Bryan Caplan  

The Sweet Spot of Freedom

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No one needs a political philosophy to tell them how to treat people they personally know.  Once human beings forge personal bonds, they understand what to expect from each other.  The main point of political philosophy is to tell people how to treat strangers

In practice, unfortunately, the way we treat strangers has more to do with our personal feelings about strangers than abstract philosophy.  Or to be more precise, the political philosophies we're willing to entertain heavily depend on our default emotions about people we've never met.

Which leads to a libertarian question: Which of these default emotions are most consistent with a free society? 

Obviously, default emotions like hatred and disgust bode poorly for a free society.  If you hate strangers, you're likely to favor government action to make them suffer.  But default emotions like love and devotion are also inimical to human freedom.  If you love every stranger like your own child, the idea of respecting their freedom to make their own mistakes is hard to stomach.  You'll want to give strangers what they need, regardless of what they want.  This yearning makes both paternalism and the welfare state quite enticing. 

If neither hate nor love cohere well with a free society, what does?  Indifference sounds promising.  Imagine trying to sell government persecution or government salvation to an society where the predominant emotion toward strangers is, "Meh.  That's got nothin' to do with me."  But sheer indifference is not ideal.  Free societies generate obvious benefits for your fellow man: prosperity, peace, and choice.  So you'd expect someone who viewed strangers with moderate benevolence to support a free society more enthusiastically than someone who lacked these feelings.

What then is the sweet spot of freedom?  "Moderate benevolence," a friendly cosmopolitan tolerance, is my tentative answer.  If you seek a free society, you should want people to smile upon mankind.  But that's about it.  Stronger feelings - including heartfelt love - turn human beings into demanding busybodies.  And if demanding busybodies predominate in a free society, it won't remain free for long.

COMMENTS (19 to date)
Fazal Majid writes:

Indifference can lead to pillarization, and hence a breakdown in social cohesion. The Netherlands rejected pillars after WWII national soul-searching, because the system contributed to indifference to the plight of Jews under Nazi persecution.

Zachary Bartsch writes:

I've often said that the worst thing for a free society is for some to know the suffering of others - and then vote.

vikingvista writes:


If I love my wife and treat her like a young child, then I don't respect her. Indeed, if I threaten any normal adult human being to behave in a way other than the nonthreatening way he intended, then I don't respect him.

And I don't treat my young child paternalistically because that's the nature of love--I do so only to the extent that decisions are needed and he biologically lacks the capacity to make self-interested decisions. When he develops that capacity, I will have no decision-making void to fill.

And I suppose there may people I hate, in some sense, but it would never occur to me to show the level of contempt necessary to forcefully interfere in their peaceful lives.

So the emotion can be love or hate or indifference. But if enough people are successfully raised with a certain unconditional respect for random strangers--"Son, you just don't treat people like that!"--then freedom is assured, and misanthropes and altruists can live together just fine, even if one group carries a disproportionate burden of voluntary charity, or is more likely to aggregate together and form local majorities.

There is plenty of room for both love and hate in liberty.

Jody writes:
If you hate strangers, you're likely to favor government action to make them suffer

Why outsource the suffering to the govt? there's little that's more satisfying than a job you do yourself.

But suppose you don't have the time and have to hire someone (say... a dirty deed, done dirt cheap), then even for industrial scale suffering, you just need a larger contractor. Imagine what kind of quality suffering (at low cost) could emerge from the competitive rigor of the market if causing suffering to your fellow man was indeed a common enough goal. As a feasibility test, see the current black market in suffering (aka hitmen).

I view this post as arising out of the same fundamental error that the statist makes (since the govt exists, it has to be the most effective means to achieve your goal).

But a) if you instead start with the premise that the market is far more likely to uncover the most efficient and effective solution to any objective that you're willing to pay for and b) willing to abstractly see "cause suffering" or "fulfill my emotions" as just another goal, you'll see that in general this whole post is flawed. I.e., it's not the emotion you feel towards your fellow man that ultimately determines the preference on govt vs market, it's the opinion on which mechanism is the most efficient for achieving your ends.

Shane L writes:

If you hate strangers you also hate the strangers in the government. If everyone hated strangers then government would disappear and we would probably have an anarchy of tiny clans of family and friend networks perpetually raiding and massacring each other.

Jeff writes:

If you love someone, you want what's best for them, and that implies freedom, because you couldn't possibly know better than a stranger what's best for him.

