Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Why this blog?

When I moved to Australia from India in 2000, I was about 13. It was then I started writing letters to the editor and getting interested in current affairs. If someone had to label me at that time the word they would have used would probably be ‘socialist’. Mentally I’ve traveled some distance since then, and I think I understand why those sorts of ideas are initially so attractive. It’s because they don’t start from first principles. It’s because they don’t take that extra step into deeper thinking.

That sort of transition requires reading and a level of guidance. I credit my father for introducing me to the reading, and I also credit him for responding ably to my concerns. If you’re young and idealistic like me and want to help the poor, liberalism provides a totally different framework for doing this. Ditto with human rights and some of the other pet issues of the left (such as climate change, an issue The Age will not tolerate dissent on). The title of this blog, 'Thoughts on Freedom', is a reflection of the importance of the word ‘freedom’ in finding solutions to societal problems.

To a greater or lesser extent I wanted this site to be an exploration of that word, albeit not necessarily from a pre-determined classical liberal perspective. Freedom is important because it is a universal value. I am yet to see any culture, primitive or modern, that actually celebrates slavery or coercion. No, as humans – as animals – we prefer to be free. If we’re all getting involved in the world of ideology to improve people’s lives, then even socialists should recognise the individual as the unit of ethical value. It is, after all, individuals that make up groups.

That’s why I encourage people of all political persuasions (and those who are just curious) to comment here on their interpretation of the word ‘freedom’. I think the debate has become too polarised. A lot of the people who promote liberal ideas take cheap shots and don’t aim for inclusiveness and building cooperation. They preach to the converted rather than attempting to persuade. That strikes me as odd; because freedom is undoubtedly something everyone would rather have, regardless of whether they explicitly express this fact.

That brings us to the question of limitations on freedom. If an individual’s freedom is limited by the freedom of others to enjoy life and the pursuit of happiness, then when are democratically elected governments justified in placing limits on freedom? I want to explore the real meaning of words like ‘public good’ and ‘welfare’. I hope others will take this opportunity to share what freedom means to them in a practical sense. Why on earth is it so darn important?


At June 22, 2006 10:45 am, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

I'm not sure about all cultures celebrating freedom. I'm pretty sure no group lauds slavery per se, but there is quite a bit of fondness for coercion around the place, both collectively and individually.

One of the saddest things I regularly see as a lawyer is people who really do want to go to gaol. Not because they like the place, or even feel they deserve it, but because it provides them with some sort of structure - a structure completely missing in what is often a disordered, even chaotic life.

For me, there is always a tension between freedom and order - which the lawyer tends to define as 'structure'. I'm constantly asking myself where one ends and the other begins, or whether the two concepts operate as a sort of king-sized Venn diagram, overlapping in crucial but poorly understood ways.

At June 22, 2006 5:37 pm, Blogger Jono said...

I think its usually expressed as CHAOS vs Order, not Freedom. But defining freedom itself will be a battle of the language used.

There are two categories: "freedom to" and "freedom from". Sometimes the same thing can be worded differently and fit in either category.

You have Freedom of speech, Freedom of movement, Freedom of thought, Freedom of religion, Freedom of association, freedom of property ownership (property rights)

You have Freedom from violence, Freedom from slavery, Freedom from coercion, Freedom from theft.

But sometimes they overlap. Freedom of speech = freedom from censorship. Freedom of movement = freedom from restriction. Property rights = freedom from theft.

Freedom is still the guiding principle, but its best to talk in terms of "rights".

My core rights:
Right to life
Property Rights (including the right to your own body - preventing slavery)
Freedom of Speech/Thought/Expression
Freedom of Association & Religion

Here is a list of non-rights, which the left consider real rights:

* Workers "rights" (= right to minimum wage, right to regulation protecting workers from being fired under any circumstance)

* Student "rights" ( = right for tertiary students to receive $3 subsidy of government revenue for every $1 they commit towards education costs, right of people to access free kindergartens or subsidised childcare etc)

* Womens "rights" (= women being subsidised for raising children and staying at home)

At June 22, 2006 8:23 pm, Anonymous sarah apocalyptic doom monger said...

I believe people are scared of freedom, complete and total freedom anyway because it makes you totally responsible for yourself and to be totally responsible for who you are and what youve done and do is too scary for people.

Moo, get a xanga =( even if you just post bunny pics on it.

At June 22, 2006 9:31 pm, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

It's the fear of freedom Sarah mentions that I was getting at, rather than concepts of positive and negative liberty. I think my comment was just really unclear, sorry about that Jono.

People often mismanage their liberty terribly, failing to take responsibility in all sorts of appalling ways. It's this, I think, that leads to the most rampant 'nanny-state-ism'. People - well, more interventionist types - want to make things 'better', not understanding where this can lead.

