Wednesday, July 29, 2009

On freedom: (2) Political freedom

Last week, I concluded the following about the nature of freedom as such:
That, then, would be what I take human freedom to be: that there are some causes which can be counted as (part of) the human self. We are free insofar as (and to the extent that) there is some part of us which makes a causal difference to what we think and do.

This week, I want to discuss how I see this connecting to political freedom. There is a difference between the two concepts. While (and I'm not going to get too far into this as I don't have it particularly straight) I take most things about the world to be structured by human practices and institutions, it's clear to me that political institutions do not exhaust those practices and institutions. That is, there are more kinds of things we do and (rule-based) structures we make than those which count as political. Religions, for example, are not a kind of state; they are a different sort of institution. The same can apply to universities, families, and so on. It would be a mistake, then, to try to read political freedom off from human freedom as such.

How do we get to political freedom from human freedom, then? Standardly, political freedom consists of two basic ideas. On the one hand, one is free insofar as one is not restricted by political institutions. This is the sort of freedom that is captured by the ideas of being free to associate with others or being free to move within a country's borders. On the other hand, one is free insofar as one is granted abilities by political institutions. This is the sort of freedom that is captured by the ideas of being free to vote or free to seek public office.

The former is, these days, not particularly controversial. It was controversial when it was first suggested by the Enlightenment thinkers, as it runs against some deep-rooted principles that existed in ancient (and thus also in mainstream medieval) thought. For now, though, since I take it as not controversial, I'll just leave it lie.

The controversial one is the latter type of freedom. Which is odd, really, as it also has Enlightenment roots. We can find it, for example, in the work of Rousseau, who (in)famously noted that one can be "forced to be free". The sense Rousseau makes of this superficially contradictory phrase is that in giving up natural freedom (the sort of freedom one has outside of society) one gains civic freedom (the sorts of freedom that can only exist within society). This is why I picked upon the freedom to vote and the freedom to seek public office above: these make no sense outside of political society. The idea of a "vote" is only sensible within political society; without such an institution, there is no such thing as a vote. The same applies to the idea of a "public office". (And, indeed, it applies to many other freedoms.)

So, freedom in the political sense consists both of the lack of restriction by political institutions and the granting of new abilities by political institutions. On the face of it, these are in serious tension with each other -- forget whether they are in tension with human freedom. That is, in order to create new abilities, it seems that political institutions must impose restrictions on us. In order for there to be public offices, for example, there must be powers associated with those offices, powers which can be used on others. So, if we want to have the freedom to run for public office, we must give up the freedom to not be restricted by those who hold public office. And vice versa -- if we want to maintain the lack of restriction, we must give up the existence of public offices. (Libertarians note that this applies to police as well as to politicians.)

Therefore, as a general principle, we can endorse the following: the more abilities government creates, the more restrictions it imposes; the fewer restrictions it imposes, the fewer abilities it creates. The question is what are we committed to in terms of a priority relation if we commit ourselves to the idea of human freedom. (As I said last week, I will take up the question of whether freedom is actually a valuable thing in next week's final part of this series.)

On the one hand, let us take lack of restriction as fundamental. We could defend this in the following way. In many cases, the state's interference in the lives of adults is not simply not legitimate, as it thus (necessarily ) infringes on their freedoms. However, many forms of state interference are in the lives of (literal or effective) children. And it is legitimate for the government to limit children, as, by definition, children are not full adults and thus not deserving of the full range of adult freedoms. For example, someone who has repeatedly demonstrated that they cannot handle the responsibility of caring for their own children can be deprived of those children or forced to live under state restrictions.

On the other hand, let us take the creation of abilities as fundamental. We could defend this in the following way. In many cases, the state's interference is a legitimate source of freedom for the adult. New abilities could be created through enforced education, for example, and this amounts to saying that the adult's freedoms are expanded. So, an adult who is compelled to go through (say) an apprenticeship would gain skills that expand the actions the adult is capable of taking. Far from limiting the freedoms of the adult, state interference would expand them.

I think the second is more plausible, for two reasons. First, the sense of freedom in terms of not being restricted by political institutions is irrelevant if one has no abilities to act politically. Having a maximal set of political freedoms in the second sense is a pre-condition on having any political freedoms in the first sense. This is, in my view, the fatal flaw in libertarianism: libertarians seem to believe that political freedom in the sense of lack of restriction can exist even when political freedom in the sense of having abilities is entirely absent. But this makes no sense, as without abilities to do things, there is no sense in which one's abilities can be restricted.

Second, favouring the second sense as primary over the first sense as secondary provides a more plausible justification for interfering in the freedom of children. We are not justified in interfering because they are somehow less worthy of being unrestricted than adults; instead we are so justified because they are less developed than adults and it is our responsibility to encourage and promote their development.

With the tension within political freedom resolved, we can now make some headway in connecting political and human freedom. Human freedom is based on, as I've said, the idea of a self being constituted by a particular set of causes. One is free insofar as one can affect what happens -- especially what one does -- with these causes. Political freedom, I've argued, is fundamentally about expanding the range of political abilities humans have, and only secondarily about not restricting what humans do. Thus, political freedom, in the primary sense, is about expanding the range of causes with which a human being can affect what happens; it is about making us more able to take control of the world around us, both natural and social. This is really the point of political freedom: to allow us to express our human freedom more completely and more widely.

Now, I'm not suggesting a massive project of government intervention in the lives of adults in the name of increasing their political, and thus human, freedoms. I tend to think that government's role is mostly passive when it comes to treating adults. That is, it provides a background set of conditions and opportunities (which have nothing to do with freedom), and encourages people to take advantage of them. If some adult refuses to take advantage of them, that is a legitimate choice insofar as the adult is a full-fledged adult. The government's role is to create the full set of political freedoms -- as a subset of the causes that amount to human freedom -- and then, and only then, back off. (Many physical adults will not meet the definition of "adult" in this sense, but I'm fine with that result).

(We can see this most clearly when it comes to euthanasia. If someone decides, say, that they don't want to live with the ravages of Alzheimer's, government and society have no business refusing to allow that decision, or removing the opportunities to act on it. Right now, pre-Alzheimer's, insofar as the adult is a full adult with full grasp of their capacities and a full set of political freedoms, to limit their choice to end their lives is to treat them as more limited than they are, as less than a full adult, solely on the basis of the choice that is made. But no choice -- save possibly for the choice to make no more choices -- is less legitimate than any other, as long as it is made from a position of full rationality and full information. (Within reasonable practical limits, blah blah.))

But, generally, I would endorse more government intervention, and intervention from other state institutions, in order to expand our abilities to act. For example, I would endorse poverty reduction programs to give adults greater ability to engage in the economic aspects of political institutions. I would also endorse reducing the barriers to education so that adults could expand their range of freedoms through that mechanism. And so on.

Yeah, I don't have a pithy conclusion for this one. Deal. Next time: the value of freedom.