February 6, 2013

Freedom and the expansion of government

Beyond some minimal level, a level that we have long since reached and surpassed in the United States, the expansion of the size and power of government renders us less free. It is frankly breathtaking that I live in an age when I need to even argue this point. Still, before launching into an analysis of why I have come to this conclusion, it is necessary to dispense with the philosophical preliminaries by saying a few words about what I mean by “free”.

Historically, freedom has gotten defined in quite a few interesting and often opposing ways. My definition of freedom, in the politically relevant sense, is the first (and in that particular instance less relevant) definition I mentioned in my essay on free will.

( http://cadwaladr.blogspot.com/2010/03/case-against-existence-of-free-will.html ).

“…[one meaning of “free will”] is that state in which one’s decisions can be realized in physical actions. In this sense, if one is physically constrained by devices, disease or other externally induced circumstances [including the actions of other humans] one is, to the extent of the constraint, deprived of free will.”

I believe the terms “freedom” and “free will” can be used interchangeably in this context.

An important aspect of this definition is that it defines freedom as something not only individually realizable, but as something which is solely individually realizable. Such a definition makes no allowances for abstract, collectivized notions of freedom (like Hegel’s for example) but plants the concept firmly in the realm of individual experience and action. Nations, races and other group entities can no more experience freedom than they can experience a collective migraine headache. Unrestrained action is the purview solely of individual conscious beings.

The real world is, of course, awash in constraints to our imaginable actions and desires. Gravity and a lack of feathers keeps me from flying like a bird, as does my unfavorable power-to-weight ratio. Obviously, when discussing freedom in a political sense, we can dispense with those constraints which are not attributable to the actions of other people. Neither the government nor anyone else forbids me to have feathers or suitable musculature – these are simply brute physical facts.

Another significant consequence of defining freedom as the ability to bring one’s desires to fruition is that it makes freedom, or the lack thereof, the product of one’s unique expectations. Freedom is not only something we experience individually, but something which, to a great extent, we define individually. We are neither free nor constrained because we meet someone else’s interpretation of freedom or constraint.

A problem with most definitions of freedom is that they attempt to make freedom an absolute good, and carve off anything unpleasant about it with some other term (e.g. “license”). I believe this is a mistake. The freedom to murder one’s neighbor in cold blood is still a freedom. By itself, freedom is amoral – it is merely the ability to act on our decisions. Any moral content must lie in the kind of decisions that one makes.

While one can be free without being moral, happiness and freedom are more closely correlated. It is possible to separate the two – one can be free to do something but habitually dissatisfied with the results – but in most cases we are happy when we can pursue our desires and unhappy when we cannot. It is, of course, possible for an individual to be happy with a very restrictive set of circumstances, so long as that individual’s aspirations are equally limited.

In any real society, it is impossible that everyone will be absolutely free in the sense that I’ve outlined above. Society, even at the molecular level of the family, consists of a set of obligations and behavioral constraints. We submit to such constraints ultimately because they are to our individual advantage. By “advantage” here, I do not necessarily imply any especially positive outcome; in the sense I intend, even slaves submit because it is to their individual advantage – it is better to serve than to be beaten or killed. Societies are the working out of all the varied and transient desires of their constituent individuals by whatever means. There are always relative winners and losers in this process, though some societies do produce more freedom (and more happiness) than others.

Governments, as one of the active organizational agents of societies, are by their very nature in the business of restricting freedom. Laws and regulations are obviously constraints, but really all government activity, to the extent that it is supported by some form of taxation, is a burden and a constraint to somebody. While government is inherently a check on freedom, it is an unavoidable one. It arises spontaneously wherever humans come together in any numbers, and it is obvious that without at least some government it would be impossible to have societies worth the term. The dream of the anarchists, in which, without the bosses, all persons would be naturally cooperative and everything would run perfectly in a state of total equality, is nothing more than a naïve fantasy. Humans are not angels. Societies must restrain the murderer and the thief. They must, at times, protect themselves from other societies as well. The dreams of pacifists are probably only slightly less illusory that those of the anarchists. These functions require governments, laws, and some amount of taxation.

Beyond the realm of protecting life and property from the gross depredations of other individuals or other nations, the necessity of government becomes more suspect. Again, as government just is the working out of power relationships, both within a society and between societies, it can restrain and regulate almost without limit. What I am referring to above is not what it can do, but what can be justified as essential to a society’s stability and continuity. On the less contestable side of the grey area we have such items as roads, sewers, and various other public works. While some constructions and institutions of this sort might arise spontaneously through private enterprise, it is hard to imagine an entrepreneur who would wish to undertake the construction and operation of a pay-as-you-go sewer. Some things that clearly benefit virtually everyone only get done by governments. It is also probably true that the more complex and populous the country, the more such institutions must be organized and operated by the state. Nevertheless, a necessary erosion of freedom is still an erosion of freedom. If it turns out that the only way to maintain a huge population is by surrendering to totalitarianism, we should not pronounce totalitarianism good because particular circumstances make it necessary. While people can get used to very severe constraints, and learn not to feel them, I do not see how we can count this as a good outcome. In a sufficiently restrictive society, I could not write this essay – nor could you read it. In a true totalitarian state, we would lack the capacity even to understand it.

When government strives to make all citizens equal before the law it is striving not to favor certain groups or certain individuals. When it strives to make them equal economically it must, in practice, do just the opposite. Such a government presumes to compensate not only for the inequities brought about by history, but also for the inequities that result from differences of ability and effort. A government that undertakes this task is no longer merely protecting its citizens, but is attempting to re-engineer their beliefs, desires, and activities to conform to a particular ideal. To call such an effort an extension of freedom is absurd on its face. One is not made free by being forced to conform to someone else’s ideal. Such policies may advance the interests of a few selected groups of citizens temporarily, but only at the cost of surrendering the personal liberty of everyone to the whims of a handful of planners. In assuming such powers, the government is transformed from a limited undertaking that keeps society viable, to an eternal overbearing parent that presumes to always know what’s best for everyone.

The condition I have sketched above is not the worst case of what an expanding governmental power might do, but actually the best case. I have presumed, so far, that the people who administer government are selfless idealists, bending their entire effort toward their particular utopian ideals. If even such well-meaning Platonic guardians would take our liberties away, then how much worse would we suffer under the rule of ordinary, selfish, capricious human beings? This question is amply answered by history.

The chief purpose of the U.S. Constitution is to limit the power of government. This is the document’s very essence. If America is a grand experiment, it is an experiment in creating the maximum degree of individual freedom that a society can tolerate without disintegrating. As Thoreau said, “That government is best which governs least.” The opposite experiment, that of seeing how much government can curtain individual sovereignty without producing a rebellion, has been tried repeatedly – and we can expect a repetition of this experiment to yield predictable results.

The left will plead and whine ad nauseam about fairness, about it all being the will of the public as expressed through the elections, etc. Unfortunately, individual freedom is not preserved by the simple right of suffrage, but only by a broadly held belief that such a freedom is worth preserving. Lose that value, and you take a grand step toward political irrelevance. A populous prepared to surrender individual sovereignty for either an illusion of security or a temporary ration of relief renders the democratic franchise a mere formality. A state ruled in secrecy by celebrity politicians, unelected experts and academics is neither a democracy, nor fair, nor free. It may appeal to some, at least until the real bill comes due, but I, myself, would rather risk the consequences of a free life than to beg for charity from any set of masters.

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