Do People Want to Be Free?
By Pierre Lemieux
The heroic resistance by many Hong Kong residents suggests that all individuals want liberty, an idea inherited from the Enlightenment. But is this classical-liberal and libertarian vision generally valid? Here are some related questions.
In the Fall issue of Regulation, I have an anniversary review of James Buchanan’s What Do Economists Do?, a collection of essays he wrote in the 1960s and 1970s. One of these essays, a lecture he gave at a 1978 Liberty Fund conference, makes an uplifting statement consistent with the classical-liberal and libertarian tradition (italics in original):
Man wants liberty to become the man he wants to become.
Buchanan apparently did not remain as optimistic. In a 2005 Public Choice article, “Afraid to Be Free: Dependency as Desideratum,” the Nobel Prize laureate called attention to what he called “parental socialism” or “parentalism,” that is, the desire of citizens to be to the state what children are to their parents. Because of this, he claimed that
socialism in terms of the range and scope of collectivized controls over individual liberty of actions … will survive and be extended. … During the course of two centuries, the state has replaced God as the father-mother of last resort, and persons will demand that this protectorate role be satisfied and amplified.
He formulates a troubling hypothesis:
The thirst or desire for freedom, and responsibility, is perhaps not nearly so universal as so many post-Enlightenment philosophers have assumed.
I raised this question and quoted Buchanan in at least another post on this blog, in order to illustrate the “delight in despotism” that some people seem to express.
In the same Public Choice article, Buchanan wrote:
To my knowledge, the term “parental” has never been explicitly discussed as being descriptive of the motivation behind the collectivization-socialization of human activity.
I am not sure he was right on this last point. In their textbook Public Health Law: Power, Duty, Restraint (Second Edition, University of California Press, 2016), Lawrence O. Gostin and Lindsay Wiley argue that American state and local governments have long claimed a parens patriae—literally “parent of the nation”—function, which drifted into a general state-parental duty that has been recognized by the courts at least since the late 19th century. The two professors of public health law write:
In the United Sates, the parens patriae function belongs primarily to state and local governments. It is traditionally invoked in two contexts: to protect individuals who are unable to protect themselves because they are incapacitated, and to assert the state’s general interest and standing in communal health, comfort, and welfare, safeguarding collective interests that no individual, acting alone, has the capacity to vindicate.
In other words, a narrow legal theory of government’s care of orphans and incapacitated adults has become a broad justification for considering citizens as children of the state in a growing number of situations—and this, much before the turn of the 21st century.
It seems that, at least in developed countries, a significant proportion of individuals don’t care much about being free; they want security instead. According to a recent opinion poll, for example, a majority of Americans favor “Medicare for all” in the sense of allowing anybody to “buy into” the scheme; perhaps more significantly, only a slight majority of 56% oppose a universal Medicare scheme that would replace private insurance, presumably by banning it.
The higher is the proportion of individuals who don’t want liberty, the greater the risk to the (partly) free society. The advantage of a general system of individual liberty is that it lets those who want liberty have it, while allowing those who don’t care much for it to establish some private, contractual limits on the exercise of their own liberty. One may enter into a convent, get a regular nine-to-five job, get married, make (some) private oaths, commit part of his future income to a mortgage (under penalty of losing an important asset and a stream of future income), and so forth. A system of non-liberty, on the contrary, does not allow those who prefer individual liberty to live as they want. When individual preferences are different (as they have to be in a modern society), a regime of individual liberty is thus preferable to its opposite, at least if we value individual preferences. The two systems are not symmetric in the sense that they would simply favor and harm different sections of society.
This argument has limits. Those who love restraint cannot get enough of it in a free society. Moreover, somebody may not only hate liberty for himself; he may hate even more the idea that others enjoy it–like the abbé de Mably, of whom Benjamin Constant said that “he detested individual liberty like a personal enemy.” A Buchanan-type of social contract is one way to overcome such limits. In an implicit bargain, those who want liberty may be willing to bribe those who don’t want it. Those who don’t want to be free will have their beloved security supplied by the state. Those who pay the bribe (through taxes) keep more liberty than they would have in a society run by a totalitarian mob. One question is whether such an equilibrium is stable. The current evolution of society and of the state as well as some explanatory theories (see Anthony de Jasay’s theory) raise some doubts. Is there a better alternative?