Thursday, May 12, 2011

Freedom Is Slavery

Michael Gerson has a weird column explaining why he isn't a libertarian. He wrote

"The freedom to enslave oneself with drugs is the freedom of the fish to live on land or the freedom of birds to inhabit the ocean — which is to say, it is not freedom at all."

This is odd and not just because there are penguins (not to mention albatrosses who, like penguins touch land only to nest). It is odd because the bit about the birds and fish is not needed. "enslave oneself ... is not freedom" is a tautology. No need for inaccurate ethology. Also the analogy is terrible. I mean birds are free to dive into the see and stay down. They just choose not to. It isn't like using heroin at all.

But what about "the freedom to enslave oneself," literally. I am an economist so I am able to turn off common sense and explain how this outcome is not efficient because of the inalienability of human capital -- that is because we lack the freedom to enslave ourselves. One might argue that the 13th amendment is a restriction on individual liberty. If I want to sell myself into slavery (say starting in a month because I want to party for a month -- well given how much I'm worth maybe party for a weekend) I can't. Hence the title.

The problem is that people other than drug addicts wouldn't sell themselves into slavery (in developed countries including ones with gaping holes in the social safety net such as the USA and Italy). Also the word "slavery" is an analogy.

I prefer another analogy which, I think, is useful to justify both the 13th amendment and restrictions on the sale of addictive drugs (notice no hint that I defend prosecution of the users who are victims). Back in the good old days, people who distinguished liberty and license (as Gerson does) meant something different by liberty. We would call it independence. It was something like we Puritans (or Irish or Greeks or Genevans or whatever) must be free, which means we must have our colony where we can force everyone to do what we say. The unit which was to be free was not the individual but the nation or the faith or some such.

Also families. Freedom meant that the head of the family was free to do what he wanted with himself, his wife and his children. The unit was the family. That freedom seems to us to be arbitrary power over others. We still sure don't accept the idea that freedom means 2 year olds are presumed to be the best judges of their own interests.

Now we just assume that we are one person and Robert today is the same entity as Robert tomorrow. We have forgotten that you can't step in the same river twice. We are the same knife with 2 new handles and one new blade. The idea that I, Robert_now have absolute rights to do whatever I want to him Robert_in2012 is natural, but it is not necessarily valid.

This is the problem with allowing people to sell themselves into slavery or free trade in meth. This allows us to exercise arbitrary power over the future inhabitants of our skins.

Thus arbitrary authority can be justified in (at least) two ways. First "of oourse that's what freedom means -- it's obvious -- just as it was obvious that men were free to beat their wives -- uh come on it's totally different. They were wrong and we are right about whom should be under my arbitrary control, just look at my birth certificate (long form) the vital records show that I am the same person. I have the same name. You are probably about to claim that the Republicans plan to eliminate Medicare and replace it with something else with the same name -- what the hell does the sweet smell of a rose have to do with anything ?" in otherwords refutation by huffing and puffing.

Second that it is reasonable to assume that we are the best judges of our own interests using "our own" in the conventional sense so that means the best interests of our future selves too. Roughly the claim is that our present selves and our future selves have the same interests so we agree, that is we have time consistent preferences. This is an assertion in psychology. It is not just huffing and puffing. It is, however, just like saying the earth is flat as the hypothesis is easily tested and long since refuted.

In particular, no one who has ever been addicted to anything has any doubt at all that we and our future selves are, sometimes, bitter enemies trapped in the same skin(I think the literature on time inconsistent preferences was founded by people who were trying to quit smoking, who couldn't think of anything else and who found a way to be free while in chains even as Epictetus did).

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