Tag Archives: freedom

Free Stuff for Free People

It’s an election year! And you know what that means: public displays of wackadoo as American politics sinks to new lows. But there has been some interesting philosophical wrangling, as Bernie Sanders entered the presidential race as the first successful avowed socialist to enter a presidential race since Eugene V. Debs. He introduced what for the United States are radical ideas: universal health care, tuition-less college, and a living wage. These are ideas that have been taken for granted elsewhere. Yet it has led to an avalanche of memes about “freeloading” and “free stuff”. That’s too bad, because “free stuff” is necessary for a free society.

The reason for this is pretty simple. Property is power granted by the state that gives the owner of a thing the legal right to constrain the actions of non-owners regarding that thing. Every property right is state coercion against non-owners.

This is made worse by two additional factors about property. First, it is endlessly accumulative. There is no end to the wealth that people are able to acquire. The result is that the state is primarily at the service of those with the most property. And I don’t mean that wealthy people have more political influence. Because ownership means being able to call upon the state to control others, the state is literally at the service of property owners. In fact, the accumulation of wealth could not occur without the modern state there to protect it.

Second, property is not restricted to a limited domain of objects. In the United States, it took a horrific war to end the practice of owning people. At the same time, exceptions to property rights have steadily eroded. Feudal societies recognized various common property rights, mostly revolving around subsistent use. For example, the commoners of medieval England had the right of “estovers”, the right to take wood from any woodlands, regardless of ownership, or piscary, the right to subsistence fishing. Yet now property rights are conceived as being without such exceptions, regardless of people’s needs.

A maximally free society would have no property rights. People would take whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. However, we cannot will such a world into existence. But if we care about the freedom of the individual, then we must ease the restrictions of existing property rights. This is achieved by one of two ways.

First, we give people money. In a world of private property rights, the lack of money is a lack of freedom. If I don’t have money, I can’t get on the bus and ride across town, I can’t take food from the store, I can’t rent or buy shelter – no matter how much I want to or need to. Money is the primary means in a commercial society of accessing objects locked behind the invisible bars of property.

This is true regardless of why I don’t have money. I may be destitute from illness or I may be a gentleman grifter. It doesn’t matter. If we care about the freedom of human beings among modern property rights, then we have a political, coercible obligation to give them money.

Second, we can modify the means of distribution. We could give everyone the money they need to buy necessities. Then they could go and buy their own health insurance. The problem there is economic – the nature of the commodity causes most people to be priced out of their markets. This has been shown to be true for free markets in private pensions, for-profit insurances, and other forms of finance, as well as natural monopolies in transportation, communications, and utilities. That’s why so many of these goods and services are decommodified (taken off the market) in most countries. Access to them is not based on a price determined by supply and demand.

This is the actual nature of most of our “free stuff”, both the free stuff we already have, and the free stuff that we want. We are shifting the means of access from rationing by price to rationing by other means. Private, for-profit health insurance means that access to health care is rationed by how much you can pay, which is driving more and more people out of the market as costs increase. Universal health insurance means that health care is distributed by the medical necessity of the care, as determined by the doctor and patient. Private college means you go to college if you can afford it, and you have the academic qualifications. “Free” public college means that you only need the academic qualifications.

Between the two scenarios above, one private and rationed by price, and the other public and rationed by need, which gives more freedom to the individual? Because public goods are distributed by means other than price, they deliver more freedom to the individual. I have more freedom when I can see any doctor that I like because health care is guaranteed regardless, then when a private insurer tells me I can only see doctors in my ‘network’. I have more freedom when I can attend college when I have only to demonstrate my competence rather than both competence and payment.

Property itself is state coercion. If we care about freedom, then we must adopt means of reducing the restrictions of property against its non-owners. A system of taxation and transfers expand the freedom of those without by providing them with public money. And, as citizens, we have the fundamental obligation to defend the freedom of one another. Thus we owe our tax money to others. Also, an expansion of public goods expands freedom by distributing goods in a manner besides price – for example, universal health insurance distributes care according to medical necessity. All of this assumes that we genuinely care about freedom, and that we don’t just use it as a buzzword or shibboleth. That seems to be in short supply these days.

