Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Freedom vs Capacity

A companion meme to ‘The Left wants to expand government’, and one more commonly seen in Australia, is: ‘The Left cares about the State and Society over the Individual, the Right defends individual rights.’

Again, at a simplistic and superficial level, this is appealing. The Left does traditionally put more emphasis on social programs, welfare and laws that protect minorities from prejudice. This includes laws that infringe on property rights, such as not allowing shop owners to bar individuals on the basis of race, or telling tour companies they have to allow women (or men).

Not exactly the way I’d put it, of course. As is often the case, the simple explanation is superficially pleasing but not the whole story. Here’s my version: that the Right is, traditionally, concerned with increasing freedom, yes. Freedom as defined as the theoretical ability to act in any way one chooses; the lifting of formal or legal barriers to action and choice. The Left, meanwhile, prefers to act to increase capacity: that is, the actual ability of an individual to make the choices he or she is theoretically free to.

This is a narrow distinction, but an important one. I feel it’s one not given sufficient attention in mainstream political philosophy, though sociology has written extensively about it. The basic premise is that even though we might be theoretically free to follow a particular path, there are usually obstacles in our way that prevent us from doing so. These could be personal (such as natural ability, emotional issues, drive and motivation), situational (access to resources, location, time and place, socio-economic status) or cultural (notably prejudice). In short, an Aboriginal man from Redfern is less likely to ascend to the highest level of politics or business than a white male Christian born into a wealthy family.

In an ideal world, both would be entirely free to achieve their every ambition; on this, Left and Right agree. The difference between the wings of politics is rather what they see as barriers and which barriers it is appropriate that government deal with. For the Right, the government must necessarily concentrate on economic issues; to the Left, the government has a more proactive role in shaping the cultural and social agenda.

And so we see that neither Left nor Right is more concerned about the individual than the other. Neither can really claim that they are ‘The Party of Individual Rights’. What differs, rather, is which rights they see as the most important: property rights or social equity. The former relieves formal or legal barriers to advancement, while the latter removes practical barriers.

In the future, I will expand on what I perceive these barriers to be, and what the responses to them are.

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