What is Freedom? (19): Social Freedom

If you ask people what freedom is, then they tend to go with the “ability to do what you want” definition. And it’s equally likely that they immediately add a qualifier: this ability should not be absolute but instead limited by the same freedom of others and by the things that can harm others.

Sounds very reasonable, until you dig a little deeper. Freedom understood like this only pretends to give our fellow human beings their due. Other people in fact become the border of my freedom and are therefore something negative. I can only protect my freedom or my ability to do as I like by avoiding other people as much as possible, by withdrawing from society and by becoming self-sufficient. Freedom is isolation. As long as there are other people around, my freedom is restricted by others; it’s restricted both by the rule that I should not harm other people’s freedom, and by other people’s lack of respect for the same rule with regard to me (since rules are never fully respected).

The more I avoid other people, the less restricted are my actions, and my freedom increases. If I avoid people, then no one stands in my way, no one interferes with my life, no one obstructs my actions or prevents me from doing something, and no one’s freedom limits my own freedom. It seems I can only do this when I leave the community because then my actions are no longer limited by other people’s actions or by other people’s freedom.

I’m not being original here. Marx already formulated this problem in On the Jewish Question 170 years ago:

The limits within which each individual can act without harming others are determined by law, just as the boundary between two fields is marked by a stake. It is a question of the liberty of man regarded as an isolated monad, withdrawn into himself. … [This kind of freedom] is not founded upon the relations between man and man, but rather upon the separation of man from man. It is the right of such separation. The right of the circumscribed individual, withdrawn into himself.

Fellow man is merely a limitation or a restriction – the only legitimate restriction of my freedom – and not harming him is the only thing I do for him. This kind of freedom is not incompatible with positive relationships and cooperation, but it doesn’t help either. It’s extremely individualistic even if legitimate interests of others are taken into account. It’s difficult to see how it can be compatible with another understanding of freedom in which freedom requires the company of others and in which other people are the realization instead of the limitation of freedom.

What would such a conception of freedom look like? It would see other people as necessary conditions rather than restrictions, as the beginning rather than the end of freedom. Freedom would not retreat into a space – and inner space or a physical space away from others – in which we can escape the coercion and the rules of the outside world. I think it’s necessary to accept the reality that the world of appearances and of other people is of the utmost importance to freedom. Freedom is more than a withdrawal from the world, from the threatening world of other people who do not allow us to be free and whose freedom limits our actions, either voluntary as a consequence of their own actions, or involuntary as a consequence of our respect for their freedom.

But why is interaction with other people important for freedom? I need the company of other people in a formalized and structured public space protected by rights if I want to take my life in my hands, if I want to examine my opinions and preferences in order to be sure that what I want to do – with respect for other people’s freedom – is really what I want. “Really” means that what I want is something more than unreflective preference. I wish to be able to choose from a wide range of objectives, as many as possible, without discrimination, obstruction and punishment (with the exception of those objectives that impede the objectives of others), but that implies more than freedom from interference. I need to hear others defend certain objectives with the best arguments they can present in an inclusive and accessible place of debate protected by human rights. Without this public place, my ability to do what I want – with respect for the same ability of others – is an empty phrase. If I can do what I want without interference, but what I want is impossible for me to determine in a rational way on the basis of good arguments – or is perhaps even decided for me in some conscious or unconscious way – then I can’t do what I want.

More posts in this series are here.

What is Freedom? (18): Freedom is a Happiness Pump

Several studies have shown a correlation between happiness and freedom. How can we explain this relationship? If we assume that there is some form of causation going on here – and that, in other words, there isn’t a third element which causes similar evolutions of the levels of both freedom and happiness – then it’s reasonable to conclude that freedom causes happiness.

The other way around would only make sense if we adopt a somewhat self-defeating notion of freedom: if we’re happy we don’t need anything more, and hence we don’t need to be able to choose; being free means being free from want.

However, if freedom makes us happy, how exactly does it perform this magic? One possible story is that freedom means, in part, economic freedom. And it does seem to be the case that economic freedom makes us wealthier. Wealth, in turn, makes us happier. There’s even less doubt about that.

Another explanation of the relationship: freedom means control, self-government and self-ownership. These states of being are intrinsically valuable but it’s not silly to argue that they should also make us happier. The life of a slave, a servant, a citizen of a dictatorship or a victim of psychological coercion can be a happy one but it’s not a happy one on average, at least given a definition of happiness that includes self-reflection and awareness of possible alternatives.