The Foundation of All Ills

Bertrand Russell wrote, in chapter two of his Political Ideals (1917):

Even in times of peace, most men live lives of monotonous labor, most women are condemned to a drudgery which almost kills the possibility of happiness before youth is past, most children are allowed to grow up in ignorance of all that would enlarge their thoughts or stimulate their imagination. The few who are more fortunate are rendered illiberal by their unjust privileges, and oppressive through fear of the awakening indignation of the masses. From the highest to the lowest, almost all men are absorbed in the economic struggle: the struggle to acquire what is their due or to retain what is not their due. Material possessions, in fact or in desire, dominate our outlook, usually to the exclusion of all generous and creative impulses. Possessiveness—the passion to have and to hold—is the ultimate source of war, and the foundation of all the ills from which the political world is suffering. Only by diminishing the strength of this passion and its hold upon our daily lives can new institutions bring permanent benefit to mankind.

Institutions which will diminish the sway of greed are possible, but only through a complete reconstruction of our whole economic system. Capitalism and the wage system must be abolished; they are twin monsters which are eating up the life of the world. In place of them we need a system which will hold in cheek men’s predatory impulses, and will diminish the economic injustice that allows some to be rich in idleness while others are poor in spite of unremitting labor; but above all we need a system which will destroy the tyranny of the employer, by making men at the same time secure against destitution and able to find scope for individual initiative in the control of the industry by which they live. A better system can do all these things, and can be established by the democracy whenever it grows weary of enduring evils which there is no reason to endure.

Freedom and Democracy

Erik Olin Wright

The core value underlying democracy is that people should, to the greatest extent possible, be able to control the conditions and decisions which affect their lives, both as separate persons and as members of broader communities. We can call this the value of self-determination.  When we apply the value of self-determination to the choices and actions of individuals that affect their lives as separate persons we usually call this “liberty” or “freedom”. When we apply the value of self-determination to those contexts in which our lives are bound together through interconnection and interdependency, we call this “Democracy”.  Democracy and individual freedom are therefore rooted in the same value: people should be able to control the conditions and decisions which affect their lives to the greatest extent possible. (Apparent conflicts between democracy and liberty occur not because of an underlying conflict in fundamental values, but because of the inherently difficult practical problem of creating institutions to realize this value.) In a fully realized democracy all people have broadly equal access to the necessary means to participate meaningfully in the exercise of political power over those collective decisions which affect their lives as members of a broader community.

–          Erik Olin Wright, Interview, July 12, 2010

(Note: when our lives are, in fact, “bound together through interconnection and interdependency” may itself be contentious.)

Libertarianism is False

At Democracy in Principle, we hold that the purpose of any society ought to be to secure the blessings of liberty.  That’s why the uniquely American philosophy called “libertarianism” is so distressing.  Libertarians have a lot of good positions on social issues, being opposed to the War on Drugs and paternalism, as well as political issues, like the protection of civil liberties, exposing police violence, and opposing foreign wars.  However, this all comes to nothing when it comes to the central source of oppression in most people’s lives – their jobs.  According to libertarians, the market makes everyone free, regardless of what kind of treatment employees have to submit to on the job as a result of selling their labor on the labor market.

In the past week, Chris Bertram, Corey Robin, and Alex Gourevitch, have written an excellent, extended critique of libertarianism.  The criticism focuses on the practical failings of libertarianism, primarily that the libertarian focus on contract and property rights do not actually maximize individual liberty, most glaringly, the liberty of workers in a labor market.  (The discussion continues on Crooked Timber, and for reference, here is the entry for libertarianism at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) read more »

Right to Basic Needs: “Entitlements” are Not Charity

From the asylum of absolute lunacy that characterizes American politics today, we have been hearing that we can no longer afford “entitlements” that the lazy jobless people feed on.  The attitude is that such “entitlements” – a word that sounds like something less than “rights” – are merely coerced charity.  However, “entitlements” that maintain people’s basic needs are not public charity, and private charity cannot replace public provisions for basic needs.  Private charity does not only fail to solve the fundamental problem of people’s deprivation, it also fails conceptually.  Private charity is what is called in ethics an “imperfect duty,” which means that you should do it, but you don’t always have to do it.  That citizens provide for one another and ensure that each have their basic needs met is a “perfect duty”, one that is always and continuously performed, for which we must establish social institutions to act in our stead. read more »

“Start Seeing Motorcycle Helmets”: Helmet Laws and Liberty

Recently I was reading J.D. Trout’s The Empathy Gap.  The main thrust of the work is that the reasoning capacities of human beings are limited and should be supplemented by the structure of social institutions to improve our decision-making.  For example, as the title suggests, social institutions can be used to bridge the “empathy gap,” that inability to care about the people we don’t know or see.  Many of the examples are similar to what is found in Nudge, reviewed on this site.  The example that Trout uses that I want to discuss is the effectiveness of motorcycle helmet laws, and the relationship of such laws to paternalism. read more »

Freeing People, Not Markets

Even after the economic implosion of the last two or three years, there are still many Americans who believe that markets are going to deliver on the promises of prosperity that mainstream economists craft for them.  Markets have proven themselves to be unable to bring prosperity.  Wealthy nations were not made wealthy by following the prescriptions of those who advocated free markets, and those nations who have followed most closely such prescriptions are the most destitute.  The most obvious case is that of the United States, which in its time has pursued high tariffs, the monopolization and cartelization of industry, the socialization of the costs of businesses, and the direct public funding of some of the most important industrial innovations of the twentieth century, including the computer, the Internet, the jet engine, space travel, et cetera.

