Thursday, October 13, 2005

Redefining Freedom

I've been reading the work of Dr. Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize winner for Economics, as of late, and his work has enabled me to verbalize something that I've been trying to put my finger on for some time now. My problem with traditional libertarians and neo-liberals has been a constant focus on the economic sphere when that always seemed to me a focus on a means rather than an end. Beyond that, I've always found that while using traditional economic indicators makes measuring progress and development very easy, it doesn't really define what it is measuring in substantive terms. What does a per captia income of $20,000 in an area with a median income of $40,000 mean? In some places, places like Sweeden, it means that your house is smaller and you drive a VW Beetle rather than a Saab, but in most parts of the U.S. it means that you are unable to raise a family in a manner consistent with good childrearing methods, that you can't get good healthcare, and that you are probably in debt simply to pay the bills.

What I have discovered is that we Americans have traditionally defined our freedoms neagtively. That is to say that we deal in terms of what we are free from rather than what we are free to do. We are free from government interference in our speech, but we are not free to communicate by the most common and widely accepted means unless we posess the wealth to purchase the needed communications technology.

It seems that in the begining of our country's life we did not define freedom this way. We wrote our definitions this way as a group of people who remembered being interfered with by a foreign government, but we also sought to expand the real freedoms of people by establishing public libraries and a postal system with standardized postage. As time passes, though, private systems have far outstripped the public ones. There are obvious market related reasons for this, but in certain areas, especially health care, communications and utility infrastructure, and security and emergency response it seems to me that we must begin to reconceive of these freedoms positively. The right to life should mean a right to health. The right to liberty should mean the right to have access to all of the same markets and information available to anyone else, and the right to the pursuit of happiness should mean that the opportunity to gain an education free of economic burden should be present for any member of society.

Many will argue, I'm sure, that this is leftist, bleeding-heart nonsense. It is, but it's leftist, bleeding-heart nonsense that will generate a more productive (not to mention meaningful) economy worldwide, raising the standard of living of all human beings and lowering crime rates and violence worldwide.


thalassa_mikra said...

Brice, it is not leftist bleeding heart liberal nonsense at all. What I mean to say is, that the ideas are more mainstream and widely accepted than you think they are, and the idea of a more comprehensive view of development and freedom has been around forever.

Landed here on a random blog hop and liked what I saw!

Brice Timmons said...

Thanks for the compliments. However, I find that it is difficult to articulate the concept of positive freedoms and the economic windfall that they produce in a fashion that does not conflict with what are now seen as "traditional" American perspectives. Though, I believe that America is forgetting its true origins as an EU-like entity in favor of a post-Civil War industrial archetype.

jrm said...

Actually, Sen discusses the competing notions of rights at great length. It's not entirely the case that Americans merely developed a skewedly "negative" perception of rights, so much as the conception of "rights" evolved in such a way as to make the term "positive rights" somewhat confusing.

The operant word here is "should." The term "should" poses logical difficulties for several reasons. First, upon whom is "should" binding? With the Bill of Rights, "should" is binding on Congress and the executive. A few extreme "strict constructionists" will argue that that's all it's binding, on: that'as why I like to introduce latter-day "strict constructionists" as "promiscuous authoritarians."

But "reasonable people" have construed these rights to constrain the state in any form.

"Should" had earlier been binding on the king: rights were reciprocal obligations. Under Roman Law, rights were conceived of a hierarchy of obligations, intended to inforce a stable ordering of command and conscription in the defense of the commune/polis.

In this sense, "should" would have been binding on an entire ordering of obligation to other members of the polity, from slave to sovereign.

The other problem with the use of the word "should" in respect to rights is that "should" refers to an ordering of hypothetical possibilities. For example, suppose we agree that due process "should" be a right. But then, while we're at it, why not agree that due process "should" be consistantly excellent? Why not agree that crime itself "should" never occur? Or strife between persons?

So clearly, when you say something "should" be the case, you are arbitrarily limiting the scope of your idealization of society; you are creating a boundary between an utopia of means (OK) and an utopia of human essence (not OK).

James R MacLean

jrm said...

I indulge in this coma-inducing wave of nitpicking because you brought up the evolution of rights as a concept, and suggested some possibilities for its future evolution.

You make some good points about the benefits of social welfare systems in Scandanavian countries, but these arguments aren't a justification for a revision of the concept of rights; your arguments are providential. Your argument (which is accurate, if still in the rough) is that public goods are beneficial and enhance pulbic welfare. This, however, doesn't really take the place of arguing that the notion of rights needs to be redefined to include benefits at the public purse.

I am increasingly fond of referring to "libertarians" as "anarcho-capitalists," on the grounds that various efforts by libertarians to differentiate themselves from the latter are usually based on logical fallaices (selective prudentiality being the most widespread).

James R MacLean

Brice Timmons said...

I see your point. I'm more rhetorician than social philosopher, especially in the area of individual rights. This is possibly because I do not find any logical reason to assume that there is such a thing as individual rights. There is justice, and there is justice applied to the individual, but it strikes me as odd to assume that there is such a thing as justice applied to an individual absent greater society. I do, however, believe that the protection of what we call individual rights can ensure that all (or at least most) individuals in a society are treated justly. What I mean to say is that the treatment of individual rights is not an area that I find appealing for the begining of a logical argument regarding societal reform, it is, in fact, a significantly more natural place to end the argument. Hence the objection in certain of the Federalist Papers to the Bill of Rights. The rights of individuals, it was argued, would be ensured by the careful design of the structure of government and the limited powers granted it. I personally wonder the Bill of Rights has not done more harm than good by helping to tie public discourse regarding the limits of governmental power to an enumerated list of rights while simultaneously casting doubt on the legitimacy of those unenumerated rights. Forgive the rambling. I'm tired and have a rather nasty cold.