Our complicated freedoms
Samuel Goldman wrote an excellent essay on the complex position of freedoms in our society today. In this short answer I would like to begin by explaining some of his points and, above all, underlining how the pluralism of freedoms creates difficulties in modern times. Second, I describe why freedom of association is our most undervalued freedom because associations help people mediate between potentially conflicting freedoms amid this pluralism. Finally, I note a disagreement about the benefits of the simplicity of government programs because, in my opinion, Goldman has not internalized his own analysis enough to see that such pluralism sometimes requires complexity in social governance systems.
The plurality of freedom
Goldman offers at least three glimpses of freedom in today’s world. First, “freedom is plural” and encompasses freedoms as diverse as civil liberty, commercial liberty, and the more radical autonomy of modernity with its familiar expression in sexual freedom. There is not a single indivisible concept of freedom. If so, then we are pluralists in relation to freedom in the sense that Isaiah Berlin was a pluralist in relation to values. It’s just not that a society can perfectly realize all of these freedoms. Therefore, in a society like ours, where people are more free to conceptualize different types of freedom, the nature of freedom is a constant source of contention.
Second, Goldman correctly positions freedoms within the institutions. Without an institutional structure, it is not possible to realize freedoms or even to fully conceptualize them. For example, we couldn’t have free speech in the American sense without a powerful court enforcing it. One consequence of this is that protecting freedoms begins with protecting institutions. The recent call for court wrapping, for example, is ultimately the greatest threat to our freedoms in generations as it undermines the main institutional structure that protects it. Goldman is also right to call many of our freedoms “Western” because the West created the institutions that promote them.
Third, Goldman is right to defend modern America, which has emphasized commercial and personal freedoms, from recent attacks by the left and right. Indeed, one of Goldman’s most powerful passages is his criticism of right- and left-wing complaints about “libertarian politics” of the second half of the 20th century. He notes that these policies hardly appear to have been “catastrophic” and that critics do not compare our society to others that actually exist and prefer to measure it against “essentially literary” ideals that have never been realized.
I would add that one specific aspect of this version of the nirvana error is not counting on what libertarian trade policy has done for the world’s poorest. Largely because of globalism, the number of people living on less than a dollar a day has declined over the past half century. Even if it is believed that freer trade in the West has been disrupted, neglecting that consequence means lifting billions of people from their wretched misery to nothing.
Freedom of association
Goldman suggests that freedom of association is extremely important because it enables the development of the personality that is central to individuality, and thus to freedom in general, “through cultivation, education and practice with others.” I would add that, given the multitude of freedoms, associations are more necessary than ever. They can ease people’s commitment to certain freedoms at the expense of others. For example, a religious believer might choose the freedom that comes from revealed law over the “radical autonomy that emerged from the sexual revolutions”. Without associations to help them, the individual may never succeed in creating the coherent life necessary for human beings to thrive. Associations can support a life plan based on a circumscribed set of freedoms distinct from the desperate grazing of freedom that modernity offers.
For these reasons, the protection of freedom of association should be central to the ongoing struggle for our freedoms. Associations include not only private clubs, nonprofits, and private educational and religious institutions, but also political institutions such as cities and states in America, where exit is relatively easy. These latter institutions also allow a choice between freedoms and offer different tradeoffs between what the ancients would have viewed as the tension between freedom and license. San Francisco and Omaha instantiate different mixtures of freedom.
If the state is to provide essential services without creating a statistical society, complexity can often help preserve essential freedoms.
Unfortunately, freedom of association is threatened in the United States today as groups seek to protect their chosen freedoms from the exercise of the freedoms of others, even if that exercise does no harm. A prime example are laws that require salespeople to attend same-sex weddings that violate their faith. These mandates generally do not even require the same-sex couple to demonstrate that they cannot obtain equivalent services elsewhere. Its aim is not to ensure that people can marry as they wish, but to increase the dignity of some freedoms over the dignity of others. The common law made a sensible distinction between common carriers with monopsony power, all of whom had to serve, and the typical companies that were allowed to discriminate against customers, and helped to balance commercial freedoms with other species. Nor can these laws be justified by analogy with the civil rights laws passed for African Americans. They were needed to counter the extraordinary government-enforced discrimination against Jim Crow that affected every aspect of social life.
In addition to removing laws that penalize some associations to enhance others, one of our main efforts should be to encourage voluntary associations. Primarily, these guidelines include school election programs that parents can use to select the school that oversees their children’s early unions. If social services can be provided by voluntary associations, the government should make general use of them. These policies bring to life what former British Prime Minister David Cameron called “big society” – a society that builds culture on voluntary associations, not government bureaucracy. And subsidiarity, of which federalism is an important part, also enables the exercise of various freedoms by bringing more government to a level where people can choose to participate or, if unhappy, leave.
The complexity of government regulations
I have a disagreement with Goldman’s play. He argues that conservatives and libertarians also bear some of the blame for “increased management of personal life”: “By underestimating the appeal of protection from disease or immersion risks beyond personal control,” claims Goldman, ” we have left the field open to more complicated and intrusive strategies of the left. “I agree with Goldman that the right should be open to providing essential services to those who cannot fend for themselves, but I think he may underestimate the complexity of doing so. The limit values are a problem. Simply giving money to people who are poor, even for a specific purpose, has a negative effect on making more money. Meaningful systems therefore require a step-by-step division of services and an often complex structure for calculating income.
Government regulations can also distort the entire market. For example, the healthcare sector works through the insurance market. If the government merely subsidizes health care for the poor, it can lead to overuse of expensive, finite health services. Therefore, the government has to monitor the pricing of the procedures it subsidizes. The problem becomes more complex when the government also subsidizes health care for older people regardless of income. Government support programs are therefore often complex. That is not to say that the classical liberals should not support government regulations for the poor and insecure, but they should be aware that such social programs often require careful design to best suit other goals of a good society.
In general, I cannot agree that government spending necessarily works best when government programs are simple. Public schools are simple in the sense that they are both government funded and run, but they often offer poor services and can be ideologically captured by teachers’ unions. For example, in the current Covid-19 crisis, public schools have been much worse at providing education than private schools and even charters.
While the introduction of diplomas or vouchers creates significant complications in publicly funded education, including new potential for government regulation, it improves school performance and promotes freedom of association. Goldman advocates the political accountability of a simpler government provision, but I am more skeptical of its promise about the problem of rational ignorance. Most people do not follow the details or the general characteristics of government performance. Hence, it is often better to introduce market mechanisms such as charters or vouchers into politically funded programs as well, where individuals are rewarded for choosing better services. The greater freedom of choice – a freedom Goldman values elsewhere – is worth the complications because it improves education and thereby promotes human thriving.
Here I think that Goldman does not follow his central insight about the pluralism of freedom and the centrality of freedom of association to his logical conclusion. If the state is to provide essential services without creating a statistical society, added complexity can often help preserve essential freedoms, including those of association. My reservation about a relatively small part of the essay therefore arises from its larger and more important subject.