On the other hand, too much choice and responsibility for ourselves can make us worse off: it makes our lives more complicated and riskier, and increases the chances of regret or post-hoc dissatisfaction with certain choices. Regret obviously doesn’t make us happier. Neither does self-criticism, and self-criticism is another likely outcome of more freedom. If the results of our actions are caused by our free choices, then we can’t blame someone or something else if these results turn out bad. Buddhism can be understood as a reaction to the possibility of regret: freedom for Buddhism is not the ability to choose – and regret your choice afterwards – but is instead the freedom from want. This, however, is akin to defining freedom away, as I’ve argued above.

There are indeed measurable drops in self-reported well-being associated with the process of acquiring agency (see for example this source). Which may be related to the possibility of regret, the burden of responsibility for oneself, or the fact that increased choice and opportunity often entails an increased expectation that the choices we make and opportunities we get result in success of some sort. After all, if we don’t get what we choose why bother with the freedom to choose in the first place? And as we all know, success is rare. Sour grapes and adaptive preferences may then be seen as a reaction of the free against life’s many long shots. We are free to choose the grapes and even to attempt to get them – and our culture of freedom can even persuade us to choose a lot and choose things that we may never get – but instead of damning our overpromising freedom when we can’t get them we convince ourselves that we don’t want a choice in the matter. Once again, freedom is reduced to freedom from want.

In sum: the causal effects of freedom on happiness are complicated, if there is an effect at all. Maybe we should consider the possibility that freedom is worth having irrespective of or even despite of its impact on happiness. And is worth having even if the effect on happiness is negative.

More posts in this series are here.

What is Freedom? (11): Freedom of the Slave, and Freedom of the Slaveholder

A nice quote from Abraham Lincoln, ridiculing the notion that U.S. slaveholders lost their “freedom” when slavery was abolished:

The world has never had a good definition of liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in need of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name — liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names — liberty and tyranny.

The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails today among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty. Hence we behold the processes by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage, hailed by some as the advance of liberty, and bewailed by others as the destruction of all liberty. (source)

A similar point – one about the freedom of the tyrant – was made by Hannah Arendt. More posts in this series are here.

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (13): More Income Equality Makes Us More Free

Another reason not to worry too much about the supposed incompatibility of equality and freedom is the fact that an equal level of monetary resources promotes freedom. Money in the form of a relatively decent income allows us to choose from and engage in a wide variety of activities. It makes it possible for us to buy the commodities and services we want to buy, and consequently do with them what we want to do. (Of course, within the legal limits that determine what can be commercially traded and how traded goods can be used; e.g. we can’t buy people, and we can’t use the guns we buy to kill people). As a result, we have a wider choice of life plans and more means to pursue our chosen plan.

This is freedom in one sense of the word: more choice. Freedom in another sense, namely the ability to do what we want without interference, looks absolutely anemic compared to this. After all, what good is the absence of interferes when the world we live in offers us only very few options or none of the monetary resources to choose and pursue options. This freedom from interference is hardly valuable, if it is freedom at all.

So, if we agree that monetary means promote freedom in a certain sense of the word because these means broaden our sets of choices, then I guess we’ll also agree that a more equal distribution of money, wealth and income promotes freedom: it gives people who receive more money in the new, more egalitarian distribution more freedom, without necessarily diminishing the freedom of those whose resources are diminished in the new distribution. The monetary freedom of the rich isn’t necessarily reduced after income redistribution and after reductions of income inequality, because of diminishing marginal utility. The ability to buy a fifth yacht doesn’t increase anyone’s freedom in any sense of the word. And taking away this ability doesn’t reduce anyone’s freedom. On the contrary, if the monetary means that could have been used for this fifth yacht are instead given to a number of other people who don’t have a lot of money, then these means will benefit the freedom of those other people, and aggregate freedom will have increased.

So that’s a good reason to reduce income inequality. However, it’s probably not a good reason to eliminate income inequality completely, for four reasons. First, even if, ideally, people have a right to the same extent of monetary freedom as it is defined here, that doesn’t mean they should have the same amount of money. In order to be able to do the same things and have the same choices, different people need different amounts of money. The handicapped, for instance, may need more than average.

