Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, December 19, 2008

On Liberty

I happened to have a couple of interesting discussions lately about one of the central problems of political philosophy, one that is particularly salient in the field of public health, and extremely prominent in political rhetoric in the United States. Liberty is a term much abused. Often the people who yell about it most vociferously in one field of action oppose it equally in another. The problem of securing it is sufficiently vexed and fraught with paradox that Orwell's dystopian slogan Slavery is Freedom is a realistic representation of some people's beliefs.

The Republican coalition, over the past 8 years in particular, has exposed some of these contradictions so glaringly that it surprises me I have seen so little exploration of the problem in popular commentary. On the one hand they claim to be staunch defenders of freedom by going as far as they can to eliminate regulation of commercial activities and finance, environmental protection, and safety regulations. On the other hand they staunchly oppose personal freedom in choice of marriage partner, reproduction, and use of some drugs but not others. They insist that people have no right of privacy vis a vis the government. They insist that the president, on a whim, can make any human disappear forever into a secret dungeon, without any legal recourse or accountability, there to be tortured to death -- and the justification for this is the defense of our freedom.

While all of these positions are no doubt offensive to most of my readers, it is difficult to show convincingly that they are more contradictory than our own. The nub of the problem is that the liberty of one person in a given situation compromises that of another. The fundamental failure of the libertarian philosophy is its tacit, generally unrecognized assumption, that only government can deprive us of freedom. But obviously, so can non-governmental institutions, both formal and informal, and individual actors. Giving a corporation the liberty to pollute the air and water deprives me of the liberty to breathe and drink without becoming ill. Giving my neighbor the right to build without any zoning or other restrictions allows him to deprive me of sunlight, the view I once enjoyed, or other amenities that pertain to my property.

In order that we all have the liberty to walk freely in our communities, we must have criminal law and police officers, who have the power to deprive of their liberty those who grossly violate the liberty of others. We hedge this around with procedures and rituals and, perhaps most important, the right to trials by jury which place the ultimate power to deprive people of the usual share of liberty in the hands of representatives of the community. Nevertheless, in the end, my liberty depends on restraining yours, and vice versa.

Many political philosophers argue that there is an inevitable tradeoff between liberty and equality. I am not so sure. It seems to me that it is precisely through inequality that we fail to achieve the greatest possible share of liberty. It is very tempting to try to resolve the contradictions among the liberties of various people by defining some as within the circle of protection and others as outside of it. These distinctions may be made of social caste, possession of property, gender, religion, or whatever other characteristic people may seize upon. Then we can proclaim that we are defending our liberty by depriving those others, whose liberty doesn't really count.

That has been the conservative strategy. But does the same trap yawn before us? Think hard about that.

1 comment:

kathy a. said...

do you have particular hypotheticals in mind?

i agree that greater equality furthers the ideal of personal liberty for the greatest number of people.

i don't see things like higher taxes for the very wealthy, or health/safety regulations, or ensuring fair wages, or finding a way to provide health care for all, etc. as a particular unfairness for the people/corporations most affected, so much as removing some part of an unfair advantage over others for the larger good. the general welfare of the community and protection of its members is a legitimate objective.