On freedom, and on libertarianism
Sep 8, 2010

On freedom, and on libertarianism

Freedom is a very good thing indeed, but what does it really mean? While often considered by some to focus on freedom from government imposition, freedom actually can mean freedom from a great many different things. The simple truth is that we are constrained by the reality of our situations.  What we are free to, say, eat in the west is very different than what someone in a food crisis in Mozambique is freely able to eat. It is my contention that one can never be truly free without the freedom from the crippling oppression of poverty.

Freedom from poverty and freedom from government interference are two factors but there many others such as freedom from the constraints of culture and social customs, for instance, that lead to horrors like the treatment of women (such as FGM). Or freedom from being forced to accept pragmatically to consume the products chosen by the markets. Our world creates many barriers in many different ways and freedom can mean the elimination of all or any of these barriers.



Given the wide scope of this definition of freedom, we immediately arise at contradictions where "I support freedom" doesn't give a clear answer. For example, consider a welfare system that taxes people with wealth and supplies the means to acquire food to those impoverished who can't. On the one hand this limits the freedom of those forced, via governmental threat, to pay taxes but on the other hand it gives the impoverished the freedom to acquire food and other necessities - a freedom they were denied before. Which then is the worse imposition on freedom? Another classic example is the civil rights act which, technically, limits the freedom of an employer to discriminate based on race but of course opens the door and frees racial minorities to engage in the workplace and public places as they previously had not been.

The other consideration is that while freedom is an excellent virtue, it is not the only excellent virtue and others we wish to maintain may be contradictory. So for instance one might think some level of equality or egalitarianism is a good thing, or that reducing human suffering is a good thing. But if the cost of reducing human suffering or promoting equality is restricting the freedoms of some group (employers to promote racial equality or tax payers to reduce poverty) them we are going to have to balance these contradictory aims in some way, So more than just that "supporting freedom" leads to contradictory objectives, supporting several virtues of which freedom is only one leads to even more contradictory objectives.  The resolution, often a difficult or even intractable process, at the very least requires a balanced, pragmatic view of these competing aims.

Finally, the issue I have with a lot of libertarian thought is that it overly focuses the definition of freedom to be explicitly freedom from governmental influence and hence, if one supports "freedom" one ought to support very limited government. The problem with this is that, as we have established, freedom means many more things than just freedom from "violation of property rights" by governments or individuals. Supporting a welfare system that frees the people from the oppression of poverty can be far more liberating than the taxation that makes this possible is oppressive. Furthermore, libertarianism preferentially overemphasizes the virtue of freedom over other virtues.

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