Our Sisyphean Liberty

BY DOMINIC WIGHTMAN

Introductory Notes:

  • In Greek mythology Sisyphus was the founder and king of Ephyra. He was punished by Hades for cheating death twice by being forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll down every time it neared the top, repeating this same action for eternity.
  • In the final chapter of his ‘Myth of Sisyphus’, Albert Camus compares the absurdity of human life with the plight of Sisyphus doomed to repeat forever the same pointless task. Camus’ book closes, “The struggle itself … is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy”.
  • ‘Positive liberty’ for the purposes of this essay should be confined to mean the possession of the capacity to act upon one’s free will, as opposed to ‘Negative liberty’, which should denote freedom from external restraint on one’s actions.
  • In modern political affairs, Liberty is the state of being free within society from control or oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, political views or behaviour. Freedom has a broader significance in that it represents the unrestrained ability to satisfy one’s desires. Here we shall deal with the former.

On Positive Liberty

When I think of freepersons seemingly maximising liberties I picture two men and one woman in my mind’s eye:

The first is a man in his twenties called Ramon who lives up a mountain a short motorcycle ride from Gingoog City on the island of Mindanao in the Philippine archipelago. Alas, Ramon is inescapably classified as a terrorist since he belongs –  by birth rather than by inclination or considered judgement –  to the regrettably named Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a proscribed group seeking an autonomous region for the Moro people from the central Filipino government in Manila on the island of Luzon. Ramon spends his days either gathering ransoms of rice and chickens from frightened locals or glugging away from flagons of home-made gin. Thanks to the gin, in combination with his incessant puffing on Pall Mall cigarettes, Ramon possesses a set of yellowed teeth not dissimilar to the gnashers of an aged goat. Nonetheless he is a handsome devil with movie actor features and a sharp wit, and he enjoys a harem of exquisite and bare-chested womenfolk, some of whom possess the bluest of eyes inherited from adventuresome Spanish ancestors of centuries past, who could be called conquistadors but hardly for religious reasons. Ramon is forever smiling, as are his numerous children. There are no laws on his mountain. The oppressive restrictions that deem Ramon a terrorist are rarely if ever enforced, and Filipino government soldiers – after having Chinooks crash and burn on those treacherous peaks over recent years –  have themselves taken to sending rice and interlocutors up Ramon’s mountain to appease his tribe rather than risk getting shot down at from above by gin-sozzled ‘natives’.

The second man we shall call Charles. Charles is a trader and made more money than Croesus when he was in his early thirties. Through hedge fund success and a series of wise property investments, Charles does what he wants. When the pandemic hit, Charles opted to spend winter in a lodge in Lapland and then spring and summer on a yacht off St Vincent. Any laws that are presented to Charles in the form of restrictions he can bypass with his wealth. Since he is neither a pervert nor a crook and painstakingly pays his taxes, Charles never encounters any other restrictions enforced by society, whether at home in London or abroad at one of the many other locations where he spends his most auspicious life. Charles is terribly right wing and diligently avoids parts of London and other metropolises where dinners entail civility, hypocrisy or pomposity. I know of no person freer in the whole of the British Isles.

The sole woman in my list of three is a brilliant and beautiful Spanish lawyer. We shall call her Cynthia. Cynthia lives on a Spanish island where her large and extended family are established and celebrated. Cynthia plays hard and she works hard. The problem she has is the location of the bars and nightclubs on the island – which are on the opposite side to her home and office. She is forever being stopped in the early hours by the Guardia Civil for drink-driving, but she simply flutters her eyelids and talks her way out of any and all trouble, seldom even needing to draw on her notable expertise in legalese. Wherever she goes she is beyond the law. Her drinks are paid. Her income from clients is substantial – she tells me that many just look and stare at her loveliness during meetings. She can say what she wants and do as she wishes. Judges melt and take her side in cases. Men will give her whatever she desires, she is that fragrant. Yet despite her privileges, Cynthia is a humble and honest woman, and certainly she seems a free and fortunate one.

So, why mention Ramon, Charles or Cynthia in an essay on Liberty?

Because in fact they are no way maximising their liberties despite circumstances or privileges suggesting that maximisation is occurring. They are liberty frauds – all of them. Their ‘happiness’ is at best ephemeral. They all seem to possess the capacity to act upon their free will, but invisible dark clouds smother, inhibit and imprison them in the process of enactment. How?

For Ramon –  when not protecting his shacks from typhoons or grieving the recent assassination of his father  is dying from lung cancer. Charles is a manic depressive and has attempted suicide at least twice. Cynthia has never got over the death of her twin sister, who was washed off a sea wall by a freak wave when they were ten – and she would be the first to acknowledge that her good looks now require that much more foundation to perpetuate.

It is a truth that positive liberties are hardly best distinguished by looking at those who appear most free. The grass always seems greener even to the privileged – that is the absurd nature of our Sisyphean human state. Oases are too often mirages. Liberties are reduced to nowt without happiness. Absence of freedom is a far better backcloth against which to judge positive liberty more objectively –  but even then we never really know whether we are faced with verities or merely being hoodwinked by yet more illusions.

