Freedom’s just another word for … ?

When Hunter S. Thompson returned to Louisville in the early 1960s, he found a city proud of its progress on race relations. "Racial segregation has been abolished in nearly all white public places", he wrote. But even though many of the legal barriers to desegregation had been dismantled, the job was still only half done. Louisville’s blacks had "come up against segregation’s second front, where the problems are not mobs and unjust laws but customs and traditions."

Housing was at the centre of this "second front." According to Thompson, the builder of a new high end apartment tower assumed "that the prestige tenants he wants would not consider living in the same building with Negroes." Many libertarians have no problem with this. As long as segregation is not enforced by the state, these libertarians insist that it is a purely private matter. Some, like Hans-Hermann Hoppe, hope that the winding back the state will allow even greater levels of segregation.

In Hoppe’s libertarian vision, the state is replaced a ‘natural order’ where citizens regain their right to exclude. He writes that the natural order "is characterized by increased discrimination, segregation, spatial separation, uniculturalism (cultural homogeneity), exclusivity, and exclusion." Hoppe’s passion for discrimination is shared by other libertarian thinkers at the Alabama based Ludwig von Mises Institute. The institute’s founder, Llewellyn Rockwell, once wrote that: "State-enforced segregation was not wrong because separateness is wrong, however. Wishing to associate with members of one’s own race, nationality, religion, class, sex, or even political party is a natural and normal human impulse."

According to Rockwell, "Freedom means that which the government does not control." So as long as racial segregation and discrimination are not enforced by the government, Rockwell would say that they have no impact on freedom. Other libertarians have a different view. George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen, prefers to think about freedom in terms of opportunity. His vision of classical liberalism regards: "positive liberty (‘what can I do with my life?’) as more important than negative liberty (‘how many regulations are imposed on me?’)". He argues that libertarians should pay more attention to the influence of voluntary norms in limiting opportunity.

Reason Magazine’s Kerry Howley takes a similar position when she argues that freedom can be limited by culture as well as law. She is particularly critical of conservatives who want government to reinforce traditional gender roles by creating incentives for marriage and motherhood. When it becomes more difficult for individuals to deviate from gender norms, they are less free, says Howley.

Libertarian writer Todd Seavey disagrees. He writes that, "We will be far freer once feminism, like all egalitarian, anti-freedom philosophies, is relegated to the ash heap of history" Apart from writing that "feminism is bunk", Seavey insists that social norms have nothing to do with freedom. The key to understanding freedom, he argues, is understanding the difference between genuine coercion and social pressure.

In a recent post Howley stands her ground:

Todd Seavey accuses me of “rhetoric unbecoming a libertarian” and argues that “mere social forces” cannot be freedom-constraining. Thus, a black man who cannot hold employment by law is unfree, but a black man who cannot hold employment because social custom is such that no one will hire him is as free as any white man. A gay couple who must stay closeted to avoid social ostracism is as free as any hetero couple. A woman who has to choose between purdah and exile from her village is basically living in a libertarian paradise, so long as no one writes the rules down.

This may be true in some parallel world, or under some as-yet-unknown definition of the word freedom, but it’s pretty clearly not true given the world we have and the language we use.

As Will Wilkinson points out, some libertarians insist on defining liberty as the absence of coercion. Then, when they define coercion, they tie themselves up in knots to exclude forms of coercion they approve of. According to these libertarians, threatening to shoot trespassers isn’t coercive but a government ban on automatic weapons is. Will writes that "it is abuse of language to deny that many emotional or social threats are coercive".

This isn’t an unusual view in libertarian circles. After all, Friedrich Hayek defined coercion as "such control of the environment or circumstances of a person by another that, in order to avoid greater evil, he is forced to act not according to a coherent plan of his own but to serve the ends of another. (p 20-21). Hayek argued that is no realistic hope of eliminating coercion from society. As he wrote in response to Ronald Hamowy, to "prevent people from coercing others is to coerce them".

According to Hayek, "a morose husband, a nagging wife, or a hysterical mother may make life intolerable unless their every mood is obeyed" (p 138). And unlike Seavey, he regarded all these behaviours as coercive. This doesn’t mean he thought the state should intervene to protect hen-pecked husbands, but it does mean he defined coercion in broader terms that Seavey.

