Are there limits to Freedom?
August 25, 2001 3:01 AM   Subscribe

Are there limits to Freedom? Liberty means responsibility, said Betty Knowles Hunt in 1951. "The answer, and the only answer, is for all of us to educate ourselves to the responsibilities as well as to the benefits of freedom. Perhaps as a people, we are not morally strong enough to be free. If that is the case, then we shall certainly lose our freedom, and it will not matter much what "ism" supplants Americanism. But this will not prove that our free way of life was not the best way. It will only prove that we were not worthy of it. " What a spoil sport. Best sell the SUV, eh?
posted by RichLyon (6 comments total)
That reads as if it was written by a very bright high school student; it's idealistic but just a bit naive. Also, its time has to be taken into account; it was written just at the beginning of the Cold War, shortly after the USSR had detonated its H-bomb, when there was a great deal of talk about how Socialism would change the world. We now look back at the collapse of the USSR and the near-complete repudiation of Stalinist-style socialism and nod our heads, but in 1951 the USSR was looking mighty powerful and formidable. And though we now look back on McCarthyism with disdain, he was really riding the crest of an anti-communist wave in the US. He didn't create it, he just took it to logical absurdity.

That said, I'll address some of her points. She seems to be advocating unrestricted laissez-faire capitalism, sort of an unfettered Adam Smith. That only works in an environment where resources are unlimited; any time resources are limited then it is subject to the tragedy of the commons. The only solution to that which economists have ever found is government regulation. There's also the problem that laissez-faire capitalism tends to result in aggregation of power with fewer and fewer companies controlling larger and larger segments of power. Eventually one will achieve a size such that it can directly control the distribution of some important commodity. At that point it is no longe subject to the principles which make laissez-faire capitalism work, and can "price fix". Again, the only solution found is government regulation to prevent formation of monopolies.

Of course, there are logical limits to freedom, too. The only way any one person can be perfectly free is if no-one else is free at all. If I can go anywhere I want, then you will have no right of privacy because I can invade your home. If you have a right of privacy then I can't have an unfettered right of free movement. In order for a large number of people to be free, every one of them must accept limits on freedom to leave space for everyone else.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 7:10 AM on August 25, 2001

posted by ordinaryworld at 7:19 AM on August 25, 2001

There can, by definition, be no limits on freedom. There can, however, be consequences for exercising it in certain ways. As to whether we can handle it, I'd say it's not a choice we have. We must be free, or give our power to an individual or institution and trust them to make choices for us, and that always ends badly, and usually bloodily.

Our responsibility as free people is a hotly contested subject, and my opinion is that it's not "one right thing" that can be dictated, but must be arrived at by each of us. Responsibility does not me we can't drive SUVs, just that we must be willing to deal with the consequences if we choose that form of transportation.
posted by Nothing at 7:41 AM on August 25, 2001

Steven - I read it as opposing laissez-faire : quote Whenever an American acquires wealth or power - and then fails to be a good and honest steward of these benefits - then he...denies the principles of America. "Don't just live and let live", she's saying, "Live and help live".

I think in addition to being free (which I interpret as 'unconstrained by others', Tom, not 'without limit') and handing over constraint to some 3rd party, there is a third way. Self constraint - surely?

Wasn't this her point? She is advocating education about the consequences of our actions in order to enable us to regulate our own decisions, as a way of avoiding having to resort to a 3rd party to do it for us.
posted by RichLyon at 10:04 AM on August 25, 2001

Freedom, as with human rights can be looked at in different ways.

Take for instance the arguement that someone has a right or wants the freedom to feel safe. However for that right to be afforded it imposes restrictions on others behaviour.

I've spent time in the Middle East, and never felt so safe, however that feeling was gained at the expense of the basic human rights of the criminal classes.

Almost by definition, you can't have freedom for everyone.
posted by Atom Heart Mother at 10:12 AM on August 25, 2001

Some may feel their freedom is restricted by red-light cameras. From the I hate-short-yellow-caution-lights dept., an animated article running at
HowStuffWorks shows how the red-light digital camera system works. Some systems wait a fraction of a second after the light turns red, to give drivers a "grace period," before taking two flash-assisted pictures. Private companies run these cameras systems; part of the fines collected goes to local governments.

or, imagine this at an employment interview:
Question to ask a future employer: Do you offer a spy-less environment?

Another article running at HowStuffWorks explains the five major methods of workplace surveillance. Currently, 78 percent of all companies use some type of surveillance system. Employers are watching their workers (alleged cyberslackers?) via packet sniffers and keystroke interceptors (among others) to avoid sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuits that stem from inappropriate and offensive e-mails circulating within a company.

Declining camera prices make spying affordable for many businesses.
posted by K4GPB at 7:48 PM on August 26, 2001

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