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A Pragmatist Looks at Liberty

From Liberalism and Social Action, Dewey’s fractured account of John Locke (the first paragraph is reasonable, though sarcastic):

“... John Locke, the philosopher of the “glorious revolution” of 1688.  The outstanding points of Locke’s version of liberalism are that governments are instituted to protect the rights that belong to individuals prior to political organization of social relations.  These rights are summed up a century later in the American Declaration of Independence:  the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Among the “natural” rights especially emphasized by Locke is that of property, originating, according to him, in the fact that an individual has “mixed” himself, through his labor, with some natural hitherto unappropriated object. ...  Since governments are instituted to protect the natural rights of individuals, they lose claim to obedience when they invade and destroy these rights instead of safeguarding them ...” (Page 3-4.)

“The whole temper of this philosophy is individualistic in the sense in which individualism is opposed to organized social action.  It held to the primacy of the individual over the state not only in time but in moral authority.  It defined the individual in terms of liberties of thought and action already possessed by him in some mysterious ready-made fashion, and which it was the sole business of the state to safeguard.  Reason was also made an inherent endowment of the individual, expressed in men’s moral relations to one another, but not sustained and developed because of those relations.  It followed that the great enemy of individual liberty was thought to be government because of its tendency to encroach upon the innate liberties of individuals.” (Page 5.)

Imagine you are imprisoned in a tyrant’s underground dungeon, the premonition of death in the next footsteps you hear.  What would give you the moral fire to attempt escape?  What would justify your friends outside to work to get you out?  In the event of certain death, why would you refuse to see this as your natural fate?

What makes you the victim?

The answer is:  You have the moral right to your own life  even if that right isn’t being recognized in a given time or place.  The moral right is inalienable, that is, it cannot be taken away by law, or order of a dictator.   The answer in one word:  liberty.

A right cannot be taken away;  it can only be violated.

The idea of natural, inalienable, rights is so much smoke to John Dewey.  In his essay “Liberty and Social Control”  (can’t you just tell that’s a Dewey title?)  written in 1935 and reprinted in the book Problems of Man:

“... There is no such thing as liberty in general;  liberty, so to speak, at large. If one wants to know what the condition of liberty is at a given time, one has to examine what persons can do and what they cannot do.  The moment one examines the question from the standpoint of effective action, it becomes evident that the demand for liberty is a demand for power, either for possession of powers of action not already possessed or for retention and expansion of powers already possessed.” (Page 111.)

Note Dewey’s thoroughgoing materialism, the mentality of a street lout who snatches your purse and jeers,  “You have no right to your purse, ’cause I got it now.”

No amount of additional quoting is going to explain this away.  You don’t have to read all 37 volumes of John Dewey to understand and criticize these quotes.  And if he said the exact opposite somewhere else (he didn’t to my knowledge) that wouldn’t somehow balance things out.

To Dewey, liberty is just a power struggle, it has no other meaning:

Don’t “be fooled into thinking that the issue is liberty versus restraint and regimentation.  For the issue is simply that of one system of control of the social forces upon which the distribution of liberties depends, versus one other system of social control which would bring about another distribution of liberties.” (Page 113.)

Dewey urges that “society” should take the factories from those claiming they built them and therefore own them.  These imposters will protest hypocritically in the name of “liberty”:

“... this group is made up of those who are interested ... in the preservation of the economic status quo [i.e. respect for private property];  that is to say, in the maintenance of the customary privileges and legal rights they already possess.” (Page 111.)

After their factories have been nationalized, taken over, Dewey says we will have true liberty for the common man  (who, I say, had better not aspire to owning a business).


All of which is a consequence, not of a political theory, but a certain view of man.

“Individuality is at first spontaneous and unshaped;  it is a potentiality, a capacity of development.  Even so, it is a unique manner of acting in and with a world of objects and persons.  It is not something complete in itself, like a closet in a house or a secret drawer in a desk, filled with treasures that are waiting to be bestowed on the world.  Since individuality is a distinctive way of feeling the impacts of the world and of showing a preferential bias in response to these impacts, it develops into shape and form only through interaction with actual conditions;  it is no more complete in itself than is a painter’s tube of paint without relation to a canvas.” (Individualism, Old and New, 1930, page 168.)

Individuality is not at any age merely a “manner of acting” or just a way of feeling “impacts.”  An individual is not a lump pressed into proper shape by a mosaic of similar lumps called society.

What Dewey’s materialism blinds him to is that a man, grown or not, thinks, thinks in the only way a man can think, by himself.  He creates the treasures Dewey denies him and would steal, saying they aren’t his at all, they belong to “society” or its henchmen.

“When I was 5 ... I think that’s when I started wanting to be an actress ... I loved to play.  I didn’t like the world around me because it was kind of grim ... but I loved to play house and it was like you could make your own boundaries.”  “It’s almost having certain kinds of secrets for a moment, when you’re acting” — Marilyn Monroe (Edward R. Murrow interview.)

“I restore myself when I am alone.” — Marilyn Monroe


For more of Dewey’s thoughts about liberty see:
  Pragmatism and Totalitarianism
  The Theory of Violence & The Recalcitrant Minority
  The Theory of Violence Revisited