Friday, April 25, 2008

How can we categorize arguments against freedom?

Human flourishing is inherently a self-directed process. It follows that in order for individuals to be able to flourish to the maximum extent possible, without infringing on the flourishing of others, we need a political/ legal order that will not favour some varieties of human flourishing above others. If this point seem obvious to you, please read on. Otherwise, see here.

The first category of arguments to restrict freedom involve fundamental opposition to the ethics of “live and let live”. According to this view everyone should be required by the government to live according to a particular set of values and standards. It seems to me that in countries with democratic forms of government few people are prepared to take this position openly. A Google search using the phrase “live and let live” did not reveal any internet sites which were presenting arguments openly opposed to individual liberty. The most popular arguments against liberty are more subtle.

The second category of arguments to restrict freedom are attempts to re-define rights in ways that reduce freedom. Nearly everyone agrees that the law should protect people against force and fraud, and that some additional protections are required for children and people who are not mentally competent. However, arguments are frequently put forward to give additional protection to the unborn as well as to animals, potential drug addicts, potential gambling addicts, potential credit addicts etc. Some of these arguments may have sufficient merit to attract near unanimous support, while others involve attempts by particular groups to impose their values on others.

The third category of arguments to restrict freedom are based on the view that people will flourish to a greater extent if the government provides them with paternal guidance. Thus we have arguments for compulsory superannuation, compulsory accident and health insurance etc. Such measures may prevent some misery and reduce the extent to which people with self-control problems become a burden on others. It seems to me, however, that human flourishing is to a large extent about the exercise of competence in the face of challenge (for further explanation click here). When governments take more of the trouble (i.e. challenges) out of living, we shouldn’t be too surprised if some people find other ways to get themselves into trouble (e.g. via gambling).

The fourth category of arguments to restrict freedom are based on the view that it is OK to hinder the efforts of some people to flourish in the way they wish to if this will bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people (or perhaps just to improve the well-being of a small minority whom the majority consider to be worthy of government assistance). It seems to me that this is the dubious ethical reasoning that underlies the use of progressive income taxes to fund transfer payments and provision of public services. Nevertheless, not many people would be prepared to advocate immediate abolition of government welfare expenditure on the ground that it is not strictly consistent with the principles of “live and let live”. (See here.) This also seems to me to be the dubious ethical reasoning that underlies the economic argument that governments can increase GDP by subsidizing activities such as research, innovation and training, as well as arguments for governments to promote greater competition.

I think the main point which emerges from this attempt to list categories of arguments is that even though a large proportion of the population may support the principle of “live and let live” as an abstract concept, large numbers of people support policies that are inconsistent with this principle. This could be because they are unaware of the inconsistency, but in my view it is more often likely to be because they have no problem in making exceptions to general principles when they believe that there are powerful pragmatic reasons to do so.

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