Thursday, February 12, 2009

Libertarian Gets All Knotted Up Over Concept Of Freedom

From Will Wilkinson, who looks like he might be a fairly decent read:

Whenever I say nice things about Canada, some people get annoyed. After all, they have socialized medicine and are more inclined to regulate certain kinds of speech. But these are anecdotes. If looks for anecdotes on the lack of freedom in the U.S., one becomes buried in them. If I look at actual indices that attempt, however imperfectly, to measure various freedoms, the U.S. and Canada come out pretty much identical on a classical liberal conception of freedom. And Canada comes out ahead on contemporary capabilities conceptions of positive liberty. To my mind, the evidence pretty strongly supports the conclusion that Canada is at least as free as the United States. Why is this a problem for some Americans?

And then this corker on why U.S. Libertarians don't want to move to Canada:

But My sense is that some American libertarians have a vague sense that if Canada really was more free, then they should want to move there. But they emphatically don’t want to move to Canada. My diagnosis is that many libertarians prefer to live in a place where it easy to find others who share their individualistic and libertarian values over living in a place where they would actually be more free, but would feel more culturally alienated.

...which rather seems as though he is saying that U.S. Libertarians would rather talk the freedom talk down there then come to the True North and actually walk the freedom walk because the ground up here is too thick with non-Libertarians. Or, alternatively, that Libertarians would prefer to feel free rather than be free. Or, even better, Libertarians prefer the ideological homogeneity you get when surrounded by other Libertarians.

Of course, the WS's Terrence Watson argues that, if you think Canada is more free than the States, you just haven't weighted your freedoms properly:

In any event, while in practice the U.S. and Canada may be similar in terms of liberty, they are not identical in terms of freedom of speech. And, since freedom of speech is an extremely important liberty, this suggests that Canada may be less free than the United States, in terms of the freedoms that matter the most.

Speaking of cultural conformity, incidentally (as a number of Wilkinson's commenters do), nothing beats hanging around a hot-bed of Libertarianism like small town Arizona (Yuma, specifically). Five radio stations playing either C&W or Rush Limbaugh, and every dept. store selling the same cheap American flags.

A whole herd of independent thinkers, down there.


Ti-Guy said...

Canada is dull and irritating. I'd much rather live in the US where you can sit around all day and talk about freedom; how free one is and how unfree foreigners are and how that just sucks, sucks, SUCKS! I'd be much happier, I'm sure.

They keep bringing up freedom of speech as the most fundamental freedom; that the ability to open one's mouth, engage one's vocal cords and let the air rush out of the lungs is the be all and end all of human liberty. The fact that the culture one is part of imposes, through ubiquitous propaganda, a mythology (any deviation from which is characterised as treason) that has little to do with reality and causes no amount of anguish when that reality asserts itself ('Why do they hate us when we're so good?!') is, of course, secondary.

Terrence C. Watson said...


My talk about "weighting" different liberties is a long-standing thing, and maybe not quite as arbitrary as it first sounds.

Ironically, it was Charles Taylor, a leftie, and a Canadian philosopher (not the ex-president of Liberia) who convinced me it was necessary to look at liberty that way.

Libertarians who talk simply of a right to "liberty" don't seem to realize that, in terms of raw, uncoerced choice, a country with no traffic lights and no freedom of religion is potentially on a par with one that has liberty-infringing traffic lights but also guarantees freedom of religion.

Certain liberties matter more, in the sense that more "goes wrong" when those liberties are infringed on than others. I might be wrong about which liberties have this kind of priority, or why, but I still maintain some sort of ranking is necessary.

rabbit said...


I agree. The more human rights a society attempts to support, the more they tend to conflict, and thus we are faced with having to decide which rights are more important.

A society with an ever-growing list of human rights might find - ironically - that their efforts to expand rights places the most fundamental liberties under attack. This is a problem that Ignatieff, in his book "The Rights Revolution", never properly addresses.

In my view, freedom of conscience, speech, and the press must be given predence, for these are the freedoms from which other freedoms flow. A society can not address problems if it is not free to candidly discuss them.

Thus I believe that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms gets it about right. The first set of freedoms in the document are referred to as "Fundamental Freedoms". Both their title and their position in the document are a clear indication of their primacy.

Although the charter does allow for limiting these rights, we should only do so with substantial justification, and in fact that's what the courts have demanded. Regrettably there areas of Canadian society whose restrictions on speech have not been properly contested in court.

If we are to err, we should do so in favour of too much speech.