the lasting appeal of the Prague Spring. In Havel’s mind, the reform movement largely aspired to goals, like freedom of expression, freedom of association, and political and economic freedoms, that much of the rest of the West took for granted. At the same time, Havel also denied there was anything immutable about the national history of suffering under the yoke of more powerful neighbors.

“Whenever the Czech patriot lacks the courage to face a cruel, but open-ended present, to admit all its aspects and to draw, mercilessly, the necessary conclusions, even should they be aimed into our own ranks, he will turn to a better, but already definitive past,” wrote Havel, choosing uncertainty over security. By going on to write, “Our destiny depends on us. The world does not consist . . . of dumb superpowers that can do anything and clever small nations that can do nothing,” Havel shattered the myth of Czech intellectual superiority and physical impotence in the anticipation of the day, twenty years later, when the nation would be free to choose its own destiny, which would not be that of the Prague Spring, either.

In his writings, Havel keeps coming back to this idea of uncertainty as a precondition of freedom. In his thinking, which owes much to the influences of Martin Heidegger and existentialist philosophers, this uncertainty is an essential part of the condition of modern man, his manifest destiny. It is not so much that modern man chooses freedom as that he is thrown into freedom, condemned to it.

True, uncertainty has been part and parcel of human existence since times immemorial. What makes modernity distinct from previous eras is the dramatic increase of “degrees of freedom” due to technological and economic advancement and the wholesale recognition of this fact, along with the withering away of concepts that provided a semblance of metaphysical certainty to our ancestors, whether they were the ironclad operation of the laws of nature or the absolute authority of a divine presence. “If God does not exist, everything is permitted,” is the famous quote from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

The inseparable link between freedom and uncertainty produces anguish. By being free, we are not only liberated from the shackles of tyranny, dogma, and prejudice, but we are also expelled from the stifling but familiar edifice of regulated life into a vast, foreign, and unknown universe, in which we can use our newfound powers to do harm just as well as to do good. Without guidelines, such life may become just an exercise in absurdity, without any meaningful goals except those with which we are endowed by nature, i.e., survival, personal comfort, and reproduction. This in turn creates feelings of emptiness, alienation, and insecurity, even despair that leads so many people to turn to false prophets, esoteric thoughts, and populist demagogues for salvation. It is a vicious circle, in which freedom becomes a threat to itself. “Only a God can save us now,” said Heidegger of this existential quandary, in a quote often referred to by Havel. But wouldn’t such salvation come at the price of freedom itself?

 

The key to this dilemma may lie in nothing more than the choice of the grammatical article. In German, the above quoted sentence of Heidegger reads, “Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten,” which can be translated as “Only some god can save us now,” with the clear implication that there is an element of human choice in the matter of salvation. If we can offer a single certainty, some god, in the face of the vast uncertainty, which spawns the world of freedom, then we can perhaps embrace freedom without the fear of falling into an abyss.

There is more than one name for the kind of god I have in mind, but they all come down to self-limitation. Just as a government of a free society is by definition a limited government, paradoxically, a free man cannot for long remain free without imposing limits on the conduct of his own volition. One can call it morality, one can call it responsibility, or one can call it humility. But prohibitions against killing other human beings, stealing their property, lying and cheating, falling into hubris or pride, imposing arbitrary power, and failing to provide for family and friends or otherwise help fellow humans—all these seem to be universal in spite of considerable definitional differences about what constitutes a prohibited act. We can argue whether such moral strictures are God-given, as all religions believe, whether they are biologically rooted and came into being as a result of evolutionary pressures, as the sociobiologists would claim, or whether they are made merely by people themselves, as a way to organize a society and protect its stability, as the institutionalists among us would argue. But we cannot deny their importance.

“No society, no matter how technologically advanced, can function without a moral basis, a conviction, which is not a matter of opportunity, circumstances, or anticipated benefits. However, morality is not here for the society to function, but simply because it makes a human being human,” wrote the philosopher Jan Patocka in his essay “On the Duty to Resist Injustice,” under circumstances that led directly to his death following the launch of the Czech freedom initiative Charter 77. This does not mean reintroducing the constraints of the god-ordained universe through the back door. But if we are free to choose our God, then perhaps we are also free to choose our morality, or, to our detriment, the lack thereof.

Embracing responsibility, showing humility, and putting a renewed emphasis on the moral roots of all human conduct—all things already advocated by my great countrymen Vaclav Havel, Jan Patocka, and Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, as well as a long line of thinkers before them—would hardly repair everything that is wrong with the current state of Western society. Without such emphasis, however, the great edifice of liberty, built over centuries by courageous people willing to confront and even invite uncertainty, might be at risk.

No one can guarantee that everyone wins in a lottery. But if we are courageous enough, responsible enough, and moral enough, we can make sure that the lottery will still be there for those who follow us.

Michael Zantovsky is the ambassador of the Czech Republic to the Court of St. James’s and the president of the Aspen Institute Prague. His biography of Vaclav Havel will be published in English later this year. A version of this essay was first delivered as the annual Freedom Lecture to the American Friends of the Czech Republic and the Friends of Slovakia at the Woodrow Wilson Center, in Washington, on November 12, 2013.

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