Tuesday, February 12, 2008


so anyway, a short note on freedom, which is a precious commodity. it's been talked down and debased somewhat by rightists who use it as a flag for measures that basically infringe on it, but despite that, it is a treasure for us, which should be nurtured and defended.

i am a statist, and i do not see any conflict between that and a basic libertarianism, simply because i think a big state is the best means to protect my freedom from others. however, i do think there are limits, and those are my subject here.

because i think the bottom line in freedom is that you should be free to do what i do not approve of. i may or may not have the means to punish you for it, but i should not be in a position to prevent you from making the bad choice, particularly because which choices are bad is rarely something that can be decided objectively.

i hold this belief simply because restricting choices to those the state, or i, or you, think good is not freedom, and the more you, i, or the state restricts your choices, the more it infringes on your freedom. in discussing this, of course one should not lose sight of the state's responsibility to protect others from your choices. however, it is wrong, in my view, to suggest that the state's duty to protect us simply outweighs its duty to protect our freedom, or not to infringe on it.

in my view, the state can overstep the mark in two areas. one is that it can seek to protect you from your own choices. the other is that it can make it impossible to choose.

the first area is expressed in laws that seek to "uphold morality". morality is, almost without exception, the enemy of freedom. freedom is, if it is anything at all, the freedom to be wrong. when we say that you have the right to free speech, we mean that you have the right to say what i don't like to hear. when we say that you have the right to free assembly, we mean that you have the right to assemble for ends that i don't approve of.

because i believe freedom is a treasure, i oppose any legislation of morality. where immoral choices bring harm, i have no problem with punishing the harm. so i would not punish prostitution, even though i strongly disapprove of it, but i would severely punish trafficking. i would not punish the possession or use of drugs, but i would severely punish selling them to minors (because i believe that even though we have drawn our boundaries arbitrarily, we are correct to consider that minors may not have the freedoms we do--few parents would disagree! i might redefine "minor" in this context though.).

i do not believe the state has any right to protect you from any abuse you do to yourself. whether it has the right to restrict its services to you is another question. should a state be allowed to withhold healthcare from people who pursue practices that it does not approve of? possibly. but here i think that it is very difficult to ensure equity. is it worse to be a smoker than to eat a lot of fat? is it worse to eat a lot of fat than a lot of meat? this quickly becomes a grey area, with the government, claiming to have the right to withhold generally available services from you, which you are taxed to pay for, because you do not pursue behaviour it thinks you should.

i think that here the government starts to infringe on your freedom in the second way, by attempting to limit your choices to ones that it believes proper. it does this in other ways. one that is striking is the use of cctv.

the UK has millions of cameras, and the number is increasing. it's not impossible that within my lifetime, every street in the UK will be covered. why should i worry? i'm not doing anything wrong, am i?

well, true, but what is cctv for? is it to help catch people doing bad? i don't think so. i think it exists quite obviously to prevent people from doing bad. i cannot consider that a good thing, particularly because its presence serves to stop us from doing other things that are quite neutral.

i do not assent to measures that prevent bad as readily as i do to measures that punish it. without wishing to set up a slippery slope, one can ask, if we accept cameras to dissuade us from bad behaviour, why should we not have informers? knowing that your neighbour might be a spy, ready to tell the government when you do something ill, or eat a burger, or smoke a reefer, should have a dissuading effect. (one might note that the state has already gone down this path, with Crimestoppers numbers and the like. you could readily argue that Crimestoppers does not exist to punish crime but to prevent it, because its effect should be to add a complication to a wrongdoer's calculus. again, if you do no wrong, you have "nothing to fear" from Crimestoppers, unless your neighbour grasses you up for something you haven't done.)

importantly, cctv removes your right to privacy. you are open to scrutiny whatever you do. the watcher can see you doing good, bad and indifferent. the right to privacy is the right to do what i do not approve of without my interference. i believe it to be fundamental because other rights are built on it. the right to free speech, for instance, depends on the right to freedom of thought, which in turn depends on your thoughts being private.

think about this though. what is a food standard? it is a means the government uses to prevent a food producer from making a choice that could harm you. food standards prevent the food producer from producing food freely. and you will read rightists who criticise standards for this reason. however, and i think this is crucial, food standards only prevent bad outcomes. there is no good outcome to eating dirty food. true, the bad outcome may not eventuate, but you won't gain anything from it, except that the food might be cheaper.

