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A Defense of Compromise and the American Experiment

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, 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.

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6 replies on “A Defense of Compromise and the American Experiment”

Many a days ago while sitting in a bar in Albany smoking a Rothmans brand cigarrete I had a discussion with a dear friend about the state of freedom in America. I’ve decided as long as America uses the same form of government personal freedoms will always be teeter tottering between more individual rights and governments control of our rights. As you referred to the system of checks and balances in your article, I think that our freedoms are part of that system as well. Over time we’ve gained freedoms and some have also been taken away. But so far our general level of freedom has stayed in a relatively neutral area. The one thing that that could possibly be detrimental to our personal freedoms would be the removal of habeas corpus and the enactment of the Patriot Act. One final thing I’d like to get out there is you’ve got a pretty interesting blog I came across it a few days mago and you’ve got some nice opinions.

for the sake of argumentation I’ll accept your definitions, wit ha few caveats –

1) humans didn’t begin as noble savages and then decide to come together to form a social contract, rosseau was wrong. We are social animals and have always been social animals, therefore arguments about what rights we lose when we enter society are meaningless. we cannot “enter” society, we are immersed in it from day 1 and we cannot give up an absolutist freedom that we have never had. A better definition of freedom would be the ability to do anything you desire as long as no one is harmed by your actions.

2) there is a profound difference between natural law and man-made laws. natural laws are universal norms that all or at least most societies agree on all or at least most of the time. Most of those natural laws can be summed up in that same simple maxim – “do no harm”. a more detailed list would include things like: Don’t kill people or cause them physical harm except in self defense. don’t take things that aren’t yours. don’t attack those that can’t defend themselves. basic things.

Also, I should point out that I’m talking about actions that *directly* cause harm – “inciting violence” is not on the list for the very simple reason that speech is not violence, period, and equating the two is just plain stupid. Saying that someone “incited a crowd to riot” really means that the individuals in the crowd, after listening to an argument presented, decided to act in a way that the State disapproved of. Making the argument illegal is just a cconvenient way for the State to ban people from saying things that those in power don’t want said. And for what it’s worth I’ve been in a few “riots” in my time, none of which were actually riots at all, but rather nonviolent mass-protests that the police decided to shut down and forcibly disperse in violation of the first amendment. calling them “riots” in the press was just a convenient way to demonize those involved and charging organizers with “inciting to riot” was a convenient way to silence dissent. All of which reinforces my original point on your last post – freedoms like freedom of speech have to be absolute or they are meaningless because if the State has any excuse to limit them it will use them, whether circumstances actually warrent that limitation or not. So I’ll say it again, the only possible abuse of Free Speech is not speaking.

3) All of those basic natural laws, incidentally, are violated on a daily basis by the State, both in America and in virtually every other country. By State I am referring specifically to the hierarchal political organization that, in a society like ours, maintains a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. The state is not a part of society, it is the self-appointed overseer of society. It is thus problematic at best to set that same State up as the arbiter of justice and enforcer of laws since, inevitably, in practice the state is much more interested in enforcing its own laws then it is in enforcing the natural laws that it’s very existence violates.

4) this throws some valuable light on your key contention – that humans living in society must compromise with each other in order to preserve each others freedom. First,, as I have argued, it is not a “compromise” at all to agree not to harm each other. Secondly, even in cases of actual compromise, that compromise properly belongs in the realm of compromises between people on a consensual basis – not compromises with the State. You can bargain with a person, take a little, give a little, and the exchange will usually be at least somewhat equal since two individuals, each with their own social networks of family, kin, friends, and support are in most cases on at least a relatively equal playing field. You cannot “compromise” or bargain with the State because next to the power of that machine individuals are powerless. Any freedom you surrender is gone for good.

5) and that, in a nutshell, is what is wrong with your argument. You use a bait-and-switch to first argue that compromise between individuals is sometimes necessary, and then conclude that therefore accepting abridgments of our fundamental human rights by the State is acceptable in order to achieve security. really, the only difference between you and the republicans you criticized in your last post is that they want to deprive a targeted minority of all their rights and you want to deprive everyone of most of their rights. worse yet, both of you do so in the name of “freedom!” ha!

You are like a man chained to the floor who doesn’t particularly want to go anywhere and thus doesn’t see anything wrong with his chains. worse then that, you’ve convinced yourself that your chains actually make you free!

As for me, my only response is “a pox on both your houses”, and may whatever gods exist have mercy on your souls.


I’d appreciate it if you stopped comparing me to things like “a man chained to the floor who doesn’t particularly want to go anywhere and thus doesn’t see anything wrong with his chains”; or to say that my positions are the result of “Gutless, spineless, blind cowardice. Nothing more, nothing less”.

Feel free to disagree, and to post your disagreement. But try to show a little respect, as I show you respect.

I think I see the basis of our disagreement though: You believe the idea of a State with a monopoly on the use of force is itself antithetical to freedom. On this, I disagree.

Because I disagree with this assumption, you accuse me of using a “bait-and-switch” tactic – which is unfair. I believe that the State itself is the fruit of the compromise between individuals and society, and that for all of it’s many faults, it is what we have.

If you do not see much difference between an individual who seeks to aggrandize the State, to centralize more authority in a sole executive, who believes the rule of law is meaningless, who seeks to govern in secret, and who endorses torture and illegal wiretapping, and an individual who seeks to uphold the rule of law, to distribute authority amongst different parts of government, to govern openly and transparently, then I am not sure what to say.