Thinkers – especially policy makers –  too often forget that we are all subject to the visible and invisible effects of gravity. We are all naturally restricted beings. Even those in zero-gravity rooms and planes are caged in and evidently regulated. Freedom fighters rely on mere promises. In East Africa, impoverished Luo women may carry loads of up to seventy percent of their own body weight balanced on top of their heads and seem more burdened than most, but they tend to enjoy a simple life and access to greater positive liberty than those who on the surface may not seem weighed down at all. And who is the freer? The uneducated cash-in-hand British brickie now in his late twenties who left school at sixteen who enjoys pint after pint after work with his mates down the pub? Or the penniless French student of the same age, who has taken the route of collecting master’s degree after master’s degree – because more students means lower unemployment statistics for the French State to defend – and spends their free time at the philosophy café over café crèmes and cigarettes enroulées deliberating whether suicide is in fact the only valid answer to L’Absurdité

Possession of the capacity to act upon one’s free will – positive liberty – cannot easily if ever detach itself from an eudaimonia index, which is in itself a figment –  impossible to chart objectively with any useful precision. Perfect positive liberty simply cannot be legislated for as it cannot exist – even the Indian swami, levitating and able to meditate freely cannot reach the temporal heights of happy freedom experienced by the young in love, who, even in restrictive Bhutan or North Korea, at that very moment of peak hormonal storm would describe themselves as wholly contented and entirely liberated, ‘without a care in the world’.

On Negative Liberty

Freedom from external restraint on one’s actions may seem ubiquitous in certain Western societies, and us Westerners may well take pride in our ancestors winning liberties through bloody sacrifice, but in truth it is where government is smallest, whether nationally or locally after reaching and maintaining sufficient order and stability, that is where – away from the inexorable and superfluous law-making of busybody legislators – liberties can truly shine and blossom. (What is ‘sufficient’ and what is ‘small’? For that please turn to the matchless reasoning of Milton Friedman, John Locke, Thomas Sowell and Friedrich von Hayek).

Each country is unique and areas within countries can be distinct too.

Walking in a park in Bangkok there are none of the “Keep off the grass” or “Do not litter” signs which greet you from every lawn in London’s Regent’s Park or New York’s Central Park, while human-biting Komodo dragons roam freely too. Yet one can openly criticise national leaders in London and New York while in Bangkok lèse-majesté laws mean the same will likely result in a jail term.

Liberties seem obvious on paper, but the baggage of History too often obfuscates their opportunity to shine. In any case, governments scarcely learn – they seek by nature to further legislate not eliminate existing legislation, however prohibiting.  

One can design the most liberated society from scratch and ensure that freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom from arbitrary arrest, freedom of assembly, freedom of association and freedom of religious worship – key liberties – are all catered for, but thanks to needing a government such a society shall inevitably be an evolving experiment subject to tweaks and balances, while prone to eventual collapse. Freedom of movement could well end with a Brexit. Freedom from arbitrary arrest does not cater for suicide bombers. Freedom of religious worship did not end well for the Branch Dravidians. This does not mean that legislators must cater for every eventuality – as too often they try to in the West today. Instead, legislators must rely on Common Sense not to overarch on individuals’ remarkable ability to grow freely and progress pragmatically. Individuals do learn. When a society is truly free, the light of Truth shines – deviators give up their deviousness, Faustian pacts crumble and battered governments come to reflect their people’s needs rather than intensifying their politicians’ vanities.

As with Sisyphus, the greatest liberties may be attainable only after experience of the severest of restrictions or punishments, reinforcing their purity contrastingly. That is the great paradox. How can we treasure liberties in so-called free societies when we too easily forget what living without them was like? Just as Sisyphus’ boulder inevitably tumbles, so we inevitably forget that liberties turn back into pumpkins unless we renew them before midnight.

The process by which we lose control of our hard-fought liberties is always incremental. ‘For your own good’ slips easily off the tongue like ‘we have nothing to hide’ in apathetic company and both are tricky to counter. Once we’ve permitted the state to remove a portion of our liberties, we accede, then start to concede more. One area of concession spills into another. We have to show vaccine passports to get into certain buildings? OK, so how long will it be before potential employers start asking to verify our calorie intake before offering us work? Before we know it we are sheep branded, shorn and weighed.

Take CCTV which started out as an inventive way to protect us from delinquents. In Britain we now have over 6 million CCTV cameras –  one for every 10 people –  evidencing fines for bland offences such as littering and even pigeon feeding. The only nation with more surveillance cameras is China where its citizens can be denied access to transport if they commit minor infractions such as bad driving, jaywalking or failing to recycle correctly.

‘Ah, but Britain is no China!’

Are you sure about that? And will your grandchildren be?

The bottom line is that we are all restricted. We cannot ever be perfectly free, nor merely seem or think it. Duration, Truth, the derivation of happiness, the nature of technology, the light or heavy touch of government, access to stability and peace – are all factors which combine to create and calibrate liberties. Even a prisoner in a maximum-security prison or a Cistercian monk locked away in a hermit’s hut can be free, and happy. Liberties may well be imposed by authority and by an absence of it, but they mean nothing if we fail to see, think or appreciate them. Education plays its part – President Reagan was right to state that ‘Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction’.

