So, let’s talk about freedom.

There exist a lot of people who thing freedom is about living in a world where nobody has any power over you at all whatsoever. Government is an inherently bad, evil thing that is only tolerated for this one reason or another, but really it would be best if it didn’t do anything at all. There is a great deal to be said in favour of this point of view and there are a lot of people who will talk about that at great length. I find that whole portion of the discussion boring and obvious, so I’ll let you go dig it up on your own if you like. There are just two points I’d like to make about this point of view. The first is that the word for this philosophy is “anarchism” and the people who believe it are “anarchists.” If you have a problem with being called an anarchist, I suggest you rethink your understanding of freedom. My second point about this world view is that while it might free you from the evils of taxes, of being told what to do, of being beaten by cops, as far as my case goes it mostly frees me to starve to death if winter doesn’t kill me first. I am a thoroughly civilized creature who requires infrastructure and a social contract to survive. I could learn to build a log cabin in the woods and shoot bear for my meals, but I don’t really want to and my quality of life would be dramatically diminished if I did. That’s leaving out the part where I’m hypoglycaemic and my joints like to dislocate on me for no good reason meaning that after ten hours with no food I won’t shoot straight, and I’ll probably drop the log on my foot when my shoulder slips out of place. If I survived in an anarchists paradise, it would probably be through whoring myself out for food and shelter. Being a verbose, persuasive smart-ass with a frightening recollection of Doctor Who plotlines is not an essential survival skill.

Let me highlight that second point again. In a world with no government, I have the freedom to do one of two things; become a whore, or die. The first option leads rapidly to the second. I reject this model of freedom.

That, ladies and gentlemen, used to be how I explained identifying as a Libertarian. Government is not fun, it’s dangerous, but to be truly free, it is essential. I don’t explain identifying as a Libertarian any more. It’s a convenient side effect of deciding that I was probably never going to meet an organized group of people calling themselves Libertarians who actually give a shit about freedom. I haven’t changed, but my expectations for other people has. I am bitter about this shift in expectations.

Why do I say government is essential? Don’t I just need for there to be basic rules people follow so that civilization can flourish and there are social niches for tech-savy pushy people? Why isn’t a cultural understanding of a social contract enough? Because people are stupid, that’s why. In a small group of like-minded people you can have an understanding of a social contract that is self-enforced with no outside authority, as long as the group consists of one person and there’s no time travel involved. Think about the church schisms, fandom wanks, divorces, family feuds and social boycotts that go on all the time. Every single one of those is a group of like-minded people screwing up their social contract. Give those people territory and guns and you’ll have civil war. Put them in the wilderness together and you’ve got, say it with me now, anarchy. Why do communes fail? Because the first prerogative of a free person is to say, “Fuck this, I’m leaving.” There has to be something external to the people making the social contract with the power to enforce it or the social contract fails. That something is called “government.” Please remember what I just said. Government = the thing in charge of enforcing and preserving the social contract. This is a good thing.

In a governed society, like what most of the internet reading world has, lack of freedom stems from one of the two failure modes of government. The first of these is the government either falling short of or exceeding its role as the enforcer and protector of the social contract. To choose what is, I hope, a politically neutral example, let’s take a look at meat packing plants from the turn of the last century. We all agree that conditions that lead to poorly paid workers losing arms in shoddy facilities, and those arms going on to end up on our dinner plates, is not a hallmark of liberty, right? Good. It happened, a guy wrote a book about it, people got into a huff over it. Granted, he was worried about the guy who lost his arm and the huff was about the dinner plate, but huffiness happened. This was the government failing to properly enforce the social contract. The government was obligated to either do something, or lose its right to exist due to dropping the ball on its definitional obligations. Now, in doing something it could potentially step into a different failure, but continuing to eat the limbs of the hoi polloi was right out. I am not free if I can’t reliably go to work without being dismembered. I am not free if my attempts to buy a pound of beef gets me a pound of blue-collar worker.

