post by Paul Kelleher
In one of his first posts at his new philosophy-oriented blog, Will Wilkinson writes:
I like Bill [Glod]'s notion of freedom as self-rule, but I think specifying the meaning of "self-rule" is not at all easy, and does not obviously lead to what most of us would consider a "libertarian" conception of freedom. Of course, we're all constantly subject to the wills of others. People are constantly enjoining and entreating and wheedling and shaming and peer-pressuring and so forth. One doesn't want to say that self-rule or autonomy requires total immunity from the influence of others. And it's plainly circular to say the problem is being subject to an external will in a way that limits our freedom. But I think noting that helps us to see that the question is not really one of being subject to an external will or not, but of the way in which one is made subject to an external will.
I agree with Wilkinson that it is not wise to seek total freedom from the influence of others. In a modern economy, the state must play key roles to keep the wheels of economic prosperity turning. But I cannot support giving the state this power unless I am willing to let others exert control over me through political choices that determine how it will be used. What I can do, however, is demand that others take this influence they have over me seriously. Not only do I expect them to use it wisely--to forward only policies they think just and effective--but I also expect them to acknowledge the influence they have over my life and the special relationship that this creates between us. In trying to muddle through together the best we can, we make ourselves vulnerable to one another. I think this situation arguably gives rise to special duties of mutual concern. When you continue to cooperate with me even though I help to coerce you through support for laws that you may not fully agree with, I owe you something significant in return. What we give to one another is the sort of thing sports commentators refer to as "intangibles." It doesn't necessarily show up in a breakdown of national GDP, but it deserves special recognition nonetheless.*
I believe this approach to civic duty is in the same family as the outlook expressed in chapter 2 of Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom. Consider the following passages:
[T]he organization of economic activity through voluntary exchange presumes that we have provided, through government, for the maintenance of law and order to prevent coercion of individual by another, the enforcement of contracts voluntarily entered into, the definition of the meaning of property rights, the interpretation and enforcement of such rights, and the provision of a monetary framework. (27)
[T]he characteristic feature of action through explicitly political channels is that it tends to require or to enforce substantial conformity...If we are to use some of our resources for such indivisible items, we must employ political channels to reconcile differences. The use of political channels, while inevitable, tends to strain the social cohesion essential for a stable society...Unanimity is, of course, an ideal...We must perforce accept something less. (23-4)
The notion of property...has become so much a part of us that we end to take it for granted, and fail to recognize the extent to which just what constitutes property and what rights the ownership of property confers are complex social creations rather than self-evident propositions...The [various forms of property] may perhaps emphasize the role of generally accepted social rules in the definition of property. It may suggest also that, in many cases, the existence of a well specified and generally accepted definition of property is far more important than just what the definition is. (26-7)
It is clear that Friedman acknowledges what John Rawls later termed "strains of commitment"--i.e. the fact that it can be difficult to continue one's cooperation under laws and policies one disagrees with or finds burdensome. And it is also clear that Friedman believes there's a role for the state that goes beyond the protection of some putative scheme of natural rights. This modern role leads to increased strains of commitment, since "Every extension of the range of issues for which explicit agreement is sought strains further the delicate threads that hold society together" (23-4). Given this situation, Friedman says it is most important that political channels deliver a decisive verdict on socially contested policies---at least then people will know what rules they are dealing with, and they can adjust to form rational plans.
I agree with Friedman that establishing rules of the game is of signal importance. But it should not overshadow the fact that social stability and economic prosperity depend on individuals' complying with the rules despite strains of commitment. Elsewhere Friedman refers to the "self-denying" character of normal political cooperation. I do not think it is a large jump from this outlook to one that says: when others give me their self-denying cooperation under laws I help to coercively impose upon them, I owe them something special in return. If that's right, then Friedman's stated view bears a family resemblance to a view on which these "intangibles" are the source of politically enforceable positive duties. For example, tax-financed social insurance programs may--may--be the proper vehicle by which our self-denying cooperation with one another is duly acknowledged and honored.
This variation on Friedman's outlook would take us beyond the libertarian's comfort zone of duties stemming from externalities. For my duty to support your medical care may have nothing to do with my causal relationship to your need, and everything to do with my social relationship to you. To use Wilkinson's phrase, this form of mutual concern may be what's required if we are to subject one another to an external will in the right way.
*I am influenced here by the work of Richard W. Miller. For the most recent statement of his view, see chapter 2 of his Globalizing Justice.