Calls for Basic Income reflect a growing understanding of freedom and a new fundamental human right. Can we merge the effective and the moral?
From the Far Left to the Far Right, everyone claims to fight for ‘freedom’. Each political philosophy tends to focus on a particular area in which it believes more freedom is necessary. But if freedom is to be more than a buzzword, we have to understand it as a universal principle. And if we intend to advocate for the principle of freedom, we must understand what freedom means.
What is freedom?
At its most basic level, beyond mere politics, we understand freedom as the ability to act. In mechanics, for example, an object is said to have ‘degrees’ of freedom, depending on its ability to move in different directions – up and down, side to side, and so forth. Political freedom can be said to be determined by our ability to act within society, meaning that political freedom is a product of how other people affect the actions we would like to take. Disregarding specific political definitions, and beyond details or complications, an individual’s level of pure freedom in society depends on whether others help us or hinder us in our actions.
Therefore, a lack of freedom is an obstruction to us acting according to our own will and, instead, having the will of others imposed upon us.
What is will?
We have to get a bit philosophical here to talk about ‘will’. What is will? Many have tried to define it. Let’s define it here as our conscious choice of actions. We can quibble over whether will can be truly ‘free’ when it is always bound by an understanding of the world that is almost certainly inaccurate, and an actual world that is always physically limiting.
Our actions are limited by the universe we inhabit. If my will is that I am able to reach into a tree and pick an apple to eat, but my arms are too short, does that mean I have less freedom than a person with longer arms? In an absolute sense, yes. Genuine freedom, therefore, must be impossible, because it would require no limitations whatsoever. Much like complete understanding, complete freedom is off limits to those of us with mortal bodies. If my will is that I eat the apple because I believe it will be healthy, but it is, in fact, rotten, has my will been compromised? It is safe to say our limited perceptions of the universe do limit our will.
If we were alone in the universe, we might rail against these impositions upon us. We may do so even now. But the laws of the universe do not change so easily. Even if we make a ladder or check for rotten apples, these are deliberate efforts on our part to mitigate the circumstances the universe has imposed upon us. We must accept that there is no such thing as absolute freedom given the very fact of our existence.
Limitations and the maximising of freedoms
Much of human society is constructed as part of our attempts to address natural limitations to our freedom. In their place, we create new social limitations. Our ability to implement our own will inevitably comes up against the potential barriers that are other people’s wills. This is a natural law of society just as much as it is a natural law of the universe. Those who demand that the will of others be subordinate to their own are no more reasonable than those who would demand a tree lower itself to provide us with fruit. A democratic, egalitarian society must find a way to maximise and balance the freedom of everyone within it, knowing that our wills must inevitably conflict.
In the same way that we might mitigate the laws of the universe by building a ladder, we can mitigate the social laws of independent will through cooperation. We can also mitigate those laws through coercion, and sometimes the two may be hard to distinguish.
‘Those who demand that the will of others be subordinate to their own are no more reasonable than those who would demand a tree lower itself to provide us with fruit’
When we cooperate, we potentially set aside some elements of our own will, to maximise other elements of our will. Much the same way as our desire to reach the apple may be greater than our desire not to build a ladder. But in the same way, our desire to live just a few more minutes may be greater than our desire not to dig our own grave. What’s the difference? In the first scenario, we are bound by the laws of the universe. Unless there exists a malevolent creator, there is no will that is preventing us obtaining the apple. In the second scenario, we are bound by the rules someone has dictated to us – dig, or be shot. They have taken their will and imposed it onto us.
However, what if someone else has an apple, and we desire it? They offer it to us, on the condition we dig a hole for them. Our will – to obtain the apple – is constrained by a rule someone else has dictated to us. Dig a hole, get the apple. What’s the difference? Wars have been fought, millions have died, over this question of what is coercion and what is consent.
Coercion and consent
We’ve established three factors at play so far. There are natural limitations to freedom. There is social cooperation, through which we can overcome those natural limitations. And through that social cooperation there emerge social rules which again limit our freedom. If we seek to improve society, we must figure out how to maximise social cooperation while minimising the social restrictions to our freedom.
Natural restrictions on freedom, when we are resolved to challenge them, forge bonds between people as they struggle together to overcome them. They cause conflict when people struggle against each other in the aim of overcoming them. Social restrictions, on the other hand, inherently involve a conflict between people.
Our mutual struggle against nature creates new dependencies on other people around us. It’s these dependencies which create the social rules that bind us. The more we depend upon other people, the more they can place obligations onto us. What we are looking for, then, is a way to maximise independence without damaging social cooperation.
