James Leroy Wilson's blog

Monday, July 18, 2005

Knowledge vs. Power, or, What If There Is No Cliff?

"There are limits to freedom." This is often expressed in the style of, "I believe in freedom, but..."

No matter how the thought is stated, I agree. I admit it: freedom has limits. Does that refute the libertarian position? No, because the fact that there are limits to freedom does not justify the imposition of power.

Of course there are limits to freedom. If you're dead, you can not be free in any sense known by our present reality. "I am not free to jump off a cliff." Which is another way of saying, "Since I require life to enjoy freedom, and jumping off the cliff will end my life, then I can not jump off the cliff and remain free." Life sets the limits of freedom.

And I admit that perhaps some people will die because they don't know the limits, they don't know what can kill them. From falling off cliffs to drug overdoses to drownings to shootings, people will die exercising freedom. And others will learn from these mistakes and accidents.

But freedom creates its own self-regulating limits. We acquire knowledge about human limits and pass it on. Children may not know how babies are made - and it is entirely probable, absent any learning whatsoever, to not recognize a causal activity between pregnancy and sexual activity. Having babies at random intervals may be attributed to merely being a woman, just like people get sick at random intervals. Assuming a woman would have many more experiences of sexual intercourse than just the particular times it leads to the birth of a baby nine months later, there is nothing obvious about a causal relationship between sexual intercourse and having babies. Things things are learned through teaching from trusted authorities, like one's own parents. The knowledge is ancient, but it's not obvious. And so we also learn a bunch of other things, what causes what, what hurts us. Knowledge both "limits" our freedom by informing us of the impossible and deadly, but also expands it because it spares our lives by, well, informing us of the impossible and deadly. A person who knows what hurts him enjoys more freedom over a longer period of time than one who doesn't.

What is the justification of power? To protect us, because we wouldn't live without it. "I forbid you to go to that area: there is a cliff and you will fall and die." Sounds reasonable, right? But what if there is no cliff? What if the person doing the forbidding, is lying? If there is a cliff, we would find out soon enough; why do we need someone who prevents us from even finding out?

Acquired knowledge, not power, is what makes us free.

Freedom discovers its own limits; power imposes limits.


  1. Power imposes limits often under color of protecting us from some danger, but this legitimating argument does not require any real danger or any real motive of care to be advanced. The more remote and abstract the danger, perversely, the more plausible the argument seems and the more readily we surrender to power.

  2. Your pregancy example reminded me of something I learned in an Anthropology 101 class about some Pacific island society (I'm afraid I forget which one). The people there believed that breaking the hymen opened a woman to possession by spirits that could make her pregnant, but they drew no connection between sexual intercourse and pregnancy. As a result, they had no concept of fatherhood. The only male authority figures in a child's life were his maternal uncles.

  3. Malinowski's Trobriander informants insisted that sex and pregnancy could not be related. As evidence, they pointed out that the ugliest woman in the tribe, with whom no man would ever have sex, had several children. Also, a man returned from a voyage of a year to find that his wife was pregnant, an impossibility if sex was related since he was not around to have sex with her.