Sunday, 1 January 2012

Notes on Liberty (long)

Liberty, freedom, your-shibboleth-of-choice-here. There is a dangerous tendency at large in the world today, a habit formed through long years of casual use and cultural osmosis: The tendency to treat the concept of freedom casually, as if it were universal, simple, good, absolute. And yet as broad, vague and generally fuzzy as it is, freedom is usually remarkably narrowly defined. It is individual freedom, almost invariably negative liberty-- freedom from, not freedom to. Individual freedom, to do what we like without being told what to do by the state.

Of course there are contradictory concepts of liberty in politics, or at least concepts which in specific circumstances may prove mutually exclusive, or in some cases merely paradoxical. Let's take two examples to start off with, one each from the polar extremes of the scalar spectrum:

 Nations often find themselves bound to a given course, against their democratic or even technocratic will because to do otherwise would have a perverse effect. We see this in the constant drive to lower taxes on the wealthy / corporations, so as not to drive them offshore. Consequently agreements in international law which otherwise constrain nations by requiring them to adopt specific ways of taxing legal persons and so decrease de jure sovereignty, nonetheless increase de facto sovereignty by allowing a greater range of policies domestically.

This is the sort of problem we hear about where politicians say something is a fine idea in principle, but will only work if there is a global regime. A similar phenomenon can be seen in the ‘race to the bottom’ in federal systems, as states try to capture corporate investment via fiscal policy by outbidding or undercutting each other, and leaving the federal government to cover the difference. Competition gives power to the most mobile, with labour almost always being the least mobile, and yet the most likely to vote. Democracy's loss arises not out of strict necessity, but out of the freedom of movement combined with unfettered freedom in respect of tax policy.

On the other hand we have things like contract law (and criminal law), which even libertarians tend to favour the enforcement of. Contract law restricts individual freedom to some extent, this removes the need to bring serious collateral, or guns into agreements. The capacity to settle disputes and ensure a consistent predictable process, rather than restricting overall freedom, actually empowers individuals to act more expansively. More contracts take place, more business, more investment.

This latter is a trade-off between what we might call negative liberty, or the freedom from interference by such bodies as the state, and positive liberty, or an outside agency empowering you to be able to do something. When the state pays for your health and literacy to be taken care of (in theory), this is empowering you to have the freedom to do most everything you take for granted. A more specific example that is often given, is that the negative freedom to vote matters little if you cannot positively get to the polling station, or positively understand what is written there.

There are also concepts of social freedom, freedom to assembly, to form group identities, to hold a religion and so on. In and of itself though, this is a strangely un-British idea, as we tend to hold that anything not forbidden is by default permitted.

Freedom is not static though, it is fluid. If an individual has the freedom to do a particular thing, such as murder, it may affect the choices others *feel* able to make, such as walking down the street without a weapon for defence, and so it is that in every corner of life we find rules, either social or legal. A more mundane but believable example might be if you were paid a bonus for doing work faster, but you were also able to cut corners which someone else in the office would have to pick up, and it couldn't be traced to you / you were not judged by this practice. It would be only a matter of time until one of the more unscrupulous workers took up this glistening opportunity.

This advantage will at first be contained by social and cultural emergent norms, or rules. That is to say, team-mates will dislike you, exclude you, etc for doing it, and therefore you won’t. But if such a behaviour takes hold, or if individuals view it as a ‘job’, and regard their own success as more important than how they act in an ethical sense, then the incentive to act unfairly may take over. If enough people act this way, even stringently ethical individuals may find themselves cheating simply to survive. If eventually everyone is doing it, or the only ones who aren't are bitter and resentful, the effect is a worse workplace.

Perhaps not the best example, but in systems with performance based incentives things like this happen a lot. The law of unintended consequences means that narrowly construed rules or incentives can produce undesirable behaviours.

Another rather baffling-- though perfectly understandable-- behaviour arises at the corporate level. Mortgage companies (and many other types of company) would often give better discounts / deals to new customers than to old / existing / loyal customers. This was / is because they were looking to tempt people away from their rivals, whereas existing customers had a good chance of staying with them without shopping around.

As a result, companies would trade customers, with little clear benefit, and incentivise the public to shop around, benefiting them for what would otherwise be wasting their time, and in the meantime what amounted to a tax on loyalty affected everyone else. The high information costs of the poorest-- the lack of time / knowledge which makes it difficult to obtain good information-- means they often suffer the worst prices. This unfortunate consequence doesn't come as a result of any really meaningful social benefit, it happens simply because you cannot fail to act, if by so doing you allow a rival to act to your disadvantage.

Similarly, as has been mentioned elsewhere, when lending was being extended to riskier and risker clients, banks which didn’t engage in this activity would lose market-share. Therefore, those making the decisions would be under pressure to do that, or, possibly, be replaced by someone who would. We can blame bankers for immoral behaviour, but it's always far more sensible to simply improve the rules and incentives.

