Capitalism and Freedom

A blog about business and economics.
Jan. 17 2012 10:32 AM

Capitalism and Freedom

As long as economists like Brad DeLong and John Cochrane are going to use their blogs to debate introduction to political philosophy issues, Moneybox may as well chime in as well since philosophy is what I majored in in college. Cochrane, like a lot of people with right-of-center views, thinks that he espouses a "negative freedom" view in which "rights, of individuals against interference by their government" trump things like a "freedom from want." I can't say for sure, but my strong suspicion is that like most people who say this is what they believe he actually hasn't scrutinized it in detail.

For one example, note that if we really wanted to maximize everyone's freedom from government interference we would get rid of all these pesky traffic laws. On a day-to-day, hour-by-hour basis far and away my most frequent encounters wth the long arm of the state are the constant walk/don't walk injunctions that bug me as I go from place to place. Those who commute by automobile will have noticed the traffic signals and the stop signs. Unlike laws against murder or theft, you can't really posit these as prohibitions that are necessary to preserve the natural rights of other people. They're completely arbitrary. And indeed it's often the place that the local authorities have designed the rules of the road badly. Nevertheless, it's much better for everyone if you follow the rules as posted rather than simply asserting your inalienable right to drive around as you please. The freedom we care about when it comes to traffic laws is not minimizing government coercion, but maximizing our practical ability to get from place to place. 

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As a second example, air pollution. If John Cochrane drives around town and the particulate emissions from his automobile impair my ability to grow basil on my porch and exacerbate my allergy-induced respiratory problems, and in response I assault his person or his car the authorities will look askance at my claim to be acting to uphold my natural right to defend myself and my property. The police will instead act to uphold his right to engage in a limited-but-meaningful level of harm-inducing pollution and will arrogate to the political process the authority to decide how much harm Cochrane will be allowed to impose on me and others.

As a third example, intellectual property. Cochrane's wife is an author. If I buy a copy of one of her books, retype it, and start selling copies at a discount rate over the internet I'll get arrested.

And all of that is to the good. I have some problems with the existing state of traffic regulation, I think we don't do enough to regulate air pollution, and I think intellectual property law is largely too strict in this country. But I don't think we should do without traffic regulation, halt all harm-inflicting air pollution, or have no intellectual property laws. It turns out that for a modern capitalist economy to function, you need to constrain individual liberty a fair amount relative to what a strict natural rights reading would entail. It also turns out that the original set of liberal thinkers who propounded natural rights theory were writing before digital reproduction or automobiles were invented and before air pollution was really understood properly and they didn't deal with these issues not-yet-arisen issues in a satisfactory manner. Which is fine. But I think most of the people around today who praise those thinkers and their style of argumentation don't actually think we should throw the whole idea of a modern technologically advanced society overboard in the name of adherence to a strict Lockean doctrine. This is why, in fact, why political arguments about economic policy so often end up turning on disputes about the models and empirical results of people like Cochrane and DeLong. We're mostly operating in a sphere of pragmatic "let's make things better" thinking about policy, not a realm of strict rights-based reasoning. People want to know whether the roads are well-designed to facilitate people's desire for convenience and prosperity, not whether or not permitting right turns on red lights is more respectful of human rights.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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