Friday, January 13, 2006



Freedom vs duty

In a post on the British Labour Minister Aneurin Bevan, the "father of the NHS", Just Left argues:

the dominant discourse in New Zealand, as in most of the rest of the "West", goes something like this:

"The purpose of your life is for you to live it, as you see fit. What you want is what you should have. Government and community should get out of the way, they exist to help you exercise the choices you make."

Whereas Bevan's argument seems to be something like, "with social cooperation to introduce a level of economic equality, there is now surplus and a need to decide in a moral sense what we do with it as a community. Some choices are good and some are not; these are the good ones."

It's a pretty profound difference, and I suspect the Bevanite argument is likely to become more important over time. "Free to Choose" is fine when resources are endless and 'collective' problems are small in scope. In a world that is characterised by energy crisis, global incidents of terrorism, global warming, population pressures - the choices we make inevitably have effects on other people.

As a liberal, I naturally adhere to the first statement. People have disparate visions of the good, and ought to be as free as possible to pursue them. Where I differ from classical liberals and those in the ACT party is a belief that freedom is for everyone, not just the rich. Poverty, ignorance, and ill-health can restrict people's freedom to pursue their vision of the good, every bit as much as physical or economic violence. Thus the need for social welfare, public education, public health, and anti-discrimination legislation. The entire arsenal of the traditional social democratic state is simply a means to an end, the end being allowing people to live the sorts of lives they want to lead.

Where I disagree violently with the second view is with the idea of guiding choices. The purpose of state education is not to teach people which choices are good and which are not, but to enable people to decide for themselves. But then, I don't really see this as incompatible with Bevan's concerns about the spending of social surpluses and the pursuit of community projects - mainly because I don't see either as necessarily impacting on people's ability to lead their lives as they see fit. Instead, it's about competing priorities and whose additional wants (for whatever) will be met first.

(I'd also point out that the liberal conception of educating people to make their own decisions also includes educating them about judging the consequences of those decisions, both individually and collectively (as in "what would happen if everybody did this?") - which is I think as much as is needed to address Bevan's concerns about rejection as well as selection...)

Another area where I differ from classical liberals and the ACT party is a recognition that unfettered self-interest doesn't lead to the best of all worlds. Hobbes is the trivial proof of that, but more generally, it leads to problems such as the tragedy of the commons. It's also government's job to prevent these problems with regulation and legislation as appropriate. While Libertarians like to pretend that these problems simply disappear if you assign property rights to everything, this ignores the fact that some things simply cannot be owned, while others (like, say, people) should not be.

The relevance of this is that many of the problems Jordan sees as encouraging a Bevanite view (and particularly the environmental ones) fall into this class of collective action problems, and are perfectly comprehensible within the liberal paradigm. The problem, as Jordan also points out, is that

politicians these days are very unwilling to tell voters they are wrong, or that what they want is destructive.

Faced with some of the biggest problems we have ever met, we are suffering from a crisis of political leadership. They're not even willing to stand up and make the argument that we are collectively engaged in self-destructive behaviour. But until they do, they've certainly got no right to criticise the rest of us for "refusing to listen"...

6 comments:

Unfortunately, democracy is now a thing of the past, as the rich dominate politics. Just look at the national party's election campaign expenses - and the green light the Judges gave to overspending in Tauranga.

Posted by Anonymous : 1/13/2006 07:05:00 PM

I agree that education and health need to be publically available, just not that they therefore need to be provided by the State. Too often state agencies are monolithic, sclerotic organisations, more adept at soaking up funds than in providing to the public. Look at how much extra money Labour has put into the public health sector since 1999, and how little difference it's made.

Posted by M'Lud : 1/13/2006 07:48:00 PM

Actually its made a real difference: nursing as a profession is now economically viable again. Previously, nurses couldn't even make the interest payments on their student loans, which was a significant driver (along with overwork due to cost cutting) in encouraging them to leave the country.

But I guess having public servants paid anything more than starvation wages is an example of "soaking up funds", right?

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 1/13/2006 08:04:00 PM

Very nice post idiot.

The mutual interdependence of society and the individual is a very profound theme and you put some nice touches on it.

We usually get bogged down in arguments about the efficiencies of the market versus planned economies, but it always seemed to me that whereas the markets excell at optimising the short-term and personal, it is far better to plan for the long-term and the communal.

All modern states are a balance between the socialist and capitalist impulses...it is inevitable that they will be in tension, but also essential that we learn to actively pursue the balance.

Posted by Logix : 1/14/2006 11:23:00 AM

The purpose of life is not a narrowly selfish directive to live your life as you want to live it and to hell with everyone else.

If anything rotten lies at the soul of Western society its the perniciousness of this obsession with our own ego. It blinds us to facts of our mortality and give us a hypocrtical arrogance.

We are not here to live and do as we consider best for our life. We are part of a matrix of the past, present and future. We owe duties to the past, and responsibilities to the future. Thats why the present is so complicated, we cannot apply simplistic liberalism as a handy answer all. We must make complex based on whats best for you, us, the past and the future.

Posted by Anonymous : 1/14/2006 11:44:00 AM

What do you do when somebody's choice of lifestyle actually makes poverty, ill-health or ignorance more likely for themselves or their family? If a social-democratic state is going to use its resources to try to remove poverty-related constraints on people's freedom, surely it's justified in demanding that people "co-operate" and use that freedom responsibly. In turn this entails not only educating people against "bad" choices but also a degree of coercion.

Posted by Anonymous : 1/14/2006 03:51:00 PM