Freedom and responsibility

Those of us interested in extending personal freedom tend to make some rather glib assumptions in our thinking. For instance, it has been argued by several people recently on the IEA blog (with reference to drugs) that people should be allowed to behave as they wish as long as they do not harm other people. This is, indeed, a standard phrase often used to define the classical liberal or libertarian position.

But when we actually stop to consider the phrase “as long as they do not harm other people”, it becomes pretty clear that this is quite a limitation. The only society of total freedom would be a one person society. Of course, much of this depends on how we define harm (and whether we allow for self-definition), but, as soon as we factor in any form of social relations, we must limit our actions quite considerably for the benefit of others.

Indeed Hegel argued that the basis of social relations is precisely the respect for the person and good of others, and the freedom of others therefore depended on our restraint. Nozick, of course, makes a similar point when he defines freedom in terms of side-constraints: one person’s freedom is determined by the constraints placed on others. Kant goes considerably further and argues that we actually should not do things that harm ourselves as well as other people, and that this is entirely consistent with a liberal view of freedom (Kant, of course, equated freedom to rationality or pure reason).

Therefore it seems to me that what matters is not just what freedom I have, but what responsibility others have, or, put in Nozick’s terms, what side-constraints are placed on others to provide me with the opportunity to determine my own ends. This means that social relations are competitive – libertarians like Rasmussen and Den Uyl are wrong to see freedom as indivisible – and we have to beware of how we act in order to protect others.

So what I want to argue for is a libertarianism based on personal responsibility rather than on a simple statement of free choice. This is more in accord with the reality of social relations and provides us with a much more nuanced view of how we can deal with complex issues like the use of addictive substances, sexual relations and so on.

Taking the specific example of drugs, if they were legalised and sensibly regulated, then the ‘harm’ that users cause to society would be narrowed down to health care costs if they overdose (the risks of which would be very much reduced). There would be little or no associated crime. Hence the costs of that ‘harm’ could be quantified and an appropriate tax levied to cover the cost, job done. Similarly, alcohol and tobacco duties far outweigh the cost of NHS treatments and so on.

A thoughtful and interesting post. I agree that freedom and personal responsibility should go hand in hand, but you seem to be arguing for government to take responsibility away from people by outlawing certain choices. We should also remember – as public choice economics teaches – that government is inherently prone to failure. Just because government bans something, be it fox hunting or injecting heroin, it doesn’t mean people will stop doing it. Rather, prohibition tends to place markets into the hands of criminals and increases the dangers of already risky activities. This hardly benefits ‘others’ who are then forced to confront empowered and wealthy criminal organisations.

My main point was like it or not, people take drugs, and banning them does far more harm both to the user and to everyone else then some form of sensible regulation. You don’t seem to have attempted to argue with this, so I assume you agree. Of far less importance is the personal freedom issue. The problem with your argument is who decides on what constitutes “responsibility” and acting with “restraint” and on what basis do they make that decision. Why is my dangerous addiction to rock climbing OK, but the occasional smoking of cannabis not? Is it a moral judgement or about risk perceptions? Either way the government is no better placed to make this judgement than the individual.

Nick, who decides on the safe way to climb a rock face; who decides the safe way to cross the road; who decides when we should stop eating? Most of the time, in most cases, common sense tells us what is safe or unsafe.The idea that banning drugs does more harm than taking them is conjecture, which may or may not be true. I still think that it is personally irresponsible to take an addictive substance that we all know to be harmful.Interestingly, the word ‘government’ is not mentioned in my post – I am concerned with personal responsibility and about how we constrain ourselves for others.

Freedom is also a matter of having personal CHOICE: where to live and what to do within limitations given in societies.
Freedom is a sense of joy, without struggling and striving to make a living, for instance. A “million dollar” american dream comes as consequence of this side of the freedom.
Freedom is being free of major obligations which our societies have for its members: mentally and healthy ones. Of cource, it goes hand in hand with responsibility.

Taking the specific example of drugs, if they were legalised and sensibly regulated, then the ‘harm’ that users cause to society would be narrowed down to health care costs if they overdose (the risks of which would be very much reduced). There would be little or no associated crime. Hence the costs of that ‘harm’ could be quantified and an appropriate tax levied to cover the cost, job done. Similarly, alcohol and tobacco duties far outweigh the cost of NHS treatments and so on.

A thoughtful and interesting post. I agree that freedom and personal responsibility should go hand in hand, but you seem to be arguing for government to take responsibility away from people by outlawing certain choices. We should also remember – as public choice economics teaches – that government is inherently prone to failure. Just because government bans something, be it fox hunting or injecting heroin, it doesn’t mean people will stop doing it. Rather, prohibition tends to place markets into the hands of criminals and increases the dangers of already risky activities. This hardly benefits ‘others’ who are then forced to confront empowered and wealthy criminal organisations.

My main point was like it or not, people take drugs, and banning them does far more harm both to the user and to everyone else then some form of sensible regulation. You don’t seem to have attempted to argue with this, so I assume you agree. Of far less importance is the personal freedom issue. The problem with your argument is who decides on what constitutes “responsibility” and acting with “restraint” and on what basis do they make that decision. Why is my dangerous addiction to rock climbing OK, but the occasional smoking of cannabis not? Is it a moral judgement or about risk perceptions? Either way the government is no better placed to make this judgement than the individual.

Nick, who decides on the safe way to climb a rock face; who decides the safe way to cross the road; who decides when we should stop eating? Most of the time, in most cases, common sense tells us what is safe or unsafe.The idea that banning drugs does more harm than taking them is conjecture, which may or may not be true. I still think that it is personally irresponsible to take an addictive substance that we all know to be harmful.Interestingly, the word ‘government’ is not mentioned in my post – I am concerned with personal responsibility and about how we constrain ourselves for others.

Freedom is also a matter of having personal CHOICE: where to live and what to do within limitations given in societies.
Freedom is a sense of joy, without struggling and striving to make a living, for instance. A “million dollar” american dream comes as consequence of this side of the freedom.
Freedom is being free of major obligations which our societies have for its members: mentally and healthy ones. Of cource, it goes hand in hand with responsibility.

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