The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (12): How Coercion Promotes Freedom

Freedom understood as independence and the absence of interference or intentional coercion (especially government coercion) is an important concept. The problem is that it seems to invalidate redistribution through taxation. If the government taxes a wealthy person to transfer some of her wealth to another person living under a fixed threshold of basic resources, then the government intentionally coerces the wealthy person and takes away (part of) her freedom. That’s one of the origins of the traditional view that freedom and equality are incompatible. For people who believe strongly in freedom as the absence of intentional coercion, it’s very difficult if not impossible to accept taxation and redistribution.

On the other hand, there are those who want to maintain the use of government and taxation as a means to guarantee people an equal share of those basic resource necessary for a decent human life. And I’m one of them. How can we reply to those – let’s call them libertarians – who voice concerns about the loss of freedom that’s inherent in redistribution?

1. First, we could argue that freedom, as it is understood here, isn’t the only important value, and that we should put it “in the mix” of the whole of human values, including welfare and equality, and try to balance those values in a fair way. That’s the value pluralism approach, but it’s an approach that won’t be successful to those who don’t believe in value pluralism or who believe that if there are many values, freedom is still the most important one (e.g. many libertarians).

2. Another reply could be that redistribution reduces one type of freedom – freedom from intentional coercion – in order to promote another type of freedom, namely a more positive type of freedom in which not only the absence of coercion is important but also the availability of choices, capabilities and power. Of course, a wealthy person’s choices, capabilities and power aren’t enhanced by the fact that she pays taxes – on the contrary – but when these taxes are used to guarantee a poor person’s basic income for example (or education, or health etc.) then that poor person will have a wider array of choices, capabilities, opportunities, power etc. So positive freedom is redistributed by means of a limitation on negative freedom, and is redistributed in such a way that on average people have more equal access to it. (If a rich person pays $10,000 in taxes for the welfare benefits, healthcare, education etc. of a poor person, then the rich person loses less choices, opportunities and capabilities then those gained by the poor person. Of course, the exact tax rate is important: punitive tax rates may harm the rich more than they benefit the poor).

In a way, this second reply also involves an appeal to value pluralism: negative freedom (one value) is balanced against more equal access to positive freedom (another value), and is – sometimes and in part – outweighed by it.

3. A third reply isn’t based on value pluralism. We could argue that redistribution of income or wealth through government taxation merely limits one person’s negative freedom for the sake of another person’s negative freedom. It’s fairly easy, in fact, to argue that poverty, or the absence of those basic resources necessary for a decent human life, reduces the negative freedom of the poor. The poor are intentionally coerced all the time, for no other reason than their poverty: the homeless are forcibly removed from train stations, gypsies from land where they aren’t allowed to camp, poor migrant workers have their passports taken away by their employers and are forced to repay “travel costs” by working for free, etc.

If the government gave these people a basic income for example, or rent subsidies, they wouldn’t be coerced in these ways. The taxes that the government would collect for this purpose would not simply reduce negative freedom for the sake of another value (positive freedom, welfare, equality etc.). It would reduce the negative freedom of some for the sake of the negative freedom of others (possibly many others depending on the type of taxation system). In other words, it would modify and equalize the distribution of negative freedom. It would increase intentional coercion on some people in order to reduce intentional coercion on (many) others.

Taxation and redistribution do indeed reduce freedom (in one sense of the word) but at the same time they increase freedom (freedom in the same sense as well as in a more positive sense). Conversely, a failure to tax and redistribute could reduce freedom.

More posts in this series are here.

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