Monday, January 30, 2012

Of freedoms and prepositions

If I may dust off the cobwebs quickly, I'd like to explore an idea that's been bouncing around my head for a bit. This may take a few posts to sort out in full.

Democrats and Republicans both love freedom, and both claim it as one of their core principles and driving forces. And yet, from this same starting point, people from both ideological camps tend to draw radically different conclusions. How can this be? It all comes down to negative liberty vs positive liberty -- or, to tack a preposition to that favorite word, freedom from vs freedom to.

In economics, conservatives tend to worry about the freedom to conduct businesses as they please, while liberals worry about freedom from corporations' decisions. This dichotomy comes up in debates about all sorts of regulations: freedom to run polluting businesses vs freedom from living with pollution; freedom to invest at will vs freedom from those investments bringing down the economy; freedom to buy political ads vs freedom from corporations dictating public discourse.

Freedom's prepositions are frequently at odds with each other. A few years ago, an entry at The Economist's Democracy in America blog pointed out that corporate regulations can increase personal freedom if a company is deprived of its right to pollute and a citizen can therefore exercise his right to swim in a river. The argument there was focused on "nanny-state" regulations, like not being able to swim in a pond where one might drown, and the distinction was that an individual can easily assess the risk of downing, but can't easily assess the risk of water pollution. This misses a larger point, which is that some policies have a risk which an individual can assess as well as the state, but which only the state has the power to act on.

Take political spending and super PACs. It's easy for me as an individual to see the risk of a cash-driven election; we live in that world already. What's harder impossible for me to do is to stop it. I can't reasonably boycott every corporation that donates too much to a political campaign, and with a super PAC, I can't even learn which corporations are donating what to whom on a timely basis. Without government regulations, the corporations' right to spend its money has won over my right to have an equal voice.

Of course, "from" shouldn't always win. Nobody thinks that my freedom from annoying ads should strip companies of their freedom to advertise, and freedom to conduct business has given us many goods and leaps of innovation. It's always a balancing act.

What's interesting is that in many social matters, the prepositions don't follow party lines quite so much. Liberals worry about the right to marry whomever one wishes; conservatives worry about the freedom from having marriage tarnished; where conservatives see the right to pray in school, liberals see the right from religious pressure. I'll leave those discussions to another post.