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Enhancing Freedom By Government Action

This item, the seventh in the Demos/TDS forum on "Progressive Politics and the Meaning of American Freedom," is by Hilary Bok, Luce Professor in Bioethics and Moral and Political Theory at Johns Hopkins University, and author of Freedom and Responsibility.

I agree with Matt Yglesias that it’s a mistake to try to locate a coherent conception of liberty with which the Republican Party is genuinely concerned. We are, after all, talking about a party whose most recent president claimed the right to detain American citizens indefinitely without charges or trial and to disregard duly enacted laws at will; a party which applauds Arizona’s new law allowing the police to ask people to prove their citizenship or face arrest; which tries to use coercive state power to prevent the terminally ill from choosing the manner of their death; which seeks to prevent members of the LGBT community from marrying the people they love; and which regularly courts the votes of people who look back fondly on the days when blacks were second class citizens. No party with this record can be described as supporting liberty.

That said, I differ with Matt on the utility of challenging Republicans’ claims to champion liberty. For one thing, even if this does not in fact change many minds, I’d rather not give up on the possibility that it might change some. For another, while people’s views of political parties don’t change as quickly as I’d like, they do change eventually. Republicans have already forfeited their reputation for competence and fiscal discipline. I suspect that they are in the process of losing much of the credibility they once had with the military, though I expect this to take a while. If there is any justice in the world, their claim to support liberty will eventually become as obviously risible as their claim to be responsible stewards of the economy. Since I care about liberty, I want to do whatever I can to help this process along.

In his introductory essay, John Schwarz suggests that Democrats embrace an ideal of freedom that has less to do with government inaction than with independence and opportunity: with “the right of every person to be able to provide for himself decently by means that are under the individual’s own control.” People are not free just because the government does not directly interfere with their choices. They need to have a decent set of alternatives available to them so that, in Bill Clinton’s words, “if you work hard and play by the rules, you ought to have a decent life and a chance for your children to have a better one.”

If freedom involves having a decent set of alternatives available to us, then government action can enhance our freedom even if it involves restraints on conduct that would not otherwise violate anyone’s rights. Consider traffic laws. Those of us who drive are constantly subjected to government dictates telling us what we can and cannot do. We can only drive on one side of the street. We have to stop at red lights and stop signs even when no one else is around. If freedom means only that government should not tell us what to do, then the traffic laws are a massive intrusion on our liberty.

I suspect that most people don’t see things that way, though. They probably agree with Elizabeth Anderson, from whom I have taken this example:

To be sure, in a state of gridlock, one has the formal freedom to choose any movement in one's opportunity set -- which amounts to being able to rock forward and back a couple of inches from bumper to bumper, getting nowhere. Some freedom!

Normally, the point of driving is to get somewhere. The traffic laws enable us to get where we are going much more quickly and safely than we would if each of us had to decide for him- or herself which side of the street to drive on. The traffic laws do not tell us where to go. They leave the choice of destination, and for that matter the decision whether to drive at all, entirely up to us. They simply tell us which side of the road to drive on, that we should stop at various points, and so forth. By taking away our freedom to drive on the left, or to blast through busy intersections, they grant us much more freedom in the form of a greatly enhanced ability to get wherever we want to go quickly and safely.

Anyone who thinks that the traffic laws enhance our freedom should acknowledge that in some cases, including this one, government action can enhance our freedom, even if that action takes the form of restrictions on what we can and cannot do. An enormous number of questions about which (other) forms of government action might enhance our freedom would remain to be answered, but the fact that some government policy involves either a more active government or new restrictions on our action would not, by itself, imply that it diminishes our freedom.

Will Marshall thinks that such an account of freedom isn’t really freedom at all; that in cases like this, I give up liberty in order to obtain not more liberty, but something else altogether. He quotes Isaiah Berlin:

To avoid glaring inequality or widespread misery I am ready to sacrifice some, or all, of my freedom: I may do so willingly and freely; but it is freedom that I am giving up for the sake of justice or equality or the love of my fellow men. I should be guilt-stricken, and rightly so, if I were not in some circumstances, ready to make this sacrifice. But a sacrifice is not an increase in what is being sacrificed, namely freedom, however great the moral need or the compensation for it.

If I sacrifice my liberty in order to avoid ‘glaring inequality or widespread misery’, then I am indeed giving up freedom for the sake of something other than liberty itself. But this does not show that there are no cases in which we might sacrifice some liberty in order to achieve more. Note that ‘glaring inequality or widespread misery’ are not states that one would normally be tempted to describe as necessarily involving a loss of freedom at all (assuming that the inequality in question is inequality of wealth or income, and that it does not, for instance, translate into a loss of equal political representation for some.) They involve bad outcomes, not an absence of opportunity. In this respect they differ from the kinds of cases I am interested in. Traffic laws, for instance, leave me free not only to decide whether to travel at all, and if so where to go, but to make stupid choices that prevent me from taking advantage of the opportunity to travel quickly and safely. I can, for instance, decide to ignore the warning lights on the dashboard, or forget to fill up my gas tank; if I do so, the traffic laws will not step in and fix my mistake. They remove impediments to my getting where I want to go in a reasonable period of time, thereby increasing my freedom of action, but they do not compensate for my stupidity.

