Two Trons, Four Freedoms
July 15, 2012 3 Comments
“If any man tells you he loves America, yet hates labor, he is a liar.”
The line is simultaneously funny and sad. The adversarial unions we know today were scarcely extant, let alone popularly identified by the “labor” moniker, in President Lincoln’s lifetime. It’s ironic that a movement sheltering so many of the work-averse (rubber rooms, anyone?) would brandish a quote that, properly construed, endorses hard work. True to that irony, those at the bleeding-edge of the quest for expanded labor rights end up calling for a fantastically impossible feat: the abolition of work itself.
“Labor” is not the only word that lends itself to sociopolitical confusion. People sometimes get caught up in an equivocal use of the word “free.” On the one hand, it means for some agent the liberty of movement, thought or action. On the other, it can refer to a null price of acquisition, that is zero cost, gratis. Occasionally, the vital distinction between these two meanings is blurred in the popular imagination, as with the 2010 blockbuster Tron: Legacy.
The original Tron, released in 1982, came on the heels of serious Soviet Bloc upheaval; just the year before, the Polish Solidarity labor union secured a degree of independence from Communist control. This dramatic feat of defiance would have been fresh in the minds of moviegoers. Tron is not merely anti-authoritarian but anti-Communist. A theistic theme evinces in the eponymous hero’s mantra, “I fight for the users!” The oppressed programs know they’ve been endowed with purpose greater than the totalizing and centralizing dictates issued by the Master Control Program. Incredibly for Hollywood, the story ends up affirming property rights: the protagonist Kevin Flynn eventually regains credit for his programming masterpieces, which had been stolen from him. There’s no mistake that when the characters speak of “freedom,” the classically libertarian ideal is in mind.
Fast forward to the compromised 2010 sequel, Tron: Legacy. Early in the film, we find that in Flynn’s mysterious absence, his software company has burgeoned into a Microsoft-like leviathan, profiting by frequent commercial releases of an utterly worthless operating system. Flynn’s son wants to honor his disappeared dad’s ideal of “freedom.” But the story writers have revised this to mean advocacy of freeware, as in products distributed for zero cost. On this paradigm, the work of producing software does not arise from the need to make a living, as in labor, but from boredom, altruism, or some other motive conceived in leisure. In the sequel, the meaning of “freedom” lurches Left. It’s not just freedom of thought and action, but freedom from the need to even make a living.
How did Hollywood minds pull off this coup? If you’ve seen the film, you know Flynn’s discovery of the Isomorphs: supreme, benevolent beings that emerge spontaneously from the digital vacuum and portend to cure all the world’s ills. They are cinematic incarnations of Ray Kurzweil’s singularity prophecy. Flynn’s cries in the wilderness about freeware and perfection of the human race are of course mere functions of the film’s indulgence of the fantastic. Yet, among anarchists and cyberpunks, “libertarian Marxists” and singularity disciples, are those who really place faith in the idea that one day nice machines will magically do everything for us.
This confusion over freedom didn’t start yesterday. Looking back in history, even our top policymakers were prone to conflation. In his 1941 State of the Union address, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proclaimed to Americans the Four Freedoms:
1. Freedom of speech and expression
2. Freedom of worship
3. Freedom from want
4. Freedom from fear
This progressive vision rallied a nation soon to be at war, but it is also a disastrous marriage between negative rights–government’s promise to do no ill–and positive rights, government’s guarantee to ensure good outcomes. The sum of human experience and the duration of America’s Constitutional enterprise both attest to this: that it is practical and necessary for government to extend negative rights, but impractical and immoral to extend positive ones.
It may have been attractive to early progressives to follow Bismarck’s example in marshaling the state’s power to slake rising expectations. But past the mid-century twentieth century high tide of statism, advocates of liberty, from Whitaker Chambers to Ayn Rand, F.A. Hayek to Ronald Reagan, began to rally against the absurdity of positive rights. That rally is alive and well today in the American conservative movement.
Unfortunately, too many remain beholden to Roosevelt’s proposition that it is government’s job not just to leave us free in our speech and worship, but to save each of us from the vagaries of poverty, hunger, and emotional distress. These expectations ignore the finitude of government’s ability to help; no single human institution can guarantee positive rights to all. The pursuit of happiness is necessarily a prerogative of individuals and their free and natural associations.
The best governments respect human nature, extending negative rights while withholding positive ones. Disgruntled publics that demand otherwise, to be free from austerity and to be free from market forces, are really asking to be free from personal responsibility. Absurd on its face, this kind of agitation always merits a facepalm.