On Foundational Liberties

Earlier, I mention Foundational Freedoms, or “freedoms without which a Tribe cannot flourish.” At the time, I said that “flourish,” in this instance, meant “the achievement of potential we’d associate with an ideal, theoretical Liberal society” (We can substitute eudaimonia in any future discussions of this, if we want. I realize it’s not as perfect or solid a definition as maybe we’d like, but it’ll suffice for now.

I want to spend a little bit of time discussing those Foundational Principles (or, as I’ll refer to them going forward, Foundational Liberties), and  I want to touch on when it would be considered acceptable to violate them.

Foundational Liberties

Amartya Sen, in his book Development as Freedom, writes that there are five types of freedoms: political freedoms, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency guarantees, and protective security (I went into a little bit more depth about that earlier, and you can read that here). I don’t see any real reason to attempt to add anything to Sen’s writing here; that might be project for when I’m feeling more ambitious. Really, all I’d be doing is lifting lines from the Bill of Rights and paragraphs from the Libertarian Party’s platform. For now, we can do this back-of-the-envelope style. There are three basic Liberties that I consider essential to any society:

  • Political Liberty (which includes freedom of speech, press, and assembly, as well as the ability to vote and hold office);
  • Personal Liberty (which I would take to include freedom of thought and free exercise of religion, as well as elements familiar to the Non-Aggression Principle, like freedom from psychological or physical oppression)
  • Economic Liberty (the right to hold and to use personal property, and to choose when, how, and why to acquire it)

Without these three Liberties, a society cannot be free (it goes without saying that these would undergird the formation of laws and regulations in any society, and that the laws would necessarily be non-arbitrary, etc. I don’t consider that a Liberty, but another condition. You know what? It doesn’t matter right now).

There’s absolutely more (this doesn’t even touch of the Citizen’s Dividend, and trust me, once we bring Scott Santens into this, we’ll really be down a rabbit hole), but for now, that will suffice. The important thing to remember is that these principles are foundational–a successful society cannot exist without them, although these can all exist without society being successful. The goal (here, society)–the “ends” that may or may not be justified by the “means”–is not any one thing, but rather a state, a condition composed of what we’ve been calling Foundational Liberties. In other words, the end is composed entirely of the means. So:

This Is The End(?)

So this transitions into a question about “Ends,” or goals, or “The Good,” or whatever you want to call it. I’ve talked about this a little. In “Nazis and Free Speech, Revisited,” I wrote that:

Is freedom of speech the goal? Or is it merely a tool? Is it the ends, or is it the means?

Is the goal of Liberalism to structure society in such a way that everyone can have free speech? Or is free speech a vital and useful mechanism to allow a Liberal society to flourish? In the same way that Amartya Sen talks about market freedom as a means towards development, rather than the end of society, free speech is a way in which societies can grow and expand.

I’ve thought a great deal about that since then, especially about when it might be permissible to violate those freedoms. That’s when I came across this, from A Theory of Justice, where John Rawls writes (emphasis mine):

But from a utilitarian standpoint the explanation of [common sense precepts of justice] and of their seemingly stringent character is that they are those precepts which experience shows should be strictly respected and departed from only under exceptional circumstances if the sum of advantage is to be maximized…there is no reason in principle why the greater gains of some should not compensate for the lesser losses of others; or more importantly, why the violation of the liberty of a few might not be made right by the greater good shared by many. It simply happens that under most conditions, at least in a reasonably advanced stage of civilization, the greatest sum of advantages is not attained in this way. No doubt the strictness of common sense precepts of justice has a certain usefulness in limiting men’s propensities to injustice and to socially injurious actions, but the utilitarian believes that to affirm this strictness as a first principle is a mistake.

For what it’s worth, Rawls doesn’t think too much of the utilitarian stance here. But it’s a handy illustration of freedoms-as-tools, not ends; they’re not what we’re working towards, they’re merely extremely useful methods for getting there that, in almost all cases, are more useful than any alternative. Free speech, as I’ve said, isn’t the goal. We don’t fight and die for the right to speak freely. Rather, we fight and die because we know that free speech is a necessary condition of an ideal society. It is a tool we use to achieve our goal, not the goal itself. It generally creates better outcomes than the alternative (in this case, repressive policies that limit speech).

In an article from Reason, Timothy Sandefur writes:

Goodness is a function of our purposes. As philosopher Tara Smith writes in one criticism of Finnis, saying something is just an “irreducible and categorical” good isn’t really an argument—it’s just a bare assertion, or an “anti-theory,” that “does not offer a justification of morality so much as a contention that no justification is needed.” It’s the equivalent of “because I say so.”

So When Can I Punch A Nazi?


The question, then, is “When are those alternatives acceptable? On Twitter, I wrote that:

I still think I’m right, but I want to go into more detail.

Think about the Foundational Liberties, those “socially useful illusions.” We see that things like hate speech, theft, and violence have negative consequences far more often than they have positive consequences, so for the health of the society, we want to prevent them, and if we see them occurring, we want to stop them. The problem is, if you use violence to stop violence, you have increased the net amount of violence in the world. Any act of violence, anywhere, by anyone, for any reason, erodes the foundation of our Society. Using violence for the sole purpose of removing violence is not sufficient, because you have done nothing but contribute to the destruction of societal norms. The only time violence would be acceptable is if it reinforces the Foundational Liberties of society (in other words, negative violence, or violence that only removes, is unacceptable; positive violence, which adds, is).

The difficulty here, which should be obvious to everybody, is that it is really, really hard to reinforce liberty by denying it. Punching a Nazi or protesting a white supremacist lecturer might feel satisfying, but does it help? You’ve denied someone the right to their own safety in one instance and the right to speak freely in another. Has that resulted in a safer world? Has it resulted in a world where people can speak more freely?

Consequences matter. I’ve been saying that our liberties are means, not ends, and therefore we can skirt them to achieve our goals, but when the goal is a society built on those liberties, it’s really hard to get to where we want to be when we destroy the only way to get there. It’s really hard to build a birdhouse when you start throwing tools away.

The ends absolutely justify the means. But when the end is a society based around certain Foundational Liberties, how easy do you think it’ll be to get there if we violate those freedoms?

The end absolutely justify the means. If violence or oppression results in a better society, it’s justified. But how often do you think that happens?

It brings to mind the old joke: “fighting for peace is like fucking for abstinence.”

Categories: Dispatch

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1 reply


  1. What Do People Want? – The Georgia Wonk

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