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Thursday, August 04, 2005

Unbridgeable Gap

I've mentioned the blog Left2Right before. They are a group of fairly moderate liberal academics whose goal is "to consider whether liberal ideas should be somehow reconsidered -- in some respects revised, in others perhaps merely re-stated -- with the aim of increasing the overall ratio of dialog to diatribe in the American political forum." One of the Left2Right bloggers, Elizabeth Anderson, has posted a very long and fairly slowly moving series of essays on freedom. Virtually all of the essays prior to the last one were simply laying the ground work for future essays on the same subject. Finally, in her latest post on the subject, she actually makes some progress in conveying her particular point of view. Unfortunately, the parts of her particular point of view that were conveyed are so radically different than mine that it seems there is little room for debate. Consider the following excerpt:
It's worse [from the perspective of freedom] to be unable to cross an unnavigable river because others arbitrarily forbid one from using the bridge, than because the technology for building a bridge at that point is lacking. In the first case, one lives in a state of subjection to others; in the second, one is merely technologically poor.
So it's better to live in the dirt than to allow someone else to build a bridge that I can't cross? Perhaps this is true theoretically within the realm of modern philosophy, and perhaps it's true in reality for many people. For me, though, I would feel no less free if I couldn't cross a raging river because there was no bridge as opposed to being unable to cross the river because someone else, at substantial cost to themselves, built a bridge and then prohibited me from using it. This would be true even if the bridge builder prohibited me from using it because he didn't like me, for example, because of my race. I personally feel no less free because of limitations imposed by man than limitations imposed by nature or circumstance.

Because what does prohibit mean? Does it mean that there are armed guards who are allowed to shoot to kill when they see trespassers? If not, the prohibition of the bridge builder is less absolute than the prohibition of the lack of the bridge. In case of a flood where I need to get across the river to save my life, if there's a bridge, even if I'm "prohibited" from using it, I'll simply ignore the prohibition to save my life. Perhaps I'm then sued for big bucks or put in jail for a time, but at least I'm still alive.

So I have a very different perspective on freedom from Anderson. My vote and my policy objectives clearly begin to sharply diverge at this point.

In any case, private parties won't build a lot of bridges that they can't control. So of course, the only way to get bridges built is to have the government do it. Indeed Anderson's perspective rationally leads her to conclude that "[p]ublic property collectively managed for purposes of public transport and communication, and funded by general taxes (not tolls) ... offers a superior package of freedoms" relative to other approaches. The conclusion may follow from the premises, but I strongly disagree with those premises.

However, there's still one point that Anderson doesn't bother to address in this post: why is a government not oppressive when it collects taxes? We essentially work as slaves for several months of the year for the government. Why are governments not oppressive in collecting taxes, while private citizens, deploying resources as they see fit, are oppressive? Apparently, since that's how it is from Anderson's perspective, she expects the rest of us to agree.

Anderson did touch on the topic in previous posts, but without specific examples, the concept of "freedom from oppression" seems all nice and touchy feely and everything. Once it becomes clear that owning a bridge that you built oppresses those around you, suddenly "freedom from oppression" seems like a pretty onerous concept.

Unfortunately, the gap between Left and Right for this issue is one that neither the government, nor private citizens, will be able to bridge.

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