A History of Liberty, Freedom

A new book co-authored by a University of Arizona faculty member and his former graduate student carries a description of ways Homo sapiens learned to trade and make deals with strangers about 40,000 years ago.

The book, "A Brief History of Liberty," states that humans "became the wisest of primates 40,000 years ago, when we learned to make deals with strangers.” 

Co-authored by David Schmidtz, the UA's Kendrick Professor of Philosophy, and co-author Jason Brennan, a University alumnus, Wiley-Blackwell released the 280-page book this month. The book contains whole chapters on civil liberties, commerce, psychological freedom and other important topics.

"Eons ago, brave souls began to imagine what human beings could do, and saw that the key to a better life was trade," the book's introduction notes. "Thus began our liberation from the brutality of life as cave-dwellers."

And, Schmidtz said, human capability and, therefore, liberties and freedom are closely tied to human commerce. In more contemporary times, liberty also has been directly linked to issues in law, religion and psychology.

In 2007, the publishing company approached Schmidtz to produce the book as part of its "Brief History" series.

He and Brennan both said complexities exist given that the word "liberty" is used commonly and that there exists at least one dozen different definitions for the word. 

"There are popular views of liberty, in which what we mean by liberty is – at least in part – the power to do what one chooses to do, and also the power to choose what one wants to be," said Brennan, who earned his doctorate in 2007 from the UA under Schmidtz's tutelage.

"Commerce has brought us prosperity, and prosperity greatly expands what we are free to do and be," said Brennan, now an assistant professor of philosophy and research at Brown University and a faculty associate with the institution's Political Theory Project.

To explain these points in the book, he and Schmidtz detailed stories about:

    * The work of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W. E.B. Dubois, Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement and subsequent legislation, including Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

    * Roger Williams, who fled London in 1630, arriving in Boston to eventually founded a colony on the key principle of freedom to practice one's chosen religion. His efforts eventually inspired the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
    * The French Revolution and the Soviet Union's security organization, the KGB, while providing examples of governments becoming "tyrannical."
    * The production of light in contemporary times is far more inexpensive today than it ever was. So whereas someone can spend the night reading or working, that option was not available to most people, say, 1,000, or even 100, years ago.This placed the affordability to read quite high.

"History has a lot to teach us about personal freedom: getting it, maintaining it and learning from it so we have more of a real choice when it comes to pursuing liberty in its truest form," Brennan said.

Schmidtz, who also directs the UA's Freedom Center and holds a joint appointment in economics, begs the question: "Are we truly free?"

Compared to the early humans, it may appear the answer is obvious. But both authors note that contemporary humans are "adept at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory" and "shackled by social and professional pressure, self-deception and discontent."

So, then, freedom also becomes a psychological issue.

The authors distinguish between what it means to be free to pursue happiness versus being free from – for instance – oppression, slavery and hunger.

Both conclude that "what we really want is freedom with real choice, having options and the autonomy to fully exercise them."

But the book is not meant to provide direct answers or to simply postulate about liberty and freedom. Both said it is meant to offer a concise, historical narrative.

"We're trying to have a conversation with a reader, rather than trying to convert the reader to our side, Brennan said. "It makes the book more interesting, more honest and more respectful of reasonable disagreement."

The book includes discussion questions at the end of each chapter. It also leaves the reader with a number of profound questions, as Schmidtz's noted: "In countries where life expectancy doubled, where starvation disappeared along with one disease after another, did people become happier? If not, why not? Must we choose between two freedoms, positive and negative? What can a government or any other organization do to ensure liberty for all?"

Given that it is not a text that follows a direct argument, Schmidtz acknowledged the unconventional nature of the project.

Reflecting on his colleagues in the philosophy department, who together have elevated the University of Arizona to a co-ranking of number one in the world in the field of political philosophy, Schmidtz said: "Where else would I have been able to meet and work with future leaders like Jay Brennan? I feel very lucky to be here."

By: By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications