Freedom enables humankind to achieve unprecedented levels of efficiency. The individual can
exercise her own rationality freed from tutelage, and
build and benefit from a vastly expanded range of choices.
The individual becomes part and parcel of a comprehensive game of improved efficiency played by all members of society.
However, we should not assume that freedom is a machine producing a uniform efficiency-product.
A Spectrum of Efficiencies
Freedom is a changeable state of affairs that can assume - potentially and in reality - the form of many different alternatives, some of which may lie outside the area that some of us would recognise as proper freedom.
While no one can or should be stopped to say "this isn't freedom in my eyes," we ought to understand that there cannot be a uniform concept of freedom. There is, as it were, a whole stack of cards on each of which is more or less legitimately written "liberty." Politics is playing a deck of cards called "liberty."
What possible arrangement of liberty we may choose has to do with the concept of efficiency. For efficiency, one of the great pluses of liberty, can be achieved in different ways depending on the boundary conditions from which to work out the most efficient solution.
Competing Boundary Conditions - The Need for Political Management
This only goes to underscore the importance of responsible political participation and the inestimable significance of honest specialists of political representation.
For in a world of competing arrangements of liberty, not only is it important to
make good (i.e. more efficient) choices as opposed to bad (rather inefficient) one's, not only is it - simultaneously - important to
make choices faithful to popular will, while balancing vox populi against robust conditions of freedom, the latter being exempt from reversal owing to short-term political moods.
What is more, the good politician, the sensitive legislator must
uphold the credibility of a political landscape that encloses differing and competing, yet cognate concepts of liberty.
Politics alters the boundary conditions that determine the specific instantiation of an efficient outcome. Different political parameters, different efficient outcomes.
While conceptually perhaps subtle and hard to give a graphic account of, a society favouring income equality more than wealth and growth may have its set of efficient outcomes, just as a society with a preference of wealth and growth over income equality may attain efficient outcomes relative to its political boundary conditions.
Liberty's Ethical Multiplier
Commitment to a certain type of boundary conditions is a matter of ethical choice.
The right to ethical choice is surely an option characteristic of a free society, and hence disagreement on arrangements of freedom are inherent in liberty.
This being so, to be sure, there is still no reason to revel or languish in moral relativism. To the contrary, we need to defend and justify our best insight into desirable boundary conditions of freedom and efficiency against erroneous competing views, while being conscious of the need to respectfully tolerate others who may subscribe to an interpretation of freedom that is sufferably different from ours, or perhaps, at least occasionally, even better, as we may find out, if we compete with patience and an open mind.
The Economy - An Extensive Derivative of Permits and Taboos
The first sentence in the below quote from Thomas Sowell resonates strongly with me, as it makes it utterly clear that the economic system is incapable of creating its own preconditions, but depends on political acts and support organised by the state if an economic order is ever to be viably operative:
[W]hile economic systems of various sorts boast of their achievements in bringing goods and services to people, what makes them all economic systems is that they have systematic procedures for preventing people from getting goods and services, denying them access to natural resources, tools or equipment for production, and limiting their ability to work all the tasks they would prefer [...] [A]ll economic systems must use some method of denial.
Sowell, T. (1989), Knowledge and Decisions, Basic Books, p. 45
That is to say, economic systems are not economic systems but extensive derivatives of permits and taboos culturally produced, legally defined, and governmentally enforced.
[T]here are inherent constraints, given the limitations of nature and the unlimited desires of man, and economic systems are simply artificial schemes of administering the inherent scarcities.
[Large enough a class of, G.T.]
... scarcities ... exist independently of the particular economic systems, and would exist if there were no economic system at all and people simply fought over everything they wanted.
Economic institutions exist to introduce elements of rationality and efficiency into the use of inputs and outputs.
And so do political attitudes, convictions and determinations that frame the elements that our rationality is allowed to handle and the paths that are open to the malleable flow of efficient solutions.
Daniel Dennett argues convincingly that determinism and free will are not incompatible.
The crux of his contention is that from a complete set of deterministic rules one may engender contingent outcomes, that is: situations that call for the exercise of judgement and choice.
While restricted by a complete set of initial conditions and fully deterministic rules for action, the results of such determination may proliferate to form an evolutionary order, which, in turn, brings about the capacity to learn, compare, weigh and decide among options.
Personally, I feel that some sort of constraint on free will ought to be expected, and that free will as a precondition of moral responsibility and intelligent choice is satisfied under the conditions that Dennett explains. The free person is not entirely undetermined in his choosing, yet the degree of freedom accorded her is large enough to make her a responsible agent to be held accountable for moral or other purposes (like checking learning progress or the quality of an argument and so on).
This is an insight of multiple import for the place of liberty in our lives. When deterministic conditions can evolve to develop substantial margins for deliberate human strategies, we may, in principle, reach a stage in this development that calls for freedom as we understand it: a high degree of personal autonomy. In the end, the demand for liberty amounts to a choice in favour of
(i) a deterministic system, an evolved order with wide space for delegated, locally and personally competent decision-making, that is better than
(ii) human despotism, an ad-hoc-regime of paternalistic second guessing resulting in severely sub-optimal information-processing and insufficient environmental adaptation.
Relatedly, and I think Dennett mentions this aspect in his lecture, without deterministic constraints it is hard to imagine an orderly universe, i.e. one in which we can expect to make reliable choices thanks to a reasonably predictable habitat.
Totally random ad-hoc-determination (of conditions in an environment) would produce chaos in which successful adaptation is not possible.
Below a brief summary of his arguments (apologies for the bad sound quality), as well as a full lecture by Dennett on the compatibility of determinism and free will.
The writer makes me jump from one interesting idea to another, either taken directly from the book or inspired by it. I do not know with which idea to begin.
For starters, I shall confine myself to a simple, yet momentous observation, namely that liberalism has changed significantly since the era of its heyday in the 19th century.
In its contemporaneously dominant adoption by global social democracy, many, indeed, too many inhibitions, taboos, and reservations of classical liberalism are being breached, burdening the economy, jeopardising a balanced political system (one ensuring that no single force in society exerts absolute dominance), and undermining personal freedom - all of which being important pillars of the robust conditions of freedom.
Crude ideological stereotypes of socialist origin - above all, the chimaera of inequality - are being used to leverage insufferably invasive and collectivist attacks on our free societies.
In no small measure, I conjecture, however, these social democratic excesses are being invited by an inability, and - perhaps more deeply causative - a long-standing unwillingness of the classical liberal to enter the political fray so as to delineate his position from social democratic conceit, on the one hand, and anarchist utopianism, on the other hand.
The challenge is that many of the social democratic policies are quite compatible with (robust conditions of) liberty, while some of these have tremendous popular appeal (like certain elements of the welfare state), though there may be other and far better approaches to the respective issues. But if there is no politically vital force to represent these better, genuinely liberal approaches, social democracy is destined to become the dominant political force.
It would probably take an entire book to retrace the many roads that have led to a world in which liberals have become either
social democrats, or
crypto-anarchists sporting an anti-political attitude that incapacitates them to use the powerful tools of politics and the state to turn liberalism into a living thing, rather than a pious creed for personal edification with no public significance.
As Scherger seems to imply convincingly, the liberalism of the 19th century did include great expectations for and a vision of the state as a liberating force - why this vision has vanished, why modern libertarians have practically reversed the original liberal view of politics and the state remains a puzzle, that I think, we should pay more attention to, so as to regain the ability to see freedom where she exists and not only complain about her being absent or violated:
These declarations of the Rights of Man [most importantly in America, but also in France and later in Germany and other places, so far as they were American-inspired] mark a new ear in the history of mankind.
The humanitarian spirit underlies them-the conception that each individual citizen is entitled to the concern of the State; that this personality is of infinite worth and is a purpose of creation; that he should be recognized as an individual, as a man.
The principles they contain became the creed of Liberalism. The nineteenth century war pre-eminently the century of Liberalism.
(Scherger, G. (1904), The Evolution of Modern Liberty ..., pp. 5 - 6, Skyhorse Publishing-empahisis added)
Note that the great achievements of the age of liberalism rely on
political mobilisation and, hence, increasingly on
Perhaps no other century witnessed greater and more numerous reforms and a greater extension of individual liberty.
This century is marked by the abolition of slavery in all civilized countries, by the extension of the elective franchise, by the emancipation of woman, by the popularization of government, and by countless other reforms.
Not least because she does what I do not do, so many of us do not do, though we ought to: she puts her convictions to the test of real politics.
I do not refrain from politics because I think it is per se wrong to engage in it, as unfortunately so many libertarians think. I stay away from the fray because it is so tough and gruelling.
Yet we need voices like that of Senator Ebke to be heard in the political arena, voices of those conscious of freedom.
A lot of my writing here at RSE is in defence of politics and the state, an incongruous position, many believe, for someone concerned with freedom.
However, over the years, I have come to realise that politics and the state are vital to our liberty; and when I say this, I think of public personalities like Senator Laura Ebke - undogmatic yet principled believers in freedom, with courage and circumspection in equal measure to defend their views tenaciously and to yield to better insight (of the need of compromise, for instance) when resistance to it becomes unreasonable.
Back home in my cosy house after a long day. Lots of problems, lots of quick solutions. A good day.
For days I had felt something is wrong with my car's steering; the cause turned out to be a tyre that was gradually losing pressure. Just when passing my auto repair shop, I noticed I had a flat tyre. About to close, the owner of the garage gave me a replacement vehicle, so I could do all the evening shopping I needed to get done - imagine: no more beer in the house -, plus an overdue haircut.