Some Thoughts On Liberty

I yammer on a lot about liberty in these pages, and sound the alarm when I think it is threatened. For all of that, though, I’m not an extreme libertarian; limitations on liberty are necessary for a well-functioning society. I just don’t like to see it limited beyond necessity, and I don’t like policies whose unintended consequences include creating conditions that necessitate further limitations.

So what constitutes a meaningful limitation of liberty?

Imagine the following curious scenario. You live in a world with a strict system of laws: everything that is not explicitly permitted is forbidden. (Don’t worry about how the laws are enforced; let’s say there is some automated monitoring system in place that operates with 100% effectiveness, and the punishment is swift and harsh.) Imagine further that you are the only inhabitant of this world.

Now let’s add a further curious stipulation: everything that you choose to do during the course of your life is on the list of permitted acts. (Since this is just a thought experiment, lets say that our law-enforcement bot is able to look back in time, and program a list of everything you will choose to do during your life into its list of what isn’t forbidden.)

A strange situation! It will seem to you as if there are no restrictions whatsoever on your liberty. But that’s hardly the case: the list of forbidden acts is in fact infinitely larger than the list of what’s allowed: it’s just that you’ll never notice. The list of what you can do is so tightly shrink-wrapped around what you will ever want to do that there’s no apparent problem.

Now let’s say we add a second individual, a perfect clone of you. Do the laws have to change? Well, yes, they do, a little: while almost all of the individual acts you’ll chose will be the same, in the interest of harmony and justice there will be some acts that will have to be forbidden, namely those acts that impinge unfairly on the other person. Spinning around firing a machine gun in all directions, or eating all of the other person’s food, for example, might need to go onto the “forbidden” list. But beyond accommodations of that sort, the laws won’t have to change that much, because, being perfect clones, you both will be inclined to toward pretty much exactly the same actions. So even though the list of forbidden acts is infinitely larger than the list of what’s permitted, you’ll both still have a sense of enjoying almost perfect liberty.

OK: so far we can describe the legal system of our little world according to the following meta-rules:

1) Acts that impinge on others in unwelcome ways are forbidden.

2) All voluntary acts that happen to be chosen by any individual during his or her lifetime are explicitly permitted, except where proscribed by 1).

3) Every act that is not voluntarily chosen by someone is forbidden for all.

What we see then, is that 3) is starting to lose whatever relevance it ever had. Even though 3) puts on the list an infinitely large collection of forbidden acts, and therefore in principle constitutes a gigantic limitation of liberty, it is not a meaningful limitation, because we never notice it. What limits liberty in a way we will actually feel is 1).

So: what factors might increase the effect of 1)? Well, if we imagine our little world to be populated with clones of ourselves, odds are that since we’ll be doing almost exactly the same sorts of things, the effect will tend to be muted. But increasing the number of copies of ourselves will surely have an effect; there will be more of us going after finite resources, etc., and so some new laws will have to be added to the blacklist to keep things running smoothly (you can’t take more than a certain share of a resource, etc.).

Here’s another way to increase the limiting effect of 1): instead of populating our little world with clones of ourself, we use near-duplicates. Now, because the list of acts we’ll voluntarily choose is going to start to diverge, the ways your acts can “impinge on me in unwelcome ways” is going to increase. For example, in a world of clones we’ll all want to be awake at the same time, and sleep at the same time; but now you might like to sleep during the day and play the drums on your porch all night while I’m trying to get some rest. Meanwhile I might like to render animal bones into glue in my spare time, while you don’t like the smell. So we’ll need some new additions to the forbidden list. Because these are voluntary acts that would have been permitted in our original setup, I’m going to feel the difference. These are meaningful limitations of liberty. But most of the time we’ll still keep out of each other’s way, because as near-duplicates we are going to engage in pretty much the same behaviors. I like to have parties on Friday night, but so do you. I like to sit on the beach in the nude, but so do you. And so on. So all of this is permitted, and our liberty is only minimally affected.

It’s important to pause here to remember also that under 3), there are uncountable numbers of things that are NOT permitted, simply because they are not things that any of us would choose to do. But as we mentioned above: 3), though it makes by far the biggest contribution to the forbidden list and therefore is the biggest actual limitation of our liberty, makes no meaningful limitations, because it doesn’t prevent us from doing anything we’d ever want to do anyway. It is negligible. In our world of clones or near-clones, although our list of permitted actions is actually very tightly constrained by law under the effect of 3), we don’t notice, and so don’t care.

The point of all this? The only restrictions of liberty that affect us in any practical sense are restrictions of the liberty to do those things that we would ever want to do anyway. Because in the real world we don’t have the time-traveling omniscience of the law-bot in our toy world, we don’t know in advance the full list of what the members of our society might want to do, so we try to make more general rules that we think will suffice to grant us all the liberties we need. And course, our thought-experiment world includes that strange proviso 3), where everything that nobody would ever want to do is prohibited. But as we have seen, 3) has no meaningful effect; the real action comes from 1) and 2). Take away 3), and what you have left is a society that, because it seeks to prohibit only that “which impinges on others in unwelcome ways”, would probably flatter itself as being quite “free”.

