Monday, 31 December 2012

The Real Freedom Illusion

Critics of classical economics often contend that the freedom classical liberals prize is not 'real freedom'. To illustrate,
  • someone who is 'free', but is (say) immobilised by a terror of breaking the taboos that saturate their daily life, is not really free (Gurley)
  • someone clinging to a log in a torrent may nominally be free in negotiating with a passer-by to throw a rope, but they are not really free. (Hobson deploys this sort of example).  
Such critics commonly favour a conception of freedom different from the classical 'absence of human constraint'  formulation; an alternative conception that goes under the head  of 'positive freedom', and amounts to an index a person's capability.

Votaries of freedom may be tempted to follow this path of isolating 'real' freedom . After all, a freedom that allows one to drown is not a very attractive freedom.

But I contend that those who prize freedom should be disaffected by such a search  for 'real', 'positive' freedom. I contend that this theorising of real freedom will not conclude in distinguishing true freedom from its shams -  an achievement that any votary of freedom would esteem- but will instead reduce to identifying the conditions in which freedom is desirable; indeed, irresistible. Such a program of investigation is, undeniably, of interest . But my objection is that it will blunt the appreciation of the devotee of freedom of their object of admiration. Instead of exploring her loveliness, we list her faults.

True love is blind. The most passionate votary of freedom does not see the value of freedom in any way 'conditional'. They will not  hold freedom to account on any criterion. The votary of freedom does not, for example, require that freedom brings happiness. He does not care if freedom offends 'equality of opportunity'; he is unconcerned if it accompanies exploitation. The votary of freedom believes one should be free to be unhappy; free to infringe equality of opportunity; and free to exploit (if 'exploit' means paying less for something than it is worth), .

Does the votary of freedom, then, also believe in the freedom to cheat? Not logically. If I am being paid in counterfeit notes we may be confident that I have not chosen to be paid in counterfeit notes.The fraud  is subverting my freedom. The 'freedom to enslave' is a similarly incoherent notion. But what of the freedom to harm others? It is on this question that classical liberalism struggled. The Millian dictum that that freedom should be restricted so that its exercise does not harm others is massively illiberal in implication, at least in the absence of a massive limitation of the harm which 'counts'. (If you criticise this post you might be deemed to harm me). Mill left classical liberalism without an adequate account of freedom, and leaving the door open to doctrines positive freedom of New Liberalism.

Hayek's attempt to get a more adequate account of freedom, without resorting to capability, surely indicates the impulse of the votary of freedom. His formulation of  freedom as 'the absence of coercion' is an improvement on Mill's inadequate effort, but would rule still out the 'manipulation'  that freedom surely permits. Friedman's emphasis on 'choice' as the nub of freedom is better, and Buchanan's stress on choosing our constraints better still. Perhaps freedom is 'choice over the human wills we are subject to'.

But where would a formulation of freedom  as 'choice over human wills' leave that person clinging to a log?  Free or unfree?Very possibly it leaves them 'free';  for it is possible there are several passers by, all with a rope. The person is dependent on no single human will; and so he is free. And yet, if he is destitute he will drown.  His freedom, then, does necessarily save him from drowning. But the moral of the scenario is not that his freedom is not real; but that it isn't useful. And this is just to say that freedom is not a panacea.

The most passionate devotee will object. And they will be wrong in their objection. The discreet and sincere admirer of freedom will acknowledge its limitations. To admire is not to worship. And to acknowledge the limitations will serve the appreciation of freedom, as appreciation rests on truth. The only other way to respect truth  without admitting blemishes of the beloved, is to participate in the program of 'real freedom'- seek to identify the settings of freedom's perfection. And that is massively reducing  of her domain.

And that is why the adversaries of freedom favour 'real freedom'