Friday, March 18, 2005

"Freedom for the pike"

I seem to often use this phrase when talking about how freedoms are balanced in a liberal society. It comes from a saying by Isaiah Berlin: "In a lake stocked with minnows and minnow-eating pike, freedom for the pike means death to the minnows." It means a freedom only for the strong or the rich.

As someone who values personal autonomy and believes that freedom should be for everyone, not just the wealthy or powerful - as someone on the left, rather than the right, in other words - I favour limiting the freedom of pikes. As Berlin pointed out, "the liberty of some must depend on the restraint of others". In order for all of us to be free, the ability of those who would limit the freedom of others must be restricted.


What about the biggest pike of them all: the government?

Posted by Brian S : 3/18/2005 10:00:00 AM

It's there to be an umpire, and protect us from all the other would-be pikes. And unlike them, it is democratically accountable to the rest of us.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 3/18/2005 10:32:00 AM

Big pikes may not be "democratically accountable", but they certainly are accountable. In a free market, one may choose not to buy a "pike's" products and to subject the pike to all sorts of criticism. And if that pike oversteps the boundaries of freedom, then the umpire may step in. The challenge is getting the government to stick to "umpiring". Unfortunately, in even the most democratic societies, government insists on joining in the game. And, unlike the other pikes, the government has the power of coercion. Companies (the other pikes) do not have the power to tax, to imprison, to outlaw, etc. Empowering the government to engage in more coercion does not protect the minnows. At least not for long. It just endangers the whole eco-system. Sure we can get shot of a goverment (assuming it hasn't turned into a dictatorship), but the opportunity to engage in this form of "criticism" comes but infrequently. Companies, on the other hand, must contend with criticism from the market every day (that is, from people making choices about which products to buy)

Posted by Brian S : 3/18/2005 07:50:00 PM

I think many of the people who describe themselves as 'classical liberals' have a very old-fashioned view of freedom and power. When the real classical liberals of a couple of centuries ago were writing, the only real wielder of power in society was the government. To the extent that corporations existed, they were confined by their charters to actions compatible with the goals of the state. So of course liberals of the time were mainly concerned with ways to constrain governmental power and prevent abuse of that power. These constraints, from separation of powers between branches of the government to regular democratic elections to the right to a fair trial, remain as important today as they were then.

However, what has changed is the massive increase in power wielded by private conglomerates. Many corporations are as powerful, or even more powerful, than many governments. It's a natural extension of classical liberal thought to think about ways that this private power can be constrained, and abuse prevented.

Posted by Ranald : 3/19/2005 02:58:00 PM

Freedom to starve isn't freedom.

Posted by Muerk : 3/19/2005 05:23:00 PM

Ranald-corporate power is different to government power. Govenrment power is coercive. Corporate power is not. There is a world of difference there. Of course, when corporations get into bed with corrupt governments they can be a menace. But here the problem is not the free market, but the lack of one. Similarly, in over-regulated markets, where competition is stifled, corporations can become too powerful.

Posted by Brian S : 3/20/2005 09:47:00 PM

Brian - it's true that corporations don't have the same arsenal of coercion that government has, but I believe they have some. The ability to fire someone seems just as coercive as the ability of the government to fine someone, perhaps more so in an economy where the worker would find it difficult to get a new job to feed themselves and their family, so to me that justifies introducing laws preventing workers being arbitrarily fired. Large corporations, or oligopolistic groups of companies, can also coerce other companies if those companies rely on them as suppliers or distributors. So there seems to be a role for the government stopping companies driving other companies into bankruptcy for arbitrary reasons (ie, anti-semitism).

Of course, most left liberals believe in some concept of 'positive freedom' - that freedom from coercion is a good start, but real freedom involves the ability to eat, pursue your goals, etc. I'm aware that most libertarians don't accept this (though why they subscribe to such an arid, negative vision of freedom is beyond me). But even without this belief in positive freedoms, I think a modern analysis of where power lies in our society is enough to justify at least some governmental restraint of corporate freedoms.

Posted by Ranald : 3/21/2005 05:48:00 PM

Ranald - Libertarians do believe that freedom involves the ability to eat, pursue your goals, etc, as well as freedom from coercion. It's just we disagree on the best means to achieve this. Libertarians believe that the free market, left to its own devices, is the best means of creating wealth for all and that left liberals do not really appreciate the power of free markets to test ideas and generate knowledge.

Posted by Brian S : 3/21/2005 09:20:00 PM

Bushy: I don't know why you're so surprised. The idea that society depends on restraint goes back to Hobbes and Locke, and is the foundation of all classical liberal and Libertarian thought.

Where I differ from Hobbes is in applying his central bargain - that each man "be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself" - to all liberties, not just to hitting one another.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 3/26/2005 06:10:00 PM

Could everyone who really belives in freedom please take a minute and go here to help this guy out. Its useful to remmember that freedom is a stranger to many parts of this world still....

Posted by Anonymous : 11/08/2006 07:07:00 PM