- Politics and Social Issues»
- Economy & Government
Liberty and Justice: Why, How and for Whom?
The following essay was not written by me. I am merely giving it a new place to appear and a new readership. This is an essay that my father wrote and published in 1989. It helps explain why some people adhere so vehemently to socialism and others to a free economy, and why, despite the fact that there are intelligent people on both sides of those arguments, they never seem to be talking about the same thing, and they can never agree. This essay explains that which system is best depends on the circumstances in the world in which we live. Do we live in a world of almost unlimited resources, wide open spaces and land enough for all, where anyone can acquire wealth if he only works hard enough? Then in that case free enterprise is the right system. Do we live in a world of limited resources, high crowding and dense population, where you cannot make a move without stepping on someone else's toes? Then in that case, distribution, rather than production, is the big issue, and socialism is the right system.
Which system you prefer, if you are a reasonable person, depends on the circumstances under which you live. It depends on what sort of world we live in.
But there is a little more to it than this, because the world is what we make of it. It can be crowded and fenced-in or it can have a sparse population and wide open spaces. That part of it is also a choice. Choose high population density and you are automatically choosing socialism. Choose a low population density, and you choose free enterprise.
Now that is just a summary of what my father's essay explained. At this point, you may not be convinced that my conclusions are correct. Read the essay and see if it makes sense to you.
LIBERTY & JUSTICE; WHY HOW AND FOR WHOM
by Amnon Katz
The two "theories" of liberty -- "natural rights" and "utility" -- are reconciled by the mathematical theory of games. The controversy between Utilitarian Libertarianism and Socialism is resolved by showing that each applies to a particular limiting case: socialism is correct in the limit of a crowded world; a spacious open world is a necessary pre-condition for liberty. Several corollaries are produced in the course of the arguments: Liberty is artificial, rather than natural. It is a commodity in the sense that it is of value and commands a price. As a consequence, only a finite amount can be secured, and the domain of application must be limited.
Dr. Amnon Katz is the founder and editor of Inverted-A Publishing House. Previously a theoretical physicist with the Weizmann Institute in Israel, Dr. Katz has been outspoken on many issues both in Israel and the U.S.
This article deals with "liberty" in the general sense used by libertarians and laissez faire advocates (1, 2, 3, 4). The term is used to denote a state of affairs or a social regime in which the function of the government is restricted to insuring security from foreign invaders and domestic marauders. Under "liberty" each person is free to conduct his personal and commercial affairs as he sees fit, free of government regulation. The normal common law rights to person and property are respected. Contracts may be entered at will, and once executed, are binding. No one can claim a right to material well being, and redistribution of property to achieve "social justice" cannot be brought about by any but voluntary means.
This rough and somewhat vague description of liberty should suffice for our purpose here, to establish a common language between writer and reader. Any finer definition of the term would at this point be counter-productive, since it would unnecessarily narrow the scope of the discussion. The reasoning set forth in this article is general enough to apply regardless of such detail. As a matter of fact, the reasoning is general enough to apply also to social arrangements that do not conform to strict "liberty."
In the course of the article the above concept of liberty is stripped of its mystique and discussed in quantitative terms borrowed from the mathematical theory of games (5,6,7). While still abstract, these terms are nevertheless much more down to earth than either the language of economics or of morality that is most often applied.
We make no judgement on the merits of liberty. Although written in a spirit sympathetic to the libertarian cause, this article offers no argument for liberty. Instead, we discuss the feasibility of obtaining and maintaining it, should it be desired. This is done in terms of cost.
It is fairly obvious that liberty is not likely to persist if its cost exceeds the value to its beneficiaries. It goes without saying that liberty cannot prevail if its cost exceeds the resources that its proponents command. We point out that the cost will turn out to be out of bounds unless some limitation is accepted in the domain to which liberty applies. Also in the limit of a crowded world the cost tends to infinity.
The insights offered here should be of value to libertarians in their quest for personal and commercial freedom. But, we believe, the article is objective enough to be of use to detached students of liberty and even to critics.
