Freedoms = Rights — Machine Gun Edition

Updated 2019/01/03

Isaiah Berlin said that freedom for wolves is death to the lambs.  Everyone likes more freedom, but increasing the freedoms of one group of people usually reduces the freedoms of other people and that is why freedoms are contentious.

The Heritage Foundation and Fox News sometimes portrays their opponents as “enemies of freedom.”  This seems like an attempt to dehumanize opponents with jingoism because everyone loves freedom.  What kind of evil monster could oppose freedom?  Freedom brings happiness, so you might as well demonize people as enemies of happiness.

Actually we are all freedom-haters because we all want to restrict other people’s freedoms.  Although many people would like to have unlimited freedom, nobody wants anyone else to have that kind of power.  That includes Fox News which hates some of the freedoms of their opponents.   For example, the link above is a comedy video making fun of Fox News at times when their hosts got a little hyperbolic and oppose fundamental US constitutional freedoms.  Oops!

Although tribalistic animosity is one reason why people sometimes want to restrict the freedoms of others (and perhaps explains why Fox has sometimes preferred freedom-crushing Muslim dictators over America’s democratically-elected Democratic leaders), a good reason why everyone should sometimes be an enemy of freedom comes from public good analysis.  A public good is defined as a good that is both nonrival and nonexcludable. The consumption of rivalrous goods imposes some kind of negative externality on other people.  There are two kinds of rivalrous goods: private goods and common goods.  Private goods impose a pecuniary externality on others.*  That is a rise in the cost for someone else who would like to consume the same good.  For example, if I drink a can of soda, that means that there is one less soda for everyone else, and I have raised the cost of getting soda for someone else.  We cannot all drink the same can of soda, so we are rivals in its consumption.  But if I enjoy looking at a sunset, it doesn’t take away the enjoyment of others who can also enjoy looking at the same sunset, so as long as there are equally good places to watch the sunset available, it is a nonrival good.  There are no pecuniary externalities of watching a sunrise.

Freedoms can also be rivalrous or nonrival.  Nobody cares if you exercise nonrival freedoms.  Everyone can have the freedom to watch a sunset when it is nonrival.  Similarly, you are free to think about your dreams because nobody is going to object to your quiet thoughts.**  But people rarely talk about nonrival freedoms like that because there is little*** motivation in a democracy for anyone to try to restrict nonrival actions.  The freedoms that people usually talk about are rivalrous freedoms because one person’s freedoms conflicts with another person’s rival freedoms.

For example, the Freedom From Religion Foundation attempted to force freedom of religion at a small southern diner, but that restricted the diner’s freedom of religion.  Similarly,  the freedom of speech of the people singing karaoke across the street from my hotel in Beirut at 2AM last night interfered with my freedom to sleep.  But is my right to peace and quiet more important than their freedom of speech?  All the important freedoms are sometimes restricted because the important freedoms are always rivalrous and when freedoms are rivalrous, we must judge which freedom takes precedence.

In modern democracies, people who say that they want more freedom are usually claiming that they want more rights over other people.  An example I like is whether people should have the freedom to shoot bullets up into the air.  It does feel very free to shoot bullets randomly into the air (as you can see in the videos) and it has been a common freedom around the world.  But I think my right to be free of the risk of dying from falling lead should take precedence over other peoples’ freedom to shoot lead into the air.  In Chicago, my neighbors used to shoot guns into the air to celebrate special occasions and my landlord had a collection of lead bullets that he had found on the flat roof of my building.  New Year’s Eve is a traditional time for shooting in the air and one morning on New Year’s Day as I stepped out on the sidewalk in front of my apartment I found a bullet with an armor-piercing jacket that had fallen out of the air and smashed down on my sidewalk the night before.

I happen to be in Lebanon at the moment, so I’ll post a couple entertaining videos about the Arab tradition of celebratory gunfire from an interesting Lebanese blog, Blogbaladi.

When I heard celebratory gunfire in Chicago, it sounded like warfare as you can hear in this video from Detroit.  Celebratory gunfire kills people every year.  Yemenese men were shooting their AK-47s in the air while dancing to Gangnam Style at a party and accidentally killed two people in this very unfunny (and graphic) video. The US government doesn’t seem to care enough about celebratory gunfire to collect national data, but a single hospital in Los Angeles kept track from 1985 – 1992 and they treated 118 people for random falling-bullet injuries over 8 years including thirty-eight people who died.  Celebratory gunfire is a freedom to bear arms that infringes on other people’s freedoms.  That is why it is technically illegal in most of the US even though it is virtually never prosecuted.

Like all other rivalrous freedoms, the freedom to shoot guns in the air needs to be legally balanced against other freedoms like the freedom from getting killed by errant bullets.

The Heritage Institute, like many libertarian-leaning organizations, tends to focus on “economic freedom” over other freedoms.  Heritage defines economic freedom as, “the right to acquire, use, and possess private property, as well as the right to enter into private contracts of one’s choosing.”  Both private property and private contracts ARE the power to limit other people’s freedom.  It is misleading to equate property and contractual obligations with freedom.  Property is better described as a right and a contract is better described as an obligation.

