13 September 2022

A few observations on freedom

In my post last week about some right-wing bloggers' fantasies of a civilizational collapse, I listed some of the reasons why a post-collapse environment (if it ever actually happened) would not be worth living in -- "No more internet, no more dentists with modern anesthetics, no more modern hospitals or clinics, no more vaccines or antibiotics," etc, ending with "no more real freedom."  In a right-wing context, it has occurred to me that some libertarian types might find this objection surprising, since their concept of freedom is freedom from control by government, and after a civilizational collapse, obviously there would be no government.

Here's what I meant, which I think illustrates why libertarian thinking is fundamentally flawed.

Looking at just myself as an isolated individual, and ignoring for the moment the existence of other people, my freedom is maximized when, to the greatest extent possible, I can do whatever I want, without any obstacles to my doing so.  In the real world, which contains many individuals interacting within a society, overall freedom is maximized when the total ability of all individuals to do whatever they want is maximized.  In practice, achieving this involves a vast number of compromises and trade-offs, because there are so many cases where the wants of one person clash with the wants of another (when, for example, my neighbor wants to play loud music in his apartment but I want to exist in my own apartment without excessive noise).  Various ideologies and philosophies have been concocted which claim to give rules for resolving such conflicts, but that's not relevant to this post.  Just keep in mind that conflicts of one person's freedom with another's do exist.

The point is, if my freedom is being limited, it's totally unimportant to me whether that limitation is being imposed by a government, a boss, a neighbor, a criminal, an animal, a feature of the natural environment, or whatever.  If I want to do something and cannot, that's a constraint on my freedom, regardless of the nature of the obstacle.

If I could travel back in time two billion years, before complex life had evolved, then by libertarian standards I would have total freedom.  I would be the only person on Earth, so not only would no government exist, but there would be no chance of one being established.  But in reality, my freedom of action would be far more constrained than it is in the present.  There would exist nothing I could eat.  The air would not be breathable.  I would die immediately if I stepped outside the time machine.  There would be no other people to interact with, and nothing to do.  I would have no effective freedom at all.

A post-collapse scenario would be an intermediate case.  Almost every aspect of life would be more limited and hemmed in than it is now.  Getting enough food to survive would be a constant struggle, perhaps involving literal battles, if it were possible at all -- not just a simple trip to Safeway.  The environment might well be dominated by looters or anarchic mobs, or by packs of the kind of nutballs who now keep huge stockpiles of guns and ammunition in their basements for this very eventuality.  Going outside would be too dangerous to do except for dire necessities.  Even staying home would not be safe, not in a world of violent gangs and no police.  There would be no government, but in almost every real-world, practical way, I would have far less freedom of action than I do now.  A few especially cruel, ruthless, and well-armed people might feel more free, but only because the circumstances would enable them to trample the freedoms of everyone else.

Consider how freedom would diminish if society were run according to the fantasies of libertarianism as it is today, which resolves all conflicts by robotically applying a rule that property rights trump everything else.  Your boss could demand unlimited extra work time, pay you as little as the market let him get away with, sexually harass you, require you to join his church -- if you didn't like it, you'd be "free" to switch jobs, after all.  Landlords could charge as much as they wanted, neglect upkeep and noise problems as much as they wanted, invade your unit without notice -- if you didn't like it, you'd be "free" to move elsewhere, after all.  Restaurants would have no state-mandated safety rules; you would need to do your own research and find out how good their standards were.  Employers and business owners who disliked gays, blacks, Jews, etc could simply exclude them -- they'd be "free" to go elsewhere.  In some extremely abstract sense, there would be more "freedom" (well, for those who owned the most things), but in reality most people would face endless and wearisome new burdens and constraints.

In practice, the only virtue of establishing the libertarian dream as a reality would be that it would rapidly provoke the violent overthrow of the entire system.  But looking at the history of violent revolutions in the real world, they don't have a very good track record of leading to systems with more real freedom.  We're better off sticking with the unexciting but pragmatic course of fine-tuning and improving the existing system.


Anonymous Expat said...

When people talk of "freedom" they generally mean freedom for them from others, not freedom for everyone else. Libertarians, under your description, assume that they are not subjected to anyone else's "freedoms" and so get the best of both worlds.

13 September, 2022 02:55  
Anonymous Reaganite Independent said...

Astute observations/commentary Infidel- ‘Your rights END where my nose begins‘. Linked

13 September, 2022 05:09  
Blogger Mark said...

You rightly point out that when there are other people involved, "total freedom" becomes impractical. Yet the libertarians and radical right cannot seem to see this. Anarchy would be more practical than the libertarian/neoliberal's dream world.

13 September, 2022 09:09  
Blogger Burr Deming said...

Have re-read twice.
Can't find anything with which to disagree.


I'll read again to be sure.

13 September, 2022 12:44  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Expat: Maybe so, but I'm assuming basic intellectual integrity here.