Conversely, the government can overstep its bounds. To pull what is, I hope, another politically neutral example, let’s take the McCarthy trials and related blacklisting etc., that went on in the fifties. People had their lives ruined, literally could not get work to support themselves or their family, because of a witch-hunt conducted by the government that accomplished little more than turning functional, productive citizens into pariahs. Am I free if talking to people with radical political ideas can literally ruin my life? No, not at all. Bad government. Go squeeze back into your proper role. This is the kind of failure people complaining about the government being too big are trying to talk about.

The standard rendering of the differences between the Democrats and the Republicans sums up pretty easily as follows: Democrats freak out over the government falling short of its obligation to enforce and preserve the social contract while Republicans freak out over the government oversteps its obligation. To determine the validity of the standard rendering of differences, please refer to the political affiliations of the various people involved in the McCarthy example.

The second failure mode for government comes down to operating under a faulty social contract. For years the government enforced segregation which in perfect keeping with its role as enforcer and preserver of the social contract. Separate but equal was a major element in cultural understanding of how things ought to be. It was also a gross violation of liberty, not because the government was failing in one direction or another in its designated role, but because the social contract was broken. People formed movements to change the understanding of the social contract. Enough other people got on board with that to change the government’s role. The rest of the people got on board (eventually, mostly, ish) because that was how the government said it was going to go. This is the part of politics where things like the Overton Window become important. The government can do exactly what it ought to do with respect to upholding the social contract, but freedom is fleeting with a bad social contract. Social contract arguments are fundamental to debates about abortion, healthcare, and almost every social program out there. Great politics, statesmanship, comes from shaping the social contract, then nudging the details of the government into compliance. This is why Obama consistently talks about working with the Republicans when his core wants him to ignore them. Change is rarely permanent if it didn’t affect the cultural understanding of what we’re all doing in this here society.

Now, the two failure modes interact with each other. McCarthyism was an overstepping of the government’s role from our perspective today, but at the time there were people who understood the social contract to be one that excluded communists and therefore required the government to hunt them down. This is where arguments get ugly and unproductive. People talking about the same thing out there in reality are approaching it from two different possible failure modes. This is why everybody talking politics right now is doing it wrong, being full of wrong, and inflicting miserable acts of wronginess on everybody around them. Some people think they’re fixing the government to make it fulfil its obligations. Other people see a rewriting of the social contract and want it to stop right this instant.

What should the social contract be? I’ve got lots of opinions on that. But those are for another post. This post right here is about freedom. And my point about freedom is this: We cannot be truly free without both society and government. Society and government each have extraordinary power to take away our freedom. If you value liberty, if you get tingly and emotional when people start quoting revolutionary war propaganda, you must watch how for how to construct both of those things because each has the power to constrain you. A bad social contract gives you fascism just as quickly as a non-existent government gives you anarchy.

Our system is deeply muddled right now. Lots of people are screaming loudly about freedom. Let’s make sure we don’t forget what we’re talking about when we do that, okay?

2 thoughts on “Freedom

  1. Using the government as an enforcer of the social contract is an addiction: if you see the government enforcing one thing, and you’ve a pet peeve about another, you try to make the government enforce that too, rather than working it out with your fellow citizen. And the more this happens the more freedoms are lost, and the nastier people are to each other. Until they snap (and it is very helpful when they do). If you don’t codify the social contract, then you don’t have to riot whenever it’s gotten too far ahead of the government’s definition.
    I think the least we can expect of government is that it do no harm. Killing people, that’s definitely harm. Imprisonment is pretty harmful. Infringing on peoples’ ability to enforce a social contact amongst themselves is harm too. Taxation is pretty low on the scale. I’m fine with paying next to nothing and only getting emergency services out of it, and I’m fine with giving the government all my income and getting lots of free health care, food stamps, transit, and public housing in return. What else would I need it for? Whatever it is, let’s fund it.
    But then I obviously fall into the first category. And I don’t think it’s quite accurate to say that there are a lot of us out there…

    1. There aren’t a lot of anarchists willing to identify as such. There are a lot of people identifying as Libertarians or Republicans who are functional anarchists.

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