February 21, 2011
I wonder if freedom can be quantified. Everyone wants more freedom. But sometimes we want a bit less for other people. I want the freedom to watch a movie in peace and someone else wants the freedom to talk at the same time. There’s a general agreement in that case that the movie watcher wins. But wouldn’t it be nice if freedom could be somehow scored? That way we’d know how to distribute freedom for the greater good.
Freedom comes in lots of forms. Good health gives you more freedom than poor health. Money gives you more freedom than poverty. Education gives you more freedom than ignorance. You might say I’m talking about options, or opportunities, not freedom in some legal or moral sense. But it all feels the same. Happiness is the ability to do what you want when you want to do it. Everyone wants more of it for himself.
The tricky part is that we’re all interconnected. If I pay for your education, I have less money, and less freedom, because I can now afford fewer things for myself. On the other hand, if I’m a billionaire, paying for your education is a huge increase in your freedom but probably doesn’t have any real impact on my own.
What would happen if you designed tax policy based on the concept of freedom? If you did, I assume it would look like socialism, where the rich are taxed until their freedom reaches some sort of average with everyone else. Personally, I don’t favor that because I’m too selfish. And it would destroy individual incentives because our system depends on selfishness, doesn’t it?
Or perhaps you could design policies based on the idea that no one can have his freedom reduced for the benefit of another. That doesn’t work because all criminals would be set free, there would be no traffic rules, and soldiers would do whatever they felt like doing.
There’s no practical and honest way to organize society around the notion of freedom. The majority has to use other sorts of language to bring the outliers toward the average. Criminals are “punished” or “incarcerated.” The rich are taxed at higher rates under the absurd notion of “giving back” something they didn’t actually “take” in the first place, assuming their activities stimulated the economy and created wealth where there had been none. (Hedge fund billionaires are obvious exceptions.)
It seems to me that envy, not freedom, or even selfishness, is the organizing principle of society. And maybe that’s the only way it can work. That’s why we love best the leaders who seem to be suffering or sacrificing the most. Zuckerberg, Gates, and Buffett are all geniuses at appearing to not enjoy all the freedom their wealth could deliver. They know that controlling envy is essential to their very survival.