Saturday, November 26, 2011

What exactly is freedom?

It seems libertarians are mostly concerned about the right to get stoned. Question that, and you'll get hoary old stuff about alcohol and tobacco, and especially about how Prohibition didn't work.

I had a look at the US Prohibition story some time ago and it told quite a different story from what I'd always thought. I absolutely condemn these attempts at enforcement, but that's a story about the wickedness of power generally. As (I think) Charles Lamb said, "Governments are as bad as they dare to be."

But we are between Scylla and Charybdis. There is the power of government, and in resisting its excesses we may be tempted to assist the power of large corporations (which now appear to be growing mightier than the State and the People). The enemy of your enemy is not your friend - and in any case, corporations and the government are not mutually inimical after all: a career in politics often seems to be followed (if not accompanied at the time) by very lucrative dealings with the commercial sector.

And I have some doubts about Sartre-type definitions of freedom (he was very upset by Freud's theory of the unconscious). So here's some questions I want to repeat, from my comments over at the fine and idealistic people (no irony) at Orphans of Liberty:

  1. Is it freedom to fall victim to addictions? 
  2. Or to allow powerful vested commercial interests to increase temptation and opportunity?
  3. Are we free if we merely act out compulsions, and other scripts written into our subconscious?

And bearing in mind that, as I said there, black people I know reckon the Establishment’s soft on drugs because it keeps the blacks down:

    4. Is freedom just freedom for me, me, me or should Robinson Crusoe respect Man Friday, too?

Sartre thought there was no such thing as collective freedom, until the Paris student riots of 1968, and then suddenly he did think it. But that's what happens when a first-class brain is faced with more than one thing it wants to believe.


Sobers said...


1) Yes. Unless we are slaves to the State (ie their own us, physical body included), we should be free to put whatever we like into our bodies, as long as we harm no others while doing so.

2) See above. If one assumes some people aren't able to decide for themselves (of course its always other people who can't decide for themselves, WE are able to make our own informed decisions) then those people become wards of the State.

3) That is a question that applies to all our activities - what we eat, what we do for work, what we do for leisure, who we find sexually attractive. Its a philosophical debating point not limited just to whether we take drugs or not.

4) If you argue that, you are effectively saying that black people are lesser beings who need protecting from themselves by the white man. Not a train of thought I'd prefer to follow myself...................

Sackerson said...

Yet again, black or white and no gradations. Presumably you deny the role and partial responsibility of the tempter, and human fallibility, and the existence of drives of which we may not be fully aware. Your position is a gift to the commercial producer interests; and to the marketing and advertising companies everywhere.

As for your point four, I think it's perfectly reasonable for people to want their children to be protected from damaging temptations, especially when they don't have the resources for recovery like the comfy middle class. Spare me your implied racism slur and cutesy dot dot dot - this is what black people have told me.

I understand there's about a 5% recovery rate from serious addiction; maybe that's a measure of how free we really are.

Wish we'd get some rigorous thinking into the debate, instead of ideological flag-waving. But just as I thought, I get a repetition of the old assertions and a dash of ad hominem.

Nick Drew said...

Sackers, you are asking the right questions

very many libertarians are very tiresome indeed (- & have typically managed to avoid a lot of real-world experience in their lives)

their definition of what constitutes 'doing no harm to others' is generally blinkered and self-serving

there is little chance of proper engagement, and little point in trying: paradoxically, they tend to be intolerant in the extreme (whole sectors of the interweb are toxic wasteland: Anna Raccoon is very good on this)

I suspect only the wealthiest of them will still hold their views after a decade of what's coming next

(& those'll be the ones that emigrate)

Andrew Neil vs Chris Mounsey on TV was an edifying moment

Sackerson said...

Thank you, Nick, I was beginning to feel like an army of one.

Sobers said...

Yes I do deny any responsibility on the part of the 'tempter' (very religious phraseology there). If you don't want to be responsible for your own decisions, and wish them to be taken by others for you, just say so. Or is it not so much your decisions you're worried about, but all those lesser beings who don't have your superior knowledge of what's good for them? Poor things, they don't know what they're doing, better stop them now for their own good.

And as for the racism, its not even implied. Its overt in your question No 4. Black people are less able to control themselves in the face of the temptation of drugs and thus must be saved from themselves by the white man preventing them from harming themselves. Utter bilge.

All these arguments revolve around you knowing better than others whats good for them. I don't make that judgement. I leave that to the person concerned. If they wish to smoke themselves to death, drink themselves into oblivion, or ingest whatever other drugs they so wish, its not my place to prevent them from doing so. I might counsel against it, but ultimately I leave the choice to the person with the best knowledge of the situation - the individual.

Sackerson said...

As it was black people telling me this, I suppose you're saying they're racist. And in any case I think the same goes for poor whites.

But you're really not tackling the questions relating to human psychology and the will. I guess my merely asking them acts like a red rag to a bull.

Maverick said...

Sackerson .. Your question then has nothing to do with freedom .. tying your question to human psychology and the will has nothing to do with whether a man is free to do as he pleases .. so stop trying to be a smart ass ...

Sackerson said...

