Saturday, August 06, 2005

Facets of Freedom

For those of you who are keeping score at home, the topic that I’m going to address here is not dissimilar to this post. More specifically, I’ll try to sharpen the focus on the ideas that arose in the comment exchange of the aforementioned post.

To put this in perspective, the discussion encompassed politics, society and the individual’s relationship with both. Yes—it’s deja vu all over again. Anyway, in that post, I used the term: collectivist, which, in context, is an adjective that is essentially the antithesis of individualist. And while the former is mildly pejorative from my view-point, the latter is somewhat negative for one who prefers a more robust social role for the state. That having been said, in response to the probligo, I wrote:

…I’ve neither criticized any country in particular (NZ included), nor have I heaped praise on the U.S. Both my original post and my subsequent comments have dealt with the principles of my political philosophy, rather than egregious ad hominem statements.

What ad hominem statements you ask? Well, for example: “Your idea of "charity" exists only to hide the fact that you have no charity in your heart.” and “I smell the taint of personal greed running through this.” and “Perhaps some day you should come see the truth rather than blindly following the pap and propaganda you were fed as a pup.” and last, but not least “What your well indoctrinated and propaganda filtered mind is not seeing is that the welfare state, as it operates in NZ, in Sweden, in the UK even, is nothing like what you are saying.” (I would encourage a full reading of the comments to place those quotes in context). Now, the probligo’s counter to my comment (from above) was:

Robert, I take it then that referring to me as "collectivists (like Probligo?)" is not very close to the ad hominem" line?

I pay taxes in exactly the same way as you. In theory at least those taxes are set in response to the wishes of a majority of society. The difference between us is no more than our respective attitudes to taxes. I pay them in a sense of realism. You would not if you did not have to. I suspect, from the tone that I hear in your writing, that "donations to charity would soon fall by the wayside from your purse as well. I suspect also that in your ideal society you would consider the private medical insurance "too expensive" and that you were "unjustifiably subsidising the health costs of others". Ah well, there it is.

The challenge stands -

Show me any example you wish of the "state" running my life by "coercion".

Show me any example you like where you believe my rights are restricted, where you as an American have more right than do I.

There it is indeed. For the power to tax and regulate personal conduct is the power to control. And by control, I mean the act of limiting individual liberty for whatever purpose, though typically it's in the name of “social justice”, morality or both. But with respect to the probligo, he is likely speaking of one of New Zealand’s social policies, known as ”Closing the Gaps”,

which was the name given to an official NZ policy of assisting socially-disadvantaged ethnic groups, particularly Maori and Pacific Islanders, through specially-targeted social programmes. The phrase came to prominence during the term of various National Party-led governments between 1992 and 1999. All government departments were required to report on how their service contributed to "Closing the Gaps".

More broadly, politics has been (especially in last hundred years or so) dominated by debates that revolve around what exactly is an acceptable level state imposed limitation on individual liberty (as distinct from self-restraint, which requires no state involvement). I’m primarily speaking of liberalized pluralistic societies (generic sense of liberal), wherein the populace plays a role in shaping the legal landscape, whether through the voting franchise or “public pressure” that is applied to the governing body.

Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, I’ll mention an excellent post by Unrepentant Brad entitled Peak Liberty, which incidentally was recently published in the latest issue of The New Libertarian (way to go Warbs!) In his essay, Brad recounts various historical instances in which individual liberty has ebbed and flowed, but mostly ebbed. Additionally, he articulates two distinct facets of freedom: social and economic.

Social Freedom: this refers to those civil liberties that are enjoyed by liberal societies, such as those enumerated in, and guaranteed by, arguably the most essential part of our constitution: The Bill of Rights, which ostensibly restricts state coercion.

Economic Freedom: this refers to the right of individuals to engage in trade, free of onerous regulation, as well as the freedom from excessive confiscation of wealth and property by the state.

Does America currently enjoy perfect freedom? Sadly, no. But as with most things, the devil is in the details, which is to say that politics consists of unending disagreement about the degree to which social concerns trump individual ones, and vise-versa. For example: the anarchist might demand absolute liberty (Murray Rothbard hates the state), whereas the committed collectivist advocates for the eradication of individualism ("We must stop thinking of the individual and start thinking about what is best for society." Hillary Clinton, 1993 and "Comrades! We must abolish the cult of the individual decisively, once and for all." Nikita Khrushchev, February 25, 1956 20th Congress of the Communist Party)

To be sure, the probligo and I are somewhere between the two ideological poles, though we certainly reside at opposite ends. That is, I favor less government intrusion in individual affairs, coupled with more personal responsibility, whereas the probligo seems to see government as a force for good, which ought to assume a paternalistic role in society. While he is not unique in holding that view, I fear that such a position is rather myopic, in that it focuses upon the perceived positive benefit to those in need, while ignoring the immorality of the means of achieving that end.

To further develop this idea, I’ll address the challenge: Show me any example you wish of the "state" running my life by "coercion". The answer is insidious in its simplicity. For to coerce is: to bring about by force or threat (coerce the compliance of the rest of the community). Such is the specialty of the state, and indeed coercion is the primary function of government, ergo “necessary evil”.

Therefore, contra the implication of the probligo’s assertion, coercion is intrinsic to the state. Here's the rub: the more the state is asked to “provide” for the needs of society (social safety net, healthcare, etc.) or for specific individuals (direct welfare, disability income, etc.), the greater degree of coercion is required, as “entitlements” are not without cost. In addition, liberal states produce nothing, which means that its funding must be seized from the productive individuals that it governs.

While there are those that “don’t mind” paying a higher tax rate in order to “close the gaps”, there are also those that do not appreciate being dictated to in that fashion. And in that vein, many collectivists (see my initial definition) object to mandatory, state-funded religious activity. Regardless, the song remains the same, which is state-forced “contributions”, monetarily or otherwise, to something or someone without the consent of the “contributor”. Both “justifications” for excessive coercion are asinine at best and grossly immoral at worst.

Finally, at the risk of being massively upstaged, I’ll reference the seminal essay by John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, which examines the proper relationship between society and the individual.

The acts of an individual may be hurtful to others, or wanting in due consideration for their welfare, without going the length of violating any of their constituted rights. The offender may then be justly punished by opinion, though not by law. As soon as any part of a person's conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction over it, and the question whether the general welfare will or will not be promoted by interfering with it, becomes open to discussion. But there is no room for entertaining any such question when a person's conduct affects the interests of no persons besides himself, or needs not affect them unless they like (all the persons concerned being of full age, and the ordinary amount of understanding). In all such cases there should be perfect freedom, legal and social, to do the action and stand the consequences.