Thursday, 7 August 2014

Freedom Favoured by Force?

The ever-interesting Noah Smith has a blog post criticizing the "natural rights" view of freedom ('Are Libertarians Ready to Embrace a Broader Notion of Freedom?'), in which the discussion is uncharacteristically obfuscating and negligent of good points in favour of not-so-good ones. An excerpt:
Nor is the state always a destroyer of human freedom. It’s liberating to be able to hop in a car and drive to another city without stopping to pay a toll every few miles. It’s also liberating to be able to hop on a train and jaunt across a city without sitting in traffic.

For those freedoms, you need the government to intervene in the economy, and that’s going to involve a tradeoff, because taxpayers are going to have to pay for the freeways and the trains. But that’s just reality -- we’re always facing tradeoffs between different kinds of freedoms. My freedom to walk down the street naked has to be weighed against your freedom to walk down the street without seeing disturbing sights.

Sure, if you make all the right assumptions and mouth all the appropriate axioms, you can avoid having to make hard decisions -- you can just pick one tradeoff and call it “natural rights.” And many libertarians do this. But it feels arbitrary, and this may be one reason that Americans, despite their generally libertarian beliefs, have been reluctant to sign up for the movement.
As far as I can tell, there is absolutely no reason to expect trains to disappear if they lost state support and so those freedoms clearly do not "need" government intervention, as Professor Smith claims, but my points here will mainly concern Professor Smith's views on freedom.
Firstly, if Professor Smith decided to walk down the street wearing nothing at all, that is an issue between him and the street's owner(s). If the owner is fine with it, the issue is settled, if not, Professor Smith must leave the premises until he can satisfy the owner's conditions to use the street. What is arbitrary about this? The owner will probably want some traffic on his street and - given the dictates of convention - is apt to require clothed pedestrians, trading off some "freedoms" for others. Arrangements following the natural rights view may therefore be suspected of actually maximizing the preferences of society, since - in this example - many people would feel aggrieved by widespread displays of public nudity, the private property rights which follow from the natural rights view tend to the "social good" (F. A. Hayek was a keen fan of this argument and expounded it in his book The Constitution of Liberty). Of course, some entrepreneurs would found niche businesses catering to nudists, so their preferences would not be completely neglected. This is a reason to favour arrangements based upon natural rights.
Secondly, freedom does not mean power or owning property. As the preceding sentence shows, there are different words for these concepts, indicating that the concepts are indeed different. My freedom to do as I want with my own time (essentially) is infringed upon if I am the owner of the street and must accept others' terms rather than mine in decisions on whether and to what extent those others may use it. It is a violation of my right to use my time as I please, because that time is what I must at one point or another have used to acquire the street (unless I was simply given the street, in which case it is an infringement of the right of the giver to dispose of his time as he wants). All of this follows from ownership of self. That certainly seems less arbitrary than many alternatives, such as B owning part of D and F, and E owning all of B.
Thirdly, and relatedly, there are no freedoms to do anything that requires others' cooperation, such as going from Point A to Point B sans traffic. One may negotiate with others to keep out of the way for the duration of the movement, but without mutual consent, such a "freedom" would simply force others to stay away, just like a right to life implies that everyone else must work tirelessly to cure whatever disease from which one may happen to suffer (which is why one has a right not to be killed, rather than a right to life, according to the natural rights view). In the extreme, the non-natural rights view is indistinguishable from the Orwellian dictum from 1984: "freedom is slavery".
Fourthly, I believe it is a mistake to use popular beliefs as evidence against moral theories the way Professor Smith does in thinking the alleged arbitrariness of the natural rights view is a reason Americans have not "signed up" for it (though maybe they have; he offers no evidence). Certainly no-one would use the results of a survey of the opinions of the yokelry to question whether minimum wage legislation is for the better or worse, or whether Tellus is spherical. Is ethics different because it is closer to the individual? Hardly. The individual (who is not suffering from ethical dwarfism) has usually devised a system which works for him in his everyday life. But the grand systems of moral philosophy, such as the natural rights view, are plainly beyond the quotidian. Popular belief may be legitimate evidence on fairly trivial questions such as whether it is wrong to go on a killing spree or some such.
Professor Smith says that the natural rights view is arbitrary, but the examples he lists do extremely little to support his argument. Now there are really terrific arguments against the natural rights view, such as the problem of initial acquisition. It is also possible that some force is necessary in order to have a great deal of freedom. However, Professor Smith's blog post has nothing to say about these issues, with its odd focus, instead, being on non-problems.

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