Sunday, April 13, 2008

Why should we be interested in the links between freedom and flourishing?

Policy choices in democracies are to a large extent choices between individual freedom and state paternalism that is intended to enhance the well-being of citizens. Alexis de Tocqueville referred to this apparently “provident and mild” encroachment on liberty (in “Democracy in America” published in 1835) as the “despotism that democratic nations have to fear”. He suggested that that it would be “like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood” (Volume II, Section 4, the Henry Reeve Translation).

Such policy choices would be unnecessary if everyone wanted to be free from the coercive power of others and viewed others as moral equals. Under those circumstances everyone would share the classical liberal vision. As James Buchanan, founder of ‘public choice’ economics and a recipient of the Nobel Prize in economics, has pointed out, the vision of classical liberalism – “we can all be free” rests ultimately on the proposition that a structure of social interaction is possible in which no person exerts coercive power at the expense of others (“Why I, too, am not a conservative”, Edward Elgar, 2005, p 58).

This vision depends on perceived links between freedom and human flourishing only insofar as individuals want freedom so that they, and their loved ones, might flourish. In order for this vision to prevail, however, it needs to command widespread support. As Buchanan has acknowledged, to achieve the classical liberal vision “a sufficient number of persons must be willing to be left alone, to trust in their own abilities to determine their own destinies”. Buchanan has identified a critical factor as the existence of institutions that enable “a sufficient number of persons” to choose to “become or remain free of dependency status” (p14).

It seems to me that the political choices that people make between freedom and state paternalism depend to a large extent on their beliefs about the links between freedom and human flourishing. Those who want greater freedom to pursue their own destinies are not likely to achieve this unless they can persuade a lot of other people that they would have potential to flourish to a greater extent if government played a smaller role in their lives.

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