The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (10): Limited Freedom and the Temptation of the Future

It’s hardly controversial to claim that some limits on freedom are necessary in order to protect the freedom of others. Few people consistently argue in favor of an unlimited ability to do as one likes. More controversial is the internalization of this principle, in which it is possible and acceptable that a person’s current freedom is restricted in order to protect that same person’s future freedom.

I think this is only generally accepted when limited to children. A child loses some of its freedom when it is forced to attend school, do homework, learn good manners etc. because this will greatly improve his or her future opportunities and choices. A restriction of current freedom serves to expand future freedom. A child that isn’t forced in this way will find that he or she has fewer choices when grown up, and therefore less freedom.

But is this “less is more” philosophy of freedom, or the principle that one needs to be forced to be free (in the infamous words of Jean-Jacques Rousseau), also applicable to adults? Well, it does happen, whether it’s morally legitimate or not. Smoking bans, drug bans, helmet rules etc. are examples. Communism is also an example, although obviously a more extreme one. Citizens of communist states were often “encouraged” to suffer now for a better future and for the “reign of freedom”. There’s also a long tradition of anti-hedonism. A life focused on pleasure, desire and the avoidance of effort is frowned upon because of the damage it can do to the future self. Perhaps less today than in previous ages, but still… In all these examples, people take away other people’s freedom in the name of freedom. Limits on freedom are deemed necessary for the future enlargement of freedom. External discipline and control is put in place of lacking self-discipline and self-control, or external knowledge in place of lacking internal knowledge. If the objects of their coercion complain about it now, then perhaps later in life will they understand and appreciate the reasons why they were forced to do certain things.

This temptation of the future, as we can call it, is in fact an effort to equalize freedom: those who live a hedonistic life or who don’t understand their own long term interests run the risk of diminished freedom in the future. Other people will be tempted by a possible future freedom to try to restrict these people’s current freedom. Doing so, they believe, will give them access to equal freedom compared to those who do understand the demands of future freedom.

The problem here isn’t that the premise is stupid, but that the consequences of this premise can be harmful. Most people would readily agree that only a fully developed individual who doesn’t constantly yield to temptation and who invests effort in his or her life can have a wide spectrum of choice and hence freedom. Someone who forgoes effort is likely to become an uneducated bigot who has the freedom to choose between being a coach potato one minute and a nitwit the next.

But what gives other people the right to force this nitwit to make an effort and try to access a more interesting notion of freedom in the future? Even assuming that the use of force is effective in some objective and verifiable sense (that may be true of compulsory education for children, but not for other types of force directed at adults), are you morally allowed make people free by treating them as infants or idiots dependent on coercion and education? And, if so, is this freedom worth the disrespect that it entails? It’s clear that we’re rapidly turning the corner to some kind of fanatical altruism in which freedom is no longer the ability to do as you want but rather the ability to do as you should want.

Does this mean we shouldn’t ever force people for the sake of their future freedom? I don’t think so. There is room for some types of legal measures that protect obviously self-destructive people against themselves. Prohibition of hard drugs and of the free purchase and use of certain pharmaceuticals, as well as some measures regarding road safety are some examples of limitations that receive widespread approval, accept among hardcore libertarians. (Although most of them also go to the doctor when they are sick and obediently do as the doctor orders. They may say that this is their own free decision and therefore not comparable to legal prohibitions of strictly self-regarding behavior, but is this really their free choice? How many sick libertarians choose not to do what the doctor says?). We just have to be careful that we don’t go beyond a certain minimum (which I agree is difficult to determine) and don’t quietly slip into paternalism and the rule of the technocrats who think they know better how people should lead their lives.

Restrictions of freedom that aim to modify strictly self-regarding behavior must remain the exception for at least three reasons:

  1. It’s very difficult to prove that somebody does not understand his interest in the right way and that there is somebody else who has a better understanding of this interest.
  2. Even if 1 isn’t a problem, how are we going to select these “wiser” persons?
  3. And even if neither 1 nor 2 is a problem, how are we certain that our current restrictions have a positive net impact on future freedom? The future is, after all, hard to predict and past predictions that have been shown to be correct will not necessarily remain correct in the future.

Most of the time, people know very well what is or is not in their interest and how to maximize their future options and freedom by themselves. Democracy would be impossible or undesirable otherwise. Only if people know their own interests can they be given the power to decide for themselves and the power to control whether laws or policies are in their interest. Otherwise, guardianship or a paternalistic form of government would be more appropriate.

No matter how important it is to care and show compassion, we should not allow ourselves to get carried away by it. In general, we should allow people to decide for themselves, to determine their own way of life and their own interests, even if we believe that these people have chosen a wrong, inferior or offensive way of life and harm themselves as a consequence of the way in which they understand their interests (if they harm other people as well, then it is easier to intervene). Of course, we can advise people and try to convince them, but we should be very careful if we want to impose a way of life on people through the use of (legal) force, no matter how reasonable and beneficial this way of life seems to us. What is best for me is not necessarily best for everybody. Most people value the freedom to decide for themselves. The value of this freedom may even outweigh the value or price of any possible outcomes of their decisions.

Human beings owe to each other help to distinguish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the former and avoid the latter. They should be forever stimulating each other to increased exercise of their higher faculties and increased direction of their feelings and aims toward wise instead of foolish, elevating instead of degrading, objects and contemplations. But neither one person, nor any number of persons, is warranted in saying to another human creature of ripe years that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it. He is the person most interested in his own well-being. John Stuart Mill


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