Thursday, July 06, 2006

 

July 4th: Freedom from Government

Some earlier posts prompted me to add this clarification. Libertarians should ardently and unabashedly celebrate July 4th: Independence Day. It represents the end of the tyranny of oppressive, centralized government. From July 4th 1776 until the Constitution was ratified in 1789, we were at our most free - something definitely worth celebrating.

To quote Thomas Jefferson:

"May [the Declaration of Independence] be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the Signal of
arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form [of government] which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them."

Comments:
eh.

What do you mean by "freedom"? Is freedom simply the absense of government intervention? If so, would a society that didn't have a government, but was subject to violence and chaos, be considered "free"?

If you would consider that free, is that a type of freedom worth having?

And if that is your definition of free, then what does the government do that is morally worse than what hoodlums would do in the distopia I described?

Personally, I think there is more to freedom than just getting rid of the government. A better approximation is delievered by Amartya Sen's conception of "substantial freedom"
http://www.wku.edu/~jan.garrett/ethics/senethic.htm

We must remember that freedom is only a means to something else. It is not an end goal. You say "freedom", I wonder "freedom to do what?".
 
I don't accept your premise that any society without a government is "subject to violence and chaos."

No thank you, Hobbes. I see a cheerier picture - one of liberty, but not license.

Moreover, colonists were not "without government" from 1776 to 1789. They were governed by newly sovereign states (the former 13 colonies) and then loosely bound by the Articles of Confederation. This system was far from perfect, but it represented a closer thing to self-government than any system since.
 
Jenna,

I think you misunderstand me. I didn't mean to imply that the absense of government always leads to chaos. There are plenty of smart people that believe the opposite (David Friedman for example)--though I can't say I'm convinced.

My intention was to flesh out your conception of what "freedom" is. Let me rephrase: Assuming we have a society that doesn't have a government AND happens to suffer widespread theft,violence, and chaos; would you consider members of that society to be free?

If not, then there is obviously more to your freedom than freedom from government. That seems to be the only reason you think people living prior to the ratification of the US Constition were more free. Smaller, less centralized government = more freedom.

I think matters are far more complex than that, and only when we start to define what constitutes actual "freedom", can we start to make accurate comparisons.
 
"Order" should not be measured by the quantity of government.

Anarachy is the absence of government, not the absence of order.
 
Chris,

I agree. Though whether an "orderly" society is achievable without a government is largley an empirical question. A question surely for another thread.

What I'm trying to get at is Jenna's conception of freedom. She seems to be linking with freedom with the size of government. Less government = more freedom. I think that is a dangerous oversimplification that misses a lot of important things. Like I was saying earlier, a society can be less than free even when there is no government. And I think the converse is true as well, a society with more government can be more free than a society with less government.

The hinge of the argument rests on how you define freedom.
 
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
 
Let's apply Max Weber's definition: “Government is that institution in any human community that successfully claims within a certain territory a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force.”

So, if either organized hoodlums OR government are using coercive force within a territory, the people therein are equally unfree. Granted.

However, what's the real difference between government and organized hoodlums? I'm guessing that most would say "legitimacy." And theoretically, I would agree. However, very few (large) governments are actually legitimate. The practical difference is that organized hoodlums (or very small governments) are easier to expel from one's property than a large, centralized government.

For more on this concept, we should all read "The Not So Wild, Wild West." George Leef reviewed it a few years ago. It details the existence of order and freedom in the West before the government really had any presence there.
 
Freedom is the lack of coercion. It just so happens that many of us feel that government is the most dangerous coercer because its coercion takes place on a legal, institutional level.

I agree that less government may not always mean less coercion, just less legal and institutionalized coercion.
 
By the way, excellent Jefferson quote. He writes real good... purty-like.
 
Then how can we consider the time after July 4th, 1776 and before the ratification the Constiution to be more free (i.e. to be subject to less coercion or physical force)? For example, wasn’t a soilder in Washington’s army at the battle of Long Island in 1776 more vulnerable to physical force than a quiet grandmother in 1789? I would go so far to say that I am less threatened by physical force than that soldier was 200 years ago. Even if I do have to pay sinful things like sales tax, I am probably less likely to be shot to death than he was.

Of course, these are just my impressions. You seem convinced that was less physical force and coercion on net. I am wondering, what metric are you using to measure this “freedom”??
 
For clarification, that last comment was directed to Jenna, though anyone can respond.
 
Ultimately, every law is enforced at the point of a gun (or the threat of involunary servitude). There are far more ways to run afoul of the law now than there were then.

Futhermore,If I'm working 5 months out of the year for Uncle Sam, I'd say that's more coercion, wouldn't you?
 
Are we getting into another difference in risk preferences?

Jenna would rather face a small (but higher than it is now) chance of being shot than the certainty of high taxes, while Student prefers the reverse.

I dunno if that's a true statement, but I thought it was interesting.
 
