Freedom: The Blessings of Liberty

Freedom is generally good.

This is true for a number of reasons. For instance, people frequently resent like being told what to do and giving them freedom resolves this. Societies that have more freedom typically have happier populaces. And so on.

However, to me the main reason freedom is good is that, in general, each person understands their own wellbeing better than any other. So when a choice's consequences primarily affect their wellbeing, it is frequently best if they make the choice.

I'm not a libertarian for many reasons, but one of them is that this fact isn't always true (I'll cover many exceptions to it later). However, I view this belief as the "null hypothesis". That is, in the absence of compelling arguments to the contrary, we should default to allowing people to do things.

To be perfectly honest, this isn't a belief I can rigorously justify, but given that we don't always have perfect information about utility maximization, it is useful to have a way to default.

This has obvious implications for social policy. The most obvious is the popular live-and-let-live idea: if someone's actions aren't hurting someone else, then we should let them continue doing them. This naturally expands to pairs or groups of people.

It also extends naturally to economics: if two people think they'll be better off after a trade, then they probably will be. Admittedly, most of economics as a field concerns itself where this is not the case.

Sympathy: Uncontroversial Exceptions

Like I mentioned before, there are many many exceptions to "freedom" as a good policy principle.

The most obvious are cases where your actions harm others.

The field of economics is replete with studies of times that free markets leave society as a whole worse off. Vaguely speaking, all market failures are just instances where your actions hurt someone else:

  • negative externalities - when your actions are literally just hurting someone else
  • monopolies - when you restrict people's access to other options
  • information failures - when take advantage of people's ignorance.
  • tragedy of the commons - when consumers use a good while ignoring the harm it inflicts on others

Empathy: Controversial Examples

So far I've basically outlined three levels of freedom:

  1. Anarchist: Just maximize freedom
  2. Libertarian: Maximize freedom but don't allow direct harm of others
  3. Socially Liberal & Economically Conservative: Maximize freedom but don't allow indirect harm of othes

Now I'm going to deviate into politically moderate territory.

Put simply, there are many times when people don't do what's best for them.

I'm not even talking about people not having the right values. I'm talking about when people don't do what is best for them by their own values.

There are many uncontroversial examples of this, frequently associated with particular groups:

  • children
  • drug addicts
  • people with severe mental health issues

Where this gets more controversial is that I believe nearly everyone makes predictably wrong decisions.

Probably the most important place this occurs is people not caring as much about their future wellbeing as their present wellbeing. This is called an internality in economics and we see this play out in myriad ways. For instance, people frequently avoid buying car insurance and typically don't save enough for retirement.

I believe the government should intervene to correct these issues. This is an entirely mainstream political belief supported by both major political parties.

That is, both parties support mandatory car insurance and both support Social Security and Medicare, which are predicated on the belief that Americans can't be trusted to save for their own retirement.

There are other areas where these corrections are more controversial:

  • Owning guns increases the lethality of suicide attempts. [TODO: cite]
  • (In the US), mandatory/universal health insurance.

And then there are times when this issue pops up in day-to-day life outside the political arena. Examples include people having difficulty losing weight, going to the gym, or really putting in the work to achieve any long-term goal.


Equality: The General Welfare

Utility vs Surplus