‘Freedom’ Is a Misleading Term — Machine Gun Edition

Updated 2015/02/13

Everyone loves freedom.  What kind of evil monster could oppose greater freedom?  Actually everyone opposes other people’s freedom and nobody wants anyone else to have unlimited freedom.  The reason becomes clear 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 it is a nonrival good.  There are no pecuniary externalities of watching a sunrise.

Freedoms are similar.  There are freedoms of actions that are nonrival and nobody cares if you exercise those freedoms.  You are free to talk about your dreams as long as nobody objects because the story of your dreams is nonrival.**  Similarly, everyone can have the freedom to watch a sunset because it is nonrival.  But people rarely talk about nonrival freedoms like that because there is little*** motivation in a democracy for anyone to try to restrict anything that is nonrival.  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 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 box with a collection of bullets that he had found on the flat roof of our building.  I have a bullet with an armor-piercing jacket that I found one morning smashed into the sidewalk in front of our house after falling out of the air.

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.

It also has a more disturbing side.  It sounded like eerie warfare all around me when I heard it in Chicago, like in this video from Detroit.  Celebratory gunfire kills people every year.  Yemenese men shot their AK-47s in the air while dancing to Gangnam Style and accidentally killed two people in this very unfunny (graphic) video. The US government doesn’t seem to care enough about it 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.  Most freedoms need to be legally balanced against other freedoms.

Fox News frequently portrays their opponents as “enemies of freedom,” but their rhetoric of freedom is incoherent.  John Stewart has often made fun of Fox for hating freedoms (without using that phrase) such as Fox’s longstanding occasional opposition to fundamental US constitutional freedoms and Fox’s bizarre preference for freedom-crushing Muslim dictators over our own Democratic leaders.  Stewart and Fox sometimes oppose the same freedoms.  They are both enemies of the Freedom From Religion Foundation‘s attempt to force freedom of religion at a small southern diner.  Stewart approvingly plays a Fox News clip about the issue at the beginning of his video.

The Heritage Foundation also likes to talk about “enemies of freedom.”  Who do they think they are talking about?  They don’t name any specific people, but they seem to be trying to dehumanize opponents with meaningless jingoism.  Heritage’s rhetoric of “freedom” is empty talk that may feel good but is meaningless at best or misleading at worst.  Heritage shouldn’t B.S. about freedom — they should Be Specific. The article only mentions “economic freedom” which Heritage defines 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 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 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 less powerful people feel 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 economic freedom you have and vice versa.  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 Droid phones which were released a week after Lucas’ lawyers trademarked the word so they could immediately sue Motorolla for illegally printing the word on their phones.  As a result, if you have bought a Droid phone, part of your money went to George Lucas.  Lucas’ 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 which usually means government coercion.  Property rights have never been created to increase total freedom.  For example, intellectual property rights were clearly created for consequentialist reasons that has nothing to do with freedom.  They are supposed to encourage greater production of new goods and services to make everyone richer.  Unfortunately, Lucas’ acquisition of the word ‘droid’ is a regressive tax that has produced bad consequences. 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 makes 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 nobody can ever show that a property right is an increase in total freedom.  Never.  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 property. But that was not an increase in total freedom.  The owners’ gains in freedom are offset by the slaves’ loss.  The same is true for all other property rights too.  The abolition of slavery was the greatest destruction of property in American history and it is seen as an incredible increase in freedom.  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

Whereas libertarians frequently imply that property = freedom, anarchists like to say that property = theft.  Both are misleading, and both have a grain of truth.  When property rights are created and distributed justly, they can make us all better off, but I’ll need to do more reading and thinking about optimal property right policy before I write about that.

*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 is uncommon in democratic societies, but it does happen sometimes.

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Posted in Development, Medianism, Public Finance

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