Reaganite: Thanks! And thanks for the link.

Mark: It is very odd. They got outraged at the mask mandates, apparently not realizing that masks are mainly to protect others, not the wearer. It's like the smokers who think their freedom is being infringed when they can't stink up and poison the air that others have to breathe (there aren't many of those any more, but it's an argument I've seen a few libertarians make). They come across as the kind of assholes who let their dog crap on everybody else's lawn and don't pick it up.

Burr: Thanks, I appreciate it. I don't expect everyone to agree with everything, but I hope it's at least clear and makes its case.

15 September, 2022 00:31  
Anonymous Annie said...

Your essay is clear to me and makes its case—against libertarians and the far right—and really any philosophy or notion that eschews compromise. As your examples above point out, the mask-deniers are one manifestation among many. I’m intrigued by your focus on libertarians, whom I don’t see as a significant presence in our national life. Is that because of my bubble—or are you simply interested in exploring the implications of a point of view whose proponents haven’t thought about very deeply?

15 September, 2022 18:20  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Annie: Thanks. I always strive to be clear, above all.

As to the focus on libertarianism, it's partly the fact that I personally have had more than my share of confrontations with them (and with actual anarchists) in earlier years, so the flaws are more obvious to me, due to experience. Libertarianism is also an especially clear example of an ideological-purist stance that insists on carrying the implications of its premises to their logical conclusion, however insane, rather than tempering them with pragmatism. I don't believe that any ideology or philosophy, robotically applied across-the-board, can work in the real world -- pragmatic common sense is always necessary.

15 September, 2022 22:55  
Blogger Bohemian said...

Most people's version of 'freedom' is based on Egocentric values of doing whatever they want to, but the moment someone else were to exercise the same 'freedom' to do whatever they want to, and conflict arises because everyone has been much too Free and not considering anyone but themselves, it all falls apart. Being 'Free' to do whatever one wants always has some consequences and not all of them are positive. Most ideology has a lot of Fantasizing involved in how it would manifest and actually work... most of the time, it just wouldn't work according to lining up with the Imaginings.

17 September, 2022 03:20  
Anonymous spirilis said...

It's your life. You were born free as a bird and immediately began to shackle yourself to THIS world. Any chains that bind you were created by you or accepted as gifts. I support true anarchy. It won't occur here in this world mainly due to the incredible number of free-riders (the quit quitters) and the greed of the criminal class. Every night I tether myself to a machine that replaced my kidneys. It affords me a twenty foot radius of movement but I am as free as I ever was. I owe no one and have forgiven all owed debts. Slavery is a choice.
"I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.” R. Heinlien

17 September, 2022 07:02  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Infidel: I see what you mean, but, alas, I can't bring myself to accept what you are presupposing. I cannot accept that they have intellectual integrity. Otherwise, yes, from a theoretical point of view. I just started reading Bertrand Russell's book The Problems of Philosophy; I'll come back to this question when I have finished.

Reaganite: I disagree. My freedom is impinged upon even if your fist does not connect to my nose. A threat of punching my nose restricts my freedom. A punch that stops just short also restricts my freedom. By extension, my freedom can be affected by things which do not directly affect me. This is, as far as my opinion goes, a common opinion. The Right might feel their freedom is affected if a gay man 1000 miles away is allowed to have sex with a consenting partner. The Left might feel the same if children 1000 miles away are forced to go to church or learn about Jesus in school. I feel the "stopping at my nose" analogy misses this. I might misreading or putting too much of my own definition of "freedom" into this.

17 September, 2022 09:11  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn't Somalia a good example of a libertarian paradise?

17 September, 2022 09:25  
Blogger E.A. Blair said...

Note that while there have been a multitude of political/social/economic bases on which to base a nation state, some of which have been more successful than others, there has never been one based on libertarian principles that has not been considered a failed state.

17 September, 2022 09:51  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Bohemian: That's why maximizing freedom in the context of a society is a complicated problem. If each individual sets out to maximize his own freedom regardless of that of every other individual, you end up with endless conflict, and everyone ends up with less freedom than they could have had under at least some types of rules-based system.

Spirilis: Any chains that bind you were created by you or accepted as gifts

Sorry, in the real world this is nonsense, as is the Heinlein quote. Slaves are not born free, do not create or voluntarily accept their chains, and are not slaves by choice. Obeying the rules of the society you were born into is not a choice in practical, real-world terms when you can be severely punished for rejecting them. I don't have a free choice about paying taxes or showing ID when buying alcohol, not in any practical, real-world sense. One can always defend such claims in some airy abstract sense, but I don't care about that. It has no relevance to that actual real world we live in.

17 September, 2022 10:54  
Blogger Daal said...

great post -- now if only the right people would read this...

19 September, 2022 13:36  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

It's been linked and reposted in a couple of places, so hopefully more people will.

20 September, 2022 08:31  

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