"tying your question to human psychology and the will has nothing to do with whether a man is free to do as he pleases". Exactly and precisely incorrect. Which is why you have to resort to stupid abuse.

Maverick said...

A man is only free as long as he may do what he wishes (as long as he does not harm any other)

He should be able to indulge in what every he wants, now whether or not it is an addiction is irrelevant .. take smoking .. it's simple .. smokers want to smoke .. a business man wants to use his premises to sell beer and provide a space for smokers to socialise ... If a non-smoker does not like it then he can come in or go elsewhere where the business man decides it is a smoke free zone (oh I am a non smoker btw) .. the business man, smoker and non smoker have they freedom to do as they please ...

Maverick said...

No it is not incorrect and you you saying it is does not make it so ... abuse or not !!

Maverick said...

You can dress it in as many fancy theoretical ideals as you like sad sack .. but the point is it is their own individual choice to make once you or anyone else removes that choice .. for whatever sanctimonious reason you dream up to justify your actions .. you have removed their freedom pure and simple ...

And crying "that is incorrect" is not a valid response .. "Oh no I didn't .. Oh yes you did" is something I have not heard since primary 5 ... lol

Maverick said...

@Sobers .. spot on !!

Maverick said...

Oh and sad sack .. Is this not the first abuse .. "I guess my merely asking them acts like a red rag to a bull".

Implies that Sobers responses are nor rational ...

What;s good for the goose ...

Sackerson said...

The nature of your comments speaks for itself. By the way, it's "sauce for the goose".

But what you fail to understand is that I am far from unsympathetic to the libertarian movement. However, unless it has some philosophical underpinning and is able to answer objections from modern science, it is likely to fizzle out as being little more than an emotional spasm.

You're starting to come on with some JS Mill, which is promising, but I think modern libertarians will have to develop his arguments in the light of what we (think we) know about human psychology, and also in the context of a far more populous and interconnected/independent society.

Revolutions that endure, like the American one, put themselves on a logical foundation, hence Paine's "Common Sense" and the preamble to the US Constitution. What is the Libertarian Party planning to do about this?

Maverick said...

The nature of your comments speaks for itself. By the way, it's "sauce for the goose".

The nature of my comments .. lmao .. rather be open than pompous and snidey which yours are ..

In regards to the origins of the idiom; common usage today is "good for the goose" it originally was "sauce" ...

But what you fail to understand is that I am far from unsympathetic to the libertarian movement. However, unless it has some philosophical underpinning and is able to answer objections from modern science, it is likely to fizzle out as being little more than an emotional spasm.

Fancy words and no substance in context of the points made .. it has no bearing to the question of freedom of choice which other readers have pointed out; yet you keep reverting to type .. as you brought up "modern science" (irrelevant as it is); scientists has been proven to manipulate the data to provide the results/conclusion they want as per the requirements of their paymasters; just look at AGW and ClimateGate2, the more you write the more you reveal .. pompous is only one of the adjectives :))

Maverick said...

As for the rest .. I am not a Libertarian nor interested in the party ..

Sackerson said...

Yes, I have been goading you a bit, sorry about that. But I'm aslo sorry you're not a libertarian, since liberty and democracy are now under serious attack here in Europe and in the USA.

Sobers said...

Lets approach this from another angle.

You say that some things (taking drugs for example) cause certain people (not all people) considerable harm, and they need to be protected from that harm, by an outside force - ie the State prohibits that activity for all, so as to protect the vulnerable. Is this a correct description of your views?

If so, it follows that once you have crossed the Rubicon of allowing the State to ban activities that cause harm to some sections of society, the slope becomes very slippery.

If some drugs are to be banned, why not all? After all drink and cigarettes cause massive harm to millions, many (in the case of drink) mere bystanders, who were not involved in the drinking themselves. There can be no ethical reason to ban marijuana (for example) but allow alcohol. On a pure analysis of harm of the two, alcohol does by far the most damage. So why is drink legal, but dope banned?

And why stop at drugs? Many human activities cause some people harm. One of the most important decisions a person can take is whether to have a child or not. Get it wrong (have a child with a bad person, or be unable to raise the child well yourself) and another human being suffers, through no fault of its own. What better reason could there be to control reproduction? It takes no stretch of the imagination to declare that certain sections of society are incapable of bringing up children in a suitably decent manner, and need to be prevented from doing so, if your philosophy is one of 'protecting people from themselves'.

The bottom line is that 'protecting people from themselves' is a profoundly illiberal policy. And one that can be applied to virtually all human activity if someone takes it to extreme, which history tells us someone usually does.

Far better to stay on the free side of the line, even if it results in some people making decisions that they later regret. The alternative is the creeping control of every aspect of human activity. The demonisation of drinkers, smokers and fat people that we see in Western societies today has its roots in the 'protecting people from themselves' philosophy.

It should be opposed at all costs, because it ultimately leads to tyranny.

Sackerson said...

Part 1 (I've exceeded the comment length limit):

Thank you for taking the questions seriously, and I can well understand the line you're taking, especially in these increasingly illiberal times.

