The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (2): Limited Freedom

What is freedom? The ability to do as you like

In the previous post in this series, I described the ways in which freedom and equality can be incompatible. I also mentioned that the reason for this opposition has something to do with the way in which we normally define freedom. In the current post, I want juxtapose this standard definition with another one.

Traditionally, freedom is believed to be the absence of coercion and the ability to do as you want. Hobbes gave one of the canonical descriptions:

By LIBERTY, is understood, according to the proper signification of the word, the absence of externall Impediments: which Impediments, may oft take away part of a mans power to do what hee would.

This is a negative definition of freedom because it focuses on the absence of impediments, constraints or limits on actions (limits imposed by other human beings, by the state, by nature or perhaps even by our own passions).

Is this kind of freedom possible? And is it acceptable? It will definitely be a very unequal freedom. If everybody can do as he or she likes, then we create offenders and victims rather than free citizens. Victims obviously cannot do as they like. And we can all become victims. Not even the strongest among us can do as he likes, because he has to sleep now and again and we are weak when we sleep. Unlimited and lawless freedom as in the definition of Hobbes therefore cannot exist, or only in a very precarious fashion. And it should not exist because if it did, most people’s freedom, human rights and other important values such as security would suffer. Hobbes clearly understood this.

What is freedom? The ability to do as you like, within limits

That is why this absolute negative freedom has to be limited. Freedom is always freedom in the state and freedom within the limits of the rule of law. Freedom can only exist together with obedience because only a state with its rules and laws can create equal and durable freedom for all. Obedience to rules opens up a space in which people can be free without fear of insecurity, coercion, domination, intolerance etc. Freedom is, therefore, not incompatible with rules, obedience and coercion.

Strictly speaking, none of this invalidates the definition of freedom as the ability to do as you like without impediments. One can say that the state merely limits our freedom defined in this way, in order to make it safer, more secure and more lasting. So we are still speaking about the same kind of freedom, but now it’s limited.

Much of social contract theory – of which Hobbes is an example – posits a kind of natural, unlimited freedom, a part of which people give up when entering into a contract with a state. And instead of saying that they give up a part of their freedom or their ability to do as they like in order to gain security, one could say that they give up a part of their freedom to make the remainder of their freedom more secure. That’s the same thing. They choose not to do certain things – e.g. break the law – in order to have more freedom to do the other things they want.

According to this definition of freedom, all coercion is bad but some kind of coercion is necessary. If people were always friendly to each other, the state would not be necessary and people would not have to accept a limitation of their freedom. State coercion in the form of laws limits freedom because it forces people to act in a way that is contrary to their wishes. Yet coercion can actually promote freedom. Coercing one person and thus limiting his or her freedom can promote the freedom of other persons. And since we can all be these “other persons”, coercion promotes the freedom of all. Coercion in fact equalizes freedom. It makes it impossible that the freedom of one harms the freedom of another. So it already becomes apparent how freedom and equality are intertwined.

Limiting the limits

However, because of the importance of freedom as the ability to do as you like, the proponents of limited negative freedom want to keep the area of the law and the state as small as possible. Libertarians and conservatives generally believe that the only way in which the state can promote freedom is by guaranteeing the physical security of the weak. The state should only protect the weak against the strong. In this way, it makes it possible for the weak to do as they want. It puts the freedom of the weak on the same and equal level as the freedom of the strong who can do what they want even without protection.

For the rest, they say, the state should not do anything and should keep itself as inconspicuous as possible. It should create an area which is free from state coercion and in which people can do as they like. In a certain sense, this freedom is a stateless freedom even though the state must act to protect it. The area of non-interference must be as large as possible in order to allow freedom to become as comprehensive as possible. Freedom and politics can only go together because and insofar as politics guarantees freedom from politics.

Contrary to anarchists, libertarians and conservatives believe — correctly I think — that the area of freedom or non-interference cannot be unlimited because this would result in insecurity, chaos and war. But in a sense they all believe in unlimited freedom. For anarchists it’s an ideal for the future, for libertarians and conservatives it’s something which belongs to a perhaps mythical past (before the time of the “contract”) and which can only be desirable in the unlikely event that human beings learn to behave and to respect each others security.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (8): The Harm Principle and the Freedom to Damn Yourself

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right… The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. John Stuart Mill

This is the so-called “harm principle“, for which Mill has become famous. In other words, people have the right to “damn themselves”, as long as they don’t hurt others in the process. If being an alcoholic or drug addict is part of a person’s vision of the good life, and if it doesn’t make him beat his wife or children, steal from others etc., then no government should intervene.

Obviously, this is limited to people who act rationally and are sane. Who, in other words, know the consequences of their actions, and then primarily the consequences for themselves. In some cases it must be possible to ignore someone’s desires for the sake of his or her own well-being. Some people have to be coerced for their own good because they fail to understand and to pursue their good or their interest autonomously. I’m thinking of children for example. No one would sincerely believe that we would hurt their freedom if we allowed them to engage in unsafe sex or to abandon their studies. They cannot assess the consequences of their actions and the harm they inflict on themselves.

In general, however, we should allow people to decide for themselves, to determine their own way of life and their own interests, as long as their choices don’t impact other people. We should do so even if we believe that the people in question 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.

We can, of course, advise people and try to convince them, but we should be very careful if we want to impose a way of life on people, 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 possibility to decide for themselves. It is much more dangerous to enact laws that only deal with people’s own lives than it is to enact laws that deal with social relations.

Even if the state can encourage or force people to pursue the most valuable ways of life, it cannot get people to pursue them for the right reasons. Someone who changes their lifestyle in order to avoid state punishment, or to gain state subsidies, is not guided by an understanding of the genuine value of the new activity. … We can coerce someone into going to church but we will not make her life better that way. It will not work, even if the coerced person is mistaken in her belief that praying to God is a waste of time, because a valuable life has to be led from the inside. A perfectionist policy is self-defeating. It may succeed in getting people to pursue valuable activities, but is does so under conditions in which the activities cease to have value for the individuals involved. If I do not see the point of an activity, then I will gain nothing from it. Hence paternalism creates the very sort of pointless activity that it was designed to prevent. We have to lead our life from the inside, in accordance with our beliefs about what gives value to life. Will Kymlicka

That is why we can only propose the “good way of life” (if we have an idea of what it is) and argue for it (and we need democracy and human rights to do that). Except in very exceptional cases, we should not impose this way of life and we should accept other ways of life, not because these ways of life are better, but because they are other people’s autonomous choices. The good way of life should be led from the inside. It should be a choice, a conviction, not something that is imposed from the outside. If your life is not your choice, it can never be good.