Bryan Caplan  

Because Freedom

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Lately I've heard libertarians ridiculed because their argument against some law boils down to, "Because freedom."  Why shouldn't we have inheritance taxes?  Because freedom.  Why shouldn't we ban handguns?  Because freedom.  Why shouldn't we have an affirmative consent standard for rape?  Because freedom.

The ridicule is often unfair on its own terms.  There are consequentialist arguments for these libertarian positions, if you care to listen.  Still, critics correctly sense that even self-styled consequentialist libertarians have a strong pro-freedom, anti-government presumption.  If the consequences of government action are anywhere in the vicinity of "bad overall," libertarians frequently do say, "Because freedom" to get over the hump.

What few critics care to admit, though, is that they too routinely makes the same intellectual move.  Almost everyone does.  Whenever an honest assessment of consequences of government action fails to yield ideologically palatable answers, non-libertarians retreat to "Because freedom" too.

Why not ban Satanism?  Because freedom.

Why shouldn't societies where homophobes vastly outnumber gays legally persecute gays?  Because freedom.

Why not punish strangers who have unprotected sex without being tested for STDs?  Because freedom.

Why not forbid climbing Mount Everest?  Because freedom.

Why not require adults to get a Non-Alcoholic's License to buy alcohol?  Because freedom.

Why let the Nazis march in Skokie?  Because freedom.

Why let parents prevent grandparents from visiting their grandchildren?  Because freedom.

Sure, you can offer consequentialist justifications of these policies.  But if you're convinced all of these consequentialist cases are clear-cut against government intervention, you're guilty of wishful thinking.  Honestly, can you point to anyone who knows enough to do passable cost-benefit analysis of all of these issues?  Doubtful.  The argument that gets you to your conviction is "Because freedom."

Not that there's anything wrong with that.  "Because freedom" isn't the only morally relevant political argument.  But truth be told, it's one of the best.


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COMMENTS (20 to date)
Don Boudreaux writes:

For many reasons, I am proud to be a member of George Mason University's Economics faculty. That you, Bryan, are one of my colleagues on this esteemed faculty is not close to being the least of these reasons. Well done!

Jeff writes:

I thought you were going to go a different direction and point out that progressive critics' own arguments often aren't more than "because equality." Why should we have inheritance taxes? Equality. Why shouldn't we persecute gays? Equality. Why let Nazis march in Skokie? Equality. You could play this game with virtually any faction in democratic politics.

Kevin Erdmann writes:

This is why commercial regulations are always the solution to problems like homophobia and gender inequities, even though most of the problems arise outside of discrimination by employers and producers. It's because all of the solutions that would strike at the heart of the problem are off limits - because freedom. A portion of the electorate has decided that one type of activity doesn't enjoy this protection - employment/production.
So, there is marching at the capital to make wedding cake bakers do same sex weddings. But if you are a gay wedding cake baker and nobody will buy your cakes or work for you because you are surrounded by homophobia, tough cookies.

For the marchers, clearly being anti-commerce is more important than being anti-homophobia.

Garth Zietsman writes:

I am a libertarian consequentialist, and I think of freedom as an effective means of achieving other values but most importantly I consider freedom a highly valued consequence/goal/state in its own right.

Bostonian writes:

If no one had illegitimate children, I'd be paying less in taxes for the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, free school lunches, and jail cells (inmates were disproportionately illegitimate children). Certain types of freedom entail more coercion in other respects.

austrartsua writes:

We should be proud of the "because freedom" argument. Freedom is a legitimate end in itself. It is the highest purpose of human life to be free. To beat out our own path. To find meaning for ourselves.

Here, we also see the limitations of consequentialist arguments. Basically they cannot be trusted. If all of the assumptions are correct, all of the consequences true actually happen - in short if the experts are right, then consequentialist arguments work. But of course the world is way too complex for all but the most basic consequential arguments to have any meaning.

Arguing "because freedom" can be thought of as Meta-consequentialist. It is consequentialism with uncertainty taken into account. This leads one towards decentralized robust processes like capitalism. We cannot hope to find the best way of organizing society from a top-down approach because we run into the calculation problem and deep uncertainty. Better to give individuals restricted freedom allowing them to optimize their own decisions using local information. Thus arriving, in a decentralized way, at a reasonably close to optimal consequentialist solution.

vikingvista writes:
strong pro-freedom, anti-government presumption

Not presumption, exactly, but preference. My (and I assume others') passionate distaste for strong-arming me, my family, my friends, and other peaceful innocent individuals is not altered by necessarily weak consequentialist arguments (even though the strongest consequentialist arguments favor liberty).

At some point there is no accounting for taste. Some people have a thorough distaste for abusing innocents, while many others defend numerous exceptions.

khodge writes:

"Because freedom" does not work for me and, to my way of thinking, is not particularly valid.

My preferred answer would be much more along the lines of: Choices have consequences so what qualifies someone else to evaluate the consequences of my decisions?