The second problem with equal money is that it would mean deep and frequent violations of property rights, and property rights are important, perhaps just as important as freedom (and no, property rights and freedom are not the same thing: the former are a means to interfere with the freedom of others, namely the freedom of others to use goods that belong to you).

A third problem created by equal income is related to incentives. And finally, equal income doesn’t combine well with considerations of desert (one definition of desert is that people deserve different levels of monetary wealth for their contributions to society, culture etc.).

We could react to these different considerations by framing the issue as one of value pluralism: income equality and freedom are important values, and so are desert and property. The difficulty would then be to balance these different values which, it turns out, are sometimes contradictory. That would mean limiting the equalization of income at some point before total income equality, at a level that is compatible with respect for property rights (also limited), with due consideration of incentive problems (also limited), and with recognition of the moral value of desert (also limited).

There’s possibly some Gini value that would hit this balance. This Gini value of x gives a level of income inequality at which monetary freedom is maximized for a maximum number of people. A value lower than x (the lower the Gini value, the more equal the income distribution) resulting from higher levels of income redistribution would not increase the monetary freedom of the poor because the amount of money taken from the rich has become so high that it doesn’t just eat away at marginal utility but also produces disincentives high enough to reduce the size of total social wealth.

We could try this kind of delicate balancing between redistribution on the one hand and incentives produced by rewards for deserving actions on the other hand. (Alternatively, we could also drop income equality as a value and instead focus on a so-called sufficientarian approach in which we would try to give people enough monetary means to achieve a certain level of freedom – freedom as it is understood here – regardless of the means and freedom of the people at the top of the income or wealth distribution. However, I’ll leave that option aside for the moment).

However, there are some problems: we’re dealing here with a somewhat strange notion of freedom. Freedom is obviously much more than the use of monetary means to choose and pursue goals. Also, we don’t want to promote consumerism. The problem with consumerism is that the truly important parts of life can’t be bought, and that focusing on consumption tends to sideline those important parts. It also has ecological disadvantages.

And another problem I already mentioned: some people will be worse off if money is equalized because they need comparatively more money just to have the same capabilities. Hence, rather than equalizing money we should perhaps equalize capabilities.

More posts in this series are here. More on income inequality here. And here‘s a related post about the link between poverty and freedom.

What is Freedom? (5): Is Poverty a Denial of Our Freedom?

Freedom is commonly, but in my view mistakenly, defined in a narrow way, namely as the frustration of our goals or our choice of goals by the intentional (or, less restrictively, unintentional) actions of other human agents. These actions can be of two types:

  • intervention with or obstruction of our goals or choices,
  • or the removal or denial of the resources we need to achieve our goals or make our choices.

Most people would not call it a denial of freedom when our goals or choices are frustrated or obstructed by natural phenomena or other non-human causes. (More here).

Take the example of a tsunami washing away the only bridge connecting our home to the mainland, thereby making it impossible for us to achieve our goal of joining the mainland. This does not deny our freedom according to the common interpretation of freedom. However, when our authoritarian government prohibits us from using the bridge in order to join the mainland, then this is seen as a denial of our freedom. Our goals are the same in both cases, but the different causes that make it impossible for us to achieve our goals mark the difference between mere inability or lack of power on the one hand, and a lack of freedom on the other.

The origins of this common interpretation of freedom are to be found in the view that freedom is about the ways in which human beings ought to treat each other and about the ways in which government officials in particular ought to treat citizens. Freedom is a moral and normative notion that only makes sense in a social and political context. On top of that, people often give a pragmatic reason for limiting freedom to human relationships: we can only do something about the denial of our freedom when governments or fellow human beings block our goals and choices or take away the resources we need to achieve our goals and choices. Hence, even if we accept to call obstruction by natural causes a denial of our freedom, there’s no point it since we can’t legislate that a tsunami should not block our goals and should be punished if it does.

This far I can go along with the common view. My objections kick in when people extrapolate the tsunami example to poverty. Poverty, the claim goes, is not – or at least not normally – caused by direct human actions, and therefore it’s not a denial of freedom. In most cases of poverty, it’s not as if we can point to some guy and say: “he made me poor!”. The level of our income and wealth is determined by a gigantic interplay of millions of actions in the global marketplace, by climatic conditions, institutions and policies, our genes, our behavior etc. It’s impossible to point to a precise selection of human beings who are responsible for our poverty. Therefore, although poverty does frustrate our goals and choices just as much as (or perhaps even more than) human actions such as enslavement or oppression, we are dealing here with something that is more similar to a tsunami than to an authoritarian government or an oppressive fellow citizen.

