Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Philosophy Essay

This was an essay I wrote for Political Philosophy at Queen's. I haven't gotten it back yet, so I don't know how well I did. A couple disclaimers first though. This is a long post. I think it's just over 1600 words with the citations; which are by the way, in brackets like this (citation #) with a corresponding number footnoted at the end with the source. Also, this being philosophy, it involves being familiar with a few well known thinkers in the world of political philosophy, but I tired all the same to make it clear and understandable.

What kind of state protects individual freedoms best?

The Enforcement of Liberty and Redistribution of Opportunity:
Why a Welfare State is Best at Defending Individual Freedom
by Jordan Ray

Many thinkers agree that some form of freedom is essential for any society to function, how that freedom is defined and what kind of state protects it best has for years been a point of contention. This author believes that a good definition of freedom should be universally applicable, and should afford every person the choice of maximum utility. In this paper, I will argue that the ideas of J.S. Mill, William H. Beveridge, and John Rawls define freedom the best and give compelling explanations as to why it is important. I will also briefly outline what Rawls’ idea of a welfare state is and how it protects individual freedoms the best.

Individual freedom means that everyone should have control over their own lives, giving them the ability to fulfill their maximum potential. J.S. Mill (1) referred to this concept of being master of one’s fate when outlining his liberty principle. He believed that liberty was attained through ensuring three essential freedoms. The first of these was freedom of thought and conscience. This freedom guarantees right to expression of one’s beliefs and values. The second was freedom of taste, essentially allowing for everyone to engage in whatever kind of strange practices or activities they wished. Finally, Mills iterated that freedom of association should be protected; allowing people to make friends whomever they wanted to or join whatever kinds of groups they wanted to.

The first, freedom of thought and conscience, is one of the most basic and universally recognized rights. If we refer to the concept of liberty described previously, we can see that an inability to communicate our thought and beliefs to others would not mesh well with the notion of being in command of our own affairs. To take an example, if a person is forbidden by society to say that they believe that we should have more doctors and their goal is to become a politician elected on this platform, they are clearly not the masters of their own fates.

We can also reason that freedom of taste and association are essential aspects of liberty. On the subject of taste, if a person is publicly ridiculed because of a choice of hairstyle or clothing and as a result feels pressured to change, they are not in control of their own lives. To relate this to the freedom of association, if a person was ridiculed in the same way for simply congregating with a particular group of people, they cannot attest to being responsible for their own affairs.
Crucial to Mill’s idea of liberty was also the harm principle. He worried that if too many people shared a belief that was negative for another group of people; a tyrannical majority could overwhelm a smaller group and cause them harm. Because of this, freedom should be granted only as long as it does not harm others.

Defining liberty is fine, but what about its importance? If we must define a state that defends liberty, we should ensure it is worth defending. Returning to Mill, he suggested that allowing freedom encourages diversity and a market of thoughts, which allows everyone to explore the world and find an area in which they can maximize their potential. Because of so many competing thoughts, beliefs, tastes, and groups to choose from, the subject matter most suitable for us is constantly improving. By creating an environment of ideas and groupings that continuously challenge each other, diversity benefits us all. Finding what is best for us to pursue allows us to increase our utility, or personal well being, which is why Mill’s argues that utility should be the goal of everyone. This author would add that having and using the ability to discover something that maximizes our utility also multiplies our self worth and happiness with a sense of empowerment and achievement.

Utility and happiness being our goal and freedom being our vehicle, the shield that we use to protect it comes in the form of the welfare state as defended by John Rawls (2). But before we can get into the details of the welfare state, we must address another principle on which Rawls bases the welfare state, equality of opportunity.

Equality of opportunity establishes that to achieve utility, certain primary goods; such as education, minimum income, food, shelter, good health, etc., are required to pave the road. Let us take a homeless person, Joe, for example. If Joe lives on the streets, has no money or job, little food or clothing, no shelter, and no education, there is little he can do to achieve something that grants him maximum utility. However, if the state provides him with education, shelter and food, he can eventually get a job and pursue more advanced education. More advanced education leads to better jobs, and as he continues to learn and work, he moves from being dependant on the state to achieving his maximum utility. In short, with the provision of equal opportunity, Joe has the choice of becoming a doctor, lawyer, scientist, or engineer, or whatever occupation fulfills his potential best. Without the support of the state, Joe is still free to believe whatever he wants, but he can never climb out of destitution to lead a full and satisfying life. Equality of opportunity, along with the provisions outlined by Mill’s principle of liberty is what constitutes true freedom.

