Reader Vachon wrote in to

Reader Vachon wrote in to comment on my proposal for a moral code based on freedom:

I’m wondering, Mr. Bear, if what you are describing as freedom might be better described as opportunity? It goes without saying that “equal freedom” is a non-sequiter: freedom is (at least in this country) completely dependent on economic status, physical health, emotional health, race, gender, etc. Even saying “Dirty Bomb” in an email might endanger my freedom.

So maybe what I would prefer is opportunity, and equal opportunity for all at that. If I had the same opportunity to access excellect health care as say, someone with a General Motors health plan, I would certainly have more freedom. If I had the opportunity to attend college based on my intellect rather than my wallet, I would have more opportunity. If I could lobby my congresspeople the way, say, Enron did, I would have more opportunity to have a government more responsive to me. You get my drift. Freedom sounds great unless you are in that peculiar place where freedom just means having enough money to put gas in the car to go to work to get enough money to put gas in the car. I won’t even begin to wonder if a schizophrenic has less freedom than a manic-depressive, etc. But with equal opportunity, every schizophrenic would have the same opportunity to access those medicines that would give him or her the most freedom.

Regardless of whether you call it “freedom” or “opportunity”, the concept I am attempting to put forth does encompass the kind of choices that Vachon brings up. When I describe what I call freedom, it’s important to note that this is much broader concept than the traditional, patriotic ideal of freedom that we generally think of in America. I am genuinely trying to describe an actual physical reality that exists: what paths can a person follow given their current state?

So while a superficial reading of my earlier post might lead some to suspect that I’m simply arguing a traditional libertarian or even anarchist position — both of which are ideologies that claim to maximize freedom — that isn’t what I’m proposing at all. I completely agree with Vachon that there are many, many factors that must be considered when calculating a person’s “freedom quotient” per my definition: not just those traditionally American values as freedom of speech and religion, but also the simple freedoms that come from having sufficient money, a home, and being well fed.

The moral code I am proposing does not nececssarily lead directly to an anarchist position: quite the contrary, as I would argue that in a true anarchy, the net freedom of such a society is rather low. Nor does it necessarily argue for a pure capitalist position; if it can be argued that government regulation limits the freedom of some entities in a society, but increases the freedom of a much larger set, then such policies can be justified as moral in this system.

A moral code based on freedom can well lead to a support for government policies that even lean towards the socialist, such as universal healthcare. But to be “moral” by this code, such a policy would need to demonstrate that it provides a net increase in freedom to those affected by it (assessing both those who benefit directly and those who pay for it). At a simplistic level, if universal healthcare genuinely provides millions of people with a higher level of health, then I would argue that it has increased their freedom — for certainly a healthy person has more opportunities and choices than one who is ill (or dead). And if the cost were minor, and borne by those who could afford to pay it, they would suffer a decrease in freedom (from having less money), but one that might be offset by the net increase of the beneficiaries. The question to answer when using this moral yardstick is which is more significant, then net increase or the net loss?

Adopting a moral code to “make people free” as opposed to trying to “make people happy” doesn’t guarantee easy answers, by any means. There can still be massive disagreement over what policies would, indeed, maximize freedom. But I still claim that such disagreements are far, far better than those that arise when radically different groups of people attempt to enforce their vision of “happiness” on each other…