Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Freedom IS Free

After 9/11, self-titled "conservatives" frequently liked to use the phrase "freedom isn't free," or talk about the "Cost of Freedom" as justification for sacrificing civil liberties in the name of so-called national security. It's time that this silly, self-contradictory exercise in Orwellian doublethink was put to rest.

The fact is that freedom IS free - it is the restriction of freedom that costs money and lives. For instance - freedom of speech and freedom of the press cost not a penny in a truly free society; the only cost of these freedoms is that of burnt calories from exercising one's mouth and mind, or that of the printing press. But when government regulates those freedoms, the cost is very real, not just because of the marginal loss of freedom but also because someone has to pay to enforce the regulation of those freedoms by the FCC, Secret Service, etc. We call those costs taxes. When we restrict guns and declare war on drugs, those restrictions cost money to enforce, not to mention lost freedoms in terms of civil liberties, lost production due to an excessive prison population, increased costs of imprisonment, shifted resources from more pressing priorities, etc.

Of course the foundation of the claim that "freedom isn't free" is that freedom must be protected by a strong national defense, characterized by a strong military, heightened surveillance by law enforcement, and "dirty" tactics by our intelligence agencies, and restricted due process rights. I will deal with the military question last, but the biggest problem is the assumption that these three things actually protect freedom. This assumption is faulty because all of these (particularly the last three) actually restrict freedom quite severely. The assumption thus becomes, in effect, that we must kill freedom in order to save it- a horrible case of doublethink. And this says nothing of the monetary and unintended consequences of these increased government powers.

As for the need for a strong military, it is difficult to argue that some form of national defense/public law enforcement is unnecessary. Legendary anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard famously made an attempt at such an argument, but I think he falls short because I am unconvinced that private security firms would have adequate incentive to avoid war with each other; a constant turf war amongst private security firms would be, in effect, the current state of Iraq or 1990-present Somalia. Thus, a publicly-funded military with constitutional restrictions is by far the lesser of two evils. Even if necessary, though, the existence of a taxpayer-funded military still requires coerced tax payments by the government and is thus a restriction on freedom. If it is a restriction on freedom, then by definition it cannot be a protection of freedom, and thus it is not a cost of freedom but a cost of regulation.

Even if the coercive payment of taxes for national defense is not a restriction of freedom, a national military offensive or occupation of a foreign country is most certainly not an actual cost of freedom. To engage in an offensive or to occupy a sovereign country is inherently to act to restrict freedom in that country because offensive military force is the most violently coervice action in which one can engage. Some would say that it is the freedom of the other country that we are restricting, rather than our own. This is true as far as it goes, but ignores other consequences:

1. "Blowback"- restriction of other people's freedom by coercive aggression creates an understandable justification for the victims of that aggression to act aggressively towards us (resulting in increased needs for law enforcement and defensive military posturing on our part).

2. It is impossible to be simultaneously free and justify the restriction of other people's freedom. To do so ultimately requires doublethink or an acceptance of restrictions on one's own freedoms (or at least that of their countrymen).

3. Most importantly, it implicitly assumes that freedom is not a human birthright, but is instead a birthright only of those fortunate enough to be born in a particular nation.

To the extent that governments are necessary (and they unfortunately are), we are deluding ourselves in thinking that even necessary government functions actually protect freedom when those functions still rely on coercive tax payment or regulation of individual behavior. The fact of the matter is that if (and only if) government did not exist at all, humans would be completely free- freedom does not need protection, and thus does not have a cost as defined by the Fox News Republicans.

Ultimately, when someone claims that freedom isn't free, they are really making the self-evident claim that the American system of government isn't free. But just because American-style government allows for more freedoms than most doesn't make it synonymous with freedom.