Two more examples from a different kind of situation:

Constitutional Jurisprudential tension. In the US they have a very strict, difficult to change, and not terribly clearly worded constitutional document. As a result, two hundred years or so of social and political change, together with this ambiguity and intransigence in the documents themselves has lent itself to a flexible and expansive interpretation of the text. This interpretative activism has created in the judiciary a political power of sorts, and therefore the nomination and selection process for justices has inevitably become increasingly political.

Meanwhile in the UK, where the constitution is utterly fluid and unwritten, reliant to some degree on gentleman’s agreements and constitutional convention, the literal interpretation, together with conventions providing that judges shall avoid adopting political roles, and politicians shall avoid criticising judges, has created an effective doctrine of parliamentary supremacy with a remarkably independent and a-political judiciary.

This might seem more abstract and less germane to a discussion of freedom, but it sets out a long term vision of how contextual behaviour is and always must be. Everything takes place within, and creates around itself a structure like a snail shell.

In the arms trade we see governments actively exhibit this kind of behaviour. Countries are often accused of double standards in selling weapons to shady regimes, but of course these deals, and other logistical sleight of hand provide jobs at home, and as everyone is able to, someone else is bound to. This pre-emptive immorality for selfish gain is not inevitable, but it is extremely likely in such situations. Not every government will pursue or endorse this kind of behaviour, but even those which do face a difficult trade-off.

Finally, if you have strict laws governing something, you actually free up agents to engage in anything *short* of breaking the law, including bending it, subverting it and brushing up against it in a sinister sort of way. This is because the law upholds the system, keeps the game running. No law governing the system? Then you have a self-organising ruleset. That is to say, if you play a game with someone and they keep cheating, eventually you stop playing. Reciprocal goodwill becomes necessary, which is why in international law trade rules are usually respected, and the WTO/GATT are among the more successful bodies. In this situation if one country fails to follow the rules, a trade-war can break out and damage all parties.

This is not to say that the law of unintended consequences should be allowed to govern policy. Without government there are usually worse problems, which noone would intend for. Indeed, the next step in a system of reciprocal good will is for countries to band together and punish offenders consistently irrespective as to their own interests-- this happens with piracy, as a jus cogens of international law, for example, and obviously resembles domestic law much more. It is worth recognising that law can sometimes displace custom though, and in so doing, displace moral reasoning unless the law's intent is internalised.

Freedom in a deterministic universe is always a dangerous word. We are always free within some definition of free. We are always rational within some definition of rational. The question is, how bounded is that rationality, what kind of freedom? We can always choose from the choices available to us, we can always act in the ways allowed. The question is, who decides on what choices are available? (the market / the political market / the ‘free market of ideas’) or which behaviours are acceptable? (the government / the courts / social mores) and how? (democracy / autocracy / communism / capitalism etc ) Choices available are themselves affected by information, by hysteresis, culture and so on, as well as the mechanisms involved.

The consequences of freedom are also profound. Individualism can be a dangerous construct, as it tends to lead us to assert our individuality without being any wiser as to our nature. Being free to act foolishly is fine to a degree, we must have freedom, we must make mistakes in order to learn from them. Yet, we must also accept outside wisdom, outside limits, and sometimes, prohibition from dangerous and reckless actions. This is why we aren’t allowed to drive while drunk, even though we’re sure we’ll be fine. Why we can no longer smoke where it will harm the public, even if we don’t believe the science.

Social choices are subject to the mechanisms we use to aggregate individual choices (voting mechanisms such as first past the post, AV, etc), the structure of politics (parties, coalitions), and how we get access to information. This last one presents a final baleful examination of freedom, altogether too often-- but not always-- without responsibility. The press could be a group of professional men and women treating their work as a science, checking every source, dotting every i, conscientiously factchecking statements, investigating the integrity of other organs of society, and trying to inform and educate the public on important issues, rather than entertain them. The reality is that while this no doubt happens most of the time in some degree, and some of the time to a great degree, in a highly competitive market the priorities of a paper are often survival and profit.

Over time, this can change the culture and character of the profession, as I think we’ve all seen. We have to ask, in a deterministic universe, not just what freedoms matter to us, but what constraints matter. What it is that we can do to help keep ourselves on the straight and narrow, without ordering each other to behave constantly. We should never kid ourselves that we are ever free, because that lie is the one true seed of enslavement, it is only the awareness that our behaviour is limited, and springs from our character, our limited knowledge and awareness, our irrationality, that allows us to grow, to choose our own path.

Similarly, we must not ask for liberty or death from our state or our society. We must of course make our choices valiantly, to strive to earn their respect, to earn the right to be applauded and cherished for our choices, but we must always recognise the price of absolutism in our obsession with unfettered personal expressions of will. The price of freedom without consideration is not chaos, but it is a world we wouldn’t necessarily want to live in.

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