As a first reply to this claim, we can point to cases in which the causes of poverty can be traced to certain very specific human actions and agents: agricultural subsidies, the North Korean famine, politicians voting to abolish unemployment insurance etc. However, let’s grant that it may often be possible to link a particular individual’s poverty to specific actions or agents and that a particular individual’s poverty is often multi-causal. Still, the same may be true of oppression. Furthermore, it remains the case that we can always identify very specific individuals who have the power to end the poverty of other individuals. They may not have caused the poverty of those individuals, or we may not be able to show that they did cause it or that their actions contributed to a great extent, but their failure to use their power to end it is a denial of the freedom of the poor. It may not be their actions that created poverty, but their failure to act certainly does perpetuate it. And although the difference between actions and failure to act or between initiation and perpetuation is important, it’s not important enough to remove responsibility. Because there is responsibility, we can claim that poverty is a denial of freedom even if we adopt the restrictive definition of freedom as the frustration of goals and choices by other human beings and even if we grant that it’s not possible to trace the causes of poverty to deliberate actions.

Go here for a related post.

What is Freedom? (4): Increasingly Demanding Types of Freedom

Freedom can be defined in different ways. Depending on the definition, it’s something that is more or less demanding. Definitions of freedom differ in the things that are required to make us free. Here’s an overview of a number of different definitions that you can find in the literature, from the least demanding to the most:

1. Absence of voluntary goal frustration

A basic, minimalist definition postulates freedom as the absence of goal frustration. We are free if no one blocks our goals, if we can do what we want and what we have set out to do, without anyone – in particular the government – frustrating the realization of our will or our goals. In this basic form, the frustrating agent always acts in a deliberately frustrating manner.

For example, a wife in a patriarchal society – call her Mary – wants to work outside of the household, is formally allowed to do so (there’s no choice frustration) but achieving this goal is made very difficult for her; both her husband and the government put a lot of obstacles in her way.

2. Absence of involuntary goal frustration

A slightly more demanding vision of freedom includes among the frustrating agents those who frustrate goal realization, not because of voluntary obstruction but because of other reasons not inspired by the will to frustrate or obstruct.

For example, although Mary has successfully divorced her husband and migrated to a more liberal county, she finds that none of her skills are marketable in her host society. Hence, the people in her host society involuntarily frustrate her goals and make her less free than she could be.

3. Absence of resource-based goal frustration

A step further: the blocking factors are not only agents but also a lack of resources. The resources can be either inner our external resources:

  • Inner resources: if we lack discipline, a good work ethic or a good education, we may be unable to reach our goals. Our passions, emotions and other tendencies may overwhelm our other tendencies that we require for the realization of our goals. In this case, our goals and freedom are frustrated not by external agents but by aspects of ourselves.
  • External resources: if we lack food and shelter, we may also be unable to reach our goals.

For example, Mary’s goal of finding employment is blocked by her inability to work in a disciplined way and/or her lack of means of transportation.

We are free to achieve our goals if there is no obstruction

  • by agents voluntarily frustrating our achievement,
  • by other agents involuntarily frustrating our achievements,
  • caused by the absence of internal or external resources (or the presence of obstructing “resources”).

4. Absence of choice frustration

The first 3 definitions above take for granted that we want something and try to realize it, even though we’re faced with obstacles of different kinds. The focus is on our ability to get it or on the factors inhibiting our ability. A fourth, still more demanding definition of freedom stipulates that we are free only when there is no goal frustration and when we have an unfrustrated choice between different goals or objects of volition.

For example, Mary’s only objective is caring for her family and she didn’t choose this objective from a certain range of possible desirable goals, for example because certain goals are not allowed. In this case, we will not call her free, not even if she wants her objective and can achieve it without frustration. She’s not free because she didn’t choose her objective from a range of possible objectives of unequal value.

A lack of freedom in this 4th sense can be caused by agents voluntarily or involuntarily limiting the range of options, or by a lack of resources.

For example, Mary only has one possible goals, caring for a family. Other valuable and desirable goals, such as becoming an artist or traveling the world, have been blocked by the cultural or legal norms of her society or by a lack of internal or external resources: she does not have the income, education or discipline necessary to make an evaluative choice among a larger set of options. Mary is less free than she would have been had the other desirable goals been possible options – possible in the sense of not having been removed from the set by agents, or in the sense of being backed up by the necessary resources.