To ensure individual freedom, we need a state that enforces the liberty principle and guarantees equality of opportunity. In order to provide these, the state must be capable of redistributing the primary goods necessary to achieve utility, and it must also be capable of enforcing the liberty principle. Re-distributing primary goods generally comes in the form of taxes on individuals and corporations, which the government then uses to finance the providing of services, such as; education; low-income housing; and health care, and also finance the monetary support of the “Joes” of society. The importance of primary goods has already been established within the principle of equality of opportunity, whereas they allow even those on the bottom-most rung of society to lead a fulfilling life. Enforcing liberty usually entails the establishment of a legal system to write, enforce, and interpret rules to protect that liberty. In Canada, our elected parliament writes our laws, the cabinet and police force ensure the laws are followed, and our judicial system determines how those who break the laws should be punished. The combination of government involvement in the imposition of liberty and equality of opportunity results in something that Rawls calls the welfare state.’

With the state’s involvement not only in the question of liberty, but also in the question of equal opportunity, the role of the state is more than some rightwing thinkers might like, and less than some left wing thinkers may desire. Right wing advocates such as the late Robert Nozick (3) would say that a state such as this would infringe on a person’s liberty. However, Nozick takes his definition of liberty to include the right to property as described by the father of classical liberalism, John Locke (4). William H. Beveridge (5) would counter that although owning property is fine, the right to accumulate property result in some individuals controlling the means of production of essential goods. As a result of this, the controller of the means of production has far more power over individuals that he or she should, and the ability to protect individual liberty is lost. In other words under the welfare state, owning property is fine and people should have their property protected, but it is not a fundamental right, especially when it leads to control of essential means of production.

The welfare state also comes under fire from the left side of the political spectrum. In one particularly prominent accusation, egalitarian thinkers believe that even though the worst off benefit in the welfare state, some only slightly better off groups do not benefit at all. The general premise of the argument is that while some equality has been achieved, more must be done by the state to make the society truly fair. A counter argument to this, although it takes a cynical outlook on human nature, defends the welfare state from this attack. If one is able to achieve personal utility it states, then that person is more likely to use their talents to provide global utility through innovation or entrepreneurship. For example, if Canadian CEO of Research in Motion, Jim Balsillie, refuses to develop the Blackberry unless he can become fabulously rich, then, in an egalitarian society, the whole world goes without the popular smartphone. In other words, if there is no personal incentive to improve everyone’s well being, then no advancements are ever made, and prosperity for everyone suffers.

While not libertarian enough for the right-wingers, nor socialist enough for the left-wingers, the welfare state does its job of protecting individual freedoms well. By legislating and enforcing the rules of liberty and redistributing primary goods to provide equality of opportunity, the welfare state is the type of government that most effectively protects individual freedoms.

(1) Mill, J.S.. "On Liberty" pp. 17-19 Political Ideologies & Political Philosophies 2nd Edition, ed. H.D. McCollough (Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing, 1995)
(2) Rawls, John. "Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical" pp. 32-35 Political Ideologies & Political Philosophies 2nd Edition, ed. H.D. McCollough (Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing, 1995)
(3) Nozick, Robert. "Distributive Justice" pp. 78-80 Political Ideologies & Political Philosophies 2nd Edition, ed. H.D. McCollough (Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing, 1995)
(4) Locke, John. "Of Property" pp. 2-5 Political Ideologies & Political Philosophies 2nd Edition, ed. H.D. McCollough (Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing, 1995)
(5) Beveridge, William H.. "Maintenance of Employment." pp. 115-117 Political Ideologies & Political Philosophies 2nd Edition, ed. H.D. McCollough (Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing, 1995)


~Julia said...

Wow... though I can't say much about the content (having never taken a comparable class), it certainly is well written. I did recognise the odd philosopher (eg Locke) thankfully...

How are you finding university life? Classes? Dorm living? I don't know about Queens, but UVic dorms are totally crazy until Christmas when the partiers go home...then it calms down a little...

J-Ray said...

University is good, most of the partying happens on weekends, and I find that I can get enough work done.

Terah said...

Interesting to know.