In this vein the apparent contradiction between "utilitarian libertarianism" and socialism is resolved. It is shown in section 4 that each applies to a different limiting case in terms of the ratio of population to resources. This insight should be helpful in judging the merits of pragmatic social systems. Conversely, it shows that no social order can be maintained without control over population density.
1. The value of liberty
Supporters of personal liberty appear at times divided on the reason for their preference, There are those who claim that liberty is conducive to economic prosperity, which is their ultimate purpose (3). This is the "utility theory". Taken at their most extreme, these utilitarian libertarians share the materialistic values of socialists: material welfare is the goal. They differ from socialists only in factual assessment: What enhances the chance for increased material benefits for one and all-- the incentives for production that come with free enterprise or the controlled distribution system under socialism?
It would appear that "utility" style libertarians and socialists should find it quite easy to communicate, since the only issues in contest between them are points of technical merit. Such questions are in principle capable of analytic or empirical resolution. In reality, coherent dialogue between the two groups is quite rare. It is curious how people with a common aim fanatically hold to diametrically opposed views as to the best means of achieving it. We will return to this point in section 4 and clarify the source of divergence.
As far as the value of liberty is concerned, the "utility" school is easy to understand. Liberty is the means. Its value is that of consumption -- the end. Comsumption, in turn, can be quantified in terms of dollars and cents.
Others who prefer liberty for its own sake -- the "natural rights" school (4) -- are more likely to be misunderstood. This is especially so when they employ mystical and obscure terminology. Echoing the style of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, they often speak of "natural rights" with which some group of beings is endowed.
It is quite common for ideological movements to come up with terminologies peculiar to themselves. Fanatics of the movement find deep meaning in the wording, even though it conveys no objective statement.
The word "natural" is used most legitimately as in "natural philosophy", meaning science. There are natural laws. These laws are not enacted but rather discovered. They apply universally, need no enforcement, and admit no deviation.
Unfortunately, nothing similar applies to rights and liberties. In treading the natural world, man is vulnerable to many disruptive forces. Weather and climate, geological upheaval, or bombardment by space objects can quickly wipe out his livelihood and his person. Also, a whole spectrum of organisms prey on him.-- from microscopic viruses, all the way to large, predatory mammals. Most prominent among these organisms is man himself, who since prehistory persisted in murdering, robbing, torturing, enslaving, and otherwise exploiting other humans. This has been going on since time immemorial, and no natural process acts to curb it.
On the contrary, in the few places and short periods when humans enjoyed significant rights and liberties, these have always been obtained with great effort and considerable sacrifice, usually requiring armed conflict and loss of life. The inescapable conclusion is that human rights and liberties are artificial rather than natural. An intagible item in the arsenal of implements created by humanity to improve its situation.
There is nothing in this observation to detract from the value of liberty. Nor is it a reason not to prefer liberty itself to its alleged side benefits of increased consumption. A person may be willing to accept a loss in income in order to secure greater personal freedom, and none could prove him wrong. It is strictly a matter of preference. And preference (which is the essence of liberty) needs no justification.
Thus, if the lovers of liberty for its own sake part with the rhetoric of "natural rights", they retain a valid position.
Presenting the love of liberty as a personal preference rather than a god or nature imposed rule makes it possible to compare and reconcile the two motivations of libertarians. Even to combine them.
For face it. most people do not subscribe to any preference or principle in an absolute way.
The point may be illustrated by a poll recently carried out by the explicitly libertarian publication "Liberty" (8). Its editors are in their own eyes and those of their readers the greybeards and elders of the Libertarian movement. In the poll they asked their flock to state what they would do in certain contrived situations. The scenarios were designed so that strict adherence to libertarian principles would result in grave harm or risk.
The poll showed that the majority of (presumably libertarian) readers would betray any libertarian principle when the stakes were high enough. What's more, the editors, who discussed the results of the poll in "Liberty", by and large agreed. The few pollees who declared they would abide by their principles, whatever the cost, were put down and called "nuts".
Certainly, if it is legitimate to trade liberty against other considerations, it is also legitimate to compare the desirability of liberty itself to the value of its alleged economic consequences.