‘The more we depend upon other people, the more they can place obligations onto us’
Life is better when we work together – this must be recognised. But life is also better when we are free to choose not to work together. This is, arguably, understood somewhat already. The principle of freedom of association is quite well-known, and we all support the ability to choose our workplace and to choose our relationships.
And yet, abuse in the workplace and abuse in relationships continue. In many situations, it is simply not viable to end our mutual association with others without putting ourselves at serious risk of destitution and potential homelessness. There are charities and government services which attempt to alleviate this issue. But they are all, in themselves, conditional. It is not guaranteed that we will have a home to live in or food to eat. This would be true if there were no social cooperation – but we would be bound by the laws of nature rather than the laws of other people. It is not an acceptable sacrifice for most of us to return to the laws of nature in order to escape social control. But it is also not an option for most of us either.
It should be noted that there is a spectrum of beings who are incapable of self determination. Children, future humans, and other life forms are often neglected by philosophies that focus on freedom. Any structure that intends to produce a more just and free world must necessarily include protections for those categories. Our understanding of freedom, and how to maximise it, should include protections for those who are, for one reason or another, incapable of standing up for themselves.
A very popular conception of freedom is that ‘your freedom to swing your fist ends where my face begins.’ What this means is that the exercising of our freedom should not compromise the freedoms of other people. As discussed above, freedom and physical capabilities go hand in hand together. Less metaphorically, the statement suggests that each person’s freedom should not prove a physical impediment to other people.
‘Exercising our freedom should not compromise the freedoms of other people’
Freedom from and freedom to
Many others would argue that, when guaranteed by a government, our freedom should be ‘freedom from’ rather than ‘freedom to’. That is, a government or state should not assist you in exercising freedoms or acquiring more freedoms so much as prevent anyone else from restricting those freedoms. But as we have seen, human society is, to a great extent, engaged in a struggle to overcome natural restrictions to freedom. The great marvels of the 2oth and 21st centuries have been technologies which grant us the ‘freedom to’. Should be the product of private enterprise? Perhaps, but then these freedoms would not be guaranteed.
If your freedom depends upon association with others, then you are dependent upon those others, and thus your freedom is subject to their will. Furthermore, barring particular circumstances in which they are responsible for the situation in the first place such as through having a child, individuals cannot be compelled to unconditionally provide for another being. This forced dependency on both sides restricts everyone’s freedom and enables abuse. The government should, at least, be invested in ensuring that everyone has access to the same basic physical freedoms. This justifies the existence of some form of social democracy and the welfare state.
‘If your freedom depends upon association with others, then you are dependent upon those others, and thus your freedom is subject to their will’
But arguably this does not get to the heart of the issue. Social democracies are often prepared to provide medical attention unconditionally to their citizens. As we have established, freedom is deeply interconnected with our physical bodies. Many conceptions of human rights can ultimately be traced back to the freedom of one’s own human body. If we bar the state from intervening physically with a person’s body except in circumstances in which they threaten other people’s bodies, we have already got a very rough but workable model of human rights. I imagine many readers would be happy to stop right there and call it a job done.
I believe, however, that we should follow these inclinations towards a natural conclusion. The most fundamental right is, depending upon how you describe it, bodily integrity or autonomy, ownership of one’s body, or self-determination. That is, in order to enjoy any real sense of freedom, it is necessary to be able to decide for yourself what happens to your own body.
What role should the government play?
The welfare state provides us with medical attention, according to the assessment of our needs by doctors, nurses, and the like. Various other services or charities may supply us with basic necessities, according to their own determination of our needs, or other criteria. But these basic necessities are largely provided for through the private sphere, through wage labour and the process of demand and supply.
In order to enjoy freedoms, you must first be alive. If our material needs are not guaranteed, then our freedoms are not guaranteed. One might argue that ‘freedom is for those who work’, but a person may be willing to work and yet find no job. Increasing technological prowess of machinery will require an increasingly skilled workforce to stay competitive. Our freedoms should not depend on our ability to pass a test or learn a skill.
‘If our material needs are not guaranteed, then our freedoms are not guaranteed’
If we desire to continue to use our body, we must sustain it with food, and protect it with shelter. Since we need these resources in order to maintain our body, we can consider them :necessary goods’ – the natural environment in which a human being can sustain themselves, or an equivalent amount of resources in order to secure this.
If we do not currently possess a full set of necessary goods, we have six different options:
- We could choose to die. Almost every living thing is engaged in the pursuit of not dying. Therefore, while we should recognise the right to die as part of the freedom of the body, we must discard this as a legitimate option for most people.
