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?
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.
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.