The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (4): Freedom as Autonomy

Limits on freedom can equalize freedom. If my freedom is limited by yours, then our freedom is roughly the same. If I’m stronger than you, then a limit on my freedom makes it impossible for me to use my freedom to the detriment of yours. However, the problem of freedom and equality isn’t solved by limiting freedom. Notably the freedom of the poor and the freedom of those who, for one reason or another, don’t have a reasonable set of resources and alternative options to choose from, are still very unequal kinds of freedom. Limiting the freedom of others doesn’t help these people.

The ability to do as you want, limited by those restrictions imposed by the state necessary to ensure that the freedom of one doesn’t harm the freedom of another, does to some extent equalize freedom, but not the freedom of the poor and the freedom of those with a limited set of choices. Another problem is that it is essentially an anti-political freedom. The state is not a place of freedom; the state is a set of institutions which limit freedom.

However, it is my view that the state can be a place of freedom if we understand freedom in another way. Democratic political participation in the decisions of the state (especially on a local level) can be a source of freedom; freedom not necessarily in the sense of the ability to do as you want, but freedom in the sense of autonomy.

Autonomy in this context must be understood as the ability of a group of people, living together, to participate equally in deliberations, and to come to an agreement (by majority vote for instance) on certain matters that shape their living together. It is a more communal and less individualistic notion than the ability to do as you like, since it requires political self-government through democratic participation. It is also closely related to equality since the right to participation is an equal right and the adequate functioning of the decision-taking process requires equal attention to all arguments and alternatives.

Autonomy does not result from the isolated exercise of an individual will outside of state control.  Similar to freedom as self-development – see the previous post in this series – autonomy is mediated through life in a communityFreedom as self-development means that you can only do as you like when you know about the options and when the options appear in public debates, in education and in other circumstance that require a community. Freedom as autonomy profits from the same kind of debate. The advantage of debate in this case is not the clarification and expansion of choice as a precondition of real freedom of choice, but a better decision on things that are common to a group of people.

Autonomy is not a freedom outside of the state. It is necessarily a part of it and cannot survive without it. Autonomy is a kind of self-government. It’s a community that determines the social conditions in which it lives. People usually engage in self-government within some form of state institutions, local or even national. By determining the structures, laws and rules which govern their lives, people govern themselves. So we see that freedom and the state are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

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