In his essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty,’ Isaiah Berlin wrote that historians of ideas had identified over 200 different senses of the word freedom. Not surprisingly, libertarians have found many ways to disagree with each other about what it means to be a libertarian. Some insist that liberty means freedom from government, others that it means freedom from coercion. Others still, argue that it means opportunity or capability — the ability of a person to live the kind of life they value (or have reason to value). Sometimes liberty means freedom from the arbitrary will of other people.

Berlin is famous for making a distinction between negative and positive concepts of liberty. But equally important was his commitment to pluralism. Berlin argued that it was not always possible to reconcile the things we valued. Justice, happiness, security and economic efficiency are all potential competitors with liberty — however we choose to define it. He wrote: "To assume that all values can be graded on one scale, so that it is a mere matter of inspection to determine the highest, seems to me to falsify our knowledge that men are free agents, to represent moral decision as an operation which a slide-rule could, in principle, perform."

It is difficult to have a sensible argument with people who believe that liberty should never be sacrificed to any other value. Libertarian fundamentalism is usually accompanied by bizarre uses of words like coercion (shooting trespassers isn’t coercive but local government parking fines are) and implausible beliefs about the way the world works (abolishing the welfare state would abolish poverty).

But perhaps it’s not necessary to appeal to the concept of freedom to explain what’s wrong with a society where "some people’s lives are stunted or ruined by arbitrary yet systemic social exclusion, or by having the development of their interests and talents constantly discouraged and their aspirations and confidence constantly undermined".

16 thoughts on “Freedom’s just another word for … ?

  1. Pertinent to the financial situation today Berlin – (Irving) also said:

    I paid my income tax today
    I never cared what Congress spent
    But now I’ll watch over ev’ry cent
    Examine ev’ry bill they pay
    They’ll have to let me have my say
    I wrote the Treasury to go slow
    Careful, Mister Henry Junior, that’s my dough
    I paid my income tax
    Now you’ve got all the facts
    I know you’ll pay your taxes too

  2. I don’t believe that there are many Libertarians who advocate an absence of coercion. It isn’t possible because if you remove government completely and allow complete freedom to individuals, then those individuals would apply coercion to each other. Thus the individual must give up some of their freedom to government in order to protect them from other individuals and keep whatever freedom is remaining.

    Instead, Libertarians advocate a

    minimum

    of coercion, in the balance between government coercion of individuals and individual coercion of each other.

    Property rights are coercion, and thus a form of violence… and most Libertarians accept this. Non-libertarians also accept it but then pretend otherwise. As the example above demonstrates, if we are going to have property rights, then we must be willing to defend that property with violence. If it was your money in the bank, and someone robbed that bank, then you would expect to see the robber hunted down — whether justice is done by trained specialists or talented amatures doesn’t that change the basis of such action is violence, and broadly sanctioned violence at that. Please don’t pretend that the guy sitting on his porch with a shotgun is somehow a “bad guy” while the guards flanking an armoured car carrying side arms are somehow “good guys” because they do the same job in uniform.

    The thing is, property rights serve a function, which is to facilitate productivity and to avoid the “Tradgedy of the Commons” that will occur when the person who has worked for something loses what they worked for and thus loses any incentive to do further work. We condone coercion where it is minimised and where it serves a clear and necessary function.

    The institutes founder, Llewellyn Rockwell, once wrote that: “State-enforced segregation was not wrong because separateness is wrong, however. Wishing to associate with members of ones own race, nationality, religion, class, sex, or even political party is a natural and normal human impulse.”

    Indeed, do we write regulation to force Muslims to eat pork just like everyone else (because having special diet marks them as separate from others)? Do we ban Jews from wearing their traditional skull cap (because wearing peculiar clothing marks them as separate)? Do we ban feminism on the basis that feminists advocate female-only zones? Llewellyn Rockwell has a fair point that there are so many forms of segregation that people actively persue, that to attempt to regulate such behaviour is impossible for starters and could only be done by the most extreme forms of coercion.

    Libertarian philosophy supports the protection of all minority groups (regardless of race, religion, or politics) in the form of some sort of fundamental bill of rights (whether that be a charter of human rights, or a constitutional bill). This protects people from direct coercion from either each other or the government. Beyond that, you can’t legislate to make people want to like each other or desire to associate with each other. Can you imagine if you were to try to buy a house and had to fill in all the neighbourhood quotas — we have this many couples, this many singles, this many whites, this many Chinese, but we do need to bring up the numbers of Catholics in this region so you will probably have to convert, hmmm better make sure your next baby is a girl.

