Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Red Liberty - A Freedom for All.

"A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both." - Milton Friedman
It is commonly believed that libertarianism and socialism are totally incompatible as the former is ideologically disposition to individualism clashes with the collectivism of the latter. The philosophy of libertarians is dedicated to small government and the freedom of the individual, whereas socialism is devoted to the democratic control of the means of production and distribution. Democracy was feared by classical liberals, and many modern day libertarians, as potentially tyrannical to the freedom of the individual - the tyranny of the majority. The democratic control, or state control, of the means of production have typically troubled libertarians who take the view of taxation as theft and the state as the enemy of freedom. Many libertarians regard freedom and equality as being in opposition, it's one or the other being a pragmatic defence of the free-market. But it could be argued that equality is not opposed to freedom and a radically egalitarian approach to freedom is possible. A major issue in relation to this is distributive justice, as it is where major differences between libertarians and socialists are drawn.

Distributive justice, as a political goal, could be described as a way of resolving political and economic injustices. However, there are competing views as to how the distribution should be accomplished along the lines of desert, merit, human rights, needs and utility. For instance, the provision of health-care by the state paid for with public money could improve the standard of living for millions of people, who may not have been able to afford sufficient health treatment in the past. But this is one view of the issue of health-care, the principle being applied in relation to distributive justice is that of needs. People need health-care and therefore it should be a priority to have universal health-care funded by taxes. Another view, is that the distribution of wealth and property should be determined according to the merit of individuals. Thus, health-care should be distributed according to the merit of individuals and not on the basis of need. This is the view typically taken by free-market libertarians.

Free-market libertarians, the ilk of Robert Nozick and Ayn Rand, might argue that taxing the income of individuals to fund such a public service diminishes the freedom of the individual. As the income and wealth of most people is derived from the individual's merit and is indicative of their character and talents. Therefore, taxing the income and wealth of individuals is in effect depriving them of their desert, which they earned through sheer hard-work. This undermines the freedom of the individual as it diminishes the ability of the individual to enjoy and to flourish to the extent that their hard-work allows them to do so. Thus, some libertarians have gone as far as to claim that taxation is a form of theft. But in regards to individual rights they might argue that the version of justice, which is preoccupied with needs, is contrary to the right to private property. Because the private ownership of property could be seen as an inalienable right, libertarians have argued that distributing land and wealth is against the rights of individuals to accumulate private property.

From this point-of-view, it could be argued that the inequality that might arise in a  libertarian society would be natural as it would reflect the natural talents of individuals and the level of self-determination there is in that society. Conservatives might argue that distributive justice, of a needs-based variety, could lead to a culture of dependency amongst the lower classes which could undermine the natural hierarchy and threaten the "fabric" of communities that make up society as a whole. Whereas, socialists are focused on the idea of distributive justice as centred around needs as a way of distributing wealth and property in the long-term pursuit of an egalitarian society. It is not that libertarians and conservatives do not adhere to a kind of distributive justice, it is that their view of justice differs greatly from the needs-based formula of socialism. The idea that wealth and property should be allocated according to merit is the kind of distributive justice that libertarians and conservatives tend to believe in. In a sense, one man's justice is another woman's oppression.

The view that individual rights and a needs-based idea of distributive justice are incompatible seems to have some ground. Though it could be argued that this kind of distributive justice diminishes individual freedom is too simplistic. The view could be overly simplistic as it depends on the conception of freedom that we're talking about. In regards to the freedom of the individual from constraint, also known as negative liberty, taxation is an infringement on freedom as it functions as a constraint on the individual by decreasing their disposable income. But in relation to positive liberty, which is not just about the freedom from constraint and is more about enabling individuals with the capacity to act freely, it could be that individual freedom is enhanced by a needs-focused distributive justice. This is because the state provision of education and health-care empower individuals to flourish, as the obstacles of insurance payments and tuition fees are removed at the expense of a wealthy few.

The view that wealth and property should be distributed according to the merit of individuals assumes that the gap between rich and poor is a result of a natural difference between individuals. This fails to take into account the way wealth and property is often handed down from one generation to the next further perpetuating privilege and power. The ignorance of free-marketeers to inheritance and the ways wealth can be concentrated in a minority goes beyond innocent naivity. As Rand acknowledged by revelling in inequality, she viewed the poor as "mud to be ground underfoot, fuel to be burned." To Rand it was deeply immoral to show these "lice" compassion, who are feeding off of the success of the "Masters of the Universe", as selfishness is the only virtue. Inequality is justice. This merit-based variety of distributive justice that free-market libertarians adhere to is a narrow and simplistic kind of justice. The conception of liberty that they so adore and actively promote is equally narrow, as it abandons the individual with a set of choices to make and nothing but autonomy as a means to flourish.

It could be said that the free-market brand of libertarianism is liberalism for the ultra-rich, as in that kind of society they would have the greatest freedom and the least amount of "constraints" on that freedom. But for the rest of society, the "maximised" freedom for the individual would mean a life of total subservience to the most tyrannical. This is an absolute truism in regard to the "Greed is Good" variant that Ayn Rand espoused. Whereas, at the limitation of the disposable income and economic freedom of a small few, the rest of society could derive a far greater freedom that enables choices and not just permits them. The kind of individual freedom that right-wing libertarians are pursuing is only for the opulent few and is derived at the expense of the many. And the liberty which socialists and anarchists are pursuing is for all, not only as individuals but as communities as well.

Significant Links:
Two Biographies of Ayn Rand
Responsibility to the Poor
Ayn Rand Interview
Milton Friedman on Libertarianism
Ron Paul on the American power structure
Noam Chomsky on libertarian socialism

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