Granted, it is not trivial. The value of apples and oranges may be compared by their listing on the commmodities exchange. But the value of liberty is not listed. Stll, the problem of comparing values of totally different entities has been formally addressed and is largely solved -- by Utility Theory, which is a branch of the mathematical Theory of Games.
It must be stated that Utility Theory (or any other mathematical theory for that matter) cannot tell you the value of liberty relative to that of a three topping pizza. No mathematical principle has any bearing on that question, which is strictly a matter of personal preference. What Utility Theory does say is that provided your preferences are consistent, a utlity function describing them does exist (and is practically unique.) Such a function can compare the utility of an apple to that of an orange to that of any other object. It can compare the utility of your first dollar to that of your last dollar of your first million to your second. Of any of the above to that of big brother watching out for you, to that of being free of such surveillance.
The utility function of different individuals is different, even among the advocates of liberty. Some may prefer liberty chiefly for its own sake, while others attach a higher value to the economic benefits. In most cases the love of liberty would combine both elements to a different extent. So long as the combined utility of liberty and its side effects is high enough, the person in question has an incentive to seek it. All people who attach such high value to liberty -- however computed and compounded -- have a motive to cooperate in achieving it.
2. The price of liberty
Now that we have established that liberty is of value, it is time to observe that it commands a price. We have already remarked that in the rare cases where liberty was to some extent secured, it was gained only by great effort and at a considerable cost, usually including loss of life.
This last point deserves a brief discussion. Obviously, the individuals who lost their lives did not get to enjoy the liberty that eventually resulted. What was the trade for them?
Heroism may sometimes be its own reward. A late foreign poet (Alterman of Israel) expressed it thus: "for a few [a country] is a transparent excuse to cast their lives asunder..." But even disregarding this, Utility Theory offers a straight forward answer.
For Uitlity Theory deals not only in sure things but in gambles. A utility value is assigned to lotteries, and to lotteries whose prizes are tickets to yet other lotteries. The men and women who risked their lives for liberty were in effect buying a ticket to a lottery whose possible outcomes included liberty or death with different probabilities. Their intense love of liberty made this type of lottery more attractive than the status quo.
Once gained, liberty no longer commands quite so high a price to maintain. But maintaining it is by no means free. Whether you accumulate weapons and spend time and effort on vigilance, or farm the task of internal security to police and that of external security to armed forces, you foot the bill.
Liberty is somewhat like an automobile. There is a significant purchase price (and in the case of liberty financing is not available.) Once you own the vehicle, maintenance costs are moderate -- intitially. But as the contraption ages, maintenance costs rise, and eventually you have to buy it all over again or else junk it and buy another. Liberty, too, tends to get worn away in bureaucracy and red tape.
The main point being made is that liberty commands a price. Whether it is obtained by a "liberty or death" style insurrection or by docile "political activism", the price must be paid, or the goods are not obtained.
3. Limited domain
Having both value and price, liberty is a commodity. it is now time to accept some of the consequences of this insight. The most obvious corollary is that liberty cannot be available in unlimited quantities.
A politician who promises X chickens in every pot or Y cars in every garage is engaging in wishful thinking unless he considers the economics of raising all these chickens and and manufacturing all those automobiles. Similarly, whoever offers liberty and justice must consider the mechanics of securing and maintaining these elusive commodities.
In particular, the goal of "liberty and justice for all" is an impossibility. It never was for all and cannot be:
- Ancient Athens instituted democracy -- but it did not extend to slaves.
- The USA declared in 1776 that all men were created equal. This definitely did not include women. It also did not extend to men of African or Native American extraction.
Every culture known draws a line within which privilege and responsibility rest and beyond which they don't apply. The select group may bear different names: "nobility", "master race", "citizens", "men", "folk", "the people" ... The rationale for its definition may not be voiced or may be mystical in nature. Still the line is there, as it must be. Liberty must be spread wide enough so as to assure a base of adherents sufficient to secure and maintain it. It must not be spread so thin as to dilute it into nothing.