Jenna,

No, I wouldn't. The threat of death carries more weight than having to pay a 4.5% sales tax on my morning coffee.

But like I said those are only my impressions. You seem to have a very confident idea. So how are you measuring coercion/physical force? Only through taxation? If so, then were people really paying more taxes in 1789 than they were in 1776? What about when you consider the run away inflation (the invisible tax) resulting from the Continental Congress' hobbey of printing money?

And why should taxation be our only measure? What about murders? Thefts?

I would be interested in seeing what metric you're using for measuring coercion.
 
This conversation and this blog would probably not exist if we only had to pay a very small sales tax.

If you hear TAX and think 4.5%, then I don't blame you for wondering what's so bad about them.
 
Jenna,

But what I find most interesting about your argument Jenna is how well it could be used to justify Statist endeavourers.

The fundamental problem is with your definition of freedom. By defining freedom in terms of coercion, you are only hiding the heart of what we’re talking about. If coercion is the use or threat of physical force to bend the will of another, and freedom is absence of coercion, then freedom must be the unencumbered exercising of one’s own will.

When we phrase the matter in this way several things become clear. First, we realize we’re talking about one’s ability to DO things. By saying a law against shooting fireworks restricts our freedom, we’re saying it restricts our ability to DO something (shoot fireworks). But why should we restrict ourselves to one part of the definition? Actually being able to DO the thing in question is just as essential to freedom isn’t it?

For example, let’s say the government puts a ban on shitting out of your ears. Has anyone’s freedom been impaired? I don’t see why. No one could shit out of their ears to begin with. How are we less free? So a government declaration that doesn’t limit what one can do doesn’t limit one’s freedom.

So why can’t the converse be true? A government declaration that INCREASES what one can do INCREASES one’s freedom.

For example, lifting the ban on tourist travel to North Korea might not help me much because I don’t have the means to go. But if the government could magically give me the means to go (at no one’s expense), then I could do something I couldn’t do before. I am now more free at no cost to anyone else. Freedom has been increased.

Of course there are no free lunches. So in the real world, the government steals money from you to buy me a ticket. Has freedom been increased or decreased? I can go to North Korea, something I couldn’t do before, so I am more free. But you have fewer resources, so you can’t do the things you could before, so you are less free. Is it a wash? Is it a net loss? How do you know?

These all sound like empirical questions of how we measure freedom. And if someone could empirically show that such a policy increased freedom on net, then why shouldn’t we pursue it (in the name of FREEDDOOOMM!). So not only do I see a clear reason why freedom should be any less than it was before ratification, I don’t see any reason why a tax and spend liberal couldn’t use the exact same argument Jenna has made to justify his own policies.
 
Jenna & all, here is a version of my last post that is much better worded. I was in a hurry before and some of it came out sounding confused.

Jenna,

What I find most interesting about your argument is how well it could be used to justify Statist endeavourers.

The fundamental problem is with your definition of freedom. By defining freedom in terms of coercion, you are only hiding the heart of what we’re talking about. If coercion is the use or threat of physical force to bend the will of another, and freedom is absence of coercion, then freedom must be the unencumbered exercising of one’s own will.

When we phrase the matter in this way several things become clear. First, we realize we’re talking about one’s ability to DO things. By saying a law against shooting fireworks restricts our freedom, we’re saying it restricts our ability to DO something (shoot fireworks). This is the “unencumbered” part of the definition. But what about the second part? Actually being able to DO the thing in question is just as essential to freedom isn’t it?

For example, let’s say the government puts a ban on shitting out of your ears. Has anyone’s freedom been impaired? I don’t see why. No one could shit out of their ears to begin with. How are we less free? So, I think we can honestly say that a government declaration that doesn’t limit what one can do, doesn’t limit one’s freedom.

But why can’t the converse be true? Can’t we also say that a government declaration that INCREASES what one can do INCREASES one’s freedom?

Let’s distinguish the two elements in an example. Suppose the government lifted the ban on tourist travel to North Korea. I am not no longer encumbered by government restrictions over my Korean travels. But can I do anything I couldn’t do before? In other words, am I more free? Not if I don’t have the resources to go to Korea. Even without restrictions, I am no more free than I was. But if the government could magically give me the means to go (at no one’s expense), then I could be more free. I could do something I couldn’t do before at no anyone else. Freedom has been increased.

Of course there are no free lunches. So in the real world, the government steals money from you to buy me a ticket. Has freedom been increased or decreased? I can go to North Korea, something I couldn’t do before, so I am more free. But you have fewer resources, so you can’t do the things you could before, so you are less free. Is it a wash? Is it a net loss? How do you know?

These all sound like empirical questions. Trying to measure how much freedom is created. And if someone could empirically show that such a policy increased freedom on net, then why shouldn’t we pursue it (in the name of FREEDDOOOMM!). So I don’t see any reason why a tax and spend liberal couldn’t use the exact same argument Jenna has made to justify his own policies. Furthermore, I don’t see any reason freedom should be quantitatively lower than it was 250 years ago. And I pity any person that tries to estimate it.
 
