Hat And Beard 2 – Freedom

And so we move on to the second of today’s posts. This one, in honour of Honest Abe, will talk about freedom as I see it.

The libertarian blogger Charlotte Gore left a comment yesterday on the heavily-edited version of my Why I Am Not A Libertarian post that’s up at LibCon, asking how someone who thought that government intervention in the economy was a bad thing could ever justify it, or conversely “why would anyone who believes ’such measures’ are necessary, therefore a ‘good thing’, want there to be as little as possible of this ‘good thing’?”

She went on to say “Do you see what I’m saying? Either you accept that ’such measures’ are a bad thing and resist them entirely, or accept they’re a good thing – which is the libertarian point of view. We like to be consistent and logical, apparently.”

Now, without wanting to get into any further extended arguments with glibertarians, I think this actually shows up the *illogicality* of the libertarian (or ‘classical liberal’ as some prefer to style themselves) point of view. Libertarianism *as it’s defined here by a prominent libertarian blogger* seems to me to be one of the delusions that people fall into when they believe they have a perfect working model of the world inside their brain, and so no longer need to consult reality – people who have replaced pragma with dogma.

I am sure that anyone here can think of examples of ‘bad’ things that can sometimes be ‘good’. For example, taking paracetamol is generally a bad thing, and one would be advised to do it as little as possible – even very small amounts can lead to permanent liver damage and death. However, if you have a headache, then taking a paracetamol tablet is a rational thing to do. Similarly, most people would think that getting one’s foot cut off would be pretty close to the definition of a bad thing – very few people have “get foot cut off” as a new year’s resolution. However, were I to get gangrene in my foot, I would welcome amputation to avoid it spreading and causing me to die a slow, painful, smelly death.

Conversely, I would suspect most people reading this like chocolate. It tastes nice, it makes you feel happy, it can take the edge off your hunger, it can give you a quick energy boost – chocolate is A Good Thing. However, if you’re morbidly obese, diabetic and eating twenty chocolate bars a day, the chocolate is probably having an overall negative effect, and you may want to replace one of your Mars bars with some lettuce.

Likewise, while the freedom of the free market brings us many good things, which I would not want to be without, it has its drawbacks. One of them – the most important – is that money is, by definition, a form of power over other people. In a capitalist society money and freedom are essentially the same thing.

I am currently comparatively well off, and I make many choices in an average day – should I buy that interesting-sounding book now, or wait for it to come out in paperback? Should I go to Costa Coffee or Caffe Nero at lunchtime? Should I go on holiday with my family to Greece in the summer, or save my days off and maybe go to a festival instead?

However, a few years ago, I used to have a rather different set of choices to make – should I lose my job by not turning up to work, or risk a fine by jumping the tram I couldn’t afford? Should I pay my rent or eat today? Should I give myself a chest infection by continuing to live in a bedsit with black mould growing on the walls, or should I just sleep out on the streets?

Strangely, the freedom to make economic choices means rather more to me now than it did then, now that I’m not living on a diet of out-of-date Sugar Puffs because it’s the only thing I can afford.

If you doubt that money is equal to power over other people, by the way – if you doubt that it’s a form of coercion equally as real as state coercion – ask yourself how much coercion it would take for you to strip the semen- and faeces-encrusted sheets off the bed of someone with HIV who’s known to hide used needles in unusual places. I can tell you exactly how much coercion it takes – £6.50 an hour’s worth. I’ve done that, for that much money, while working as a nursing assistant, and I’ve done that partly because it needed doing, out of a sense of duty and all that, but mostly because I needed the money to support myself and my wife.

Many libertarians would look at me and see a by-his-bootstraps free market success story. I used to be extremely poor, and for a long time had to work 80+ hour weeks (shortly before my marriage I was actually working three jobs and surviving on practically no sleep). However, I took online courses in computing in my copious spare time, as well as collaborating on research papers, and eventually got a diploma from Oxford University. By doing this, my CV got good enough that I was able to get a low-paid student-work-experience type job at a small software company. By working every hour God sends while there, I was able to get the attention of management and get a full-time job on a better salary, and now that company’s been bought up by a very big famous one, and I have a good, well-paid job where I just have to work normal office hours, and I’m also on a Master’s degree course at a good university.

RIght there, that’s proof that hard work and guts can get you anywhere, and no matter how poor you are you can pull yourself up, right?

