Every society sorts human behavior into right and wrong. The problem with this model is that people don't always agree on what is wrong. To solve the occasional ambiguity over right and wrong, suppose society organized around the idea that all laws and ethical standards should be designed to maximize cumulative human freedom. Would the world end up in a better place by focusing on freedom instead of what is "right"?

Our definition of freedom would have to account for the fact that a healthy person with money has more freedom than someone who is sick and poor. A legitimate pursuit of freedom would include attention to the economy, education, healthcare, and the things we value most.  And we'd still maintain most laws so citizens could enjoy the freedom of living without fear. Given all the things that would be the same, where would a focus on freedom make a difference?

Consider the case of David Petraeus and his admitted affair with his biographer. Under the standard model of right-and-wrong, his actions were clearly wrong and he had no choice but to resign his job as head of the CIA. But what if we apply the freedom metric instead? As a citizen, I don't want to lose the option of having Petraeus as the head of the CIA. Freedom-wise, the citizens of the United States came out behind when Petraeus resigned. We lost an option.

In the Petraeus situation, there are some practical issues to consider. You don't want the head of the CIA to be susceptible to blackmail. But keep in mind that a leader is only susceptible to that sort of blackmail when society limits his freedom to have sex with willing partners. A focus on freedom would get you closer to a French situation in which a leader's alleged affair would be met with shrugs.

The freedom metric would create a libertarian-looking world where no one cares about victimless crimes. That part is obvious. What is less obvious is how we'd treat tax policy under a freedom-focused world. Wouldn't a freedom-focused world always soak the rich on taxes?

An extra dollar to a billionaire will have no impact on his freedom. But an extra dollar to a poor person gives him the option of eating. If freedom is the goal, you want to transfer wealth away from the rich until you reach the point where transferring one more dollar would decrease the world's total supply of freedom. It could look a lot like communism if you do it wrong, and we know that wouldn't work out.

The hard part of maximizing freedom is preserving capitalist incentives. If people get all the freedom they need without working, why would they ever work? The system would fall apart. To increase the world's freedom, we need a system in which the rich transfer wealth to the poor without ruining the motivation of the people on the receiving end. Luckily for you, I have just the idea for that.

Suppose the rich are taxed not on income but on the risk class of their assets? In other words, a billionaire would be taxed extra for keeping money sitting around in treasury bills, or third homes, or cash-like investments. Only the assets that are actively devoted to business enterprises would be tax-free.

With that sort of system, billionaires would invest their boring assets in riskier ways that would stimulate the economy and create jobs. If the risky investments don't work out, the billionaire's lifestyle barely changes, but in the meantime it creates a lot of jobs. The net outcome of such a system is more freedom while preserving capitalist incentives. The billionaire gives up the freedom to keep boring assets sidelined and untaxed, but there's no real impact on the billionaire's day-to-day freedom. The world comes out ahead, freedom-wise.

Abortion would be a tricky issue if you remove right and wrong from the equation and focus on freedom instead. Society would need to compare the freedom that a woman would sacrifice by having an unwanted child, and the impact that would have on others as well, versus the potential freedom of the fetus.  That sidesteps the question of when life begins. The starting point of life only matters if you are talking about the rights of the living. If you're talking about potential for freedom, a fetus of any age has it. Personally, I'm pro-choice, for purely practical reasons. If freedom were my top priority, would my opinion on abortion rights change?

A focus on freedom will skewer the sacred cows on both sides of the aisle. Conservatives might have to live with higher taxes on the rich, and liberals might lose their strongest argument for abortion rights.

How committed are we to this freedom thing?

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Nov 12, 2012
WATYF, in Scott's idea the fact that you lose freedom is irrelevant, as long as somebody else gains more freedom. In sum we'd be better off, even if you personally wouldn't. (And no, that isn't communism.)

Still, Scott, the whole thing sound suspiciously like consequentialism, except you substitute the word freedom for utility/welfare/... The same arguments and thought experiments as against consequentialism apply against your 'freedomism': on the surface, it sounds very rational, but it suffers from ill definition of the term, no way to measure total freedom, most importantly, though, it violates most peoples moral intuitions. E.g. in your system it would be permissible to sell your child into slavery, as long as enough other people's freedom is increased...
Nov 12, 2012
Whole lot of ideas bouncing around in this one.

