The film The Shawshank Redemption is already a classic. Based on a novel by Stephen King, it tells the friendship story between two inmates from the most disparate walks of life who are bonded by their dreams of freedom (indeed, in Argentina, the film was titled Sueños de libertad –Dreams of Freedom).
For what we are about to say, the plot (which the reader may find in the Internet) is not relevant. What concerns us here is this: at a given moment, one of the oldest convicts, the one in charge of the library –Brooks– becomes eligible to be released on parole. But Brooks does not want to leave. Having become accustomed to his 50-year prison life, prison is now his home, what he knows, what he is used to. Still, he has to leave.
The world outside, “freedom”, is completely and utterly odd for him. Not hostile, though. He is given a job at a supermarket, and housing –humble, but decent… Still, he is definitely out of his world. He cannot stand it. And he kills himself.
The character played by Morgan Freeman, Ellis (alias Red), clarifies what has happened. His thesis holds that Brooks was “institutionalized”. He was so deeply accustomed to the prison institution, that he could not conceive any other life. What we regard as freedom, he experiences as a prison, and vice versa. It is as simple as it is tragic.
We should ask ourselves: isn’t that the case, socially speaking? I´m thinking of the thousands of citizens worldwide who are accustomed to the Welfare State in its diverse versions, exhibiting distinct variants along different regions of the world. And I do not have totalitarian states in mind. I think of places, even developed places, where people enjoy certain freedoms, but are entirely used to resting upon the state in almost every relevant aspect of their existence: health, education, social security, and so forth. Such is freedom in their view; those are their “rights”. When we classic liberals mention individual liberties, we somehow fail to grasp that we are sending Brooks out into the world, outside his jail –jail to us, freedom to him. We, champions of “non-aggression”, are often unaware that we are regarded as violent people who want others to leave their security, albeit illusory, paradise. Individual liberties? Meaning what? The first crisis is to graduate from high-school.
Even though students have always complained about orders from parents and professors and others, deep inside, freedom terrifies them. My freshmen, deep down, expect me to go on coercing them. They carry out their usual pranks, waiting for me to threaten them, to test them the very next day, to grade them tough. And even though on the surface they may vigorously complaint, this is what they eventually expect: they take the world to be thus, they assume that this is what I should do; that they will eventually behave exactly the same way. When I behave otherwise, they are dumbstruck. I merely remind them that they are free to stay or leave, that they are not forced to listen to me, that they may leave the room right then, and if one day daddy calls wondering where his child is, the right, university answer is: your kid is no longer a child, and they may be wherever they want. And deep down, this scares them. The educational system has institutionalized them; it is already the golden prison that has trained them for the welfare state. Yes, they will have to work a little, but always expecting their “rights” to receive education, health, social security and education; whether this implies their being enslaved doesn’t even concern them…
However, we hold a sound moral argument. Many among the slaves were never tyrannized as in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. They were well-treated; they were provided housing, food, safety, even education. Indeed, many proslavery advocates argued that slaves would not be able to look after themselves should they be emancipated. But of course, the problem was that they were slaves. That was the problem.
And that remains the problem. They are almost all institutionalized. We ourselves may hold moral arguments, even economic arguments, of course, because that large prison called state-nation-providence cannot undertake an economic assessment of its services (Mises), nor can it coordinate the scattered knowledge required by those services (Hayek). But what remains “very” pending is this “tiny detail” of a psychological-cultural nature. Eventually, although his diagnoses may not have been fully accurate, Fromm was right: there is fear of freedom. And the fearful will vote for dictators who, in turn, believe their mission is to become the benevolent owner of the farm.
Is there any possible solution for this? I don’t know, but we’d better be well-aware of it. Jails cause fear only when they end up becoming Hitler’s concentration camps, or when the farm’s owner decides to kill all the inmates, as was the case with Stalin –Diana Conti’s hero. But meanwhile, spacious, nice and apparently super-abundant jails are a sore temptation for a much complex human nature. I sometimes think that (classic) liberals are just the tough counterweight of a history whose balance seems to be persistently tipped towards the creepy story of slavery.