Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Freedom, the End that is the Means

Written by johnleemk on 3:49:16 am Sep 29, 2007.
Categories: ,

There are a variety of views on freedom. Some argue that liberty must be seen as an ultimate end in itself, that it must be pursued simply for its own sake.

Others adopt a more utilitarian view, asserting that liberty is a means to some other end. Although I generally consider myself to fall into this category, I freely sympathise with those who take the other view.

My personal view is that the government should only have one end in mind: how can it maximise the welfare of its people, both as a whole and as individuals?

(Naturally, trade-offs must be made between the individual and the collective, but the government should never totally ignore one or the other in its decision-making.)

However, I find that in order to attain this end, one of the most important means is liberty. The only way you can make the individual happy is to let him choose how he wants to run his life; the only way you can make the collective happy (as a general, but not always applicable, rule of economics) is to free the market.

In short, to make its people happy, the government's goal must be to give as many choices as possible to each individual; the government's role is to maximise individual choice.

Therefore, the collective must sometimes make some sacrifices in the short term so the individual has the space he needs to create returns for society in the long term.

This is a very libertarian point of view — but unlike most libertarians, who believe that the individual right to private property is absolutely sacrosanct (to the point of insisting the government should not levy direct taxes), I find this an argument for some redistribution of wealth.

This redistribution, however, is not an end in itself. If this redistribution becomes an end, then it places us firmly on the road to serfdom, as Friedrich Hayek so famously put it.

The redistribution of wealth is a means — a means to guarantee more opportunities to those who lack them, without significantly harming those who already have a surfeit of opportunities.

If I take a million dollars from a billionaire, that's one less yacht he can buy, but the range of his buying opportunities has not been significantly reduced in relative terms.

If I give that same million to a pauper, in relative terms the number of things he can do goes up tremendously. He can go to school, he can afford the healthcare he needs to continue working and contributing to society, and can raise his children in something other than squalor.

Handouts are, of course, not the most efficient way of redistributing wealth if we see wealth redistribution as a means to liberty. That's why a variety of proposals exist for redistributing wealth to maximise the return on investment of society.

Regardless of how we slice it or dice it, freedom is a means to an end. But economic freedom does not necessarily constitute freedom from taxation; it constitutes the freedom to make as many economic choices as possible. Levelling the economic playing field, so everyone has the same chance and choice to succeed or fail, ultimately benefits both society and the individual.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.

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