Saturday, February 4, 2012

Freedom is Greater When There Are Rational Rules

One common idea of freedom is that it is the absence of restrictions by rules and constraints. This is an incomplete definition, for freedom actually isn't possible without rules.  They are yin and yang.  The question is whether the rules are rational or not: rational rules make freedom possible, while arbitrary, exploitative, irrational rules hinder or crush it.  Conceptions of liberty that focus entirely on the absence of restraints implicitly assume a background of law, social norms, and other rules that create the conditions for autonomous human action anyway.
Modern conservatives, and especially libertarians, look at freedom almost entirely this way, as is evident in their complaints against even the most mild and rational of economic regulations, like rules to as keep arsenic out of water or children out of factories.  This opposition shows an immature and selfish neglect of interconnection with others, which when pushed to extremes becomes socio- and even psycho-pathology.  Even merely insisting that businessmen must following basic laws and rules, equally just like everyone else in society, is absurdly framed as government "interference" that puts society on the road to totalitarian serfdom, and also causes them to go into tizzy-fits of self-victimization.  Any such narrow view that declares freedom to merely be the privilege of ignoring rational rules is adolescent, anti-social, selfishly individualist, and forgets the background of social rules that makes society worth living in.
Enough has been written about the differences between positive and negative freedom over the decades that I will only briefly touch on their definitions.  Negative freedom I understand to mean freedom from rules and restraints, which is in fact often part of what freedom is (for as we shall see freedom does involve freedom from irrational rules and restraints, although not rational ones).  We recognize this when we say something like "George has served his jail sentence, paid his debt to society, and is now free again to live his life as he sees fit, provided he lives within the law."  Positive freedom, on the other hand, I understand as empowerment: to be free, you must not only be unhindered by irrational negative restraints, you must also have the positive power, capacities, and abilities to achieve your goals and life-plan.  Without those positive powers, being free from rules and constraints is pointless: you still can't achieve the aims for which you wanted to be free in the first place.  We recognize this when we say something like, "Mitt has received a large inheritance and can retire from earning his daily bread; he is now free to live his life as he sees fit."  Here the freedom being referred to is a positive one: Mitt has money, which gives him powers and abilities, including leisure time, to achieve his goals.
Here's another example: one person is confined to a chair with handcuffs, while another is confined to a chair because she is paralyzed.  Neither can escape the chair, and in both cases it is an acceptable use of the English language to say that neither is free from the chair, or conversely that both are confined to the chair.  Yet one is confined there by physical restraints, and the other is confined there by a lack of power of the body.  That is a significant difference, and that difference helps understand the differences between the Right and Left on freedom

Positive libertarians have traditionally stressed how the powers and capacities needed to actualize freedom are mainly social ones, like money, cooperative effort, friends and family, even the kindness of strangers.  Even individual powers and abilities such as education are developed socially.  And even in cases where someone's "natural" powers are lacking or absent, a socially created substitute can often be created -- as when a powered wheelchair is used to at least partially replace a paralyzed person's mobility, thereby enhancing her autonomy.  Some social and economic examples show how rational rules create conditions where freedom is possible: stop signs, speed limits, and other traffic laws make it possible for free movement to proceed at all.  Government programs in the form of public pensions and disability payments give the elderly and infirm a basic ability not only to survive but to participate in society.  Countless economic rules and programs make a complex modern economy possible, creating choices of profession other than agriculture or handicrafts, and more choices of consumption (although our capitalist economy is hardly free of class domination, and we're starting to learn about the negative social and environmental effects of consumerism).
The fact that freedom, even negative freedom, assumes such a background of rational rules is apparent in the phrase above where George is released from prison "provided he lives within the law."  Once out of prison George is free from his cell, but that freedom hinges on him following the system of laws, norms, and rules that create and sustain society as a whole, and everyone in it. 
Rational rules create freedom in many ways.  Rules create the conditions for choosing: rules create the options of A B or C, or 1 2 or 3; rational rules make those options rational and beneficial ones, while arbitrary, irrational rules -- such as those set by corporate oligopolies as they attempt to profitze everything under the sun --  make those choices harmful, frustrating, and disabling to human personality.  Rules are also necessary to equalize differences in power, to make the stronger subject to the same norms of behavior as the weaker, because without equality the weaker would be deprived of their freedom and their ability to pursue their dreams and aspirations, as they succumb to exploitation by the stronger.
But rules are needed fundamentally because human beings live together socially and so must coordinate actions and activities.  Rules are not the only we we do that, but they are one way, and a necessary way.  We use rules to prevent unnecessarily harming or interfering with one another, as well as to make the most of our mutual action so that people may grow, flourish, and live out their life-plans.  And the latter is the purpose of freedom in the first place.  That requires mutual support and cooperation.  Conservative’s negative economic freedom, indeed economics itself, is only a means to that higher freedom.

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