but you could say the same about seatbelts, i suppose. the difference is that you are harming no one else if you do not wear a belt. (i am strongly opposed to seatbelt laws for the individual, but strongly in favour of them for minors.) i think a law that requires you to have seatbelts in your car is fair, but one that requires you to ensure that all your passengers are wearing them is not.

can food standards be conceived as punishments, not restrictions? if food is tested and you are fined for its being dirty, does this work? i think it probably does, and conceptually, i think this is how standards in food, in the environment and so on should be framed. i do not think that the rightists are wrong, necessarily, when they suggest that restrictions are a bad thing, and that the government is out of line where it tries to prevent you from choosing wrongly. there is another side to the coin though, and here they and i part company. if i want to poison you by selling you bad food, i should be permitted to. but if i do, i should not think that i can escape by suggesting that i bear no personal responsibility. more freedom needs stronger retribution in my view. if a company poisons you by evading food standards, those of its executives and employees who knowingly allowed it should be punished just as any other poisoner, any other killer, any other wrongdoer would be.


Anonymous Don said...

You are right about everything here, which is why I ask, where is drawn the line between, say, harvesting and preparing food for my own consumption without regard to food standards, because after all I'm not selling it to anyone else, and owning a firearm for the purposes of never firing it at anything but legal inanimate targets? (Or perhaps the rare home invasion)

February 12, 2008 at 1:34 PM  
Anonymous Dr Zen said...

You need to compare it with giving the food to your friends, Don, because the correct comparison here would be with something you used to shoot yourself, not others.

But leaving that consideration aside, I freely accept that firearms are an exception, but I make that exception because they are solely intended to harm others. I have no problem with you having a licensed firearm, kept in secure premises, for the purpose of shooting at targets or whatever. But an assault rifle is not suited to this purpose. A shotgun is much greyer and a handgun greyer still. I think that gun clubs are a good compromise, Don. I'm not against compromise. Principle is not something to destroy ourselves with, but a guide to making our lives good.

I do accept that a principled approach to firearms ownership is possible, but I also accept that the government must walk a line between not infringing your freedom and protecting others, which will lead it into grey areas. In principle, I agree that you should be free to keep any kind of gun you choose; but in practice the notion fills me sufficiently with horror that I oppose it. More importantly, I oppose it because my belief in strongly punishing harm conflicts with the principle of self-defence that you would rely on were you to shoot a home invader. Were you to accept the principle that you are a murderer if you kill someone with it, I will accept the principle that you should be free to bear your AK or whatever teh fuck you think a man is not a man without.

February 12, 2008 at 1:47 PM  
Anonymous ruth said...

I used to be a Libertarian - in fact I used to belong to the Lib Party here in NZ.

The problem is it is utopian and the policies have no grounding in political reality and are therefore useless.

Also there is no Libertopia so the ideas have never been tested - this is a great advantage in an argument, should you get into one with a libertarian.

And the party was invaded by far- right radicals in NZ. The sort of people Ron Paul attracts. I'm centre-right in most things these days, and it's a much better place.

February 12, 2008 at 5:01 PM  
Anonymous Dr Zen said...

Ruth, I am only a small-l libertarian. I despise Libertarians. They are just ultraright greedheads who hate paying taxes. I welcome the opportunity to share my luck with my compatriots, so I mind taxes a lot less than them. I think you'll find that the party wasn't "invaded", but you simply noticed that your liberalism was not big-l Libertarianism.

The centre-right is a horrible place to be. It's like you're on the darkside but you don't have the balls really to go for it. The right is simply wrong about *everything*. Centrists are simply people who like the way things are somewhat. I'd take some convincing that things are all that likeable.

February 12, 2008 at 5:11 PM  
Anonymous Dr Zen said...

And a Libertopia would be hell on earth. The rich would fuck the not so rich without restraint. Unless you're rich, I'd suggest that you should be heartily opposed to that, and even if you are, human decency might trouble you.

February 12, 2008 at 5:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

boots sez:

Freedom is responsibility; government is incapable of restricting Man's choice, it simply cannot be done.

Some choices can be made illegal, some choices can be made inconvenient, but that's about it. The concept of government restricting Man's choice is as silly as the concept of making suicide a crime.

Man can choose, Man can act, government can punish, it goes round and round, but whatever can be physically done, Man can choose to do it, Man is free to make choices as he wishes; but consequence is inescapable, always.

February 12, 2008 at 5:37 PM  

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