November 12, 2012
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?