  3. “Please dont pretend that the guy sitting on his porch with a shotgun is somehow a bad guy while the guards flanking an armoured car carrying side arms are somehow good guys because they do the same job in uniform”

    Correct – surely a society with no government where we all individually protected our own possessions with personal firearms would be just as safe, cohesive and functional as one where we delegate the task of protecting our possessions to trained professionals, most of whom are under the control of a democratically-answerable government. No?

    BTW, why is it that I find myself agreeing with Tyler Cowen 95% of the time, but most others that label themselves ‘libertarian’ at best 5% of the time? Certainly to regard positive liberty as more important than negative liberty (a position I agree with, though I suspect he ignores the degree to which we tend to take negative liberty for granted) seems close to libertarian heresy!

  4. Correct – surely a society with no government where we all individually protected our own possessions with personal firearms would be just as safe, cohesive and functional as one where we delegate the task of protecting our possessions to trained professionals, most of whom are under the control of a democratically-answerable government. No?

    If you want to start looking at history, there are plenty of examples of centrally controlled professional police and para-military forces being used to inflict widespread violence against citizens. Admittedly, a democratically-answerable government improves the situation, but then again El-Salvador is supposedly democratic, they just keep wanting to run a Feudal system. Burma has a nice group of trained professionals keeping everything safe, cohesive and functional, sadly their government isn’t answerable to anyone. Could never happen here though? Maybe do a bit of research into how many people have said that and been wrong already.

    Certainly to regard positive liberty as more important than negative liberty (a position I agree with, though I suspect he ignores the degree to which we tend to take negative liberty for granted) seems close to libertarian heresy!

    The problem is that once you say, “freedom from want”, you then give an open-ended reason for a central power to make whatever decisions are necessary to do what they deem solves the “want”. The idea of freedom is that people make their own decisions for their own lives, not that they get handed a bunch of stuff in exchange for having their decisions made by someone else.

    It might sound nice to say, “freedom from sickness” until the realisation that now the central power can claim control over diet, health, medicine, physical activity and every aspect of a person’s life… “but we have to tell them what to do, to ensure they are free”. That in a nutshell is why most Libertarians would prefer just the freedom to be left with minimal interference in their life and leave those “positive freedoms” to the socialists, who are welcome to enjoy them, I honestly don’t feel envious.

    Having said that, there are some things (like mass immunization) where Libertarianism doesn’t work too well because the payoff to the individual doesn’t calculate out as good as the payoff to society as a whole. This is especially true around the critical mass point where the immunization program can make a disease die out within a population.

  5. The idea of freedom is that people make their own decisions for their own lives, not that they get handed a bunch of stuff in exchange for having their decisions made by someone else.

    As in the relationship of ‘contract feudalism‘?

  6. I’ve done a bit of reading and it seems that the employees at Weyco were not actually on any sort of contracts, just depending on Michigan state government to protect them. If they had been on contract, they might have had some grounds to point out that their conditions of employment had changed in a manner that was not previously agreed by both parties (contracts cut both ways). I’m merely pointing out that, allowing for the presumption that contract feudalism actually has a meaning, and further presuming that some real-world example of this situation does exist… Weyco is not such an example.

    However, getting back to the idea of freedom of association (including the freedom to be selective in one’s association), even if the Weyco employees were on contract, it would merely have slowed down the implementation of the anti-smoking policy because all contracts come up for renegotiation at some time or other. If you pass a rule to prevent people having overt policies of only hiring non-smokers (or what have you) then they will run covert policies instead. Then to break the covert policies you will need to implement your own “positive discrimination” rules, and ultimately quotas and everything else that goes with it.

    You could make it illegal for an employer to search their employees or test them in any way (and also make it illegal for any contract to require such things). You would have my support on that one. Indeed a contract exists to serve a purpose, which is to ensure that people can trust one another enough to make productive deals and coordinate their economic activity. Contract law should be no stronger than required to achieve this purpose.

    Most Libertarians don’t have any great religious attachment to the sanctity of contracts, nor to the sanctity of property — over and above the useful purpose that those institutions do serve (OK, some do, but usually the ones who haven’t thought things out carefully). If you get rid of contracts and property, then you rapidly get to a situation where the incentive to work is zero. If I make some object and someone else takes what I have made as quickly as I make it, they why bother to make another? If I pay someone to work for me and they take the pay and do no work, then I have no incentive to ever hire anyone else. Once property law and contract law are strong enough to provide reasonable incentive to work, that is as good as it gets in my books.