As in the case of goal frustration (types 1, 2 and 3), choice frustration can be caused by interference or by the absence of resources or capabilities.

5. Absence of distortions in option formation

An even more demanding notion of freedom: freedom requires that agents or the absence of resources do not block options, but also that there are no distortions in option formation (as opposed to option choice). People are free if they can freely establish a wide set of possible desirable goals, then freely choose from them without someone or something frustrating certain options (#4), and then freely pursue the chosen options without frustration (#1-2-3).

So freedom is not just goal achievement or goal choice but also the ability to set up a range of possible choices.

For example, some options do not even cross Mary’s mind. Her option formation may be inhibited by early childhood nurturing that has removed certain possible goals from the option set. Or she may erase options from her mind: her realistic assessment of possibilities makes her adapt her preferences and choose those options which are approved by her patriarchal circumstances.

Such distortions in option formation – settling for the options that are feasible or just choosing from those options that have been instilled in us from early childhood on – may make us more happy since we’ll stop agonizing about the impossible, but it won’t make us more free.

6. Absence of the wrong options

And finally, the most demanding form of freedom stipulates that people should have the ability, not to choose from an undistorted set of options or to pursue the chosen options without hindrance, but the ability to choose the right options, i.e. only those options that are moral or those that make one’s life better.

This is the kind of freedom that makes sense of the paradoxical phrase “forcing one to be free”: only by forcing people to make the right choices can people become free.

For example, if Mary was given the freedom to choose between educating herself and working in the sex industry, then Mary would only be free if she chose the first option. The second option, although possibly profitable, would not make her free because it would not allow her to make her life better.

That last sentence makes it obvious that the conception of freedom as the right choice depends on controversial assessments of the “good life”. People cannot be free to decide on their own view of the good life, because then this conception of freedom would collapse into the previous one (#5). Some authority must decide what is the good life and force people to choose the right options. Hence, it’s unclear whether this conception of freedom still deserves the name. The paternalism and perfectionism inherent in the conception are more at home in authoritarian forms of government.

Just a small remark to end: although these 6 types have names that use negative language (“absence”), this does not imply that they are all negative types of freedom in the traditional sense.

More on different types of freedom here.

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

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (8): Liberty = Freedom From the State + Freedom From Social Pressure + Equality of Opportunity

Libertarians traditionally adopt a negative kind of freedom, and, more precisely, limited negative freedom: they believe that individuals should be free from interference by the government. They seldom accept that individuals can be coerced by private and social constructs, such as tradition, the family, gender roles, cultural racism etc. Here’s a rather long but exceptionally well-written quote that makes this point:

I am disturbed by an inverse form of state worship I encounter among my fellow [libertarian] skeptics of government power. This is the belief that the only liberty worth caring about is liberty reclaimed from the state; that social pathologies such as patriarchy and nationalism are not the proper concerns of the individualist; that the fight for freedom stops where the reach of government ends. … [L]ibertarians for whom individualism is important cannot avoid discussions of culture, conformism, and social structure. Not every threat to liberty is backed by a government gun. … [W]hen a libertarian claims that his philosophy has no cultural content — has nothing to say, for instance, about society’s acceptance of gays and lesbians — he is engaging in a kind of cultural politics that welcomes the paternalism of the mob while balking at that of the state. …

To take a very basic example, at mid-century 5.5 percent of Americans entering medical school happened to have female bodies. This number may well have reflected women’s limited interest in pursuing medicine as a career. But that level of interest also reflected a particular view of women in positions of authority, a certain range of social spaces that girls could imagine themselves inhabiting. Norms that positioned women as wives and mothers obviously functioned as constraints on identity formation. None of this has much to do with limited government, but it has everything to do with individuals struggling to assert themselves against a collective. …

Libertarians will agree that laws requiring racial segregation and prohibiting victimless, though controversial, sexual practices are contrary to their creed. But if the constraints on freedom of association suddenly become social rather than bureaucratic [or legal] — if the neighborhood decides it does not want black residents, or the extended family decides it cannot tolerate gay sons — we do not experience a net expansion of freedom. Kerry Howley (source)

In other words, libertarians are stuck in the first part of the following equation:

Liberty = Freedom From the State + Freedom From Social Pressure + Equality of Opportunity

