The Sweet Spot of Freedom
By Bryan Caplan
No one needs a political philosophy to tell them how to treat people they personally know. Once human beings forge personal bonds, they understand what to expect from each other. The main point of political philosophy is to tell people how to treat strangers.
In practice, unfortunately, the way we treat strangers has more to do with our personal feelings about strangers than abstract philosophy. Or to be more precise, the political philosophies we’re willing to entertain heavily depend on our default emotions about people we’ve never met.
Which leads to a libertarian question: Which of these default emotions are most consistent with a free society?
Obviously, default emotions like hatred and disgust bode poorly for a free society. If you hate strangers, you’re likely to favor government action to make them suffer. But default emotions like love and devotion are also inimical to human freedom. If you love every stranger like your own child, the idea of respecting their freedom to make their own mistakes is hard to stomach. You’ll want to give strangers what they need, regardless of what they want. This yearning makes both paternalism and the welfare state quite enticing.
If neither hate nor love cohere well with a free society, what does? Indifference sounds promising. Imagine trying to sell government persecution or government salvation to an society where the predominant emotion toward strangers is, “Meh. That’s got nothin’ to do with me.” But sheer indifference is not ideal. Free societies generate obvious benefits for your fellow man: prosperity, peace, and choice. So you’d expect someone who viewed strangers with moderate benevolence to support a free society more enthusiastically than someone who lacked these feelings.
What then is the sweet spot of freedom? “Moderate benevolence,” a friendly cosmopolitan tolerance, is my tentative answer. If you seek a free society, you should want people to smile upon mankind. But that’s about it. Stronger feelings – including heartfelt love – turn human beings into demanding busybodies. And if demanding busybodies predominate in a free society, it won’t remain free for long.