There are two sides to the idea of not being bound by government restraint. Freedom and liberty. Freedom means government not telling you what you can't do. Liberty means government not telling you what you have to do.

Many of our government's restrictions on us limit our freedom by limiting other people's liberties. Take our toilets for example: government has not told us that we have to buy a toilet that flushes with a certain limited amount of water. What they have done is to restrict toilet manufacturer's liberty to make a toilet that has more than a certain amount of water. See the clever way government manipulates us? We're free, they say, to buy any toilet we want. But the only toilet that can be manufactured or sold in the US is a low-water toilet.

So by passing laws that restrict the liberty of toilet manufacturers, they can give us the illusion that we still have freedom to buy any toilet we want, when in fact we don't. How many other examples can you think of? How about light bulbs, or thermometers?

Another way government restricts our freedom is economically. Here's how that works: the EPA passes regulations on the coal industry that raises their costs of production by, say, twenty cents per kilowatt hour of electricity produced. That cost gets passed along to the consumer. So now, to get the same power you were getting before, you have to pay more for it. This reduces your ability to spend the money you earn on things you choose, while restricting your freedom to use energy.

Government sells this to you by making you feel guilty about so-called climate change. Even though all the regulations in the world wouldn't have any effect on it even if there really was man-caused climate change. It just removes money from your pocket and gives it to government so they can control more of your lives. But doesn't it feel good? You can tell yourself you're saving the planet!!! Gee, how swell!!!

Most recently, government has become bolder. It' time, they thought, to see if they could get away with directly attacking our liberty rather than doing it by proxy. Enter the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. In this act, they require everyone in America to buy something, to wit: health insurance. Unless you're poor, or an illegal alien, in which case other people will pay for it. If you don't buy it, you'll be "fined," which the Supreme Court upheld by calling it a tax.

So I'm sure you've noticed that Scott's definition of freedom falls right in line with Obamacare. Taking away money from one person simply because they have it and giving it to another person simply because they don't is not what I call freedom. As a matter of fact, it attacks the liberty of the giver and the freedom of the taker. The government tells the person from whom the money is taken that they have to give it. The person who receives money certainly has the freedom to take it or not; however, if they take it, they're making themselves beholden to the government to elect those in government who will keep taking from others and giving to them. This ultimately enslaves them to government - do what the government says, or lose the freebies.

Based on the recent presidential election, the American people have decided that being enslaved to government isn't all that bad. They have decided to trade their freedom for continued government largess. Government has decided that keeping in power requires the fiscal insanity of spending far more money than they can ever take in.

Forty cents of every dollar the federal government spends is borrowed. That means that they're borrowing to pay back the interest on what they've already borrowed. And what do we have to show for it? 47 million people on food stamps. 23 million people un- or under-employed. More people living below the poverty line than at any time in our nation's history. A $5,000 per year reduction in the average take-home pay of those lucky enough to still have a job. A federal government that employs more people than all the manufacturers in the country. Need I go on?

How does all this relate to Scott's post? It doesn't, directly. But it does point out something I've mentioned before and will mention again. I'd like to ask Scott again to apply his considerable intellect to the real world, rather than to simplistic mind games about the nature of freedom. It wouldn't be as much fun, but it might just be more productive and helpful.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 12, 2012
I admit I'm not quite following the "freedom" story line, but I do approve of changing the tax-code to specifically encourage growth-oriented investments. That seems like a no-brainer to me. More than half of the debate on tax reform is about the best way to motivate the "job creators" to put their money to work creating jobs. Why not go directly for the goal rather than play the up-or-down game?
Nov 12, 2012

Your definition of freedom would mean, for example, that a person had less freedom if someone else said no when asked if they would marry them. I respectfully decline the invitation to join your hallucination where you successfully get everyone to accept your implausible definition.

"A legitimate pursuit of freedom would include attention to the economy, education, healthcare, and the things we value most." Here again, I respectfully decline the invitation to join your hallucination. It is nearly megalomaniacal for you to assume that everyone else values the most what you value most.

Try this instead:

1. Different people value different things in different amounts.

2. There is no objective basis for saying that one person's values outweigh another person's--or even saying that two people's values can be added together and determined to outweigh another person's.

3. Government is different from every other organization in its effective monopoly of the use of physical violence to force people to obey its commands. (If you doubt it then try saying no to the Red Cross and saying no to the IRS--compare the different results.)

