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April 3, 2017 / Congau

Slippery Freedom

The government always restricts the freedom of the people. That’s what governments are for. That’s why we need a government. Any law is a restriction of freedom.

To be free is to be able to do whatever we want without any restrictions whatsoever. A perfectly free person should even be allowed to take away the freedom of others if that’s what he wants. Obviously a society of perfectly free people is not possible and instead they choose to give away their freedom to the government. This is the old Hobbesian argument: People prefer security to freedom. That is, freedom is not the highest good, or maybe it is hardly a good at all.

But there are other ways to interpret the governmental restriction of freedom. One is to consider it a compromise designed to actually maximizing the possible freedom for each citizen. It could then still be the highest good, but since everybody is entitled to an equal amount of it, it has to be reduced to a level where everybody has some, but not too much. One person’s freedom is another person’s lack of it, and it is better to grant a moderate quantity to each citizen instead of a lot to some and nothing to others.

However, there is something sad about this way of thinking. It means giving up an ideal and dismissing it not just as impractical, but also as useless even as a theoretical aim. (All ideals are impractical, but it is good to keep them as something to approach.) If we maintain that freedom is one of the highest goods, we shouldn’t be content with a watered down version of it.

What is then the solution? The laws of the state are indeed there to stop people from doing what they want and being able to do what one wants is the definition of freedom. That definition cannot be changed if the word is to retain its meaning, but maybe we can look at the actual content of what it means to want something.

The potential criminal wants to commit a crime, but the government stops him. As it stands, that makes him less free that he otherwise would have been. But suppose he doesn’t really want to do it, he only thinks he does. In that case the police actually help him act according to his own will. The government thus forces him to be free.

This is plausible, but then we sure move into dangerous territory. It could mean that a government that seemingly goes about restricting the freedom of the people on a large scale, a totalitarian state that is, in reality gives them more freedom than they ever had before. It could mean that, but who is to tell? A brutal police state would be happy to use that as an excuse and then any meaningful idea of freedom would be gone.

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