One reads these days many cries of despair, rumblings of gloom, dark hints of the inadequacy of Reason (and reasoners), of the hopelessness of progress. At the best, one expects invocations of Orwell and Tocqueville, at the worst, of Burke and Kierkegaard, and certainly not an unashamed platitude about the possibilities of progress or the needs of enlightenment. I wonder why this has happened. There seems no good ground for despair or gloom, if we are really concerned with freedom in the world in general, and not only with a few particular liberties long familiar in Europe. There are more destructive bombs in the world, but there is not less freedom; it has only become more dangerous and disagreeable to defend it.
Throughout history, very few privileged societies have enjoyed that degree of personal freedom which is today enjoyed by large sections of the population of America, of most of Western Europe outside Spain, of Spain, of many parts of the Englishspeaking Commonwealth, and of some other countries comparably prosperous and democratic. And in many parts of the East, and of Africa, there are growing demands for greater freedom of the individual, and the means of obtaining it are coming nearer. There must always be a running change in the distribution of power within States and between States; some classes of persons lose some of their liberties, others, formerly oppressed and almost left off the pages of history, gain a freedom of choice that they never had before. Those who believe in freedom must wish to see it indefinitely extended and, as far as possible, equally distributed. They will support any movement of liberation among a suppressed section of humanity, provided that it does not bring with it some greater enslavement of others. These may be called the principles of 1789; I see no reason to repudiate them. They are now often derided as illusions; but perhaps this is because of the discomfort which their application is beginning to cause, particularly to those who in Western Europe have hitherto enjoyed liberties not widely shared elsewhere. I still believe in the “illusions” of the 18th century—Reason, Science, Freedom—so far as one can believe in abstract slogans at all. I do not see where they have failed; I only see the difficulty of calculating at any particular time where the greatest threat to freedom is and how it ought to be resisted.
But what is freedom? And why is it always right to defend and extend it, in preference to anything else?