Let us suppose that the proponent of the market – not necessarily a neoliberal or even libertarian, but anyone who conceives as the market as a primary means of social organization – concedes that the market may not produce prosperity.  Generally such advocates will not concede this, until mass unemployment strikes, in which case this is a tragedy that must be borne, even though we have long known how to relieve unemployment.  In any case, you might have found that rare proponent of market organization that might concede that markets do not consistently produce prosperity.  However, the market-proponent will say that this is the price we must pay for the freedom that the market provides.  Some may remain poor, but they are least free.  That is what this article refutes – the market is not a social organization in which the freedom of the individual is realized. Markets not only fail to deliver prosperity, but also freedom.

Before someone tries posting about “government coercion,” this article is not a plea for more “government intervention,” at least not in the conventional sense.  The alternative to distribution by the market is not distribution by a bureaucracy.  Humanity has employed many different forms of distribution in which government was only the guarantor (as it is with markets), not the provider. read more »

A Brief Note on Freedom and Duty

There is a frequent misconception that the freedom of the individual implies a lack of duty to others.  Usually this comes in the form of raging against the provision of “welfare,” or pooling private funds into a social insurance fund like Social Security.  Such claims should go further, to demonstrate against payments for policing and public safety, fire control, the paving of roads, etc.  And some, to their credit, take just this tack to its logical conclusion.  That conclusion is, basically, that social requirements, or duties, of me to which I did not explicitly commit are an infringement of my right to freedom.  To understand why this is nonsense, let us first look at the nature of rights.

The most successful definition of a right is in relation to a corresponding duty (this is not universally accepted, I admit).  That is to say, if I have a right, then you have a duty to uphold the content of that right.  For example, my right to the [slider title = “freedom of speech”] Beware, dear readers!  The current United States Constitution only protects your freedom of speech from the United States government, and the state governments, when taken in conjunction with the Fourteenth Amendment.[/slider] entails that you have the duty to protect my freedom of speech.  And if you also have that right, then I have the same duty in regards to you.

Thus, if I have any right to [slider title = freedom]I will go so far as to say that it is the first and original right from which all others are deduced. [/slider], then you have the duty to protect that freedom.  In a free society, all persons have the right to freedom, and all the rights that are entailed thereby; thus, all persons have the duty to protect one another’s freedom, and all the duties that are entailed thereby.

But – aha! – what is the content of those duties?  Those who reject their social duties claim that those duties implied by rights are those of non-intervention.  That is, that my right to the freedom of speech entails that you have the duty not to prevent my speech – if anybody else does prevent my speech, well, it’s not your problem.  Similarly, you might say that my right to be unharmed means only that you have the duty not to harm me, but not the duty to protect me from violence.

The difficulty with this view is that it separates having rights and duties from actually being able to follow through on them.  If your duty is non-intervention in my enjoyment of a right, then my inability to attain those rights is inconsequential.  We have parliamentary procedure so that everyone may have an equal opportunity to exercise their right of the freedom of speech in an assembly.  If, however, your duty is to non-interference with my right to free speech, then I have only the right to be heard above the shouting of others also trying to be heard in the assembly.  After all, you have no need to see to the realization of my rights as I choose to use them, only not to keep me from speaking.

Under this formulation of right and duty, my claim to my rights becomes counterfactual at best.  I could speak freely, if I can manage to be heard.  I could remain safe, if I can manage to defend myself.  However, if we want our rights to be actually realized, we must accept that we have more thorough duties to fulfill those rights.  Namely, we have the duty not only to not interfere with the pursuit of one’s rights, but the actual positive pursuit of those rights.  We do not merely have the duty not to prevent speech, but to provide equal time for any and all who wish to speak to do so – thus we have parliamentary procedure.  We do not merely have the duty not to cause harm, but the duty to protect one another from violence – thus we have publicly-funded police.

In any case, the centrality of freedom to social organization does not entail the absence of duty.  The question merely becomes what kind of duties do we then have?