The Standing Invitation

Posts Tagged ‘Government

None Of The Above

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There are two kinds of freedom: negative freedom, the freedom from oppression; and positive freedom, the freedom to achieve one’s potential.*

A caveman wandering alone is, in the negative sense, as free as he could possibly be. But although nobody is around to tell him what to do, this does not mean he is able to do anything. He is not free to fly faster than the speed of sound in an aeroplane. He is not free to listen to an orchestra. He is not free to look at distant galaxies through a telescope. And if he falls and breaks his leg, he is free only to starve to death in agony.

To do these things he will have to cooperate with others, and this means losing the right to act however he likes. He accepts a certain amount of control over his life by others, in order to do things he would not otherwise be able to do. Having a life expectancy greater than twenty-five is probably worth not being able to butcher any other caveman you meet.

This is why humans formed societies: to allow them to achieve things in groups that they could not do alone. Not all these personal positive-freedom dreams are equally attainable; nor are they mutually compatible. It is the role of government to facilitate the achievement of our potential, whether this is our potential to learn to read, our potential to survive a treatable illness regardless of our economic background, or our potential to investigate the inner workings of the universe.

I am not saying that we should prostrate ourselves at the mercy of our superiors and allow them to grant us wishes. The freedom to declare oneself one’s own boss and say hang the consequences is valuable even for its own sake. But acknowledging that we are surrendering some freedoms to achieve others allows us to think of what we should reasonably expect for what we have traded in – and what inequalities in society we should think of as failures of that society.

Of course this social-contract model of society is just a fiction, a convenient way of justifying why there needs to be a government. But in fact none of us was ever asked. We are born into our societies; which one we end up in is largely dependent on where our mother’s uterus happens to be at the time, which is hardly the best way of making any important decision. And while migration does allow us some market freedom, this increasingly owned planet is offering us fewer and fewer chances of ticking the box marked ‘none of the above’.

When governments don’t give us value for money ­– positive freedom for negative freedom, opportunity for rules – we can’t take our custom elsewhere. We have to demand some changes.


* See Isaiah Berlin. The words negative and positive do not correspond here with bad and good; they’re just names.

Written by The S I

July 24, 2011 at 9:05 pm

Harris and Chomsky On Drugs

with 4 comments

One of the roles of government is to prohibit and enforce the prohibition of activities that reproducibly result in a lowering of the populace’s quality of life. Governments insist that people surrender certain freedoms in the name of the greater good: the freedom not to bash people over the head with mallets, for example.

The illegality of an act should be proportional to its harmfulness (to society, that is; to you is another matter). While I can understand and condone banning the sale of crack cocaine because it reproducibly creates a huge amount of misery and suffering, it is difficult to see why the government bans cannabis ­­– particularly when tobacco, a much deadlier poison, is sold quite legally. I have recently read two different explanations of this strange inversion. One is by the fascinating if slightly scary writer Sam Harris; the other is by Noam Chomsky.

Harris’s contention is that the enemy is religion. Many drugs, he says, allow one  to experience states of extreme bliss and personal fulfilment, often with no damaging side-effects and in the privacy of one’s own home. There should be no harm in that. But religion wants the monopoly on spiritual experiences, and sees drugs as being unwelcome competition. Drugs are deemed wicked for their positive aspects, for their ability to make you happy or alter the way you see the world; their harmfulness is not even considered.

Chomsky’s idea is, if anything, even more cynical. The crucial difference between tobacco and marijuana, he says, is that tobacco is difficult to grow. Weed is a weed: you can grow it in your back garden. Big businesses have no interest in its legalisation because it would give them no scarcity power – nobody would profit from it. Tobacco, on the other hand, is a difficult crop, requiring a substantial investment of technology and capital. A nation’s tobacco industry can be owned in the way a national marijuana industry could never be, and businesses can make huge amounts of money from monopolising it. It will stay legal, in spite of its harmfulness, because it pays.

I don’t know which of these two theories I like most, or even if either of them comes close to the truth. But until the illegality of what substances you choose ingest correlates with the damage it does to people around you, I will be suspicious of the motives of those who tell you what you can and cannot do.

Governments have the power to stop people doing things. Sometimes this power is used wisely and fairly; but often it is not. Whenever a government asks you to surrender one of your freedoms, it’s worth thinking about who benefits from it. And if it’s not you, it’s time to start worrying.



Noam Chomsky – Understanding Power, p49.

Sam Harris ­– The End of Faith, also his blog post:

Written by The S I

July 20, 2011 at 7:55 pm