Now let’s go a little further: instead of near-duplicates of ourself, we populate our kleine Welt with total strangers who are as unlike us as they could possibly be, in all the ways you can imagine: political views, social customs and rituals, diet, living arrangements, religion, and so on. This is going to dramatically increase the effect of 1); a great many things that were previously permitted will no longer be. We should note that it is also the case that more will be permitted under 2), because there will be a greater variety of voluntary choices being made — but those new additions to the permitted-actions list brought about by those who are maximally unlike us won’t have much of an effect on increasing our liberty in a meaningful way, because most of them will not be actions that we ever would have chosen in the first place, or will choose even if they become available to us.

From all this, then, we can conclude that in our little thought-experiment world, liberty — meaningful liberty, the kind that actually affects people’s lives — is maximal for a single individual, reduced a little for a small group of exactly similar individuals, reduced somewhat more for a small group of highly similar individuals, reduced further for larger groups of highly similar individuals, and reduced more and more as the heterogeneity — the diversity — of the population increases.

What about the real world?

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  1. bob koepp says

    Hi Malcolm –
    I’m about as committed to the principle of individual liberty as one can be, but I don’t agree that meaningful liberty would be maximal for a single individual. There are just too many meaningful (as judged from the perspective of individuals) projects that require cooperation for that to be true. Freedom to associate is certainly an individual freedom, but it’s not a freedom that can be given expression by a single individual — by its nature, it requires interactions and exchanges between individuals.

    Posted April 12, 2011 at 8:55 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    Interesting point, but is “freedom of association” a meaningful concept in a world with only one person in it?

    I mean, is my “freedom” to hunt zargs meaningfully limited in the real world because there is no such thing as zargs?

    But the solitary-individual case was just a starting point here, anyway; as I did acknowledge in paragraph 12, there will be some increase in what’s permitted as more individuals appear, in accordance with rule 2). The point was that the less alike those individuals are, the faster restrictions will appear under rule 1).

    Posted April 12, 2011 at 9:39 am | Permalink
  3. bob koepp says

    Malcolm –
    I figure that the “meaningfulness” of a freedom has more to do with whether it is part of a coherent set of desires (for some individual) than with whether the desires in question can in fact be realized. But that’s an interpretation that can certainly be challenged…

    In any case, my point concerned what “maximal” freedom would require. This is an empirical issue, but my gut tells me that for creatures such as ourselves, it’s overwhelmingly likely there’s a net increase in individual freedom when we are able to freely join with others to pursue shared projects.

    Posted April 12, 2011 at 11:18 am | Permalink
  4. Jesse Kaplan says

    This is an interesting formulation.

    You haven’t discussed (3) much. It seems to be a tracking device. As population grows, (3) [the list of forbidden acts] shrinks. This = increased liberty.

    As population increases, (1) grows. (1) also tracks liberty; as you say, it tracks “meaningful liberty,” while (3) tracks “useless, or unnoticed, liberty”. As population grows, meaningless liberty also grows, but meaningful liberty decreases.

    As population grows, (2) also grows. (2) [permitted acts, with a limiting caveat] is also a measure of liberty. (2) measures meaningful liberty by the standards of this analysis, as “meaningfulness” is here defined simply as liberty to do acts one actually does.

    I would like to think about this more, but will post. My analysis gives me the feeling something is wrong with your formulation. At the least, we can see that your analysis has been overly stripped-down, to where it does not really illustrate your point because both meaningless (useless) liberty and meaningful liberty grow with population. Therefore, if your point is to be rescued, your whole point is to be found in the limiting caveat to (2), namely [new acts invented by population growth that impinge on others].

    Is the rest of your formulation window-dressing? One was naturally suspicious from the start about the huge, hypothetical element of unnoticed lack-of-liberty floating around, namely (3). I am reminded of inventing obscure subatomic particles to account for rounding errors in energy quanta or adjustments in the math to keep the earth in the center of the solar system despite increasingly accurate information about the other plantes’ orbits, though these analogies may not be very good.

    Posted April 12, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Thanks for joining in, both of you. This is very much a work-in-progress; it was just a way of looking at the problem that I thought I should get written down before it slipped out of my mind.

    I agree, Bob, as I said above, that certainly there are new kinds of things that become possible in a world with more than one person, so in that sense there is more freedom (minus, of course, the diminution of liberty that comes under 1), which is kept to a minimum by high similarity between individuals).

    But is lacking the ability to do something that isn’t possible a meaningful limitation of liberty? Perhaps it is.

