Does 'Freedom' ipso facto mean less government?

- Saturday, May 1, 2010

Interesting argument; counter-arguments after the link…

If freedom involves having a decent set of alternatives available to us, then government action can enhance our freedom even if it involves restraints on conduct that would not otherwise violate anyone’s rights. Consider traffic laws. Those of us who drive are constantly subjected to government dictates telling us what we can and cannot do. We can only drive on one side of the street. We have to stop at red lights and stop signs even when no one else is around. If freedom means only that government should not tell us what to do, then the traffic laws are a massive intrusion on our liberty.

I suspect that most people don’t see things that way, though. They probably agree with Elizabeth Anderson, from whom I have taken this example:

To be sure, in a state of gridlock, one has the formal freedom to choose any movement in one’s opportunity set – which amounts to being able to rock forward and back a couple of inches from bumper to bumper, getting nowhere. Some freedom!

Normally, the point of driving is to get somewhere. The traffic laws enable us to get where we are going much more quickly and safely than we would if each of us had to decide for him- or herself which side of the street to drive on. The traffic laws do not tell us where to go. They leave the choice of destination, and for that matter the decision whether to drive at all, entirely up to us. They simply tell us which side of the road to drive on, that we should stop at various points, and so forth. By taking away our freedom to drive on the left, or to blast through busy intersections, they grant us much more freedom in the form of a greatly enhanced ability to get wherever we want to go quickly and safely.

Anyone who thinks that the traffic laws enhance our freedom should acknowledge that in some cases, including this one, government action can enhance our freedom, even if that action takes the form of restrictions on what we can and cannot do. An enormous number of questions about which (other) forms of government action might enhance our freedom would remain to be answered, but the fact that some government policy involves either a more active government or new restrictions on our action would not, by itself, imply that it diminishes our freedom.