Even if liberty were extended to all humans, the arbitrary line is still there. For what of other species? Is a "master species" any more justified than a "master race"? "Explanations" to the effect that other species lack "immortal souls" or that humans were appointed by divine authority to rule over other species (10) don't hold any more water than other mystical "explanations".
Some species such as the great apes could live within a human-like social system. To wit, Koko the talking gorilla (11). Dogs and cats might be able to use some rights and respect some duties. But extending rights to and securing mutual respect of same from sharks, mosquitoes, or AIDS viruses is impossible.
Humans can limit their diets and avoid consuming other animals. Some do so out of humanitarian considerations. But not all animals could accept such restrictions and survive. Snakes and tigers, to name just two, could not. And even humans, if they extended the line to avoid consuming any organism whatever would quickly find themselves out of business.
The order of nature is consumption and exploitation of one creatue by another. Liberty and justice can create a domain within which competition is limited to civilized intercourse. Such domain is artificially and arbritrarily defined. If you find yourself or others with whom you identify excluded, then you have no obligation to respect that social regime. You may rebel and try to establish a different order with a different domain. But the dividing line defining the domain in which liberty and justice apply must still be there.
Being artificial, liberty is somewhat like a house constructed for shelter from the elements. The house must not be too small, or the persons it is meant to protect would not fit in. Nor can it be too large, or they would not be able to erect it. Still, its exact dimensions are arbitrary design parameters that the architect selects.
Some of us admit dogs and cats into our house. Some cultures consider even goats and chickens compatible. Still, for the most part we work hard to rid our dwellings of rats, mice and insects. The green plants that make life possible, by their very nature, must be left outside in the sun and rain.
A social order, too, of necessity involves arbitrary parameters. The voting age, once set at 21, now at 18, is an example.
The domain of liberty and justice should include all that we identify with. It must be broad enough to ensure a sufficient basis of support. Worthy potential partners should not be excluded, lest they become enemies and bring the system down.
But the domain must not be so broad as to be unachievable. Protection must not be spread so wide as to prohibit the processes of consumption and exploitation by which we live. The selected group must be small compared to available resources.
There must be an obligation on the part of the select group to contribute to the maintenance of liberty. This obligation need not assume a formal nature. It could be completely voluntary in the spirit of "noblesse oblige". But the economics of price and resources dictate a balance between rights and duties. Inclusion of elements not likely to contribute is inadvisable.
An illustration of a domain set too narrow may be furnished by various race supremacy regimes on the point of being toppled. On the opposite end of the spectrum are those Indian holy men who breathe through gauze to avoid harming microscopic organisms suspended in air. They serve to illustrate an overly broad definition.
While substantive reasons dictate that the domain of liberty not be too narrow nor excessively wide, the actual line is arbitrarily selected by the architects of the particular social order.
This insight might inject a rational note into some otherwise totally meaningless arguments. "Right to lifers" would offer civil rights to human embryos. With a little imagination their arguments might be extended to fertilized and unfertilized eggs and sperm cells. The discussion whether these objects merit or do not merit human rights is as meaningless as the rationale by which human -- as opposed to other species -- rights are claimed in the first place. The point is that an arbitrary line must be drawn.
Adherents of liberty should understand its value and price and balance them against their limited means. This way they can avoid tying themselves in knots of meaningless discussions and squandering their energies in search of the impossible.
4. Open and spacious world -- a precondition for liberty
In the previous sections we discussed liberty in down to earth terms of value and cost and explored some of the technicalities and limitations involved. We are now equipped to tackle the question posed in section 1. Namely: why is it that "utilitarian" libertarians and socialists, who nominally embrace the same values, cannot agree on a common program. Both groups value material prosperity. Yet the one maintains that liberty fosters higher consumption for all while the other believes that control of production and distribution is the key.
The answer lies in the models of the world that the two groups adopt.
The free enterprise group imagines a world somewhat akin to the U.S. of two hundred years ago: few people, vast spaces, abundant resources. Undeveloped land and natural objects are almost free for the taking and consequently of negligible value. The cost of any object or service reflects mostly the human effort and ingenuity that went into finding, catching, conceiving or shaping it and only minimally the natural resources required. Under such conditions one tends to idealize and proclaim that human initiative is all, the rest nothing. The conclusions of the free marketeers easily follow.
