A Defense of Compromise and the American Experiment

By Joe Campbell
November 24th, 2007

In response to a blog post by lynx on natural rights, as well as comments made on my post[digg-reddit-me] about whether or not terrorists have rights, and another post of mine that discussed torture, comments made by Andrew K at essembly.com, and in various reddit discussions:

A few definitions

freedom – the ability to act without restraint; referring to politics: the right of self-determination as an expression of the individual will. (see footnote 1)

society – a collection of individual beings who together form a community with a shared culture and a shared set of rules or laws.

a rule or law – a restriction on the freedom of an individual or institution.

radical – someone who rejects the way things are in favor of revolutionary change.

Absolute freedom

Based on these definitions, it is clear that any society is, by it’s nature, the result of the compromise of individual freedom. Absolute freedom is a state enjoyed only by tyrants. In a society of equals or near-equals, the freedom that is enjoyed is the result the compromise of each individual’s absolute freedom. These compromises are memorialized in laws, constitutions, rules, mores, ethical principles, and customs among other means. They are enforced through various methods – from social pressure to the courts of law.

As with every human endeavor, the system of compromises that allows society to exist is deeply flawed. Rules are unequally applied; mores are arbitrary; laws are broken. But even in the purest theoretical state, absolute individual freedom is impossible in a free society.

The American experiment

What we are left with then is disarmingly simple: we must try to figure out what is the best compromise of individual freedoms that will allow us to live together in a society. The dream of greater freedom, of a more free society, has motivated people throughout history: from Gandhi to Plato, from Che Guevera to Simon Bolivar, from Alexander Hamilton to James Madison, from Robespierre to Abraham Lincoln.

As often as these experiments have been tried, they have failed. In the name of freedom, Robespierre instituted a Reign of Terror; Plato banished poetry and democracy; James Madison protected slavery; Abraham Lincoln waged a bloody civil war; Che Guevera fought for a dictatorship. This is what men have done in the name of freedom.

Despite these flawed individuals and their flawed conceptions of a free society, advances have been made in the past few centuries. (See footnote 2.) The American Revolution established the principle that the consent of the governed is required in a free society, and that certain rights are inherent, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The subsequent Constitution and Bill or Rights established a government that for the first time, attempted to balance power sufficient to maintain a stable society with numerous checks and restrictions to limit abuses of this power. The 14th Amendment committed the federal government to guarding and preserving the rights inherent in the founding documents. Finally, the New Deal and subsequent programs made the state responsible for providing basic economic opportunities to its citizens and for protecting them from the excesses of capitalism.

The most important liberties in any free society are those which are essential to allow for the effective consent of the governed in creating and maintaining the policies and laws of the government. There has been much debate about what is needed, but on the whole, most agree that this list encompasses the basics:

  • an independent judiciary;
  • fair and transparent elections;
  • a free press;
  • a military subordinate to civilian authority;
  • habeas corpus;
  • freedom of speech;
  • freedom of assembly.

Without these, a government is not able to gain the free consent of it’s people.

At the time of the American revolution, individual liberty and the right to pursue one’s happiness beyond these basic rights were acknowledged in theory, but violated in practice – especially at the state level. Since then, as the government has become more powerful, regulations have been created to restrain the government more. But government power has outstripped regulation and especially since the New Deal, these non-basic liberties have been eroding. (See footnote 3.)

Our society is still substantially free – even today. There are growing defects apparent in our institutions of government; there are many attempts – some successful – to undermine the freedom of the press, habeas corpus, the independent judiciary, and the civilian authority over the military. Yet despite these attacks on basic liberties, and the glaring exceptions that are generally gathered together under the heading of consensual crimes, individuals in contemporary American society still have substantial freedom to pursue their happiness as long as their desires do not conflict with the rights of others.


There is the rub. In a society, the rights of one individual is often pitted against the rights of another. Does the absolute freedom of speech mean I can lie about a product I am selling; or endanger others by inciting violence; or slander the reputation of my neighbor? How does the absolute freedom of religion deal with religions that seek to impose their views of ethics on all others? Does the freedom to assemble mean that I can gather together with 500 of my closest friends in your backyard?

Compromise is the basis of our system of government, and the basis of our society. A significant part of the effectiveness of terrorism is that it exploits the liberties inherent in a free society. Terrorism is the price we pay for freedom. But upon due consideration, and with the goal of preserving our way of life and with the consent of the people, compromises may be made in order to reduce the dangers of terrorism. Our compromises should be in proportion to the problem: suspending habeas corpus during an insurrection is one thing; suspending it indefinitely as a result of possible future plots is quite another.

We must zealously guard the aforementioned pillars of a free society: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, etcetera. But we must guard them not because they are ideals which are perfect; but because they are the pillars of a free society. If we begin to focus on the absolute ideals and lose focus on the society in which we live, we risk going down the path of Robespierre, who in the name of liberty, fraternity, and equality became a tyrant.

Every society is the result of a particular set of compromises and is delicately balanced between anarchy and tyranny. The problem with radicalism is that it has no patience for balance – instead, seeking to create society anew. The desire to start again, to erase all the evils of the world with a new social compact, is a compelling idea that has seduced many. Inevitably, it has led to tyranny as the delicate balance holding society together is disturbed.

Perhaps more than anything this was the miracle of the American Revolution – the fact that is was a non-radical revolution that never sought to remake its society.

Why I’m angry

It is because I believe our society is not entirely corrupt and because I believe it allows genuine freedom for most of its citizens that I am so angry at the current administration. As I have written previously and will again: I believe that the Bush administration has been fighting a war against our theoretical rights and liberties, against the system of checks and balances, and against the Constitution in the name of expanding executive power. They refer to it as allowing greater freedom for the president to execute policy and protect national security.

A challenge to those who disagree

  • define freedom (if you disagree with the definition given)
  • define society (same as above)
  • explain why compromise is not necessary (if you believe so)


1. It has been said that this common definition of freedom is meaningless. One argument given is that “One might want to be able to sing with perfect pitch but for some individuals this is not possible. This is not an infringement on one’s freedom, it is reality.” This argument betrays a basic misunderstanding of the definition. Even if freedom is “the ability to act without restraint”, this does not imply that freedom means getting whatever I want. Restraint is defined as a device, rule, force, or law that acts to control or limit an individual’s or thing’s actions. With some mental gymnastics, one can twist the meaning of restraint to suggest that reality is a device that limits our actions, but there are more appropriate words to convey this meaning.

2. I focus here on American democracy not because I believe that freedom has only been developed in America, but because I only feel comfortable, in terms of my knowledge, in speaking of American history.

3. I call them “non-basic liberties” because they are not required in order to have a legitimate government. They are in many other senses very basic – the right to privacy, the right to love who one chooses, etcetera.

Related articles