Friendship and the Free Society

by Andrew I. Cohen

Andrew Cohen teaches philosophy at the University of Oklahoma, Norman.

Private property and limited government are unrivaled in promoting personal liberty and material abundance. These institutions of a free society also beat the competition in promoting another vital personal and social good, namely, friendship.

Beneath our differences, people understand that self-respect, some wealth, a sense of personal efficacy, and maybe even a dash of luck are among the essential ingredients of a successful life. These values would still seem shallow or pointless without friendship. As Aristotle observed, “No one would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other goods.” Our achievements would be emptier and our failures more unbearable without friends by our side. If friendship is then not the supreme good, it is certainly an essential one. Some of us are admittedly less social than others. The companionship that comes in meaningful friendships nevertheless seems to be a key part of the good life.

There are of course many sorts of friendships. Some persons are friends out of convenience. Perhaps our typical “acquaintances” fall into such a category. There are also friendships based merely on what two people find mutually pleasing. Both of these types of relationships help amplify our lives in various ways, but the best sorts of friendships are those where each friend cares deeply and sincerely about the other. In such complete friendships, each friend respects the other person, not as a means to his own ends, but as an end in himself.

A free society is uniquely qualified to promote the most complete friendships because it provides the institutional framework most favorable to them.

Freedom by Degrees

By a “free society,” we can speak of a social and political framework with three key features: (1) private property is protected as inviolable, (2) government’s role, at most, is to prevent and punish the violation of individual rights, and (3) all human relationships are voluntary. Free societies can exist in degrees. While the United States now is more free than, say, the Soviet Union under Stalin, the United States is not a completely free society. To the extent that a society counts as free, it will provide the best opportunities to nurture and sustain deep friendships.

Consider what is necessary for friendships. Two persons must share some form of good will. There needs to be a certain authenticity to any such mutual affection. This sincere good will helps to nurture a sense of trust and healthy interdependence. Trust is certainly key to building and maintaining any meaningful relationship, particularly in complete friendships where friends have a special respect for each other. But suppose you find yourself in an institutional environment where you have no choice but to interact with someone else. Such a stilted setting will tend to restrict the development of any friendship. While you may still come to be friends with the other person, it is much more difficult for you to do so under such circumstances. First you must overcome some understandable mutual suspicion, but then you must fight the worry that the other merely likes you as a means to some private end.

In all political economies, individuals will sometimes find themselves having to deal with persons somewhat involuntarily. Even in a nearly free society, we may find ourselves working for, going to school with, or just sitting beside persons with whom we would rather have no contact.

Consider just one example. Most municipalities have tightly regulated local telephone monopolies. To a great extent we have no choice but to deal with our telephone repairman. His incentive to engage in gestures of good will, and our reason to show him some sincere regard, are both constrained. The repairman’s “have a nice day” rings hollow when we know that we have no choice but to get our telephone service from that one company.

What a free society does is minimize the extent to which human relationships are involuntary. When we have no choice but to deal with someone, sincere good will is often hard to muster. But when individuals are free to come and go as they please and they nevertheless continue to interact with one another, they can be more certain of one another. They might then foster the trust and mutuality necessary for genuine friendships.

Take a lower-level friendship, such as one of mere convenience. We have such friendships with many persons, such as with the family doctor, the corner florist, or (if we are lucky) with car mechanics, plumbers, and carpenters. Our good will toward such persons is mostly based on what they can offer us. Genuine good will is an ingredient in any wholesome friendship. To the extent our displays of good will are sincere, it is because we recognize both the value such persons represent to us and their freedom to do as they wish.

These low-level friendships are often steppingstones toward the more complete friendships where each friend regards the other as an end in himself. People usually do not just fall into friendships. They develop their relationships, often starting out on the fragile and fleeting bases of mutual pleasure or mutual convenience. The trust that comes from freedom of choice can only help foster the good will that gets started in such rudimentary relationships. The enhanced freedom of choice characteristic of free societies also removes several impediments to the deepening of these relationships.

To say that the institutions of a free society best facilitate friendship does not mean that people didn’t have good friends in, say, Maoist China. (Perhaps genuine friends were especially valuable there.) But it is far more difficult to discover, nurture, and sustain good friendships when human relationships are not entirely voluntary. What a free society does is enhance our range of freedom of choice. We have more options to select or reject. When you find yourself interacting with persons in this wider range of choice, you have better reason to believe that another’s interest in you is genuine. You also have better reason to know that your own interest is genuine. The corner baker is more apt to take an interest in your life when he knows quite well that you could just as well go across the street to a competitor or bake your own muffins. You may also be more likely to feel a mutual good will toward the baker when you know that you are free not to patronize him.

Private Property

Another characteristic of a free society even more important and powerful for advancing friendships is private property.

What good is wealth, Aristotle asks rhetorically, unless we have people we care about with whom to share it? Ambiguously defined property rights and property that is not private notoriously promote waste and neglect. What matters here, however, is that when property is not private, or when it is otherwise not fully protected as private, individuals have diminished opportunities to cultivate the benevolence characteristic of genuine friendships.

There is a certain sort of kindness that helps to nurture and sustain friendships. This is the kindness manifested by freely sharing one’s belongings with others. Unless one owns property, however, it is difficult if not impossible to show benevolence toward another. With what would one be benevolent? It is not benevolence if you grant another access to some good to which you do not have an exclusive, protected claim.

Benevolence is still a vital ingredient in bringing a relationship to a higher level, one where you spontaneously and willingly contribute to a friend’s well-being. What property does is give individuals a protected sphere of control over some range of action and material goods. It sets up a divide between what is “mine” (and not yours) and what is not “mine” (but someone else’s). “Property” here is not just a material thing but also includes one’s freedom, one’s time, and one’s body. Even the materially poor man can be benevolent toward another; the poor man still owns himself and his time. The authentically benevolent man then freely waives his rights to exclude others from his goods. In doing so, he builds trust and helps to enhance his friend’s welfare. Such gestures lay the groundwork for later reciprocal gestures that, in a complete friendship, come freely and without any thought to some payoff.

A free society enhances the quantity of property individuals own and protects as inviolable whatever property rights individuals enjoy. A free society thereby promotes authentic friendships by giving people added opportunities to engage in meaningful sharing. If resources move from one person to another when they do nothave to, the recipient is better able to gauge the motives of the gesture. Indeed, the one who gave the property away is better able to be sure of his own motives. A free society does well in clearing the air in this fashion. Relationships are voluntary, and property is exchanged and redistributed only through free consent. Such gestures lay the groundwork for the most meaningful sorts of friendships.

Friendships are possible in a variety of circumstances, including in the most repressive of dictatorships. What a free society does is make the discovery, development, and sustenance of friendships of all types—particularly the most meaningful sort—easier. When free, individuals have a diminished need to second-guess the motives of others (and themselves) and they are better in a position to be generous. The freedom not to do what others may want us to do is a valuable liberty. Besides providing a sense of autonomy, that freedom is an important ingredient in expanding the opportunities for the friendships that characterize a successful human life.

This article has been published with FEE‘s permission and has been originally published at The Freeman March 1999 • Volume: 49 • Issue: 8.

About the author

CIEL wrote 62 articles on this blog.