A Society of Free and Responsible Individuals
Lincoln-Douglas debate is about values, and the NCFCA topic contrasts values of economic freedom and equity: “Resolved: In the realm of economics, freedom ought to be valued above equity.” Advocates of the free society often state the ideal as “a society of free and responsible individuals.”
As an example, the Liberty Fund in Indianapolis explains its educational mission:
Liberty Fund was founded in 1960 by Pierre F. Goodrich, an Indianapolis businessman and lawyer, with the mission of encouraging a deeper understanding of the requisites for restoring and preserving the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
For debaters on the affirmative, there is plenty to present in favor of economic freedom, from the writings of America’s Founders to Milton Friedman to, more recently Johan Norberg’s Free or Equal. Each year the Economic Freedom Network publishes an updated Economic Freedom of the World report, online at FreetheWorld.com. Separately, the Wall Street Journal and Heritage Foundation publish the annual Index of Economic Freedom also online.
On the negative though, what are plausible arguments against economic freedom? The ideal–a society of free and responsible individuals–gives us a clue: the good society requires more than free people, it requires free and responsible people.
How, then, do we encourage or enable free people to also be responsible? Maybe schools and public health campaigns can promote responsible behavior? Is it okay for government to resort to force with the goal of responsible behavior? Parents can use force or the threat of force to try to make children behave responsibly (though there is now disagreement over whether it’s okay to whoop them when they don’t). Are there occasions when adults can be treated as children, in the interests of promoting responsible behavior?
Well, that’s the world we live in now. Some people drink too much hard liquor, so advertising liquor in television is banned. Some people smoke cigarettes, so advertising them is banned on television and billboards. Some people, left to themselves, don’t use seatbelts, so driving without them is banned.
Consider health insurance. It used to be just a good idea, but now it’s the law, with the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare (and an expensive one for me, raising my medical insurance from $243 to $471 a month). A slight majority in Congress mandated medical insurance on the grounds that some people chose not to purchase insurance (and others couldn’t). Many relied instead on “free” emergency room care when hurt or ill, and others uninsured were bankrupted by major medical problems.
A paternalistic society is one where the government acts as a parent in some areas, regarding citizens as still in need of parental guidance. Anthony de Jasay explains, in his article “Paternalism and Employment,” on EconLib.org that:
The paternalist takes the view that social insurance must be compulsory, for workers would otherwise not insure themselves. This is a vast topic that offers no simple answers except possibly the moral one that it is wrong to deprive workers of the freedom to spend their wages as they choose. It is highly likely that while some would insure themselves, others would not, and to this extent the paternalists are right. In the longer run, however, they would be less and less right, for bitter experience would gradually ingrain the insurance habit and buying some cover suited to personal circumstances would become part of standard behaviour.
Progressives have for over a century advocated government regulation to protect people from others and from themselves. The progressives believed the economy could be improved through regulations and people could be improved though education, public health campaigns, and “uplift” (not to mention eugenics…). From an Hawaii Reporter article on Hillsdale College’s course: “Constitution 201: Founders vs. Progressives”:
Progressive economist Richard Ely held that positive freedom would require (trans)forming individuals in the name of social ethics, “self development for the sake of others”. We must develop an individual’s talents and mind so he could participate in the development of others. Progressive government seeks to create individuals in two ways: (1) Redistribution of resources to maximize everyone’s development potential; (2) Transformation of the character of inferior citizens, what was termed “uplift.”… Protecting individuals vs. “creating” individuals sums up the differences between Founders and Progressives.
The Founders believed it was best that individuals and civil society be free to organize affairs on their own. They realized that in a free society there would be inequality of wealth, based on the free choices of individuals, and ameliorated in large part by family, church, and civic society in assistance to those who could not take care of themselves even with best efforts. If private help was unavailable, the Founders saw a place for government provision of minimal assistance (by local governments, best able to assess the situation). Government should protect the exercise of unequal talents. Failure is an incentive to more responsible future action. The Founders never confused political equality with economic equality.
Are government programs that try to protect people from the consequences of their own actions helpful or counterproductive? Are mandatory social insurance/transfer programs like Society Security essential for a modern society (since nearly every modern society seems to have one)? Or are such paternalist programs unfair, inequitable and in the end counterproductive?
Most social legislation and economic legislation turn out to have caused significant problems and been based on economic misunderstandings. For students who want to read more on the history of the welfare state, Bismarck’s Germany is the place to start. After the Welfare State, a slender volume of scholarly essays (link to pdf here) provides a valuable introduction.
For the United States, two chapters on mutual aid societies give the history of how lower income Americans insured themselves and helped each other before state and federal welfare programs expanded from the 1930s through today. See, “The Evolution of Mutual Aid,” by David Green and “Mutual Aid for Social Welfare: The Case of American Fraternal Societies,” by David Beito.
For a past debate topic, I have a study guide on Social Services for those living in poverty that is online (pdf here). Page two has a discussion of mutual aid societies, and page three discusses Barbara Elliott’s book Street Saints:
Based on eight years of hands-on experience and more than 300interviews, Street Saints provides motivational stories about successful individuals and programs, and a sociological study of faith-based efforts that work to heal dysfunctional people. Readers take a tour ofcommunities and institutions in America where local social service entrepreneurs search for and apply faith-based strategies to help develop individual self-discipline and improvement, and that strengthen local communities
Economic misunderstandings I’ve discussed in many previous posts (and will in future posts). Social misunderstandings fall into the “heaven on Earth” enthusiasms of progressive reformers.
If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be (1816, in a letter to C. Yancey). – [Sutherland Institute source.]
America’s Founders, in the broad tradition of classical liberal scholars, understood the role of family, church, firms, schools, and clubs as civil society institutions that educated young people about higher values and responsible behavior.
So, for debaters on the negative, what to make of all this? Value debaters could argue that since self-control is key for responsible individuals essential and for a free society to survive, institutions that promote responsible behavior should be encouraged and supported. Or… at the least such institutions shouldn’t be suppressed or subverted.
The institution of marriage is one of those key social institutions. Marriage limits economic freedom in the interests of the family. Divorce are long restricted by various laws and traditions. Once these laws were changed by legislation to make divorce much easier, far more children were raised in single-parent families. As many studies show, this leads to various behavior problems, and, one could argue, a society with fewer free and responsible individuals.
The argument can be made that making divorce again as difficult as it used to be, at least for families with children, represents a restriction on economic freedom that would value equity, fairness, for children of those families, and promote a society of free and responsible individuals. Also, government financial aid to single mothers reduces the incentive to marry or remarry. Financial pressure may seem like a poor reason to pursue marriage, but it seems to have suited most people and encouraged family formation through all of human history.
The Heritage Foundation has a Promoting Healthy Marriage page with more research.
The Ruth Institute has a “Marriage Ecosystem” page here, with sections on the economics and politics of marriage.