Similarly, many programs that liberals support arguably increase our liberty – our freedom to decide what kind of life we should lead from among a reasonable set of alternatives, and to have a good shot at living a decent life if we are willing to work hard and play by the rules. Providing all children with a decent education and good health care obviously enhances their freedom, as do lead paint abatement programs. Adopting macroeconomic policies that foster the creation of good jobs enhances the opportunities available to adults. Providing good health insurance for everyone will not prevent us from getting sick, but preventive care might allow us to avoid some illnesses, and might lessen the severity of others by enabling people who become ill to seek treatment promptly without having to ask whether or not they can afford treatment. This would blunt, to some extent, the assault on our freedom that serious illness often involves. And insofar as our ability to make a decent life for ourselves if we are willing to work hard and play by the rules is diminished if we are vulnerable to unforeseen and undeserved catastrophe, the fact that having health insurance means that illness will not bankrupt us enhances our freedom.

Actually justifying these programs by appeal to such a conception of liberty would, of course, involve showing that they do, in fact, have the consequences I have claimed for them, and that whatever costs to liberty they might involve are outweighed by their benefits. But there is no reason to think that no such justification could possibly be offered, or that it could not be based on an appeal to liberty.

Postscript: I agree with John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira that even if we appeal to this conception of freedom, and even if most of the electorate accepts it, Democrats will be unable to translate this into popular support for any actual government program so long as people distrust government. People might be willing to support all sorts of Democratic goals, but so long as they believe that government programs in general are ineffective or corrupt, they will not believe that any actual program will achieve those goals. They might, for instance, agree in principle that it would be better if everyone had decent health insurance, and even that they would be willing to pay for it, but also believe that any health insurance program implemented by our government will involve higher taxes, bloated bureaucracies, and burdensome regulation, but will not actually provide better health insurance for anyone. So long as they believe that, their lack of support for any concrete health care plan should not surprise us.


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Good to see your writing again. I only my way here because JamieM was kind enough to post a link on Obsidian Wings.

I think the inability of many conservatives to see the kind of liberty you describe as related to an inability to see themselves as anything except wholly self made. They cannot acknowedge that born with the same ability and ambition but black or even female they might not have reached the same positions.


This is more or less the point, and it's why I generally identify myself as a Liberal and why I always vote for Democrats even though I sometimes think and argue like a conservative.

Actual freedom for actual people means the ability to accomplish stuff. Hypothetical freedom means that the government isn't interfering and so "you can do anything you want! Nobody's stopping you!"

If we all agree that "freedom" is good, then we have to talk about what it means. One of these definitions is pragmatic and responsible. The other is that of a naive ideologue.

Good government is better than bad government, government that acknowledges the limits of what can be done through policy is better than government that does not recognize its appropriate limits, government that tries to be modest except when modesty would be ineffective is better than government that uses the most intrusive methods available, government that respects individual choice as much as possible is better than government that imposes any particular lifestyle, etc. etc. etc.

We all agree. But conservatives trot out the "tyranny" card when Democrats propose solutions to real problems that hamper the ability of real people to make choices. And then they turn around pass a law that make it illegal to be a Hispanic person is a public place without an I.D., or they campaign to allow the FCC to censor the internet, or they detain people for years without access to lawyers, or . . . .

The truth is that they have a real inability to sort out practical problems (taxation, regulating insurance) from "first-principles-freedom-and-civil-rights-problems" (freedom of speech, access to legal council, etc.). It's corrosive and awful.

Hey, disagree with me about policy stuff! If you're a conservative, you should disagree with me! But disagree on practical grounds, not moral ones. We can't talk when you pull out the tyranny card. There are cases when it's appropriate, but none of the issues that you see tea party people taking about count. You don't like taxes. So what?

When they define "freedom" in a way that makes a damn bit of sense, I'll regard them as adults.

With regards to traffic laws, however, there may be ways of achieving greater freedom of movement (which is freedom of a kind, surely) that differ in important respects. I would submit, for example, that traffic circles (roundabouts)are more consistent with classical liberal values than traffic signals, even if the end result is the same. The management of the flow of traffic at a roundabout is delegated to each individual driver, who must chose to yield or not. Traffic signals decide on behalf of drivers, who are passive. This may seem a small thing, but perhaps as a result traffic circles foster responsibility and autonomy among drivers, while traffic lights lead to a false sense of security that depends upon the obedience of others.

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