Peace Or Freedom?

“You can have peace. Or you can have freedom. Don’t ever count on having both at once.”
— Robert A Heinlein

The above is a quotation from Heinlein’s novel Time Enough For Love. What is he talking about here? Aren’t freedom and peace supposed to go hand in hand? Isn’t that what the Democratic peace theory tries to claim? Does this mean one has to make a choice?

There would be no application for Heinlein’s statement were we to go by the unconventional usage of the words ‘peace’ and ‘war’ that Locke put forth:

“And hence it is, that he who attempts to get another man into his absolute power, does thereby put himself into a state of war with him; it being to be understood as a declaration of a design upon his life: for I have reason to conclude, that he who would get me into his power without my consent, would use me as he pleased when he had got me there, and destroy me too when he had a fancy to it…

…as he that, in the state of society, would take away the freedom belonging to those of that society or commonwealth, must be supposed to design to take away from them every thing else, and so be looked on as in a state of war.”

Second Treatise of Government, Chapter III, John Locke

But I am quite sure Heinlein was not using the words in this way.

Dictionaries typically will define peace as the absence of hostilities between groups or nations, or in like terms. Such a definition is utterly unconcerned with the quality of life of the people of those groups or nations. Inasmuch as open violence cannot be detected between the empire and its colonies, the tyrant and his subjects, the slave master and his slave, all exist in a state of peace.

Surely the threat of violence exists in the above scenarios, but if we were to define peace so narrowly as to exclude scenarios in which a threat of violence can be found, we would not truly be able to say that peace exists anywhere in the world, certainly not in any place where the rule of law is upheld, and diplomacy would become synonymous with war.

Peace then prevails across the better part of the world. There is peace in Syria where all news and information is controlled by the state, in Iran where citizens are routinely jailed for what they write, in China where a woman can be coerced to abort her own baby, in Zimbabwe which boasts the shortest life expectancy in the entire world, in North Korea where the population lives under a famine that for all purposes can be laid directly at the feet of its governing figure.

I recently had a discussion with a young acquaintance (younger than me, I mean!) who essentially took the position that participation in war of any kind can never be justified. Her reasoning was that if one person were to fight back against an aggressor, conflict would escalate resulting in the loss of many lives. This is usually true. What is easily overlooked are the lives that will be lost down the road if the aggressor is never opposed.

Since my acquaintance was Japanese, I steered the focus of our conversation to North Korea, a state whose problems are egregious to all, and particularly to its concerned neighbors. That there is any difference between the quality of life “enjoyed” by those unfortunates and that enjoyed by the citizens of its counterpart to the south can be attributed to the sacrifices made by those who fought the bloody war that took place in the region half a century ago.

North Korea is a fear society of the highest order, without question the most frightening place in the world today. It is the 1984 of the 21st century but worse; the fictional characters in Orwell’s nightmare world at least did not go hungry.

NK has not had open conflict for decades and thus it can be said a state of peace exists there. Discussing these facts, I asked my acquaintance “Where is the value in that peace?”

The reason Heinlein’s statement is so effective is that it plays on the natural tendency we have to conflate the absolute and relative value of war. On an absolute scale there is no such thing as a “good” war. It is simply a horrible horrible thing that nobody in their right mind desires. On a relative scale there certainly is such a thing as a “good” war just as there certainly is such a thing as a “bad” peace. The relative scale, really, is all that matters.


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