Philo writes:

You overlook *fear*, the appropriate emotion (as Hobbes pointed out) in the State of Nature.

Tom West writes:

If you love someone, you want what's best for them, and that implies freedom

I take it you haven't met my mother-in-law...

Okay, cheap joke, and I love her dearly, but let's face it, people who *don't* believe that what works for them must work for everyone are in short supply.

Jeff writes:

'Nother Jeff here:

Didn't Hayek have something to say about this? A lot of people have an impulse to want to treat people like family members, but this is not a healthy impulse, because we often impose burdens on family members we would never think of imposing on strangers, nor would we accept from strangers if they tried to impose them on us at an individual level.

I forget the exact quote, but it was a good one.

RPLong writes:

What is a "default emotion?" I'm not sure I've ever met anyone who experiences those. I'd certainly be surprised to learn that someone was self-aware enough to know when what he is experiencing is merely a "default" emotion, and not one tied to his past experiences, or creed, or moral code.

Does Caplan experience cosmopolitan tolerance because that is his "default emotion," or is it his "default emotion" because it is consistent with his moral code?

Maybe it's a lot healthier to embrace whatever emotion you happen to feel for people, while also balancing that with the cool-headedness that suggests we not act rashly on every emotion we happen to feel.

Maybe allowing oneself to feel one's emotions, but insisting to oneself that one practice a lot of logical introspection is good for both mental health and a free society.

Kevin L writes:

Channeling Deirdre McCloskey:

What you're describing by "moderate benevolence" is summed up quite well by the virtues of justice and love, both with temperance and prudence. As vikingvista also said, respect is a pretty good summary of the same concept, though connoting perhaps less love than benevolence does. "Respectful benevolence" might be a good term. Of course, faith makes the ideal into a conviction, and hope and courage spread the conviction to others. In my opinion, it takes all the virtues to create and maintain a free society.

Greg G writes:


Not too much to quarrel with in your comment but I can't help but wonder what happens if your young child grows up to be a garden variety American voter supporting conventional government.

Are you sure you wouldn't continue see him as having trouble making self-interested decisions and detect some decision making void you might want to have a role in filling? You are still going to feel like his parent even when he is an adult.

vikingvista writes:

"what happens if your young child grows up to be a garden variety American voter supporting conventional government."

Are you trying to give me nightmares? What did I ever do to you? ;^>

JKB writes:

I'm actually seeing some of this in the show 'Hell on Wheels'. Individuals live by their means and what they can provide for themselves. They seek a job for money and are insulted by charity. In the last show, a former whore is desperate, the railroad magnate offers her money because he likes her as a person. She refuses to take charity. Later, she comes to him offering to take the money for a "poke". He demurs, offers it as a loan but she refuses. In the end he convinces her to take food and a bath as she's one of the few people he likes. I expect at some point a job will have to be lined up, even if it is as his cleaning lady.

In essence, the way you should treat others is according to the Golden Rule, i.e., as you'd have them treat you. If you'd be insulted by charity, why would you insult others. Even if charity is the only means, one should make as hidden as possible, but also be insulted yourself if the individual comes to demand it.

I would say Alan Macfarlane's thoughts on free associations for specific purposes is on the mark. Clubs, teams, etc., that one joins other for a specific endeavor, while being a member of many associations.

vikingvista writes:

"Golden Rule, i.e., as you'd have them treat you."

Maybe that is how people treat others. It's just that people are almost all masochists.

Dan King writes:

I have always had a visceral dislike for charity. I never give money to homeless people. I think it's irrational, but that's the way I am. On the other hand, I'm very happy to do business with strangers. I try to be a generous tipper. I try to greet people who do menial jobs, e.g., clean the restrooms at interstate rest stops.

Is that the right measure of indifferent benevolence? I sure hope so, because at my advanced age the personality transplant won't be forthcoming.

Brendan writes:

What's is "cosmopolitan tolerance" but Denial. Any one who supports cosmopolitanism must support moral and political relativity; there are good nations and bad nations.

JKB writes:

jimgeraghty ✔ @jimgeraghty

From my son: "You should be nice to people on Twitter, because you should Tweet people the way you want to be Tweeted."

Flocccina writes:
No one needs a political philosophy to tell them how to treat people they personally know.

When I do charitable acts to friends, I sometimes think I am only doing this for them because I know them and that there are surely good people in poorer parts of the world who are just as deserving and much needier and can be helped for less money.

So maybe philosophers need to tell us to treat those that we know with less kindness.

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