MG writes:

The claim"Libertarian position" ="Because Freedom" fails a Caplan Turing test. So, dismiss it.

Daniel Klein writes:

Nice post.

I'm glad to hear of such ridicule, but notice that you don't cite any such ridiculer.

If a ridiculer is actually ridiculing "Because freedom," he is at least going along with the semantics of "freedom."

Musca writes:

Garth and vikingvista above got to the philosophic heart of the issue: you will eventually have to justify any particular policy on a moral value. At some level of abstraction, the moral values, or at least the relative weighting of the values by the two sides, will conflict. Even consequentialism has to argue that a certain consequence is better or worse in furthering some state, which is itself valued more or less.

In other words, if someone is criticizing "because freedom", it is because freedom isn't the pinnacle, or near the pinnacle, of their values.

The interesting question remains: is that for reasons of conviction, or temperament?

James writes:

"Because freedom" ignores that all decisions get made by someone. When libertarians say "because freedom," they are ignoring the loss of freedom that their ideas would imply for voters and politicians which is equal and opposite to the gains in freedom that would go to people outside the government.

If libertarians got their way and seat belt laws were declared unconstitutional, I would gain the freedom to decide whether or not my seat belt would be buckled but all the politicians and voters who might make seat belt laws would lose their freedom to make the decision about whether or not my seat belt will be buckled.

Freedom is only transferred, not increased. The argument to make is that the transfer of freedom is better, either because the people outside the government have a stronger claim to that freedom, or because the people in the government are less qualified to wield that freedom.

Noah Carl writes:

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Edogg writes:

A pro-freedom presumption seems wrong if we're talking about an affirmative consent standard for rape. That's just clarifying the definition of a violent crime. (Arguably for the worse, arguably for the better) Of course, anarchists are being consistent. But that's not most libertarians.

Jay writes:

@ James,

I don't mean to be insulting but saying that one person's freedom means the removing of the freedom of another person to coerce that person is one of the single, greatest pieces of nonsense I've read and for that I thank you.

Jay writes:

@ James

I re-read what you wrote and take back what I said, I misunderstood your point. Though I would still argue that the general definition of freedom, as people use it, especially libertarians, does not include the freedom to coerce someone since they're still free to decide for me (as in the seat belt example) I just don't have to listen.

"Because Freedom" is the positive argument. More freedom, individual choice and action is desireable and builds a wealthier and more tolerant society.

I will add "Because Committee" as the negative argument. The State is run by committee. Any supposed good provided by the State will be designed and implemented by committee. That supposed good must be huge to overcome the known effects of rule by committee.

Examples are: The laughably bad effects of ObamaCare, the FCC, and Department of Homeland Security, and the good effects of eliminating the ICC (Federal control of trucking and transportation) and deregulation of airlines.

Vlad writes:

My favorite example is sumptuary laws: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sumptuary_law

The whole idea seems backward from our perspective; essentially, they often would amount to a set of regulations saying "noblemen are allowed to wear clothing of any color, but knights have to stick to colors X and Y, peasants only color X, people not of the age of majority are not allowed to wear togas, etc".

However, there is a very clear benefit to such laws from a signalling theory perspective: absent those laws, rich people would resort to signalling their wealth by buying goods which are simply too expensive for everyone else to afford at all, and that would lead to an equilibrium with plenty of wasteful Pareto inefficiencies. And today, we arguably actually do have that situation with the so-called "keeping up with the Joneses" effect.

But people would probably still oppose laws regulating overt signalling behavior, because freedom.

John Thacker writes:

Another example would be: "Why let people who are gay or lesbian adopt children, or people of different races marry and have children, or let people give birth to children with disabilities? Because freedom." After all, many people hold various sorts of beliefs about how stigma is strong and exists, governments should act in the best interest of children, and that stigma and prejudice hurt children growing up.

Many of the people who insist that stigma and prejudice remains very real and has very hurtful affects nonetheless insist on people being able to do this. I doubt that they people really know whether or not the stigma of growing up in unusual situations actually hurt children long-term (and it seems that if you keep it forbidden until there's no stigma, stigma might never go away.) "Because freedom" would be an easy answer-- but the reality is that most people prefer to simply assume that there are no compromises, no externalities that they don't like.

ams writes:

This is why I am more ideological than pragmatic with respect to my libertarianism:

"Because Freedom" is a valid argument for reasons that transcend any particular circumstance:

If you have some range of choices {X}, and you would choose Xi of your own free will over all the others, and someone comes along and forces you to choose Xj instead, claiming that it is for your own good - well, it's a contradiction, isn't it?

Any good which you wouldn't choose of your own free will isn't a good outcome as far as you're concerned. For self-responsible adults, coercion is never about the good of the person being coerced!

You might claim that things get complicated when your choices effect on others is taken into account, which is true, and which is why we form agreements not to directly harm each other. As for everything else though?

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