At June 22, 2006 11:51 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

jono: i don't like talking in terms of rights just as a matter of aesthethics...'freedom' is immediately recognisable and agreeable. And of course, with freedom comes responsibilities: like ying and yang. Positive & negative interpretations of freedom are useful when defining rights (e.g. if we were to have a bill of rights it should be a statutory one and we should have a maximum of 5 negative rights)

To me, freedoms need to be balanced with externalities. You can smoke, but you can't do it in a way that affects me (i.e. in public areas) and you can't litter. You can do whatever you like on your property as long as you aren't building a nuclear reactor or housing 500 people under one roof or building a 500 floor skyscraper that blocks my sun in a residential area. And while we're at it, you can't smoke and expect taxpayers to foot the bill for your treatment, regardless of whether you were doing it on private property.

sl: regardless, no one wants to be put in a box and told what to do. That sort of basic freedom is a universal value. Similarly I doubt women are pleased at having control freak husbands. We are born free, so to speak. In that sense would you agree 'tis a universal value? Cultural norms might temporarily define the acceptable limits of that freedom, but would you rather be forced to wear a hijab or make a voluntary decision to do it?

When talking about freedom I would start with the freedom to do any damn thing you want, including killing others for fun. Then you start narrowing freedoms based on others' fundamental negative freedoms ('right to life' being one - capital punishment should be opposed) in an attempt to reach that optimal level. And then you have vexing issues like the freedom of animals, or animal rights...I've been reading some Peter Singer lately and found him disturbingly sensible... ;-)

At June 24, 2006 9:20 pm, Anonymous mikey said...


I believe in freedom. But by itself I think freedom is unfinished. Simple freedom is most attractive to those who don't have it. Which, until recent history was a huge amount of people.

That's why liberalism was such a powerful concept. Personally, I think that liberalism has been somewhat corrupted; that economic freedom has progressively come to dominate other freedoms. And thus neo-liberal comes to be largely a term of abuse. Why did this happen? Put crudely because we all love money and we all love power. Economic Growth proved popular;it was fun, it was exciting, as far as we could see everyone was a winner.Private Vice could equate to Public good.

Becoming politically conscious at the beginning of the 21st Century I see things differently. Economic freedom has its downsides for
a) The majority world, who for so long payed the non-economic expenses we in the west didn't recognise. and b) citizens of the West who realised that in reality (economic) freedom can be quite hollow.

What you say about Deeper thinking Sahblok, I can't quite agree with. The superficialities of Socialism (and other warm and fuzzy ideas) are real, I think. But there's more to it. Liberalism, Socialism (and Facism) for that matter all go right back to first principles. I think that before you talk about freedom you have to think about how and/or if individuals are connected and how/so. You have to ask yourself about the meaning of life. Is individual freedom the meaning of life?

I have no idea. The idea doesn't make me comfortable.I suspect it is a hollow idea. And, so I thank the French revolutionaries for giving me two other profound concepts to add to the shortlist.

Equality. Fraternity.

There is one concept which has the potential to combine all of these concepts into one. It is called Democracy. I think I value it over all but basic freedoms.

This is not to say I am at all happy with the democracy we have now. But I hold great hope for the future. I believe in a great de-centralisation, wherein freedoms will generally only be denied by a forum in which you have had a proportionate say. Fundamentally I believe in co-operation not competition,

I am not comfortable with how our current version of capitalism understands freedom. On balance - and acknowledging how hard it is to get your head around the whole of modern history - I believe that economic freedom has been the root cause of as many problems as it has provided solutions for. I believe that western libertarian often overlook events that occur outside of their borders, or outside of their T.V's.

Ultimately, what is freedom by itself? Maybe i've just grown up a spoilt middle class kid, but Western Modernity is over-rated. Our conception of freedom is hollow.

Freedom is beautiful, but if we treat it as but a precondition for greater things, it becomes even more beautiful. (Mind you, if basic freedoms are ever threatened they take absolute priority)

Last point: When we have basic freedoms and economic freedoms does not another set of freedoms arise? If it is feasible, why should not everyone have the right to basic shelter and to a basic living standard, and to dignified work and... well you can see the equality creeping in. Most arguments at this point invoke the anti-entrepeneur, anti-growth line, but I think this is largely a furphy. Its dualistic and disingenuous.

I have a question, for the committed who made it this far.
Do you subscribe to the left/right dialectic or do you find it out-dated

Good Post Sukrit.

At June 24, 2006 9:36 pm, Anonymous Mikey said...

Sorry. In the third last para, instead of economic freedoms it should say economic prosperity.

At June 25, 2006 1:00 pm, Anonymous Jason Soon said...


At June 30, 2006 6:03 pm, Anonymous Joel said...

Like you, Sukrit, I started out on the left at about 13, and made my way to the right over the next 5 years or so.

I'm reading Montesquieu right now, and he says that freedom is the absence of fear. I think that is a pretty good definition.

At July 01, 2006 12:22 am, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

It seems this starting on the left caper and moving rightwards is 'common as catdirt' as my Nana used to say.

It's certainly true for me, and for many far more famous switchers - to use the popular Macintosh marketing slogan. Keith Windschuttle comes to mind, but there are others.

That said, to my untrained eye, it seems the lefties are usually older folk (boomers, say, but not their surviving wartime parents)... or about 15. Many from the big lump in the middle (I am one) may never have had a youthful lefty fling at all.

