Freedom’s definition sets government’s role

By Tibor Machan: Syndicated columnist

So you think this column is motivated by my vested interest in having philosophy taken seriously? OK, that’s part of it. But then, so what? Some things are in my interest, and this alone would suffice to justify championing them. In this case there is also the fact that all of us have a stake in the issue.

The free society is best suited to living a human life here on Earth, and yet the free society is getting a bum rap in many circles. As best I can tell, the reason is in part philosophical. That is to say, certain widespread philosophical convictions are standing in the way of appreciating the importance of the free society.

One main obstacle is what people understand freedom to be. For some it is a matter of not having others intrude upon us and what belongs to us. If they don’t, we are free; if they do, we aren’t — at least to the extent they do intrude or, more precisely, to the extent the law enables them to do so with impunity.

This idea of being free is very familiar — a slave isn’t free, nor is a serf, nor is someone locked up for thinking or saying things others do not like or trading stuff others do not want to be traded.

But for too many others, especially political thinkers in our time, freedom means not having to cope with burdens in one’s life. Thus, such folks consider a free society one that reduces the burdens on us all quite apart from other people’s intrusions. The idea is that if one is burdened by poverty, illness, disability, ignorance and so forth, one isn’t free. To become free, the idea goes, these burdens would need to be removed. And to remove these burdens, what is needed is a powerful group with the authority to attempt to rid us all of these burdens.

After all, it takes all sorts of resources to do this and such a group, say a government, would need the power to secure those resources via taxation and other takings.

Those who take freedom to mean not having others intrude upon anyone and those who see it as getting rid of burdens are serious adversaries. That’s because if one’s freedom from intrusion is secure, that means government may not obtain, through taxation and other forms of coercion, the resources to unburden us of whatever stands in our way to do what we want to, even should, do. And if one’s freedom from burdens is the first thing to be secured, this would have to involve intruding on many people whose resources would be needed to remove these burdens.

Those championing freedom from other people’s intrusion don’t deny the existence of burdens on us but tend to hold that once such intrusion is prohibited by law, the burdens that stand in our way will be removed through voluntary effort — productivity, creativity, innovation, invention, entrepreneurship, cooperation, and so forth. Those championing freedom from burdens tend to think that unless others are conscripted into the effort to remove the burdens, they will not be removed, that without the support of government’s powers, being free from burdens will not be possible.

At the base of this dispute — a philosophical dispute, indeed — lies the controversy about whether human beings have the capacity to move themselves — to freely choose to advance in their lives, to take measures to flourish. If they do, it makes sense to think that once others are stopped from intruding on them — once their chains are cast aside, once slavery and oppression have ended — people will most likely come around to help themselves by various peaceful means. But if they lack this capacity, then unless they are pushed by some force to advance, they will remain stagnant, poor, ignorant, sick and so forth.

No doubt there are some who need a boost from their fellows in order to get going with their lives — they need help and support from others. But these are not in the majority — indeed, if they were, it would all be lost anyway. So most people can make progress in their lives once others do not oppress them, once they are free from others’ intrusions. If this were not so, it is difficult to fathom how anyone could attempt to remove the burdens that some cannot cope with. Where would their capacity to step up to the plate and help others come from? But if they do have such a capacity, why wouldn’t the rest of us?

This is, of course, an ancient controversy, but it bears keeping in mind that it lies at the base of the more familiar political and public policy disputes about the size and, especially, scope of governmental power in human affairs.

Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at
Machan@chapman.edu