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In "On the Rule of the Road" by A. G. Gardiner, liberty is not a personal affair only, but a social contract. Explain and expand.

In "On the Rule of the Road," A. G. Gardiner argues that the liberties we enjoy arise from an unspoken agreement between ourselves and all the other members of a society. This means that whatever liberty we have is socially determined. In other words, our individual liberties are dependent on their creation and subsequent maintenance by society.

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Many thinkers in the liberal/libertarian tradition argue as if liberty is the birthright of individuals as a right, irrespective of which kind of society they inhabit.

On this theory, liberty can only really be understood at the level of the individual, an abstract, universal entity who doesn't exist anywhere in the real world but who nonetheless forms the basis of numerous thought experiments that can give us a much better idea of what liberty is in theory and what it entails.

On this reading, liberty is presented as almost a private matter in that it is indissolubly associated with the individual. However, those like A. G. Gardiner seek to challenge this concept by urging us to reflect on the fundamentally social nature of liberty as it exists in the real world.

In his essay “On the Rule of the Road,” Gardiner argues, in effect, that we only have the liberties we have as individuals because we are part of a social order in which the liberties of all can only be preserved if they are also curtailed at the same time. This is what Gardiner means by “a rule of the road.”

To illustrate his point, Gardiner uses the example of a policeman putting his hand up to stop traffic at Piccadilly Circus, a busy road junction in London. Contrary to what some libertarians may think, the policeman isn't a figure of tyranny; he isn't violating anyone's liberty. Far from it, he's upholding a social rule that upholds the liberties of all.

If all the motorists in Piccadilly Circus looked at liberty as little more than a private matter, then chaos would ensue as everyone would drive as they pleased. Without a policeman on hand to control the traffic, there would be a good deal of death and serious injury. Among other things, this would ensure that the general stock of liberty would greatly diminish.

In contrast to the libertarian, Gardiner argues that liberty is part of a social contract, a kind of unwritten agreement that each and every one of us enters into every day. It is an accommodation of interests according to which my liberty is dependent on yours and vice versa. Indeed, the very idea of liberty is inconceivable without its social dimension, whatever libertarians may argue otherwise.

Liberty as Gardiner understands it can only truly exist and be maintained at the social level. Otherwise, we won't have a society to speak of but rather an atomized collection of individuals, each doing their own thing, irrespective of the harm it can cause others.

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Alfred George (A.G.) Gardiner was a British journalist and author. He was a prolific essayist and his style and subject matter easily qualified him to be categorized as what the English would call a very civilized gentleman. His essays addressing the necessary qualifications to fit into proper society are “On Habits,” “On Being Tidy,” “On Talk and Talkers,” and the subject of this question, “On the Rule of the Road.” This latter essay was included in one of Gardiner’s compilations titled Leaves in the Wind and was published under his pseudonym “Alpha of the Plough.” Consistent with the theme of what constitutes the proper conduct of a civilized individual, “On the Rule of the Road” remains one of his more enduring essays because it captures a very essential point, that the essence of civilization lies in the willingness of the individual to accept constraints on his or her personal behavior for the benefit of the greater good.

In “On the Rule of the Road,” Gardiner emphasizes the necessity of certain constraints on individual liberty if society is to function in a truly civilized manner. As he wrote in this essay, “Liberty is not a personal affair only, but a social contract. . . . A reasonable consideration for the rights or feelings of others is the foundation of social conduct.” Further, Gardiner wrote that “in order that the liberties of all may be preserved, the liberties of everybody must be curtailed.” Freedom, in other words, cannot exist in a vacuum. It must conform to some degree to a set of principles that exist to ensure that one’s liberties do not infringe on other’s. We enjoy the freedom to speak our mind, but, at some point, freedom of speech runs afoul of the public good. The famous qualification to freedom of speech—that one must not yell “fire” in a crowded theater—is precisely the point. Gardiner offers his own illustrations to make his point, such as the role of the police officer in controlling traffic—a role that, by definition, imposes constraints on personal freedom. Civilization can only exist when the public collectively accepts constraints on its freedom of action.

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In order to understand what Gardiner means when he says that liberty involves a social contract and not just personal liberty, think about what he says later in the essay.  Later in the essay, he says

There are a lot of people in the world, and I have to accommodate my liberty to their liberties.

What he means here is that we cannot simply think “I have liberty, and therefore I may do whatever I want.”  We have to realize that there are times when our actions can take away liberty from other people. 

Because our actions can take away liberty from other people, we have to have a social contract.  We have to agree to give up some of our liberty in order to keep most of that liberty.  Earlier in the essay, Gardiner writes about what would happen if we did not give up our liberty when told to do so by a traffic cop (or, in modern times, a stop light).  If everyone tried to keep their liberty to drive whenever and wherever they wanted, no one would have any liberty to drive at all.  The intersections would be jammed as everyone tried to drive at once.  It would be chaos.

Therefore, we cannot simply think that liberty means that we can do whatever we want.  Instead, we have to make a social contract with other people.  When we do that, we all give up some of our liberties so that everyone can live together in harmony.

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