The socialists envisage a world more like medieval and post medieval Europe. The land is all divided. Human beings are dirt cheap, while any other resource is expensive, The value of any object reflects mostly the value of the land required to produce it, only minimally the human labor or thought it embodies. Under these conditions it is natural to idealize and conclude that all wealth is frozen in the ownership of land and other resources. The only way to obtain it is to take it from someone else. That the key is regulation and redistribution.
Thus the socialists and the "utilitarian" libertarians are both right. Each group is correct under the circumstances it assumes. Free enterprise is the theory of open space and abundance. Socialism is the doctrine of congestion and shortage,
The real world conforms to neither of the extreme models, and conditions vary from place to place and from one era to another. Unfortunately, the time variation is consistently from the open to the congested. As humanity multiplies, open spaces disappear, wildlife is eliminated, resources are claimed and the relative value of each human individual diminishes.
This process has been going on in the Old World since prehistory. The opening of the new world allowed some indviduals a fresh start. If colonization of space materializes, such opportunities may arise again. But so long as we are limited to the constant land area of this planet, the human population explosion cannot help but move us closer to the world the socialists postulate. It is in this sense that Karl Marx was right in declaring that Socialism is unavoidable --- the end result of an irreversible historic trend.
There are several general issues involved in the question of the population explosion and any attempts to curb it.
True, some minimal population and concentration thereof are necessary to assure the range of skills and production capability required to support our standard of living. However, excessive concentration and congestion take their toll in many ways:
- The enjoyment of the serenity of nature becomes inaccessible.
- People packed together tend to lose their tolerance and respect for each other.
- We end up living in high maintenance, high tax and high crime environments.
- Our opinions, preferences, votes, personal contributions, all become relatively of less value, as we become a smaller part of humanity.
The times are still remembered when all practitioners in any field knew each other, when anyone who had something to say could be heard, when any physicist could rub shoulders with Einstein at a conference, when anyone could submit a manuscript to a publisher -- and it would be read. Yet all of these are now gone.
Some protest the consideration given to near extinct species. Yet with the tiger population of the world below two thousand and the human population above five million, the conclusion that a tiger is more valuable than a human is inescapable. If humans were to be the "chosen species", then they should also be the least numerous, at the pinnacle of a healthy population pyramid.
This is one side of the coin. There is another.
The economic prosperity of the USA has always been based on explosive growth. It is this pattern that provided growing bases of customers and labor for all industries. Every small shopkeeper could reasonably hope to see his business multiply in his own lifetime with an explosion of new customers. Anyone who acquired a tract of land was gratified to see a host of latecomers eager to pay a premium to divide it among them. Even the lowly hired hand could rise to be a foreman merely on the strength of having been there before his younger subordinates.
If population were constant, things would be very different. Small shopkeepers would expect to remain small shopkeepers. Laborers would retire as elderly laborers, and builders would have to settle mainly for remodeling existing dwellings.
Economic growth based on population explosion is a pyramid scheme, the biggest of them all. Like all pyramid schemes, it must at some point stop and leave the "then generation" holding the bag. But so long as there are empty spaces to develop, trees to cut, minerals to mine, ... the temptation to continue the boom and share the rewards and pass the buck is overwhelming.
Many countries feel that increasing their populations secures them increased power and military potential. A country that controls its population, while the world at large does not, may be undermining its own security.
These are some of the real driving forces against any initiative for curbing the population explosion. They are not voiced nearly as often as the rhetoric of "progress and development" or the righteous defense of the civil rights of fetuses and eggs.
I have intentionally refrained from addressing the ultimate long range effects of the population explosion: starvation and suffocation. Our present subject is liberty. And liberty is a delicate flower that succumbs to even the mildest effects of congestion. The population explosion surely moves the world from the open model that supports liberty to the congested variety that does not.
The closer people are packed together, the more any action of one person impacts all others. Free choice in one's actions, which "concerns no one else", becomes impossible.