Back in January 2009, I referenced - and reproduced - an article by former Birmingham prison doctor Anthony Daniels, aka "Theodore Dalrymple" of the Spectator magazine. It's originally from the Spring 1997 edition of City Journal, and although I've directed people to it more than once, it seems nobody bothers to read it, much less answer his arguments. "Charon QC" promised to, and never did. It is as though the late 17thC / 18thC Gin Craze had never happened.

I certainly accept your point about the hazards of alcohol - and Daniels is graphic about that, too - and I think our rulers have let the side down over decades, by increasing access to alcohol, from 1961 onwards - I don't think this is simply because of their love of our liberty, but spotting who gave money (or freebies, jobs etc) to whom, when, is going to be pretty much impossible.

Cigarettes? Non-smoking sections of public rooms just don't work, but I've never seen anything wrong in the old-fashioned smoking room, or "snug". Again, access is an issue - my Dad started because the local newsagent sold fags individually to kids, for a penny each. No excuse: even in the 1930s they were known as "coffin nails".

At the back of much libertarian argument (or simple assertion and abuse, which is what I so often get for questioning assumptions) seems to stand that legal-fictional character, the reasonable man. But even John Stuart Mill didn't think most countries were up to the kind of liberalism he thought England was ready for. And since his day we have learned (or theorised) a lot more about human nature and the workings of the mind. Except for the most extreme Sartrean type, I should have thought that most people accept that the will is often divided, and that we often do things for reasons we don't fully understand, and sometimes cannot make ourselves do (or refrain from) things that we think we wish to.

Sackerson said...

Part 2:

And like I said in the post, we're between two evils: on the one hand, the killjoy, on the other hand, the corporate pusher (assisted by his marketing department, advertisers and venal lawmakers). Libertarians are quite rightly on the lookout for Big Brother, yet forget to look over their shoulders for Big MD (or Big CEO). And within, for the murky wellsprings of their desires and decisions.

By the way, I can envisage a time when there will be no choice about drugs: we will be required to take them, like fluoride in drinking water, so that we cause no trouble to the powers that be. It may begin as a parole condition for petty criminals or political agitators, who knows?

I have worked in a project for 15-year-old NEETs for a couple of years, and seen the blight of drugs and alcohol, not that it's hospitalised them (yet), but simply that these consumer habits slow them down, reduce the motivation, initiative and learning, in the precious little time that they have to establish themselves in work and careers. It's like being tripped up at the start of the 100-yard dash.

If Chris Moulson and others like him are really exercised about freedom, there are much bigger issues to tackle than toking, gulping and snorting. The smoking ban is another EU directive, isn't it, like so many others. We should be looking to see what we can do about the breakdown and evisceration of democratic institutions, the disconnect. I suppose that for some extremists, law and politics don't matter: permission should, logically, be as odious to them as proscription, since both imply the power of others over oneself. But for the rest of us, especially those who aren't well-breeched, bomb-proof OEs, we need to accept that we're in the real world and work for government by consent and reason. We need to agree how to manage certain areas of public life, and private life where it impinges on others, and have reasons for what we advocate. Yah boo sucks in the face of authority (which appeals to me, too) won't ultimately work - I like Captain Ranty but I don't think he's really going to get the legal system to abolish itself.

Oh dear, I have so much work to do and look at all the time I've spent on this. But at least we seem to be getting beyond the traded insult stage.

Best wishes,


Sackerson said...

PS: seen this?

Sobers said...

I think your experience with NEETs is instructive. They 'know' drugs are bad for them, they are told it enough. They just don't believe it enough to refrain. Why is this?

My conclusion is that we protect people from the consequences of their actions. Would people smoke as much if they knew they would get no treatment on the NHS if they got cancer? Or a liver transplant if they were an alcoholic? Or a stomach pump if they took an overdose of drugs?

Maybe initially they would. But after the corpses began to pile up, even the most dense person would get the message - take this stuff, and you risk poverty and an agonising death. Thats a pretty powerful incentive to stop.

Now this all sounds very heartless. But which is worse - allowing some people to die in the short run pour encourager les autres to stop entirely in the long run, or allowing millions to live permanent lives of low level degradation because we have insulated them from the worst outcomes?

Do a thought experiment - nobody jumps off a tall building except they wish to kill themselves. But let us say someone invents some magic device that can be fitted to buildings that somehow prevents you being injured when you hit the floor. Occasionally you would break a limb, and very rarely you would die because the machine malfunctioned. Do you think more people would jump off tall buildings once the machine was fitted than before when death was certain?

Sackerson said...

I'm pretty sure that there is an adjustment effect, to some extent, in the same way that widening roads results in higher traffic speeds. But I balk at a care/responsibility cutoff point - that's a kind of social Darwinism that justified the worst of 19thC capitalism and 20thC fascism. Simple answers are sirens.

James Higham said...

I'm libertarian on this to a point. It's not Ok for children to be into anything like this because they're not fully formed persons. It's the responsibility of parents and the school they choose to educate the child as to what is right and wrong, harmful and not harmful.

If a child has grown up in that environment, then there'll be a progressive freeing up by the parents [the way it used to be] and by about 21, the child is beyond you.

At that point, the parent will still be doing clean-up jobs but generally the principle stands.