A Manifesto of Hopeless Abstractions

I have started this blog mostly in order to give voice to my political opinions, so I feel that an appropriate place to begin is with the three fundamental principles that underlie what I believe: freedom, sustainability, and equality.

Freedom is the most basic of the three — the axiom from which the other two spring forth.  I define it broadly to include doing what you want, getting what you want, and satisfying your preferences (in preference utilitarian fashion, for any moral philosophers out there).  Overall freedom in a society is a product of the negotiation of these sometimes competing individual preferences.  Needless to say, my conception of freedom incorporates both negative and positive rights.  For example, governments can and should provide the positive rights of health care, education, and income assistance.  One cannot meaningfully be said to be free without the basic means of survival and the minimal ingredients for a good life.  But this is not to dispute the importance of government stepping out of the way when appropriate to facilitate the growth of negative rights.  I am a strong believer in the anti-paternalism of John Stuart Mill: “the only purpose for which power can be rightly exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.  His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”  To me, this means that very high standards of necessity must be met for a government to grant itself jurisdiction over sex, drugs, religion, or expression.

My conception of freedom manifests itself not just individually but collectively as well.  In other words, democracy is not, as it is sometimes purported to be, in conflict with freedom, but rather is its collective manifestation.  (Some might consider “self-determination” a more appropriate term here, but I still believe that freedom is at the heart of my axiom, and I do not wish to dilute it with endless rewordings and qualifications.)  Democracy, according to this line of thinking, should be defended, broadened, and deepened.  In general, consensus is to be preferred over majoritarianism, decentralization over centralization, and participation over representation.  Furthermore, democracy ought to be expanded to realms beyond the political.  The economy, for instance, is in crucial need of democratization through well-designed government regulation and growth of the public sector, as well as increased unionization and the spread of cooperatives.

So where do sustainability and equality fit in?  Beginning with sustainability, it goes without saying that any value derived from freedom is limited by time — by how long it lasts.  And with air and water quality, natural resources, the global climate, and the integrity of ecosystems on which we depend for survival all under threat from the excesses of our civilization, it is not entirely clear how much longer the “good life” will last.  It it therefore imperative, for the sake of holding on to what we have, that we view each individual and collective decision we make through the lens of environmental sustainability.

What is more, we must recognize that it is not only humans whose freedom is important, but all those sentient beings who are on the front lines of the ecological damage that we cause.  It may sound strange to speak of the freedom of animals, for they lack rationality and human language, and for the most part are probably without self-awareness.  But the basic mark of inherent moral worth, as Jeremy Bentham noted, is the ability to feel pleasure and pain.  Just like us, animals are drawn to pleasure and repelled by pain, and we are obliged to fairly weigh these preferences (or proto-preferences) against our own.  To consider only human interests when altering the natural world is the height of selfishness and arrogance.  Other species too deserve our consideration.

Which brings us to equality — by which I mean economic equality, sexual equality, racial equality, intergenerational equality, and even inter-species equality (with qualifications).  The principle of diminishing marginal utility states, plainly speaking, that the more you have of something, the less you want of any additional unit.  One more dollar in the hands of a millionaire, for instance, while he or she will still certainly want it, will not be nearly as appreciated as it is in the hands of a welfare recipient.  This principle is the line that connects freedom (as broadly defined by me) and equality — two values that are commonly (and wrongly) thought to be locked in an eternal battle of mutual exclusivity.  In fact, those on the bottom must be lifted up in order to satisfy their preferences and truly experience freedom, and in a finite world this can only realistically happen if those on top are knocked down a peg.

This is not to say that we must be in a state of absolute equality.  There is some truth to the conservative claim, for instance, that some economic inequality is necessary to provide incentives for good work.  All that I say is that because of the principle of diminishing marginal utility, the burden of proof must be on those who resist calls for greater equality.  It is hard to deny that in today’s world, and in most of its countries, current levels of inequality are far higher than they need to be (to say nothing of the shaky link that exists between riches and merit in our imperfect world).  Accordingly, it is reasonable to judge any policy proposal in part by how it affects the haves and how it affects the have-nots.

So that, briefly, is what I believe.  The principles of freedom, sustainability, and equality are what inform my pie-in-the-sky vision of utopia: a diverse, decentralized, participatory democracy; structured around a strongly civil libertarian constitution; and coexisting with a zero-growth, de-centrally planned economy leaning towards the libertarian or associational end of the socialist spectrum.  I hope to continue to expand on these themes in future posts, as current events unfold and as new ideas come to me.  Thank you for reading!

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4 thoughts on “A Manifesto of Hopeless Abstractions

  1. A compelling vision. But how do you suggest grounding the value of individual freedom? How would you respond to a Hobbesian/utilitarian argument that, especially in these perilous times, security considerations outweigh those of individual liberty? How, in general, would you respond to those who purport to know better than “the people” what’s good for them?

    • Hi Collin. Good to hear from you!

      It is undoubtedly true that collective concerns outweigh individual ones — for numerical reasons if nothing else — but it is easy to get carried away. Even in perilous times, we don’t want to give up more in individual freedom than we gain in security, as has happened so many times in the episodes of hysteria that dot history (eg. Japanese internment, McCarthyism, Guantanamo Bay). I think a useful thought experiment is to imagine yourself in the future looking back on the present.

      As for those who think they know what’s best for others, that’s more difficult. How does one justify an axiomatic opposition to paternalism? I will make two points. First, the moral: as a preference utilitarian, I believe that satisfying people’s preferences is more important than satisfying their interests. Second, the empirical point: I think that in the majority of cases (not all, but most), people’s preferences and interests do in fact match up, and those who claim to know better than I do what’s good for me are either deceitful or delusional.

      Not exactly easy arguments to prove. But I’m glad you find my thoughts compelling!

      • I’m no champion of collective concerns in preference to those of the individual (at least not without much qualification), but I don’t think the contemporary discourse , for the most part, is able to come up with compelling justifications for the value of the individual.

        • My justification for my own point of view (in short, that both individual and collective concerns deserve weighty consideration) is that the negative consequences of going overboard on the collective side are plain to see — in both past and present. At the risk of sounding glib, what is the collective if not a bunch of individuals? If enough individuals lose their freedoms in the name of security, then by definition, society as a whole suffers.

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