Well, except for the fact that during the time I was working eighty-hour weeks I still had to borrow money – a *lot* of money – from friends, some of whom I’m still paying off. I managed to do the research work only because my uncle decided to take a chance and let his useless unemployable bum of a nephew (who, however, was quite bright) collaborate with him on some papers. I managed to do the computing course only because government funding made up the bulk of the cost of the course (that funding has since been cancelled). I got the job at the small computer company because Holly had a friend (Dave Page who sometimes comments here) who put me forward for the job. And so on. Were it not for the help of many people – both directly through their own generosity and indirectly through the government – I would not have achieved *any* of the things I have – I would definitely not be married now, wouldn’t be in a flat as nice as even the run-down place I currently live in, I would not have the job or qualifications I currently have, and there’s a pretty good chance I would actually be dead now.

I suspect, truth be told, that almost *every* ‘success story’ in the world actually goes something like mine – to quote a third great historical figure, we’re *all* ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ (and yes, I know he was just saying that to insult Robert Hooke. Doesn’t matter).

Now, many people don’t have the generous friends and relatives who helped me when I needed it and when they could, so the only help they will get from that list is the government type – and those people may be even more in need of that help than I was. So I think it would be utterly absurd of me to take the attitude that ‘I’ ‘earned’ the money I have and that ‘they’ don’t ‘deserve’ it. I would like to keep a reasonable chunk of the money I get from my job – I *have* worked hard and think I deserve a few nice things for all that work – but I think it would be obscene of me to try to deny others the opportunity to do better as well.

There *is* coercion involved in taxation, and libertarians are absolutely right to point that out, and there are many ways (localism, national minimum incomes and so on) that have been suggested to simplify and streamline the tax and benefits processes, and these should at the very least be seriously considered – because *any* interference in someone’s freedom needs a *hell* of a lot of justification. But even were my income tax to raise by 10% of my income (something no major party is currently proposing) the limit it would place on my freedom (I might have to drop a couple of comics from my pull list and maybe go down to the next level down of monthly eMusic downloads) would not be anything like as great as the limits on others’ freedom that the money would remove. And certainly when you talk about people earning orders of magnitude more than I am, the limits on freedom become simply imaginary. If someone earns a million pounds a year, they have no appreciable amount of freedom less if they only keep half a million a year after tax. But that half a million can be used to provide food and housing for at least fifty thousand homeless people for a year, giving those people the freedom for the first time to make decisions that aren’t about short-term survival.

But my writing on this subject is very emotive, and I tend to write from the heart rather than the brain, so if any of you want to pick holes in this, take it as read that I accept the holes are there. However, today a new site came up, run by (among others) the estimable James Graham of Quaequam Blog. That new site, the Social Liberal Forum, explains Social Liberalism, the political viewpoint closest to mine, in moderate, carefully-thought-out terms rather than my immoderate ranting about how everyone’s a bunch of bastards. Go and read it.

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15 Responses to Hat And Beard 2 – Freedom

  1. Jennie says:

    Have I told you lately that I love you?

    This? This is RIGHT. It is an exemplar of rightness. It is perfect rectitude.

  2. Holly says:

    Oh Jennie, you’re making him intolerably smug again!

    And right before bedtime too…

    Oh it’s good really; he doesn’t get to bask in such love nearly often enough :)

  3. Oy, who are you calling a rectitude?

  4. Tilt Araiza says:

    I’ll reply to this here rather than clog the Darwin bit.

    >though I’m sure this will disappoint my friend Tilt

    Actually, I raised an eyebrow at the potential storm you might get for describing the “first-rate second-rate” man as one of the greatest. He’s so contradictory and there’s always someone ready to claim that one and only one aspect was the real Lincoln (even down to a fringe who argue he was a white supremacist).

    And I have two versions of the Gettysburg Address on my player.

  5. Oh, I know all about that, but *every* hero has feet of clay. Fundamentally, when he was given a chance to do the right thing, he took that chance and succeeded against almost overwhelming odds. Whatever else you can say about him, that puts him up there.

  6. Dave Page says:

    I’ve always liked the phrase “The market where possible, the state where necessary”. Of course, you can have lots of arguments about what’s “necessary”, but it’s a reasonable summing-up of a reasonable position – particularly if the state is able to keep the market competing on socially beneficial grounds (eliminating inefficiency) and not on socially damaging grounds (treating workers like crap, destroying the environment).