I do believe compromise and balance are necessary; looking at history it is too easy to see how idealists have failed and often worse – succeeded. The question is: do you want to compromise while erring on the side of liberty, or on the side of a police state? You say a “pox on both” houses. And what does this accomplish?


well…. i don’t respect your positions. As for you, I don’t actually know you, of course, so i can’t really comment on it. you seem like the kind of person who’s seriously thinking about the world and that’s always a good thing and the fact that you’ve taken the time to engage me in dialog even though we disagree certainly speaks highly of your character. frankly, I pretty much never gtet into back-and-forth discussions on this, but i keep coming back to your posts because you make interesting arguments. I passionately disagree with them, but they’re interesting no less. so cheers to you for that. as to my colorful language… well I’m a musician, poet, vivid metaphors are what I do. Please understand that when I speak on these issues I am speaking about the issues and the positions in question, not the individuals advocating them; especially when I don’t personally know the individuals in question. By all accounts George W. Bush is a very nice man in his personal capacity, that doesn’t mean I am bound to respect his positions.

I think you’ve nailed our point of dissagreement pretty clearly, as you say it all comes down to different understandings of hte fundamental nature of the State. It’s not so much that I, as you put it

“do not see much difference between an individual who seeks to aggrandize the State, to centralize more authority in a sole executive, who believes the rule of law is meaningless, who seeks to govern in secret, and who endorses torture and illegal wiretapping, and an individual who seeks to uphold the rule of law, to distribute authority amongst different parts of government, to govern openly and transparently”

it’s that, based on my own understanding of the world, politics, and the nature of the State I think it’s fundamentally impossible to restrain the State as you seek to do. I believe – and I think the empirical evidence is firmly on my side here – that over time the State (all States, not jsut the American one) will always grow and will always draw more and more power to itself to the detriment of society. It does this for two reasons – first of all because power attracts power. The more power any individual or organization possesses the more power it will gain as time goes on, barring revolution or other phenomena that could temporarily at least reverse the trend. this principle is as ironclad as the law of gravity. The second reason, which drives the first, is that humans will almost always act in their own self-interests, whatever they perceive that to be. When the republicans controlled congress and democrats the white house Gingrich & Co.pushed very hard to diminish the power of the executive and increase the power of the legislature, now that the situation is reversed Bush & Co. are doing the opposite. In both cases it comes down to self-interest.

The motivation need not be a sinister one, FDR’s New Deal was arguably motivated (at least partly) by a genuine desire to help poor and working-class people, and in doing so he saw a massive expansion of State power that introduced things like social security numbers which have since been transformed into a catch-all means for government and corporations to track people in a way that would have been flatly impossible prior to Roosevelt. So we see that any expansion of State power – every compromise – ultimately results in a loss of freedom for individuals. And, of course, to the man with a hammer in his hand everything is a nail. The State is one very large hammer, and no matter whether you agree that any particular nail should or should not be pounded in, the fact remains that using the State to do the pounding expands its power. I have in the past been accused of irrationaly hating politicians. I do not hate them, I think that for the most part they’re no better or worse then anyone else. which is precisely why they should not have control of an institution as powerful as the sate. No human has the moral authority to use super-human means to achieve their goals. A quick glance at american history will show that the State has never voluntarily given up power, it takes massive popular movements to force it to concede freedoms previously denied. As Frederick Douglass put it, “Power conceded nothing without a demand, it never has and it never will.”

And, of course, in re: to your argument about the Rule of Law, you left my argumentation from my previous post unanswered – The very existence of the State is antithetical to the rule of law since the exercise of coercive State power is a violation of natural law. At its root, all State power comes down to the State’s monopoly on coercive force and it’s ability to inflict violence and render its victims defenseless. And that capacity for violence makes it far too dangerous to be tolerated. It is impossible to compromise *with the State* while erring on the side of liberty because every concession to State power is an attack on liberty. Compromise and balancing interests between individuals in a stateless non-hierarchal society are of course warranted, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

My solution would be to eliminate that divide between ruled and rulers, which makes me a Radical and an Anarchist. That transition does not necessarily require violence – I’ve got a post up on my blog where I describe what I see as the most logical immidiate steps towards a post-capitalist economy and violence is simply not on the list. But whether I personally advocate violence, terrorism, etc. is fundamentally irrelevant to the Gestapo in Homeland Security. The simple fact that I dissagree with the dominant ideology makes me a terrorist in their eyes and a target for repression. That’s more true now then it was under clinton, but even under Clinton I found myself getting beaten up by cops for participating in nonviolent protests. For you the issue is an abstract desire to restrain the state and preserve the liberties you care about, but for me and people like me who fundamentally disagree with the dominant ideology of the State, the issue is much more immediate because I know that once liberals like you have compromised away my freedom to speak it will be me – not you – who is arrested, beaten, tortured, and possibly killed in the name of “security; As I said in my initial response, we live in a day and age when Food Not Bombs, an explicitly Pacifist organization that feeds homeless people – is officially listed as a terrorist organization, a day and age when nonviolent protests are declared “riots” and violently dispersed, a day and age when every compromise – every concession to State power – is a direct threat to the future freedoms of our children and grandchildren, to say nothing of my own personal life and physical well being. The fact that your ideology not only endorses the limited State that the founders envisioned but allows you to “compromises” away those few basic rights which the constitution explicitly prohibits the State from compromising makes you a direct and personal threat to me, whether you actively bear me any hostility or not. In America today I have to fear for my safety because my opinions are unpopular, that’s a fact. In the America you envision I would still have to fear for my safety, just maybe not as frequently. Forgive me for thinking that that’s just plain not good enough.

We the People have the ironclad human and natural right to overthrow, abolish, or alter the government, that is the most basic argument of this nations original founding document – the Declaration of Independence. The very existence of this nation is predicated on the acceptance of that doctrine. You may not believe that doing so is actually necessary at this point; but unless you defend the right of others to say that it is time to do so now, you won’t have that right anymore yourself if / when things finally get bad enough that you think it’s finally time for change.

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