So what metric of freedom do you prefer?
 
Student, I think you may have missed my point about taxation. The money that I forfeit is not the biggest issue. (Although I do miss it.) The issue is the penalties we face for not paying taxes - imprisonment. We pay taxes because we prefer it to prison.

Moving on, the "North Korea" example wades into the murky waters of "positive freedoms" the freedom to have something, distinct from "negative freedoms" - freedom from something.

That metric, student, can only be used if one is a utilitarian. You add to net freedom by taxing person A so person B can fly to North Korea. However, that argument falls on deaf ears when you're talking to a believer in natural rights: life, liberty and property. It's impossible to offer someone some kind of "positive" freedom without treading all over everyone else's negative ones.

And natural rights theory can't be used to defend statism. Ever. It just won't work.
 
Chris,

I wouldn’t even want to try to measure “freedom”. The task would be a WAY too difficult for me. That’s why I say I pity anyone that would try. The project would be so labor-intensive that it puts my stomach in knots.

PS* My last sentence of my last post sounds a little snotty out of context. I only meant that I don’t envy anyone that would undertake the monumental task of measuring “freedom” over 240 years. I hope no one misunderstood and took offense.
 
Jenna,

Don’t confuse rights with freedom or freedom with utility. Natural rights are the “powers or liberties to which a person or a group is justly entitled” by nature/God/or magic. Freedom is simply a set of the things one has the ability to do. Utility is the pleasure/happiness/satisfaction derived from doing these things. All three are very distinct concepts.

Let me give another example to illustrate how each concept is different. Let’s say the government lifts its ban on murder. I have a knife and I could easily kill Chris without anyone finding out. In other words, I have the ability or “freedom” to murder Chris without provocation and without repercussion. My freedom set has been expanded. However, I may derive no satisfaction or pleasure from killing Chris. And I doubt anyone would claim I have a “natural right” to kill Chris. So we have an expansion in one space, but not the other two. Clearly, these three are distinctly different concepts.

We can illustrate this same point in terms of my North Korea example…
By giving me a ticket to North Korea you have expanded the set of things I can do—you have expanded my freedom. However, I might not derive any please from going to North Korea. Therefore my overall “utility” might not change at all. And there surely isn’t a “natural right” that gives me a “natural claim” over your ticket to North Korea or anything else of yours.

So we can see that while one could NOT make statist arguments based on our conception of “natural rights”, one could easily make statist arguments based on our conception of “freedom”. And freedom is the buzzword that we were celebrating at the start of this thread. How does it feel to be a statist? ;) j/k
 
Ouch. That hurts!
And in bold letters, too!!
 
If you read the title, it specifically reads: "Freedom from Government". Not from some imaginary boogeymen who are going to steal my imaginary ticket to North Korea.

Also, by saying that you're making utilitarian arguments, I'm simply stating that you are making interpersonal comparisons and somehow "adding up" freedoms, which simply can't be done.

Now, as to actual substantive freedom. What is it? I gather, from earlier posts, that you'd argue that it's the ability to do whatever you choose. I would argue that it's the absence of institutional or legal barriers to doing what you choose, unaffected by whether you have said ability.
 
I think I agree with this last statement the most. I am not sure how much we should place on the constraints of individual people -- budget, gravity, and reality (additionally ability and conscience).
 
Jenna,

So freedom is actually being able to do what you want without legal and institutional barriers? Is that really what we want the word to mean? Does that mean a random guy off the street forcing me to eat a turd sandwich isn’t infringing my freedom because he isn’t part of the legal/institutional structure? Or that I am more free because the government lifted a bad on shiting out of my ears?

I don’t think this is what most people mean when they talk about freedom. That is the danger of re-organizing the English language for political reasons. We lose some of the meaning we were trying to convey in the first place.

But I’ve kinda lost where we were. It looks like we rolled into a discussion of rhetoric. What you said was “freedom”, what I think you meant was “freedom restricted by natural rights”. Though I am still at a loss to see how your conception of natural rights were respected anymore before 1789 than after. Secession was not respected (check out the State of Franklin try to secede from North Carolina), blacks were held as slaves, people were still taxed, classes of people were still not allowed to vote. Jolly times for liberty?
 
To be fair, the title of the post is "July 4th: Freedom from Government," not "July 4th: Freedom in General."
 
Travis,

Indeed. But as my original few posts pointed out, one could still be less than free in the absense of government. "Freedom confined by natural rights" is not the same as "freedom from government".
 
Maybe I should have said that 1789 was the "beginning of the end," rather than imply that it was the steep, scary, slippery slope in and of itself.

However, I think what the post was originally about is that July 4th marks the throwing off of the chains of oppression and tyranny. And, to quote my girl Martha Stewart, "that's a good thing."
 
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