Tuesday, September 30, 2008

John Dewey: Liberty and Social Control

John Dewey is one of my favorite thinkers. I ever approached to his articles mostly about his philosophy and educational ideas. Today when I read his thoughts on liberty, it’s still as impressive as his other works. According to him, liberty is not that idealistic idea, but closely in related to actual social powers. No wonder he’s one of the founders of the school of pragmatism.

He discovered the relation between liberty and power because of the contrast, that “the demands for liberty and efforts to achieve it have come from those who wanted to alter the institutional set-up.” The best example must be the French Revolution, which the society ended up in huge terror in the name of pursuing liberty. However, in America, “every effort at planned control of economic forces is resisted and attacked, by a certain group, in the name of liberty.” I guess it also explains why government inaction here is conservative, as they hold the actual power.

Three ways to understand real conditions of liberty is very clear in Dewey’s article. At first, “liberty is not just an idea, an abstract principle. It is power, effective power to do specific things.” The real life has no space for liberty, which becomes an excuse for power, so “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.” Both sides could claim for liberty for their own interests. Second, “the possession of effective power is always a matter of the distribution of power that exists at the time.” One’s power is interactive with others, so as liberty. It reminds me of Mill’s harm principle, which liberty is related to others as well. Dewey also said that “liberty is always a social question, not an individual one.” Third, “there is no such thing as absolute liberty … wherever there is liberty at one place there is restraint at some other place.” Liberty could only be a relevant idea, and its opposite has to exist at the same time, or they would disappear together.

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