Visions of Freedom

February 10, 2010

For some time now I’ve been querying my own liberalism; attempting to reconcile it with climate change and my own suspicions of the limits of the market within various avenues of life. This questioning has crystallised around the notion of property rights. I find phrases like “…you want a society in which people are forced—under threat of fines, and imprisonment, and bankruptcy, and worse—to pay for your personal moral convictions…” oddly beguiling; they have the appearance of an argument from the Harm Principle – namely, that choosing to impose one’s will on others in the form of tax constitutes harm to those others – and yet, I cannot accept their force.

This stands apart from the climate change issue – clearly, a polluter whose emissions constitute future harm to me is someone I am morally entitled to act against. The decision to help the vulnerable via the state does not fall under the heading of preventing future harm, as the argument that the absence of preventative action on the part of the taxed constitutes harm is a difficult one to make.

I could cash out my instinctive rejection of the ‘Taxation for moral action is harm’ argument using a kind of utility of choice theory; taxing the rich to aid the poor is justified as money has diminishing returns in terms of choice. The choice borne, say, of being able to afford curtains to keep the heat in is a greater choice than what kind of curtains one purchases. But this is a tricky position to hold, as it requires that choices are commensurable across the whole spectrum of human experience, which is difficult to demonstrate.

I therefore come to property rights. Their place as the guarantor of freedom is enshrined in much right-wing thought; consider David Friedman’s maxim that ‘Property is a central economic institution of any society, and private property is the central institution of a free society.’ or Ludwig von Mises’ statement that ‘If history could teach us anything, it would be that private property is inextricably linked with civilization.’ Given their role here, it’s clear that for the Right the infringement of property rights constituted by taxation results in direct harm to the freedom of the individual. Therefore, under the Harm Principle, taxation is always unjustified. But I find myself unable to maintain that infringement of property rights necessarily constitutes harm to the individual.

Why is that? When it comes to freedom, and the philosophy of action that determines the conceptual limits of such, I am very much a Humean; any particular action we take can only be aimed at satisfying a desire. Moreover, desire is therefore something we cannot disconnect from the way in which we encounter the world. We encounter the world through a matrix of desire, and any object we encounter within it is presented to us in terms of our desires and its potential thereof. For example, we cannot disconnect from our impression of a ripe apple the knowledge that eating it will satisfy hunger once we have learned that fact. It appears to us in terms of its graspability, its ease of being picked up, and perhaps its aesthetic value.

This inextricability is vital in understanding this philosophy of action. Freedom can only be understood in terms of our potential scope to satisfy our desires; our ability to act to achieve them. This may seem, perhaps, necessarily hedonistic and even solipsistic, but such impressions are given by a far narrower definition of desire than the one being used here. You possess (perhaps) the desire to do good – the experience of encountering a pregnant woman on the bus is now bound up with the knowledge that one will satisfy one’s good-desire by offering her your seat. The Humean position is that even motivations that appear to be rational are ultimately sourced from our desires, as in this case.

We can now move onto property rights. It is clear that, while one can need tools & objects to satisfy one’s desires, those tools themselves constitute a limit on the scope to which one can satisfy them. We are limited in terms of how much we can achieve by the property we possess at present, and more fundamentally by the nature of the world we encounter.

Ought not then property rights be at the core of any conception of freedom? Do we not need our own resources to, say, drive to the supermarket to pick up the shopping? Does not our possession of a car or not determine how far we can travel?

No. All that matters in terms of the way freedom is explained by this particular philosophy of action is that we have access to the means of satisfying our desires – not any particular object. Private property rights are the right to exclusive use of a certain set of objects, rather than the right of access to objects capable of satisfying our desires. On this approach, it does not affect your freedom in any way if the Government replaces every single object you own with ones capable of performing exactly the same function (taking efficiency and aesthetics as factors here, of course). It seems intuitively correct to me that noumena cannot be factors in our freedom.

However, there is one desire that particular objects can satisfy, and that is the desire to possess the means of satisfaction of one’s desires. This is crucial for our civilisation – on the above characterisation of this philosophy of action, a chimp trying to crack open a coconut will not have a rock be rendered salient to it as a possible means unless it possesses the desire to find those means. Private property rights are therefore the means by which we are able to satisfy this particular desire without interference from others’ use of what we regard as our property.

This, however, makes them only a small part of our overall freedom; an aspect of our potential actions which is rendered important dependent on the strength of this desire in the individual. There is nothing necessary about the strength of a particular desire within this philosophy; it is contingent on the person. It will therefore mean that private property has different levels of importance for different people, and that infringements upon it will constitute varying levels of harm depending on its strength in those subject to them. This would appear to explain my earlier intuition regarding taxation as a violation of the harm principle.

We have thus arrived at a rather obvious conclusion: private property rights have different values to different people, depending on what they want. This may seem rather trite. However, factoring in our philosophy of action, we can arrive at a much more interesting conclusion: private property is percieved differently by different people, so that when these rights are discussed between the right and the left, they’re incapable of talking about the same thing. Encountering private property differently renders any discourse on it functionally impossible if two people’s viewpoints are too far apart; the language they use can never encompass the different shades of meaning they attach to it.

We thus arrive at the point where this post finally says something that falls under its purported mission. Political language is frequently used to try to minimise this sort of incongruity of salience, in order to win people over by identifying the values that they share, rather than the ones that drive them apart. Freedom is a shared value, but its expressions vary so wildly its use in discourse is likely futile.

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4 Responses to “Visions of Freedom”

  1. Matthew Huntbach said


    I find phrases like “…you want a society in which people are forced—under threat of fines, and imprisonment, and bankruptcy, and worse—to pay for your personal moral convictions…” oddly beguiling;

    The people who say this sort of thing seem pretty keen on the state coming in and forcing other people to accept their personal moral convictions when those personal moral convictions are something like “I own this big house and you don’t”.

  2. declineofthelogos said

    Which, indeed, is the core of my argument: the emphasis of the harm principle shifts depending on your attitudes to property rights. The notion that the harm principle is this mutable presents another challenge to my understanding of liberalism.

  3. […] if they wish prevent climate change, they must present them with a vision of a world which is desirable, not claim they haven’t understood how tree rings work. In a liberal society, debates […]

  4. […] in a way in which real life is not. In the past, I have blogged about how I find their credo oddly fascinating; and have skirted around the edges of their arguments without ever fully engaging. I felt it to be […]

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