The more numerous people are in relation to natural resources, the less tenable is the position that the resources are there for anyone to discover and exploit.
Under extreme congestion, only "nuts" would oppose rationing of food, air, and the right to reproduce. If liberty is to survive, such conditions are to be avoided by a large margin. An open, spacious world is a precondition for liberty. Any realistic program for obtaining and maintaining liberty must be concerned with assuring this precondition.
We saw in section 3 that any program for liberty must limit its beneficiaries to some defined group. We now add the requirement that said group must be kept small relative to living space, resources and non-members (whether human or otherwise).
This outlook may shed new light on a number of subjects.
Even the notoroious scheme to clear "living space" for the "master race" takes on a new internal consistency.
Less provocative and closer to home, such activities as immigration control assume new significance. In the recent Liberty poll (8) most readers opposed restrictions on the movement of goods across borders, but many endorsed restrictions on the movement of persons. They must have sensed that the latter is related to the cause of liberty.
But the population explosion is largely fueled by procreation. Offering or even requiring abortions and sterilization under certain circumstances takes on a new legitimacy for libertarians, when it is understood that this too is done in defense of the preconditions for liberty.
Some libertarians cringe at the notion that any of the above be done by the government, financed by taxes. The very meaning of liberty implies limited government activity. yet maintaining liberty is one fo the few fields in which, even by the tenets of libertarianism, the government has legitimate function. Preserving the preconditions that make liberty viable is well within that field.
It must be made clear that the present writing is not an endorsement of any of the above measures for population control. The previous paragraphs do not uphold any of them as necessary for the preservation of liberty. Nor is any of them claimed to be sufficient for that purpose. There may be other solutions, or the situation on Planet Earth may have already progressed beyond the point at which liberty becomes untenable. The only point being made here is that any program for obtaining and preserving liberty must concern itself with external conditions that affect its viability. In particular, the precondition of an open, spacious world must be met, one way or another, if liberty itself is to persist.
The following points have been made about liberty:
- It has value.
- It commands a price.
- It is artificial, rather than natural.
- Its definition of necessity includes arbitrary elements.
- It can be achieved only in limited domains.
- Its viability depends on external conditions.
- An open spacious world is a precondition for liberty.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
- References 2, 3, and 4 may illustrate some major definitions of "liberty" by its advocates. These sources vary considerably in substance and emphasis. However, the arguments of this article apply to all versions, and serve to flag out points where all are incomplete or inconsistent.
- Barry M. Goldwater. The Conscience of a Conservative, Victor Publishing Co., Shepherdsville, Kentucky (1960). See in particular Cahp 2 "The Perils of Power" 15-23, and Chap 7 "Taxes and Spending" 58-67.
- Ludwig von Mises, Economic Policy, Thoughts for Today and Tomorrow, Regnery/Gateway, Inc. South Bend, Indiana, (1979). See in particular Third Lecture "Interventionism" 37-54.
- Murray N. Rothbard, For a New Liberty. MacMillan Publishing Co., New York, 1974). See in aprticular Part I "The Libertarian Creed" 23-78.
- Use reference 6 as an overview of game theory and a source for further references. See ref 7 for the original work.
- Morton D. Davis, Game Theory, Basic Books, New York, 1970.
- John von Neuman and Oskar Morgenstern, The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1953.
- "Editors comment: The Meaning of the Liberty poll", Liberty 1, No. 6 (July 1988) 49-53.
- See reference 6, Chap 4, 49-53, or reference 7, Chap 1 Section 3, 15-31, and Appendix "The Axiomatic Treatment of Utility", 617-632.
- Genesis 1, 58.
- Francine Patterson: "Conversations with a Gorilla", National Geographic 154, No. 4 (october 1978) 438-465.
- Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Kritik der Politischen Oekonomie, edited by Friedrich Engels, Verlag von Otto Meissner, Hamburg (1894), English translation by F. Mouure and E. Aveling, Capital, A Crtique of Political Economy,International Publishers, New York, (1967), Vol III, p264.
Copyright 1989, 2009 Estate of Amnon Katz