But there is also a tendency to go no further than the second part. Many accept that society can restrict the freedom of individuals, but don’t grant the same powers to inequality of opportunity. As I stated in two previous posts (here and here), it makes sense to view freedom more positively as the possession of resources and capabilities that are necessary to make a really free choice between alternatives and opportunities. The freedom of those without certain resources and capabilities (such as education, health and a basic income) is futile because they can’t exercise their freedom, not because they are actively interfered with by the state or by their social environment, but because they can’t choose between opportunities. Someone who’s left alone by her government, and who isn’t pressured by her family, tradition or society, may still lack freedom because she doesn’t have a basic income or education necessary to make choices and realize these choices. Amartya Sen has pioneered this view. Hence the importance of helping people to develop their capabilities, e.g. anti-poverty programs, investments in education and healthcare etc. Of course, it’s precisely such programs that often horrify libertarians…

All this is of course a gross simplification, but if you wanted to explain human political ideology to Martians, that’s probably how you could start:

  • Libertarians focus on freedom against the state; freedom against social pressure isn’t very interesting or at least not a priority; equalizing opportunities, resources and capabilities is harmful because it empowers the state and violates property rights.
  • Conservatives agree with libertarians on the first and last part of the equation, but preserve the right to use social pressure to impose their – often Christian – ideology (e.g. same-sex marriage), sometimes even with the help of the state (in which case the freedom from the state isn’t important anymore).
  • Liberals think all three parts of the equation are important but sometimes struggle to find the right balance. So-called “big spending liberals” may accept a large state apparatus.
  • Socialists focus on the last two parts, often at the expense of the first. State intervention is believed to be highly beneficial, without substantial risks to individual freedom.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (12): The Scope of Criminal Law in Different Countries or Cultures, and Its Effect on Human Rights

Different countries and different cultures make different choices about the appropriate scope of criminal law. Some actions which are legal in one country are illegal in another.

The two tables below list a number of action types (certainly not all) and whether they are legal or illegal. This table can be used to classify countries or societies according to the degree of freedom that they grant their citizens. The legalization of some actions makes countries more free, the legalization of others less free. (And the same for the choice whether or not to criminalize certain actions). This table can therefore be used to distinguish between countries or societies that are more free or more “liberal” than others which are more authoritarian or more “illiberal”.

The distinction between countries can be made by attributing a certain score to each action and then making the sum. The scoring could be done like this: add a point when a country or society is best described by the right column, and subtract a point for the left column. Countries with high marks are then liberal, countries with low marks illiberal.

For example, if we would like to score the U.S., this country would be given one point for allowing gun ownership, making it a bit more “liberal” (I know this label doesn’t really fit U.S. politics, in which a favorable view of gun ownership is a rather more “conservative” than “liberal” position. But “liberal” here should be understood not in the context of U.S. politics but simply as meaning “more free”). However, the U.S. would lose a point because it has allowed torture. Done for every type of action, this scoring should then give an overall impression of the country, or of any other country.

I don’t intend to attach any moral significance to these terms, “liberal” and “illiberal”. One isn’t necessarily good or the other bad. More freedom isn’t always a good thing. The terms “liberal” and “illiberal” merely describe the degree of freedom in a country.

Now, the interesting thing from the point of view of human rights, is that liberal societies, in general (as can be seen from the tables) are more favorable to human rights than illiberal ones. So the table can be used to classify societies according to their respect for human rights (and then the distinction does take on a moral character). But this isn’t completely true, for two reasons:

  • Some human rights issues, such as health or poverty, aren’t included in the table, because they aren’t relevant from the point of view of criminal law. But they can and should change the score: a society that scores as “illiberal” from the point of view of criminal law, can improve its score as a “human rights respecting country” when it offers its citizens good health care and income (but of course this doesn’t excuse the human rights violations resulting from its criminal law). Or vice versa.
  • It’s debatable whether more freedom for certain actions results in more respect for human rights. One can think of pornography or abortion. So an extremely liberal society is perhaps not the best one from the point of view of human rights.

A correct distinction between more or less liberal countries should not only include the scope of criminal law, but also the severity of punishment when a crime is committed. Societies that have the same scope for criminal law as others, but use capital punishment, corporal punishment, mutilation, stoning or torture as methods of criminal punishment, should be classified as less liberal.