As Sisyphus’ boulder rolls back down the hill, it is a useful metaphor for our own need to liberty refresh. Achieving liberties is hard-fought and uphill. The downward slope is a slippery and fast descent replete with inherent dangers. So do not get smug at the acme for we know from History what follows next.

The Future

There will be no change to our Sisyphean human state. There have been modellers and nudgers who for many years have tried to effect the perfect balance; to create a gyroscope of liberty whereby we are concurrently as free as birds and as happy as Larry. They have always failed.

Risk – and its brother, Competitiveness – is in everything we do. So much so that one can say Life is nothing without risk. Without being able to take risk, Freedom is a chimera, but an important driver for people who have learned, or are learning, to manage risks. The national and international legislations produced after the horrific experiences of the Second World War were created by those who had managed the risks of the years before and felt they had to put down markers for the future, markers which have become the definitions of liberties, at least in the modern sense.

Alas, today few government apparatchiks have little if any experience of handling risks or know well from where their liberties herald, and so seek instead to rule out the options of risk, or take advantage of the ignorance about risk, which is what has happened in spades during this awful pandemic. Humans have DNA going back tens of thousands of years which drive their competitive natures and therefore their capacity to manage risks, so any government or ideology which fancies its chances to decree otherwise is inevitably doomed.

The problem is there always seem to be people prepared to try. Like the boneheads of the past, there are globalists today who have been preparing for years who want to try, and who are trying, using appealing language this time – as they don’t have armies under their direct control – maximising the global reach of circumstances never before seen, primarily the Web, global organisations and quangos which have assumed unelected, unaccountable reach deep into the lives of people everywhere.

As the delightful old song goes, I see trouble ahead

Fortunately the liberating magic of capitalism alongside sheer human guts and creativity saw us through in the past. They will again – by Sisyphean repeat if necessary. Threats always existed – the Kaiser, Hitler, Stalin and Mao. The threats of AI, China’s long game and overpopulation loom dark on the human horizon today. The future shall conjure more bogeymen and more liberty-snatchers – some real and some imaginary –  who will come and pass by into insignificance.

Despite inevitable vicissitudes, we will find a way. That is why we are who we are while apes are apes. We can bounce back and dig ourselves out of the rubble again, just as our space experts are learning to nudge asteroids off a collision course with Planet Earth, hoping the big one never comes.

The religious may kid themselves into believing they are the freest because they have all the answers and maybe they are right, as they gamble their souls away on the meanings of theological niceties. Those in love may feel totally free but maybe they are so smitten they do not see through the biological con of attraction – nature’s way of maintaining reproduction. Rich kid beach bums may well claim not to have a worry in the world but eventually their jet skis break down, their trust funds shrink and even they can succumb to skin cancer.

‘We are born crying, live complaining and die disappointed’ so claimed the English Clergyman Thomas Fuller in the seventeenth century. Would we or God have it any other way?

If the world were a perfectly balanced gyroscope there would be no progress and we would be mere amoeba. We must learn not to bother trying to over govern nor to over legislate beyond creation and maintenance of a sufficient national and international stability which permits mass opportunity. Have faith in the individual and in free markets –  it is within human nature to break through glass ceilings when faced with pressures or opportunities and to never be satisfied with mere status quo.

Which is why we should look positively towards the future, as any elites or overlords will find out sooner rather than later we humans are certainly not amoeba. The macro-minded globalists – the Maurice Strongs and Charles Schwabs – always die disappointed. Eventually, save a meteorite or another such calamity, democratisation of both AI tech and China, and expansion to other planets where – like up Ramon’s mountain – we can breed freely, will happen because we are who we are not because we have been shorn of our liberties.

Liberties live on in all of us because freedom is a passion we were endowed with by nature – a survival of the fittest that is neither diminished nor assuaged in our children or grandchildren, reflected in the Brownian motion of wildebeest on the savanna.

Darkness doesn’t exist, and therefore cannot spread or move, but light (which obviously does exist) can. Never underestimate the ability of photons to pass through the walls put in their way to restrict them.

Conclusion

In his ‘Myth of Sisyphus’ Camus sees Sisyphus as the absurd hero who lives life to the fullest, hates death, and is condemned to a meaningless task.

Look in the mirror, humans. Recognise yourselves in the Ephyrian King. Do not get down. Always see a glimmer of hope. Steel yourselves. Fight back against overarching government. Small government can be efficient and successful –  Small government leaves citizens free. Refresh your liberties as time will erode and steal them. Rebel when someone threatens your sovereignty, your freedom of speech or other liberties – all of which are well worth rebelling over and struggling for. Always expose cowardly bullies, especially those self-preserving nepotists and jobsworths who hide behind the façade of authority.  

Meanwhile, keep on rolling that immense boulder up – and back up – that hill. Let your toil echo across eternity. At least, when your body is worn beyond usefulness, You – unlike poor Sisyphus –  will have a chance to rest in the afterlife.

Dominic Wightman is a UK businessman. In his spare time he edits Country Squire Magazine, runs a couple of charities and goes fishing rather a lot.