Friday, September 02, 2011

Libertarians are confused about freedom

Version 0.1

Interesting that this entry wound up suspended for a long time.

First is a meta-comment about the version numbers. I've decided to write more skeletal pieces without waiting for my muse. If there is some indication of interest, most obviously via comments with questions or reactions, then I will be motivated to flesh things out, but there isn't much evidence of interest. Or perhaps it should count as more evidence of the negative effects of the Internet on such intellectual activities?

Now to the topic at hand, freedom. Let me start by noting that "free" is an extremely confused concept, at least as the word is used in English. Just taking the online American Heritage Dictionary as a random source of authority, we find 17 senses for the adjective. Amazingly enough, or perhaps it's additional evidence of American confusion, but NONE of those 17 senses is the one that is probably the most common usage in the so-called real world. That sense appears near the bottom as a kind of footnote for an informal idiom defined as "without charge". In other words, the common monetary sense of "free beer" is barely noticed, but if you do a search for the word "free", most of the hits are related to that usage. Comparing three of the leading search engines for "free", Google, Bing, and Yahoo all list 5 of the top 8 for some sense of "free beer" (but the FSF is evidently gaming both Google and Bing for 2 of those hits in each list).

Since I want to focus more narrowly on "freedom", the situation isn't quite as bad. We don't have to worry about "freedom beer" and there are only 9 senses of the noun. Unfortunately, none of them is really relevant to my focus here, which is freedom for the individual. Sense 5 comes closest, and there are relevant aspects in some of the other senses, but none of them consider the context. Therefore I must begin with a short definition:

"Freedom" is about informed, meaningful, and unconstrained choice.

The "informed" part means that you need to know what the choices are, and your knowledge of the differences between the choices must be factual, sufficiently complete, and relevant to your own goals. The "meaningful" is both about the relevance and the number of choices. Having 1 or 0 choices is not meaningful, but having too many can also become meaningless, as in the famous example of trying to find the best pair of jeans among a hundred different styles. The "unconstrained" is mostly a tip to advertising, which is almost entirely about you to value mediocre merchandise more highly (and thus pay a higher price) or convincing you to want something without regard to your actual needs (and therefore buy unneeded stuff), but it can include any sort of interference or intrusive manipulation.

In contrast, Libertarians think "freedom" is about selfishness and the ability to do whatever they want. They usually say that's without hurting anyone else, but in the end that just means that whatever they want is still okay as long as the other people who were hurt were 'free' to get out of the way, and it's really the victim's own fault if the victim is too slow or too lazy or too stupid. The libertarian might agree that there is a moral obligation to consider the ramifications and side effects of the libertarian's selfish actions, but you would be infringing on the libertarian's freedom to try to specify how much consideration is appropriate.

They key thing about libertarians is actually evolutionary. It's just that they think they are the ones who deserve to win in the struggle for survival. You show me a strict Libertarian who has become physically crippled and who still clings to his Libertarian principles, and I'll show you a dead Libertarian. Maybe not right away, but soon enough.

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As a blogger from before there were blogs, I've concluded what I write is of little interest to the reading public. My current approach is to treat these blogs as notes, with the maturity indicated by the version number. If reader comments show interest, I will probably add some flesh to the skeletons...