  7. Tilt Araiza says:

    You won’t hear an argument from me that Lincoln was a “good king” and as near to a “good man” as a lawyer who goes into politics can be. The topic just seems to have developed a much lower flash point of late and I was half expecting a loud bang from somewhere.

  8. Pingback: links for 2009-02-13 « Embololalia

  9. Pingback: Social Liberal Forum » And we’re off!:

  10. Miller 2.0 says:

    “In a capitalist society money and freedom are essentially the same thing.”

    Kind of bending the stick, but true nonetheless.

  11. Hi Andy,

    I’m sorry I didn’t catch this blog post when it was live, so to speak.

    I’d love – sincerely – to agree with you, that I have somehow abandoned pragma for dogma. That would make my life a lot easier, I can assure you.

    But for us glibertarians, it’s not about having a model in our heads, it’s about believing it’s impossible to have a working model – that the only real workable solution is to just let things be, to leave them alone, and what works will work and what doesn’t won’t, but that’s the absolute best way of finding the best solution to problems – let a million people try doing it a million different ways and see what works best, and see what doesn’t.

    We also tend to believe that you make you own luck – I’ve no doubt that even without your relatives you’d have found a way, because that’s who you are, what your character is like.

    When it comes to tax, as someone on 20k a year paying, in total, about 10k a year in tax I just can’t agree with you that it’s neither here nor there, and the overall effects on an entire economy of a level of taxation that high, with such a huge public sector and such lavish public services is a hugely gimped private sector – and that means unemployment and higher prices. The things you’re against, the things you want to stop? Well the things you’re doing to try to compensate for those problems are making it worse, causing an endless cycle of ever increasing need, every increasing public spending and ever reducing (wealth creating) private sector. That, in a nutshell, is the glibertarian position.


    • First, Charlotte, I want to thank you for being rather politer to me than I was to you. I wrote that post when I was having a very bad couple of weeks, and were I to write it now it’d be rather less insulting.

      What you’re saying here makes a lot of sense – except that you’re wanting a ‘million different ways’ of trying to solve problems, but excluding a whole chunk of those ways – those that involve state action.

      As for the tax thing, I’m not sure how you’re calculating that, because I earn slightly more than you, but am paying considerably less even if you take into account council tax and so on. But maybe that’s to do with me being married – I don’t know.

      I certainly wouldn’t argue that you (or indeed I) should be paying that much. I can afford the amount of tax I pay partly because my wife also works (though earns less than me) and partly because I have a fairly spartan lifestyle. My own view is that there should be a much higher threshold before you start paying tax at all, and that at the moment the poor and lower-middle-class are being taxed disproportionately compared to those on higher incomes. I think the rich need to be paying a far higher share of the total tax take than they are right now, and those on lower incomes far less.

      As I said in the main post, taxation *is* coercive, and we do need to try any way we can of minimising its impact. I just don’t think it’s *as* damaging to freedom as not being able to eat or pay the rent…

      • I guess a quick note: The total tax paid is calculated on income tax, NI, employer’s NI, VAT, council tax, duties and other ‘hidden’ taxes like corporate tax and business rates that are passed onto consumers. Before you know it, you’re paying a *lot* in Tax, in total.

        Only £120 billion of the Government’s £610 billion budget for 2008 goes on ‘social protection’ – general redistribution, pensions and welfare. What about the rest? £30 billion for the police. £85 billion for the NHS.. £35 billion for the military.. these being the ‘core’ absolutely can’t live without spending and we’re still only half way through the budget.

        A scarier thought still is that the total gross wage income for UK workers is approximately 700 billion – and the total tax take is 610 billion. That really worries me. I think we’re “killing the goose that laid the golden egg” ;)

        Don’t worry about lack of politeness, I’ve been very rude to people myself more often than not!

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Well, for a start I think we could spend a *hell* of a lot less on the military than we do, and if we get rid of victimless crimes and other stupidity we could probably cut expenditure on the police/criminal justice service a lot too.

          NHS spending could probably be cut somewhat, too, with a greater focus on preventative medicine without actually losing quality of care (as well as with using treatments that actually *work*, but that’s a whole other argument).

          I *do* think we have a duty to help others, and that the tax system is a reasonable way of doing it. That doesn’t mean I think we have to be stupid about it, though…

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