It has been over twenty years since I read Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. He caught me off guard when he described humanity as free. This was a dramatic contrast to Rousseau’s poetry in the opening lines of The Social Contract, “Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains.” I had never differentiated between the terms, liberty and freedom. For me there was no distinction. They were synonyms in my vocabulary.  The existentialism of Sartre completely changed my notion of freedom.

Freedom exists because choices exist. Freedom is not about what we cannot do but the possibilities of what we can do. This means people are free under any condition or any government. There is always a choice. Totalitarian or authoritarian governments do not steal people’s freedom. Laws have nothing to do with freedom. The presence of the law is a realization of our freedom because it gives us a choice to obey or break the law. Laws only exist when a choice exists to violate them.

Academia today is obsessed with statistics. They help us understand the world. And they lead us to believe we can predict the world. But statistics never provide certainties. There are outliers. No matter how precise the model is designed outliers remain unexplained. How do we explain these outliers? Freedom becomes the final variable.

The introduction of freedom undermines many of the concepts in my theory of politics. But this is a misunderstanding. Freedom transforms my static model into a dynamic one. Earlier I introduced a principle of power decentralization. Human nature has a contradictory drive for cooperation and independence. There is desire to be a part of something larger than any single person while an equally compelling dream to go in a new direction. This is a choice. This is freedom. Freedom leads people to abandon institutions and create new organizations with new aims and objectives. Freedom redefines, abandons and establishes institutions and organizations.

Customs, traditions and laws establish boundaries for institutions. Freedom redefines and erases those boundaries. Anything is possible. And anything possible is inevitable. Institutions are the implicit rules to govern organizations. Power is segmented within institutions where it is centralized into organizations. But freedom can erase those boundaries and undo those institutions. The power structures meant to maintain order within society can collapse once those boundaries are erased.

Some institutions are good while others are bad. Nobody misses the institution of slavery. But most people around the world support the institution of democracy according to the World Values Survey. But most institutions are neither good nor evil. The Supreme Court of the United States has expanded civil liberties in the United States and Civil Rights for racial minorities. But it has also been used to take those same rights away. The case Dredd Scott is just one example where the courts were an instrument of authoritarianism.

The political order is fragile. Every political system is held together by institutions defined by social norms, laws and traditions that exist because they are respected. But once people choose to disrespect those norms the system crumbles. This process was applauded during the American Revolution or the collapse of the Soviet Union. But freedom can turn against democracy. The behavior of Viktor Orbán in Hungary and the Law and Justice Party in Poland foreshadows the fragility of democratic institutions. The Presidency of Donald Trump has woken many Americans to the perils of our own political system.

The work of Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt focuses on the role of norms within the American democracy. Their book How Democracies Die lays out the various ways democratic norms have been challenged over the past fifty years. This is the fundamental tension between freedom and order. This is the Democracy Paradox.

jmk, carmel, Indiana, democracyparadoxblog@gmail.com

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