Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Essential freedoms

A few months ago, I found myself frustrated by a confluence of changes in my life and changes in laws regarding health care. As frustration always does, it caused me to think. When I said something about it, a friend of mine suggested a book about health care policy that he quite liked. He tends to lean much further left than I do but his opinions are well reasoned and I jumped at the chance to understand solutions to the problem.

A few pages into the book, it became clear to me that the book mentioned and then didn't address what was, to me, the most important question about government involvement in any area of life: what is the government's role? This book probably tried to be impartial but because it ignored that question, necessarily only considered solutions palatable to progressive thought.

I don't identify as a progressive, so the book completely failed to convince me. But I don't identify as a conservative or as a libertarian, either. This led me to the question of what, exactly, my political theory is. I can shoot holes in the political theories that I see around me for days, but it's counterproductive to do so. I wanted to make a statement about what I actually do think. This has taken considerable thought and yet will probably develop over time. It's an exposition on what I think and what I believe. I encourage my readers to consider my ideas carefully and weigh them against other political ideologies. That said, there is plenty of room for disagreement and I also encourage my readers to stick to what they believe.

I'm unable to form ideas about what government should and shouldn't do without a framework of philosophy. I make no apology for basing my political theory on religious doctrine; whether or not our conceptions of life and of humanity are religious, we all have our own ideas and they affect our thoughts on related subjects. I believe that people live on this earth for a purpose: to learn by experience. Before being born, we lived with our Father in Heaven. He was so good and so perfect that choosing to live by the righteous laws He embodies was the obvious choice. To illustrate, if a single lie immediately destroyed all of our relationships, we'd all be scrupulously honest. The consequences for our actions were inescapably clear and although we chose to do correct things, this was not entirely due to our own spiritual strength.

In contrast, our mortal experience causes us to "walk by faith, not by sight" (https://www.lds.org/scriptures/nt/2-cor/5.7?lang=eng#6). That is, the consequences of our actions are apparent but not clearly and not immediately. We choose to believe in principles and to live by them. Because of this lack of vision, we are not compelled by our knowledge to do what will lead us to happiness; we are free to choose what we want. These choices have a profound impact on us. Not only do they determine the course of our life, they change us. Our purpose here, then, is to choose good things so that we will have progressed spiritually by the end of our lives.

Part of the way that we learn from our choices is by experiencing the fallout that comes from them. Making it impossible for someone to succeed diminishes that person's freedom. But so does preventing failure. Happily, the expectation of each of us is not that we will be perfect; in a sense, God's mercy is a shield from personal responsibility. In another sense, He is lending us strength so that we can take responsibility for our actions. Were it not for this mercy, we would all be doomed and the progression which is our purpose here would be impossible. It is important to note that although He forgives us our sins, He rarely removes their effects from our lives. If I hurt a friend and then turn to Him, He will forgive me and give me strength as I try to mend the friendship, but He leaves our friends free to choose how to trust and how to love.

This freedom to choose defines our mortal experience. The role of government is to protect these freedoms. A government is successful to the degree that its people are free to make choices and take responsibility for them. To this end, governments identify and protect rights, such as the rights to life, liberty, and property (see Wikipedia for more on Locke and the Declaration of Independence).

Of course, rights are not absolute: one person's right to life comes into conflict with another's right to liberty, as either the one person has a right to life and the other is not free to remove it or one has complete liberty that trumps the other's right to life. This sort of conflict is where governments and laws come into play: their purpose is to protect and balance these rights so that their citizens can make choices and take responsibility for them – for better or for worse.

To the (extreme) libertarian, public utilities and accommodations seem problematic because they require government intervention and are not obviously related to the protection of life, liberty, or property. To the progressive, public utilities diminish the overall cost of providing the necessities of life. Although my political theory sounds somewhat libertarian, I side more with progressives on this issue – and it is consistent with my political theory. I'll explain with an example.

The infrastructure necessary to deliver electricity and gas to homes requires flexibility on the part of everyone involved. I would have neither electricity nor gas were it not for lines that go through my neighbors' properties and through my own. I have no natural right to dig up my neighbor's lawn, so if the people who own property all around me chose to not permit it, I could have no access to these things. In a cold climate such as the one where I live (and without a fireplace to burn wood), these things are literally a necessity of life. The same argument could be made for internet access; it is not necessary to sustain life but internet access (inside or outside one's home) is necessary in order to lead a normal life in our society. Accordingly, it is reasonable and consistent for a government to establish and regulate public utilities.

Another counterintuitive example of how government and freedom interact is in regulations of monopolies. For an individual, having only one choice for where to go for a product leads to diminished freedom, especially when the supplier gouges prices because of that monopoly. This is visible today in the way that internet service works in the United States; local governments give monopolies to companies who build, buy, and maintain infrastructure to provide internet service to customers. There is often nominal competition, as one company will have exclusive access to phone lines and another to cable lines. But these companies operate with scarcely any regulation or competition and they take advantage of it.

So although I agree that government power and bureaucracy should be minimized, the point of such minimization is enhancing our freedom to choose – and the current system only serves to guarantee that all options are terrible. Internet service providers have exclusive access to the cables upon which we rely for service. Since the government has granted them a monopoly, it must also regulate the business that occurs through that monopoly to protect its consumers. Yes, regulating these things diminishes the choices available to the companies in question – but it enhances the overall freedom of the people involved.

One natural result of such a definition of freedom is that it is not only impossible to measure; it is sometimes impossible to tell if a change increases or decreases freedom. This subjectivity means that my philosophy is a guiding principle and not a decision procedure. This means that every point of law deserves individual consideration and that there is room for disagreement, even among people who subscribe to the same philosophy. So please, dear reader, take the time to consider as you vote, write, and speak what effects your ideas will have on the freedom of individuals to choose and to take responsibility.

1 comment:

Ben said...

You are able to explain without being verbose. I appreciate what you said about the possibility of people even with the same ideas being able to disagree. Too many will completely agree with or completely disagree with others. With some, real discussion of ideas is impossible. So, thank you.