Saturday, January 19, 2008

Freedom: Political vs. Social

Libertarians, myself included, have been preoccupied with the notion of freedom from government coercion (I will heretofore refer to such freedom as political freedom.) For a society to be free, libertarians espouse, governments cannot coerce individuals or interrupt any unharmful (and libertarians take that word to its most limited sense) individual activity. What I have often disregarded, however, is social freedom. As Will Wilkinson puts it,
If we lived in a libertarian wonderland of minimal government, yet where social norms were so stringent that any woman who dared aspire to a career, or any man who dared love another man, or anyone who dared to deny God, would be faced with ferocious social ostracism, isolation, and exclusion, then we would have to say that all people in our society are not free in a very morally deep sense.
Indeed, a society of extensive political freedom can often be greatly unfree. The question is, does freedom aside from political freedom matter? Many libertarians, I am sure, will argue that as long as a society is not subject to coercion (in other words, it is politically free) the actual operation, or indeed the actual freedom, of that society is irrelevent. These arguments, however, miss the actual crux of libertarianism's emphasis on individual freedom - they confuse the ends with the means. For a libertarian, individual freedom must be the desirable end. Political freedom is merely a means to that end - lack of government coercion by itself means nothing, for what is really the difference between social coercion and political coercion? The libertarian should perhaps place more emphasis on social freedom than on political freedom, for social mores and pressures are just as effective as government coercion, and oftentimes more far-reaching.

Libertarianism's contradiction is that, like Homer with alcohol, government is both the problem and the solution. A government can actively attempt to enforce individual freedom by regulating harsh social constraints, but in doing so the government is using coercion that necessarily limits individual freedom. If a preacher in a small Texas town advocates ostracizing homosexuals, the government can either censure the preacher -a violation of individual expression through political coercion- or allow the homosexuals to be ostracized -a violation of individual expression through social coercion. In either case, freedom is compromised. A government can also conduct activities in so called "libertarian paternalism." This would involve a government "educating" citizens on every individual's right to social freedom. A government telling an individual to believe in freedom is irresponsible, however, for true freedom allows an individual to believe in whatever he wants. Wilkinson is ambivalent about what exactly a government should do to ensure total freedom, but puts much onus on the individual:
In my opinion, it is the responsibility of decent people concerned with liberty to at least denounce, if not actively work to tear down, the racist beliefs and norms that enable liberty-killing structural discrimination. If you don’t think ending discrimination is the government’s job–that this is the sort of thing that should be done by persuasion, not force—then you should take this responsibility extra seriously.
I am not usually a supporter of allowing societies to "figure themselves out," but in such a case as social freedom is concerned, government intervention appears to do more harm than good. That does not mean, however, that political freedom is to be valued more than social freedom - it is just that the two do not face a clear-cut tradeoff that would make effective policy easy to enact. Wilkinson is right in saying individuals play the ultimate role in promoting social freedom, for indeed individuals change society, not governments.