  7. The problem is that once you say, freedom from want, you then give an open-ended reason for a central power to make whatever decisions are necessary to do what they deem solves the want

    And provided you have a functioning democracy, I don’t think most people see much of a problem with that. At any rate, I think you’d be hard pushed to find a government these days that doesn’t pursue “liberty-enabling” policies as part of its platform, and I’d say it’s been the norm in developed economies for at least the past century. We’ve seen what happens when you push that to extremes (communism), but outside that, it’s hard to see how any can claim that such policies have been an awful failure in the general case. In most cases, they work by making fairly minor restrictions of the liberties of the many in order to significantly improve life for a disadvantaged minority. And of course sometimes governments get it wrong and enact policies meant to help but that actually make things worse, but as private individuals trying to help one other we have that problem too, and it’s not an a priori reason to stop trying to help altogether.

  8. At any rate, I think youd be hard pushed to find a government these days that doesnt pursue liberty-enabling policies as part of its platform, and Id say its been the norm in developed economies for at least the past century

    In principle or practice?

  9. Looks like iiNet is gonna have some fun with the “liberty-enabling” “free trade agreement” that we signed, handing over super powers to copyright owners. Then once the precedent is set, all Australian Internet users can enjoy their new found “liberty”. I guess we will need some sort of “liberty-enabling” happy golden shield to give us freedom from wrong-thinking.

    This is one example of property rights gone too far. There is no shortage of creative material being generated so we don’t need more incentive for copyright owners, we certainly don’t need a whole new round of expensive lawsuits dragging the industry down right at the time when we are trying to build it up. It follows from what I was saying above, property rights are only worth having where they serve a clear economic purpose, and no more than that.

    Anyone been to an airport recently to get scanned by the “liberty-enabling” Terahertz radiation? I guess I shouldn’t complain too much, at US airports they can enable your liberty even better, by taking a copy of any digital media you happen to be carrying (just for examination and evidence of course, copyright doesn’t apply in this case, for national security reasons).

  10. By “liberty-enabling” I’m specifically referring to policies intended to help those who enjoy less liberty than others because of circumstances out of their control, whether that be access provisions for disabled people, subsidised access to vital services for lower-income families, and yes, even anti-discrimination laws, provided there is evidence that existing discriminatory practices was measurably reducing the opportunities available to those of a particular sex/race/religion etc.

    None of the examples you give would seem to fit into that category Tel_, nor can I think of much reason to defend them.

  11. The internet is a fantastic tool that enables access to a wealth of information and other benefits. The Rudd Government wants to ensure the benefits of the internet are made available to all Australians. That said, the Government also wants to find ways to make a safer online environment, particularly for children, and is investigating the use of filters to block access to illegal content.

    Rudd is happy to use exactly the same “liberty enabling” argument given above. Except that, individuals end up being told what to think (for their own good of course). Whether the blocked content is illegal or not, won’t be determined by any court, nor by any democratic process, nor can you go and check because the blacklist contents are secret. Buy hey, it’s all in the name of helping those who can’t help themselves. Won’t somebody please think of the children?

    One of the fundamental things about government is that once they have a taste for power, they never give it back. All the wonderful gardens that will grow, the fruit we will eat, the love we can all share, all you have to do is let government make your decisions for you. Such a small sacrifice, for this generous reward, why would anyone hesitate?

  12. Well Patrick, I’d argue much the opposite – there’s a lot of rhetoric from right-wing governments about how state assistance to the less fortunate is a bad idea, but they (thankfully) rarely follow that up with wholesale retraction of such assistance. I would still prefer to be a poor black disabled female living under, say, Reagan than under any government of the previous century, no matter how left-wing or socialist it claimed to be – despite the cutbacks he made to various social welfare programs, they were still fairly generous in the scheme of things, and AFAICT Reagan almost never vetoed any of the various bills Congress passed intended to help the disadvantaged (mainly because most of them had overwhelming bipartisan support).

  13. Tel, how is that a “liberty enabling” argument? I don’t think there’s any “liberty enabling” argument for compulsory internet censorship.

    “One of the fundamental things about government is that once they have a taste for power, they never give it back”

    I suppose then that you see the “government” as some phenomenon independent of the people who make it up? That the Rudd government and the Howard government are one in the same? (no, there’s not a lot of difference, but ultimately those who had power last year do not have it this year).

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