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Opinion: On The Meaning Of Freedom

On The Left –

January 31, 2000

On The Meaning Of Freedom

This is something that I've been wanting to write for a while, but haven't really had the time to ponder properly until the last few days. And ironically enough, the spur to think again about the nature of `freedom' was provided by a phrase in a Young Nationals column. Quoting from this , "The Left may have won the election, but it seems like we have finally seen the end of large, authoritarian Governments." And this set me thinking, because for me the Left has always been about freedom, while the right has always been about privilege and power in the hands of a few.

What follows, therefore, is an attempt to think through the nature of freedom today.

Every political party has, underlying the rest of its policy, a claim that they wish to enhance people's freedom. It is the claim made by all parties in all modern democracies - `we will work to enhance your freedom.' How can such an apparently ubiquitous concept arouse so much ire in political activists and people interested in politics?

First, there is the old division between positive and negative notions of `freedom'. Within the set `freedom', to use a mathematical analogy, there is a subset `political freedoms' which contains a further subset, `negative freedoms'. The `negative' freedoms are the most restrictive ones. They are, for example, freedom of speech, of thought, of association, of religion, of sexuality, and things like that. What characterises them is that they are costless. It costs nothing to grant someone a freedom like those just listed. Someone cannot enjoy `more' freedom of thought and thus deny someone else their allocated share.

A very important point to stress right from the outset is that every single freedom is a socially constructed device. Freedoms are established by the community. We have all of the negative freedoms above because our political community agrees they are good things, we are accustomed to them, and we would fight any attempt to reduce or degrade them. No freedom, of any sort, is inherent in the human condition. There is no `right' to any freedom, no natural inevitability about any of them. Political communities can and have removed any freedom you can think of. I labour this point because it is one of the fundamental flaws at the core of some ideologies, notably objectivist libertarianism, that freedoms are intrinsic to humans. They aren't.

Negative freedoms aren't in dispute in New Zealand. Nobody thinks that people should be forced to follow a state religion or to burn books with undesirable ideas in them. It is when one comes to the positive freedoms - the freedom to do things - where there is a radical divergence between those of us on the left, and right wing political views. Positive freedoms are things like a right to housing, or to an income in retirement, or to medical care, or an education. They are the rights that characterise the welfare state - the rights that were so keenly fought over last century. In short, the left believes in positive freedoms, and the right doesn't.

This differentiation is inherent in the nature of the two sides of the debate. Left wingers are interested in maximising the choices available to individuals to make the most of their lives. Right wingers are interested in protecting those who already have power or wealth, and are not remotely interested in helping anyone who isn't already part of their group.

This leads on to the respective reactions to freedom. The right wing political activist insists that taxing people who are well off to provide opportunities to others - that is, the welfare state - is an unjustifiable reduction in the freedom of individuals. This is underpinned by a belief that people's `utility' can't be contrasted - that is, I can not say that someone earning $1m a year gets less use out of their last dollar than someone earning $10,000 does. Taxing people is an attack on their ability to make choices and it is immoral.

True freedom, in the left wing conception, is freedom to do things. And underlying a freedom to do is using the state in its various incarnations to give people opportunities they would not otherwise enjoy. Those on the left do make comparisons of the gain individuals get from a given income. It isn't sane to say that you can't compare the utility of the last dollar for two different people. Yes, taxing people does reduce their income, and that is a reduction of their freedom. But providing opportunities for everyone is more important than marginally reducing the income available to those at the top of the heap.

Thus in policy terms you have the continual right wing arguments for the reduction of the size of the state. Made in the name of freedom, and arguing that `big Government' is an oppressive force, the true intent is simply to protect the power and privileges of those already at the top of the income and wealth ladder. It's a perfectly rational response from those who have most to lose if everyone has chances as good as they themselves did. But to call it freedom is a joke.

In contrast the left is not concerned with the size of the state. We are much more interested in what it does and how it can be used to expand the range of choices available to people. While taxation is accepted as not desirable of itself, it can be used to redistribute income from those who have it to those who need it. Yes, it reduces the scope of action and thus freedom for those at the top of the ladder, but when the choices facing two people are compared, reality does take over. If someone on a high income can't make that next overseas holiday they wanted as a consequence of having to pay enough tax to ensure that proper vaccinations are available for kids in South Auckland, there's no comparison really.

Or there shouldn't be.

The durability of the right wing claim to promote and protect freedom is remarkable. It is a result of a profound misunderstanding of what the moderate left stands for, and the widespread public identification of the left with powerful union bosses, strikes and other disruptive things. In part that is our own fault - the left has never been good at sidelining extremist elements who don't believe in freedom. In part though it's a result of the entrenched interests of the right in the media and society. Misinformation is easy and it has proved historically very successful.

Only the left today stands for true freedom for everyone. The modern society will only function where everyone had a stake in it, and that requires making sure that all have the opportunities life can offer, and have the barest minimum standard of living guaranteed to them as a right, not a privilege. That's what the left stands for today. The right stands for, in Blair's phrase, the few, not the many.

Till next week,

Jordan Carter

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