4. You should only advocate government doing things where you can sincerely say "I value the government do something so much that I want to see violence used against those who would oppose it, regardless of whether other people's values differ from mine." (For example, preventing murders may be that important and supporting college football programs at state universities might not be.)

5. Playing word games with the definition of emotionally loaded words like "freedom" is a cop out. Either something is so important to you, Scott, that you support physical violence to make it happen or it isn't. Once you personally decide whether something is that important or not then you can decide how to use your skill in manipulating the opinions of others.


Nov 12, 2012
[Would the world end up in a better place by focusing on freedom instead of what is "right"? Our definition of freedom would have to account for...]

All you're doing is replacing one ill-defined word, "right", with another, "freedom". The arguments concerned with one apply to the other as well.
Nov 12, 2012
I think the abortion argument comes down to 3 possibilities

1. I don't want a baby ever
2. I don't want a baby now
3. I don't want his baby

Option 1 the solution is sterilisation options available - if people don't take this option and subsequently get pregnant it's their own responsibility therefore they should pull their weight and look after the child.

Option 2 get over it, a child shouldn't limit your life it should add to it. Address any reasons it limits it by changing society (allow you to take baby anywhere, others help, etc)

Options 3 sounds like hate against other people, this is a mindset and can be changed by thinking more positively, changing society again.

Abortion seems to be a problem with society not with individuals
Nov 12, 2012
I worry that your idea is a distinction without a difference, Scott. You worry about the motivation of the people on the receiving end of payments, but the motivation of the people on the taking end can be a problem too. If the rich can't do what they please with their money (freedom), they will not bother to work as hard to make money that will just be taken away anyway.

It gets even worse for fetuses. Do you really think that pro-choice (pro-abortion) people would be persuaded by confronting them with the "freedom" of the fetus? These are the people who base their argument on the questionable concept that the fetus doesn't count as a living being. Certainly, then, it doesn't have a claim to freedom. You mention the potential for freedom, well, the potential to be a living being doesn't mean anything to them, why would the potential for freedom fare better? For pro-choice people, the freedom of the mother trumps any claim to anything the unborn child might have. The extreme pro-choice people even support late-term abortions and killing the baby anyway if it accidentally survives the abortion.

Your concept is just a shift in semantics and doesn't change any of the underlying issues.
Nov 12, 2012
I can't go along with your plan to use the tax rates to promote MORE risky investments.

Aside from the obvious objection that our current problems do not seem to stem from a lack of risk taking, there are more practical problems with your approach. If Joe Rich Guy puts his money in a bank, it does not sit in a vault. Instead, the bank invests it in a variety of assets up and down the risk spectrum. Therefore, the only thing your tax scheme would encourage is more direct investing by uninformed Rich Guys and less investing by professional money managers. Not sure that is a more efficient use of capital than our current set up.
Nov 12, 2012
[If you're talking about potential for freedom, a fetus of any age has it.]

But... what about all of those unpaired gametes out there? All that potential freedom wasted. If we mandated that every egg cell had to be fertilized and brought to term, there would be SO MANY more people with potential freedom. Clearly that argument wins, and therefore we should force all women to bear children Duggar-style until their bodies give out. In the name of Increasing Freedom, of course.

Sorry, I usually take your thought experiments with more grains of salt, but that comment pressed a button.
-6 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 12, 2012
[suppose society organized around the idea that all laws and ethical standards should be designed to maximize cumulative human freedom.]

Wow, this is actually a great idea Scott... ironically, it's exactly what this nation was founded upon.

[Our definition of freedom would have to account for the fact that a healthy person with money has more freedom than someone who is sick and poor.]

.....aaaand you've already gone off the rails. That lasted a whole two sentences. :Op

"Freedom" and "options" aren't the same thing. Go find a dictionary.

You taking my money from me reduces my FREEDOM. Whether it affects my options or not is irrelevant.

Your ideas are old... they're called "communism". They've been tried before, and they've never turned out well. :Op

+9 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 12, 2012
It's been pretty clear for a long time that we're not committed to freedom. Otherwise, the "war on drugs" wouldn't be happening, and gay marriage would be legal.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 12, 2012
That we can debate anything without civil order breaking down, seems like a self-restraint that could be interpreted as committment.
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