Perhaps this provides a clue to John Howard's continuing electoral success, and the boomers' (generalizing grossly here - it's late at night)inability to figure out those born between 1962 and 1975.

At July 01, 2006 8:04 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

mikey said: Private Vice could equate to Public good

I don't think it should be put that way. If, by 'vice' you mean running your business to the best of your ability and making the most profit possible within the confines of the law, then yes, that sort of 'vice' is beneficial to broader society. Just by providing goods and services businesses are performing a valuable service. The better they get, the more refined they get, the better it is for us as consumers.

Similarly, if you have knack for something - say maths - you would serve your own self-interest and earn big bucks by applying maths and inventing something that there is demand for in society. Yet you would also be helping progress the state of science. The lesson? Do what you're good at, aim to perfect what you're good at and don't let other distractions take you from the area in which you could obtain the most personal gain. Nine times out of ten focussing on your self-interest is also great for the rest of us.

The focus on economic freedom (in developed countries!) in recent times is probably because the major civil society issues - racism, universal suffrage - have been fought for and won. Since we abandoned Keynesianism in the 1970s the focus has been on winding back the power of government that coincided with the rise of the welfare state in the 20th century.

At July 02, 2006 7:08 pm, Anonymous mikey said...

The 'vice' stuff was paraphrased from someone famous (who, i haven't got a clue) that I found in a fairly classic text (agian can't remember which, maybe Schumpeter?) and reflected an 18/19th Century attitude. Trust me?

I used it not to limit the future possibilities of economic liberalism but to describe some of its past. I admit it's a fairly provocative way to put it, but the wording came from an ardent supporter of the idea.

Sorry - i'm having trouble with html codes, so the following might sound rude.

You say: 'Just by providing goods and services businesses are performing a valuable service. The better they get, the more refined they get, the better it is for us as consumers'

I say: Perhaps it is better for us as consumers, but not neccesarily as human beings.

You say: 'Do what you're good at, aim to perfect what you're good at and don't let other distractions take you from the area in which you could obtain the most personal gain. Nine times out of ten focussing on your self-interest is also great for the rest of us.'

I say: It seems that you're equating personal gain with professional success and/or wealth creation. I think a society and economy should aim at allowing people to do what they 'love', to do what satisfies them. This allows for a socialised economy and also avoids welfare state stasis. Doing something you are good at is definitely part of this, but being forced to commit to one and one thing only is not. So I think this private 'vice' thing is more complicated

In any case, I don't think we can draw a direct connection from personal gain to public good via the market. I honestly don't think that 9 times out of 10 I benefit from others self-interest, and when we attach your 'developing world' rider I become even more doubtful that most of the world would agree.

I think there is a base question underlying this and the interesting thing is that your answer to it is based heavily on empirical and sensory experience. Are things getting better? Are they trailing slowly downhill? And which ideas and institutions have caused what?

Life experience biases us massively on this and it's bloody hard to get an objective and globally oriented balance. It's hard to argue constructively around something which, one way or the other, we feel so strongly in our bones.

At July 02, 2006 11:29 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You've raised a lot of probing points that probably deserve a blog post rather than just a comment - this is a brief response in the meantime.

"Perhaps it is better for us as consumers, but not neccesarily as human beings."

You seem to be questioning the following (hidden)premise in my argument: If as humans we enter into a voluntary agreement by purchasing something it is assumed we do so because it benefits us. Otherwise the transaction would never have taken place.

Now if you're suggesting that premise is wrong then that's a value judgement that deserves some Socratic questioning.

"It seems that you're equating personal gain with professional success and/or wealth creation. I think a society and economy should aim at allowing people to do what they 'love', to do what satisfies them."

People are best advised to follow their self-interest and choose to do what they like because as Steven Levitt has shown in this article (free login required), you do better (and hence receive more financial renumeration) at something that satisfies you as a human being. If that's what you're saying, then we agree.

At July 03, 2006 6:33 pm, Anonymous mikey said...

Well if you guys would stop providing interesting and provocative talking points then I would stop asking leading (not in any Machiavellian sense) questions!

Sukrit assumes: "If as humans we enter into a voluntary agreement by purchasing something it is assumed we do so because it benefits us."

I assume: If as humans we enter into a voluntary agreement by purchasing something it is assumed we do so because we believe it benefits us.

I would invoke Max Weber and his concept of the rationality of irrationality, but I never really read enough of him to be sure i know what was going on. However As part of generation x-y I know all about the alterno-world of advertising.

Also, I think your assumption contains its own underlying assumption. Something like this:

-That the aforementioned act of consumption is conducted in an institutional environment where the human interaction of consumption is given no greater or lesser support than other interactions-

I'm not convinced this is the case. What I'm definitely not arguing is that individual choice should be coercibly subject to Groupthink, at any level. Maybe I can put it this way: if there was a backing band to this post it would probably be the Beatles and they would probably be playing 'Can't Buy me love.' Aww...I know. :-)

Re doing what you love/are good at, I think I'm trying to say something more complicated than that, but for the time being I don't think I can get it out in a way that anyway not currently resident in my mind could understand! Thanks for the link.


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