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.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (1): The Free Market

The relation between economic freedom and political freedom is that initial growth in either political freedom or economic freedom tends to promote the other. Milton Friedman in The Wall Street Journal, February 12th, 1997.

This post examines the links between the free market and democracy, especially the causal links. I believe that an increase in the level of one causes an increase in the level of the other. This may be helpful information for those who want to promote democracy around the world without the resort to violence.

I’m sure Karl Marx would have appreciated the irony of finding one of his favorite concepts at the beginning of a post defending the free market: dialectics. There is, in fact, a dialectical relationship between democracy and the free market. They may often contradict each other: the uneven distribution of wealth which one can often find in a free market system tends to falsify democratic political processes because wealth means influence; and democratic decisions often impose restrictions on a free market. However, democracy and the free market often also encourage each other.

Let us first take a look at the way in which a free market can promote democracy. A free market loosens the control of authoritarian states over their societies. If states give up control over the economy, then perhaps they will also give up control in other fields. If a state does not control all economic means, then people will have more freedom to oppose the state because the state cannot as easily take away their jobs or put them out of their houses. A planned and regulated economy usually means a planned and regulated society

A free market also promotes democracy because it requires:

The rule of law

In itself, a free market does not guarantee the rule of law but, in a certain way, it does help to promote it. Private companies like predictability. They want their investments to be protected by the law, they want a state that protects their goods and their personnel, and they want to be able to use the judiciary to enforce their contracts. Companies moreover like to have an international rule of law. They want the same rules applied everywhere. For example, if labor regulations are not the same everywhere, then companies in certain countries have an unfair competitive advantage, because they have to pay their workers less, they have to invest less in safety etc. “[T]he rule of law enforced by an independent judiciary is a condition for modern market economic relations . . . ‘Markets need laws’ claimed a businessman . . . criticizing the pervasive inefficiency and corruption of the judiciary” * . Because the free market requires the rule of law, and because the rule of law is best protected by democracy (this is an empirical fact **), one can conclude that the free market will strive towards democracy.

A limited state and a free society

Both the free market and a democracy require a limited state and a free society. Only a free society can serve as a base for the democratic control and criticism of government, and an unlimited state is the main characteristic of tyranny. The free market promotes a limited state and a free space for society because it limits state regulation and intervention in the economy. The free market is the freedom to produce, to buy and to sell and this kind of freedom promotes freedom in general.

Transparency and free flows of information

Businessmen need free flows of information in order to be able to make the best economic decisions. Hence, a free market promotes democracy, the most transparent form of government and the form of government most dependent on free flows of information.

Means of communication and transportation

A free market economy promotes the development of the means of communication and transportation. It is difficult to image a democracy without means of communication and mobility. Furthermore, increased communication and mobility weaken the power of habit and tradition, which in turn can weaken the grip of traditional authoritarian structures and forms of power.

Social mobility

Traditional authoritarian social structures, and social structures in general, are less stable in a free market, and subject to the free choice of individuals.

International trade

The free international circulation of goods can promote the free circulation of ideas. Inter-cultural communication between people who can trade freely with one another can promote democracy because it can allow people to question their habits, customs and traditional power structures. After all, you start to realize that things can be different when you see that they actually are different elsewhere in the world. In cultures that cannot trade freely and therefore do not communicate much with the outside world, most habits are considered to be self-evident and are accepted without questions. Undemocratic habits are then difficult to change. If we eliminate international trade barriers, then we can open up traditionally closed societies.

A democracy also tends to adopt a free market system. A democracy is a limited state because it necessarily (or ideally) adopts the rule of law and hence creates a space for free economic activity, exchange and competition between a variety of groups and persons. A democracy also – ideally – respects human rights and many human rights, such as the right to private property, promote the free market. It is difficult to imagine a free country, a democracy which guarantees all civil liberties, but does not allow the freedom to produce, to buy and to sell goods and services. However, a democracy may find it necessary to limit the free market, or correct for some of its injustices. It may want to redistribute some of the wealth created by the free market to those of us who cannot use their freedom to become economically successful.

There have been numerous studies measuring the degree of political freedom (or democracy) and measuring economic freedom. If you combine these measurements you can see the correlation.

* F. Panizza, in Beetham, D. (ed.), 1995, Politics and Human Rights, Blackwell, Oxford, p. 179.
** There are also many theoretical reasons to defend the link between democracy and the rule of law.