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On the Nature of a Free and Open Society, and Why It's Worth Fighting For
The speed with which the universal rights and liberties characteristic of the open society were suspended in deference to speculative, unorthodox, and unsubstantiated theories of disease control should serve as a stark warning to us that the hard-won achievements of the open society can be bartered away for the subjective experience of a little more safety.1
That most of these liberties have been restored in many parts of the West does not remove the fact that we now have a dangerous precedent that most Western governments and opinion leaders have yet to condemn or repudiate; a precedent that may well be invoked during a future crisis, whether real or manufactured.
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The architects of lockdowns, vaccine passports and vaccine mandates, which introduced the infrastructure of a “papers, please” society, appear to have a shallow understanding of the values that make Western societies places worth living in.
Those who oversaw the introduction of lockdowns and mandatory vaccine apartheid, in spite of their insistence that they were just emergency measures, helped accelerate the relentless erosion of civil rights during the pandemic, with very questionable, and at best speculative, public health benefits to be gleaned in return.
Basic civil rights, such as freedom of religion, freedom of association, the right to protest, the privacy of the home, the right to access public venues and services, and even the right to informed consent to medical treatment, were set aside in the name of public health, with no clear evidence that such rights violations would make any substantial difference to the medium and long-term disease burden, and little or no serious public debate about the social and moral costs of such draconian measures.
Many of our political leaders, opinion leaders, and fellow citizens have forgotten who we are. We are, or certainly aspire to be, free and open societies, in which each citizen moves around at his or her own discretion and can, for the most part (barring cases of criminality, delinquency, and gross incivility), access the same public venues and amenities as his or her fellow citizens, without being confronted on a regular basis with raised eyebrows, insults, or systematic discrimination.
Until we understand what it means to live in a free and open society, and why it matters for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren, we are liable to continue putting the speculative projections and strategic goals of technocrats ahead of the liberties of citizens.
So what exactly does it mean to live in a free and open society?
Historical Precedents for a Free and Open Society
The notion of an “open society” has been developed by a number of twentieth century thinkers, including Henri Bergson and Karl Popper, and more recently recapitulated by Gerald Gaus.2 My interest here is not to recount the history of the concept, but to highlight some of its salient features, as an ideal that has been central to the way of life of modern constitutional democracies, and has manifested itself, to a greater or lesser extent, in very different historical moments, including Greek antiquity and early modern Italian city-States.
Of course, to the extent that either ancient Greek or early modern social systems relied upon slavery and/or curtailed the public standing of women, we cannot say that they were truly free and open societies, in the full sense of the term. However, to the extent that they did incorporate a certain degree of cultural diversity and social and economic mobility, and rested on a form of shared civility that transcended local custom and feudal allegiances, they did embody certain features of free and open societies.
How Might We Understand a Free and Open Society Today?
In our contemporary context, a free and open society could be understood as a society in which:
persons of different races, ethnicities, religions, cultures, moral and political commitments, and ways of life peacefully and civilly share social spaces like streets, towns, cities, schools, workplaces, restaurants, theatres, cinemas, and so on;
social participation and access to shared spaces like public services and hospitality is not systematically withheld from specific social groups based on group markers such as ethnicity, religion, sex, age, health, or political allegiance;
there is a strong preference for forms of social cooperation that involve horizontal agreements between individuals and groups rather than vertical, top-down orders;
individuals enjoy a generous latitude to freely dispose of their own person and property as they wish, within certain limits of law and civility;
people are generally free to express their opinions without fear of reprisal or censorship;
social life is regulated by general rules that enjoy broad public legitimacy and are thus not perceived as excessively partisan, coercive or unilateral in their operations;
individuals are generally free to move around society at will, as long as they do not engage in delinquent, reckless, or criminal behaviour; and
all members of the society are respected as equal rights-holders, and enjoy equal protection of the law, irrespective of ethnicity, religion, social background, sex, age, or political allegiance.