    You are exactly right, Jess, that the point here, as 3) recedes into the distance, that the key is whether, as dissimilarity among the population increases, liberties are restricted faster by 1) than they are added by 2).

    Keep in mind my qualifying point in the antepenultimate paragraph (now slightly revised):

    …those new additions to the permitted-actions list brought about by those who are maximally unlike us won’t have much of an effect on increasing our liberty in a meaningful way, because most of them will not be actions that we ever would have chosen in the first place, or will choose even if they become available to us.

    Posted April 12, 2011 at 12:28 pm | Permalink
  6. Jesse Kaplan says

    Well, I think the protocol is sufficiently abstract that there is just a one-to-one correspondence between the growth and shrinkage of known and unknown liberty. Therefore, the beauty and promise of heuristic utility of the simple equation does no good because the only thing of interest is the caveat to (2). Looking at it in the abstract does no good; it is only the analysis of the caveat to (2) that matters.

    One gains more liberties when everyone is more nearly the same: the more people there are piling up inoffensive liberties, the more liberties there are for everyone. But one immediately realizes this resembles your initial take, where there is just one person, and that one person could of course devote his life to creating new liberties.

    It would seem this argues in favor of diversity, as diverse people push the envelope of created liberties to the boundaries of tolerance, creating more noticeable and hence more meaningful liberties — but none of this observation fits within the strict boundaries of the schema; there is no room in the schema for more and less meaningful liberties; there are supposed to be only noticeable (meaningful) and unnoticeable (non-meaningful) liberties; and of course you may argue the more noticeable and meaningful liberties are not valuable for their noticeableness, but rather undesirable because uncomfortable for all but their originators.

    Going forward with my extension of things a little further, a homogeneous society is more comfortable but has (and knows of) fewer liberties and the converse is also true.

    Posted April 12, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Well, “more comfortable” is certainly not nothing; it generally translates to “happier”, I think. If you offered most people a choice between a more or less comfortable home, I think most people would find the choice almost automatic.

    The point is that illiberties that you never notice don’t matter, and neither do liberties to do things you’ll never want to do anyway. But you very quickly will notice the curtailments of liberties accumulated under 1). Those, you feel: and they accumulate non-linearly as social diversity increases along various trait-axes (racial, ethnic, religious, political, etc).

    A good example of an extreme case is present-day Rwanda, where almost everything is forbidden for fear of giving offense, and re-awakening ethnic violence. People are hardly allowed to speak.

    Posted April 12, 2011 at 5:37 pm | Permalink
  8. “You haven’t discussed (3) much. It seems to be a tracking device. As population grows, (3) [the list of forbidden acts] shrinks. This = increased liberty.”

    I appreciate your effort to quantify Malcolm’s hypothesis, Jesse. But you have to be very careful about drawing any conclusions through mathematical manipulations in this instance. The reason is that Malcolm has stipulated, I think correctly, that, “the list of forbidden acts is in fact infinitely larger than the list of what’s allowed.”

    Hence, any extraction of acts from the infinite list of previously forbidden acts does not cause the infinite list to shrink. Infinity remains infinite no matter how much “finity” is subtracted from it.

    Infinity is the deal-breaker in mathematically inspired analysis.

    Posted April 12, 2011 at 5:56 pm | Permalink
  9. Jesse Kaplan says

    The Big Henry is right, but the point underscores the questionable value of (3) to the analysis. Also, Malcolm may be right that we notice only curtailments of liberties, but that is not built into these equations; in fact, we might notice the liberties that we and others exercise. It is hard to keep the analysis pure: in the abstract we only notice, but do not necessarily care about, the curtailment of liberties; as The Big Henry points out, there are an infinite number of them. The assumption is non-homogeneous people will want to do things unwelcome to others. If it is not the case that liberties are either unwelcome or unnoticed, then a less homogeneous society results in our noticing (and perhaps therefore enjoying) both increasing liberties and increasing curtailment of liberties.

    This is a sufficiently interesting formulation that I haven’t yet taken the time to figure out how I actually feel about it, beyond this nagging concern about (3), which The Big Henry has correctly magnified.

    Posted April 12, 2011 at 8:43 pm | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    You needn’t worry overmuch about 3). I introduced it with the foreknowledge that it would recede into the distance, as I call attention to in paragraph 11.

    I brought 3) into the picture at the beginning to illustrate the point that we can tolerate, without noticing at all, an infinite set of restrictions of liberty, as long as they do not prevent us from doing anything we actually wish to do.

    In other words: if I’m in a room, and I never try the door, does it meaningfully restrict my liberty that it happens to be locked?

    Posted April 12, 2011 at 9:34 pm | Permalink
  11. If a man says something in a locked room when there are no women present, is he still wrong?


    Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:35 pm | Permalink
  12. Malcolm says

    “That’s not funny!!!!!”

    Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:38 pm | Permalink