- We could venture into the wilderness, scavenge and hunt and secure these resources for ourselves. This is all very well as long as there exists a wilderness which is not claimed by others and does not need to sustain more people than it can.
- We could directly take the necessary items from someone else. Since the most basic right is bodily freedom, and we need resources to maintain that freedom, as long as our stealing does not endanger anyone else, morally this is justified. However, this option is only available if there exist people to take from. If everyone is subject to potential theft, they will spend resources which could go to improving lives on protecting their property with force. If they cannot or will not, they may cease to produce anything but the necessities for their own survival.
- We could choose to work for somebody else, in order to gain the currency we would need to purchase the means by which to sustain ourselves. By performing work for someone else, we give up our freedom of bodily autonomy, through being told what to do with that body, in order to keep that body alive. This option is only available if the labour of our body has any value to anyone else.
- We could beg and borrow for those resources and put ourselves in debt with someone else, who may well put conditions on us in exchange. This option is only available if there is enough charity in the world.
- Finally, the resources could be provided to us, unconditionally, by the community. This option is only available if the community can afford to supply us. These resources must be taken from someone else in the form of a kind of taxation, or from direct community ownership of resources. Given the current private status of the vast majority of resources, they must initially be taken from someone else regardless.
Which option works best?
Which of these options maximises an individual’s physical and social freedoms? If we die, we no longer have any use for freedom, so that option must be discarded. The wilderness provides us with maximum social freedoms, since we are outside any social situation, but severely limits physical freedoms. Theft allows us the physical and social freedoms we can take by force and stealth, but is not a sustainable practice, since even if we are not caught, our victims will implement protection measures. Charity may sustain us on a subsistence level but the rewards are not great. The best option, for the individual, is to be fully supported by the community as a whole.
However, what is best for the individual cannot necessarily work for everyone within the community. Can the community guarantee everyone the right to live? The immediate objection from most quarters is that, having been given such a guarantee, nobody would desire to work. On the one hand, if we do nothing, our food and shelter is provided for free. On the other hand, if we work, the fruits of our labour are taken from us to give to others.
However, we should consider that in much of the world, very few fear death from starvation. There are food banks, friends and family, begging in the street. Some still die in this manner, but the vast majority of the population does not live in fear of death. They may worry about keeping their home. They may worry about where the next meal will come from. These are serious issues. But they are not afraid of death. In fact, very few would choose a subsistence lifestyle, even if it freed them from work. If the primary motivation for work is to stave off extinction, what we would see is a categorical refusal to work any more than is strictly necessary. People would avoid spending on any luxury or scrap of entertainment, and instead save up all spare money for retirement as early as possible.
‘If the primary motivation for work is to stave off extinction, what we would see is a categorical refusal to work any more than is strictly necessary’
A cursory glance at the operation of the world as it stands should tell you this is not the case. In our own society, economic activity does not cease the moment an individual has reached a subsistence level of living. Individuals do not flock to the minimum hours necessary, spend nothing on entertainment, saving as much as possible for an early retirement.
What we see across the world is that human beings are highly motivated to work, to share their work with others, and to enjoy the fruits of that work, such as it is. Now, it may well be true that working conditions and wages will have to be improved. If so, then this approach should be considered nothing but a huge success. Freed from the anxiety of potential destitution, in fact, finally experiencing the freedom of autonomy, the market for consumer goods, entertainment and educational materials would flourish.
‘Freed from the anxiety of potential destitution, in fact, finally experiencing the freedom of autonomy, the market for consumer goods, entertainment and educational materials would flourish’
So then the question becomes, how can we afford to guarantee this right, without taking too much and putting people off of work?
Striking a balance
Let’s go back to that wilderness again for a second. Our ability to live originally stemmed from our ability to access the products of the land itself. It is only our complex and overcrowded society which makes this impossible for most of us. But the land still exists and it still provides us with the resources we turn into products. We should consider that, although you cannot hunt and forage directly, perhaps you are still entitled to sustain yourself from it. Therefore we tax the value of the unimproved land and the natural resources extracted from it. Everyone enjoys the fruits of their own labour, minus the cost of maintaining the society we all benefit from, and everyone reaps their share of the land rights they surrender in return for participation in a modern economy.
The modern policies which best reflect this philosophy, therefore, are Basic Income and Land Value Tax. The rise in support for these policies is heartening. But in our drive for more efficient economic systems, let us not forget the political and philosophical arguments that justify or condemn them. What is effective and what is good do happily seem to coincide in this instance, but we should never mistake the former for the latter.