Mind Without Borders

“ I resist anything better than my own diversity.”

—Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

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Location: Columbus, OH, United States

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Force Is More Than Violence

Inspired by discussions with Victor Ganata and others on FriendFeed here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, I decided to post this bit I had written in a private mailing list a year and a half ago.

A lot of argument arises because of confusing voluntariness with actual freedom. This subtle distinction was very cogently elucidated by Serena Olsaretti in the argument summarized here. I learned of this argument from David Singh Grewal's Network Power (that's an affiliate link).

Libertarians object to the majority having power over the minority. Well, a majority already has power over a minority, by virtue of its numbers, completely regardless of the form of government or lack thereof. What is the libertarian solution to lynch mobs? In every country where the government has failed, warlords have arisen, through their own physical and mental strength and usually aided by being a member of the ethnic majority in that locale.

Power exists whether it is wielded by a government, a corporation, a group or an individual. Whoever has power over me restricts my freedom, i.e., my available set of choices about how to live my life. It is simply impossible to eliminate inequalities of power. They can only be managed dynamically through a system of checks and balances—which is what our system of government is meant to do.

Libertarians make much of the government monopoly on violence. But violence is not the only form of coercion. Imagine a spaceship where I live with Jack and Jim. Jack is physically stronger than me and willing to kill me if I don't do what he wants. Jim completely controls access to the ship's food supply and is willing to withhold it if I don't do what he wants. As far as I'm concerned, Jack and Jim each have power over me and can each coerce me. The fact that Jack may kill me quickly and Jim may kill me slowly doesn't change the fact that in the presence of either of them, I am not totally free. Perhaps Jack is also stronger than Jim, so Jack is the "government" of this little system. For me it doesn't make any difference: labeling one particular entity as the "government" doesn't entail anything special about the power wielded by that entity over me.

As a more down-to-earth and salient example, I may not be able to leave a job because it is my sole source of health insurance. Jobs that pay by time periods essentially restrict the employee's freedom: they require a certain level of obedience to the supervisor within working hours. There are many people stuck in jobs they hate specifically because of health insurance.

The choice to undergo bodily harm due to lack of medical care is not any more acceptable than the choice to undergo bodily harm while being arrested or imprisoned. Each can be seen as a voluntary choice, but the person who has only such unacceptable choices available is not free. This is the distinction between voluntarism and actual freedom to which I alluded at the start. As a liberal, I strive to maximize people's actual freedom--a constrained maximization problem, given the existence of other people. To me this is much more important than maximizing their freedom from government.