Two Views of Freedom - Island of Sanity

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Liberals & Conservatives

Two Views of Freedom


Two Views of Freedom

Americans have traditionally placed a very high value on freedom. But curiously, when we are debating public policy, people on opposite sides of the argument will often both claim that they are defending freedom and their opponents are trying to take it away. It seems that we are using the word "freedom" in two very different senses.

Let me refer to these two ideas or ideals of freedom as the libertarian ideal and the liberal ideal. (If you are wondering why I didn't call them liberal and conservative: as I will explain in a moment, I believe the conservative idea is a mix of the libertarian and liberal ideas.)

To understand the difference, let's first recognize that few people, if any, believe in an ideal of freedom that says that everybody should be able to do whatever they want whenever they want. Few would say that you have the right to steal anything that catches your eye, or to kill someone just because you don't like his face. So even when we all agree that freedom in general is a good thing, we still have to ask, What are the limits of freedom? Or, What are legitimate exercises of freedom?

The libertarian ideal of freedom is that someone should be allowed to do whatever he or she wants, as long as everyone involved agrees. For example, to the libertarian, if Al wants to work for Bob and Bob wants to hire him, then all that matters is that Al and Bob agree on the conditions: how much Al will be paid, what duties he will perform, etc.

The liberal ideal of freedom is that someone should be allowed to do whatever he or she wants, as long as it is just and moral. To the liberal, if Al wants to work for Bob and Bob wants to hire him, then all that matters is that the conditions of employment be fair and just: Al must be paid a fair salary, he must be qualified to perform the duties of the job, etc.

There are very important practical implications of this philosophical difference.

None of your business?

Under the libertarian view, as long as the people involved all agree to the terms of the relationship, no outsider has any right to interfere. Under the liberal view, outsiders have an obligation to intervene whenever a relationship is unfair or unjust.

For example, the libertarian would say that if Al agrees to work for Bob for ten cents an hour, the fact that Charlie thinks this is an absurdly low wage and that Al is being exploited is irrelevant. Perhaps Al expects to get valuable on-the-job training, and so he believes that even a very low salary is better than paying money to go to school. Or perhaps Al is simply a fool. Too bad. The liberal would say that the community has the responsibility to protect Al from being exploited. Al may think that he is getting valuable on-the-job training, but wiser heads realize that Bob is taking advantage of Al's inexperience.

Both libertarians and liberals would agree that Bob should not be allowed to kidnap Al and force him to work as a slave, or to promise him a high salary and then pay him a smaller one. But the libertarian would say that the laws should be limited to protecting people from force or deceit, while the liberal would say that the government must step in to protect Al from being exploited, and from his own foolishness if necessary.

Getting complicated

Either ideal can be difficult to apply in practice, though in different ways.

The libertarian ideal can become complicated when we try to define who is "involved". A classic example of this is pollution: If a factory owner, his employees, and his customers all agree on the conditions of their mutual relationship -- what products will be sold, how much they will cost, what the employees will be paid, etc -- has "everyone involved" agreed? Maybe not. If the factory dumps toxic chemicals in the river, then arguably everyone who lives downstream is "involved". On the other hand, suppose that Dan wants to buy a hamburger from Edna, and Frank objects because he is a vegetarian. Should Frank have to agree before Dan is allowed to buy the hamburger? Conservatives and libertarians would uniformly say "no". Of course Frank has the right to not buy hamburgers if he has ethical or health objections to eating meat, but he has no right to interfere in a private transaction between Dan and Edna. So ... what is the definition of "involved"?

The liberal ideal can become complicated when we try to define "just" and "moral". Liberals routinely say that racial discrimination is immoral and so should be illegal. In recent years they have said that cigarette smoking should be banned because it is immoral. But liberals routinely say that laws should not restrict people's sexual practices, because "you cannot legislate morality". For example, liberals typically oppose laws against publishing pornography. But then they support laws against sexual harassment, which would seem to be a very similar sort of thing. Why is it good to have laws against adults smoking cigarettes in their own homes, but bad to have laws against adults reading pornography in their own homes? It's not clear.

Conflicting freedoms

Under the libertarian view, freedom is mutual. My freedom cannot conflict with yours by definition, because the definition says that all relationships must be mutually agreeable. Under the liberal view, there can be conflict between one person's freedom and another's, because two people may want to do things that are not inherently unjust, but which interfere with each other.

For example, suppose Jenny wants to get a job as a construction worker. Ken owns a construction company, but he doesn't want to hire her because he doesn't believe that it is appropriate for women to do such work. The libertarian would say that freedom means that Ken, as the owner of the company, is free to hire or not hire whoever he wishes. If Jenny cannot convince him to hire her, she'll have to try someplace else. That is, to the libertarian, Jenny is free to get any job where the employer is willing to hire her. Ken is free to hire anyone who is willing to work for him. But if they cannot come to an agreement, too bad. Jenny cannot force Ken to hire her against his will, and Ken cannot force Jenny to work for him against her will.

The liberal would say that it is unjust and discriminatory for Ken to refuse to hire Jenny purely because of her gender, and there must be laws to force Ken to hire in a non-discriminatory way. To the liberal, Ken's freedom to run his business as he sees fit comes into conflict with Jenny's freedom to get whatever job she wants. In this sort of case, the liberals consistently come down on Jenny's side: Ken should be forced to hire her whether he likes it or not.

Side note: The conservative ideal

The conservative ideal is a mixture of the libertarian and the liberal. Generally, conservatives follow the libertarian ideal, especially on economic issues, but they occassionally adopt the liberal ideal, usually on social issues.

Thus, conservatives generally say that people should be free to make any economic arrangements that are mutually acceptable. Stores and their customers should be able to buy and sell at any mutually agreeable terms without government interference, employers and employees should be able to make any mutually agreeable employment relationships, etc.

On the other hand, conservatives agree with liberals that just because two people agree doesn't make it acceptable. Conservatives tend to want to restrict pornography, gay marriage, and drug use, for example, on moral grounds. Still, on many or most social issues, the conservative agrees with the libertarian. Conservatives are generally opposed to restrictions on smoking (by adults anyway); conservatives are generally opposed to "speech codes" that they see as restricting free speech; etc.

Interestingly, when conservatives use the same standard as libertarians, they come to the same conclusions. But when they use the same standards as liberals, they often come to quite different conclusions. This appears to be because they have a very different definition of what is just and moral.

© 2007 by Jay Johansen


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