When people think of freedom, they usually imagine nonrivalrous freedoms like flying like a bird or watching a sunset without any cares in the world.   The destruction of private property rights (and contracts) always involves an increase in (negative) freedom for other people.  The abolition of slavery or the conversion of a tollway into a freeway are examples where the destruction of private wealth makes the former owners feel less free, but makes less powerful people more free.  Thomas Jefferson probably realized that property rights directly conflict with freedom when he chose not to begin the Declaration of Independence with John Locke’s famous quote about ‘life, liberty, and property’ but instead wrote ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Locke’s quote is a little self-contradictory unless you don’t care about the liberty of people who have little property because property is the right to restrict the liberty of others.  Heritage’s “economic freedom” means the freedom of wealth owners.  The more wealth you have, the more positive freedom you have.  And the more wealth you have, the greater your power to restrict other people’s freedoms by excluding them from stuff.  It is exceedingly odd to define freedom as the right of economically powerful people to restrict poorer people’s freedom by excluding them from things.

Intellectual property rights are an excellent illustration of how property is the right to reduce freedom.  Anyone could freely use the word “droid” until October 9, 2009, when George Lucas trademarked the word and made it legally excludable.  He thereby turned a free word into five letters of intellectual property so that his lawyers could exclude people from saying or printing the word unless they pay Lucas money.  Some speculate that he timed his trademark to extract cash from Motorolla who had been heavily investing in a campaign to sell their new line of Droid phones which were released a week after Lucas’ lawyers trademarked the word and immediately sued Motorolla for illegally printing the word on phones.  As a result, if you have bought a Droid phone, part of your money went to George Lucas.  Lucas’ new property is an expansion of his ‘economic freedom’ at the expense of everyone else’s freedom to use the word droid.  In this example, Lucas’ new ‘economic freedom’ is a violation of freedom of speech for all Motorolla phone users and many others who have been directly affected without even realizing that they are paying a property tax to Lucas.

Property rights weren’t created by God in Genesis.  They are created by an ongoing threat of force and that usually means government coercion.  For example, intellectual property rights were clearly created to encourage greater production of new goods and services to make everyone richer.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t always work out.  Lucas’ acquisition of the word ‘droid’ is just like a regressive tax that just benefits Lucas and his lawyers. Motorola Droid owners get nothing in return for their payment to Lucas because he isn’t using his ownership of the word to make the world a better place and justify the fees that he is charging.  The creation of Lucas’ property made the world poorer and less free.

All private property is a restriction of others’ freedoms.  If you can’t exclude anyone from your property, then there is no point in even calling it your property.  Property rights are very important, but they don’t inherently increase freedom.  Every property right is a decrease in the freedom of everyone in the world except for the owner.  For example, slave owners must have felt enormous freedoms.  The were even free to rape and torture their slaves, but that was not an increase in total freedom.  The owners’ gains in freedom were offset by the slaves’ loss.  The same is true for all other property rights too.  Before the Civil War, Slaves were nearly a third of all American wealth.  They were worth more than all the railroads, factories, and industrial capital in America combined.

united_states_with_slavery-0Thomas Piketty via Pseudoerasmus

The abolition of slavery was the greatest destruction of property in American history and an incredible increase in freedom.

Whereas libertarians frequently imply that property = freedom, anarchists like to say that property = theft.  Both are a bit misleading, and yet both have a grain of truth.  When property rights are created and distributed justly, they can make us all better off, but I’m not clear about any simple rules for how to decide how much private property rights are optimal.

Confusing freedoms and rights

The Madison Collaborative created a list of eight moral dimensions and it is a very useful paradigm for helping ordinary people make moral decisions, but two of their questions are redundant:

5. Liberty: How does respect for freedom, personal autonomy, or consent apply? …
8. Rights: What rights, if any, (e.g., innate, legal, social) apply?

Liberty and rights are the same thing.  Every right is the freedom to do something and every liberty is the right to do something.  There is no need to list both questions because they both get at exactly the same dimension of moral reasoning.  This is one reason I updated the list of moral dimensions.


*A pecuniary externality happens when the consumption of something raises others’ costs of getting the same good or the same kind of good.  There are two ways to think about pecuniary externalities:

  1. If I eat a piece of pizza, the cost for someone else to eat that same piece of pizza rises to infinity because it becomes impossible for them to also eat it. This is the usual way to define rivalrousness when discussing “private goods”, but economists usually define the term as a negative externality when discussing “common goods” (AKA “the tragedy of the commons”).
  2. Another way to look at it is the additional cost of consumption when there is an upward-sloping supply curve.  When I eat a piece of pizza, I raise the overall cost of pizza a tiny bit for everyone else by shifting total demand a tiny bit up the supply curve.  This is the usual way to define a pecuniary externality.

**If nobody even knows what you are thinking about, then they cannot exclude you from your thoughts and so your freedom of thought is both nonrival and non-excludable from yourself.  That sounds like the definition of a public good, but your private thoughts aren’t public goods for the public at large because you can easily exclude the public from your thoughts.  Even though your own private thoughts are nonrival and non-excludable from yourself, they aren’t public goods because you aren’t the public.

***There can be an indirect reason to restrict a nonrival freedom if some other rivalrous good can be extorted away from someone.  Kidnapping is an example.  Freedom-restriction for extortion has been fairly common in some societies.

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Posted in Development, Medianism, Public Finance

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