Benefits of a Free and Open Society
All of these characteristics of free and open societies, taken together, not only benefit the individual members of such societies; they also serve to strengthen the public legitimacy of our economic and political institutions, by promoting a safe, fair, and inclusive social order.
On the one hand, individuals feel safe from the arbitrary violence and domination of private and public actors, which makes them more positively disposed toward their shared civil order, which is viewed as a source of personal and collective security.3
On the other hand, belonging to this or that social, ethnic, religious, or political group does not automatically reduce a person’s access to social life or expose them to abusive treatment just because of who they are, what they believe, or who they associate with. Members of an open society, in spite of their diverse ethnicities, religions, lifestyles and social allegiances, can happily endorse the values and institutions of their shared political and social order rather than feeling alienated from them. In short, a free and open society, to the extent that its core values are genuinely honoured, can copperfasten the legitimacy of its ruling institutions by demonstrating itself a safe and welcoming place for people from a wide variety of political commitments and walks of life.
A Free and Open Society is a Delicate and Rare Achievement
A free and open society, in which citizens of a wide variety of different ethnic, religious, political, and cultural backgrounds live under the same political institutions, play by the same basic rules, and treat each other as political equals, is a delicate achievement, and certainly not one to be taken for granted.
Indeed, there are relatively few times and places in history when people of different religions, ethnic origins, political ideals, and cultures have managed to recognise each other as political equals and share the same social space, the same government, and the same broad narrative of political legitimacy.
Much more frequently, people have lived in rigidly hierarchical societies, with limited social mobility, and have been bound together into tight-knit social enclaves, tribes, or classes, with limited openness to other groups and cultures. Very often, different social and political groups have borne attitudes of distrust, animosity, and even violent rivalry toward each other, and those who managed to rise to the top revelled in their political and social superiority over rival classes and social groups.
It is perfectly conceivable that we could relapse back into a closed and unfree social order, even if the specific type of unfreedom it entails would probably look quite different from what we associate with, say, feudal societies in which local rulers can lord it over their subjects with relative impunity.
What Might the Collapse of a Free and Open Society Entail?
It is impossible to predict how exactly an unfree society would operate in a technologically advanced, post-industrialised world, but the Covid pandemic gave us some useful clues.
It is quite likely that those prepared to go along with the demands of new-fangled despots, whether those flowing from public health, ecological preservation, or political correctness, will be left relatively undisturbed in their day-to-day lives, even as they “freely” inhabit a cage of bureacratic regulations; while those who are not so “cooperative” may be harrassed with fines, restricted access to public venues, reduced bank services, and who knows what other type of burdensome and intrusive measures technocrats and their political masters manage to come up with.
In many parts of the world, the discriminatory public health regime imposed in the name of saving lives has been largely phased out and, at least for now, life feels more or less “normal” again (though one still sees some absurd vestiges of the Covid regime around, such as countries requiring visitors to receive Covid vaccines that are largely ineffective at curbing infections).
But the ease with which entire nations embraced harsh forms of medical coercion and apartheid should serve as a sobering reminder to us that a free and open society is a rather precarious achievement and one we will probably have to fight hard to defend for the forseeable future.
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This is a slightly revised version of a post I previously published exclusively for paying subscribers. But I decided the issues involved were sufficiently important to warrant re-publication in open access format.
See Henri Bergson, Les deux sources de la morale et de la religion (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2008 /1932), esp. chaps. 1 and 4, and Karl R. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies 5th ed. (Routledge, 2002 /1945). For an excellent recent description of the open society, cf. Gerald Gaus, The Open Society and Its Complexities (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021). Finally, what North, Wallis and Weingast call “open access orders” are one way to interpret the notion of a free and open society. Cf. Douglass C. North, John Joseph Wallis, and Barry R. Weingast, Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (Cambridge University Press, 2009).
For a well-known theorization of non-domination as a pivotal value of free societies, see Philip Pettit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford University Press, 1997).