Where does the greatest challenge to liberty come from?

‘If respect for individual rights were to be shown to lead, not to order and prosperity, but to chaos, the destruction of civilization, and famine, few would uphold such alleged rights, and those who did would certainly be held the enemies of mankind. Those who can see order only when there is a conscious ordering mind – socialists, totalitarians, monarchical absolutists, and the like – fear just such consequences from individual rights. But if it can be shown that a multitude of individuals exercising a set of “compossible” rights … [rights that can exercised at the same time without entailing conflicts] … generates, not chaos, but order, cooperation, and the progressive advance of human well-being, then respect for the dignity and autonomy of the individual would be seen to be not only compatible with, but even a necessary precondition for, the achievement of social coordination, prosperity, and high civilization’ – Tom G Palmer, ‘The literature of liberty’.

I wish I had written that paragraph. It captures a lot about the relationship between freedom and flourishing that I have been writing about on this blog for the last couple of years. My personal conviction is that individual liberty is necessary to individual flourishing because individual flourishing is an inherently self-directed process. While I seek to persuade others to adopt that view, I recognize that the course of public policy depends much more strongly on public perceptions of the consequences of alternative courses of action.

Much of the discussion in my blog has been about the consequences of freedom or lack of it. I discussed the strong positive relationship between freedom and objective measures of well-being (income, longevity etc) in an early post. The general conclusion from my posts discussing measurement of subjective well-being is that claims sometimes made that the findings of happiness research conflict with these conclusions are simply wrong. Not only do people in countries with relatively high levels of freedom have higher material living standards, they also tend to have higher life satisfaction.

However, even though the existence of a positive general relationship between liberty and well-being now seems to be disputed less frequently, freedom is still under challenge from several different directions. First, there is a challenge to economic freedom associated with the global financial crisis (GFC). The GFC has raised important economic issues about the role of monetary and fiscal policy, the effects on the financial system of the failure of large financial institutions and the effects of different regulatory regimes on behaviour of large financial institutions. Economists will probably still be debating some of these issues in 50 years time, but at this stage it looks to me as though the extent of additional regulation likely to be seriously contemplated will be relatively minor and confined to the financial sector. Not many people are suggesting the nationalization of industry and the introduction of Soviet-style economic planning to prevent future financial crises.

The second challenge to freedom is associated with action to deal with alleged externalities, particularly global emissions of greenhouse gases. Some restriction of freedom is of course justified to discourage activities that impinge on the rights of others. Some of the ways the ‘problem’ of greenhouse gas emissions is being tackled in many countries, however, involve greater than necessary restrictions of economic freedom. This stems from rent-seeking activities of industries, including those favouring particular technologies. The challenge is serious, but probably easier to deal with than previous challenges that many countries have dealt with successfully, including, for example, overcoming opposition to reductions in barriers to international trade.

The third challenge to freedom seems to me to be more fundamental and more serious. It stems from the collectivist idea that governments are responsible for the happiness of citizens, rather than for protecting their rights – including their right to pursue happiness as they think fit. Many people have come to expect governments to act as guardians of their well-being, not only giving financial support in times of need, but also protecting them from making bad decisions. In relying on governments to perform such a role they infringe the liberty of other people who do not want or need such protection.

This challenge to individual liberty seems to come mainly from people who do not mean anyone any harm – people who live among us who want us all to have happier lives. As I write this I am conscious that at times I have actually supported government regulations to protect people from making bad decisions that might adversely affect their well-being. You might have similar memories. Sometimes we may have had reason to be concerned that if people were not compelled to act in what we perceived as ‘their interests’ they would end up imposing a burden on the welfare system or on private charity. That just underlines the point I am making – the greatest challenge to individual liberty comes from people who do not mean anyone any harm.

In modern democracies the choice between liberty and paternalism rests ultimately in the hands of our fellow citizens. The course of public dialogue about such matters turns most crucially on public perceptions of the consequences for human well-being of the policy choices that governments are making. While each public policy decision to restrict liberty and relieve individuals of responsibility for their own actions may seem relatively benign when considered in isolation, that doesn’t mean that the cumulative impact of many such decisions will be benign.

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