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The Reluctant Leftist: Pragmatism and Liberty

Liberty and Regulations

Individual liberty—the right to determine one’s own path in life, and the opportunity to improve oneself or squander that potential—has long been of great importance to me, more important than happiness. If I were fully utilitarian, my calculus would not be a calculus of maximizing happiness, but rather of maximizing liberty. This led me to agree with much of libertarianism during my college years. I still believe that governmental abuses of authority are the most dangerous types of tyranny. However, I now believe that, if we truly wish to maximize individual liberty throughout society, there are pragmatic reasons for curtailing certain liberties, by means which would traditionally be rejected by libertarians. To maximize personal liberty, it is necessary to have some government-provided services, including a social safety net, as well as certain government regulations, of the sort generally frowned upon by those in the libertarian wing of today’s political landscape. I am a reluctant leftist: despite my misgivings about governments and their authority, I believe some leftist positions on the economy and the environment may prevent the abuse of power by the wealthy and truly maximize personal liberty.

Others with libertarian leanings, such as Hayek, have also argued for certain public provisions, to provide a social safety net. However, this need not be justified by appealing to a public duty to help the unfortunate, as is often argued by those who favor leftist economic stances. It may instead be seen as a pragmatic measure to maximize individual liberty throughout society. All such provisions, of course, must be paid for by taxation, which arguably reduces the economic freedom of the wealthy. But this is more than compensated for by the fact that so many others in society would see an increase in their freedom.

There are multiple ways in which a person might lose her freedom. Governmental tyranny is one of them. But non-governmental entities can also strip people of their liberties.

The most obvious way is through direct force. I cannot really have liberty if I am constantly in fear of an attack on my person or property by bandits or foreign invaders. Thus, there is a need for an independent public police force, as well as a military. This requires taxation, which hampers the economic freedom of the wealthy, but it is quite clear that, overall, the amount of individual liberty in society is increased by these two services.

Consider next a situation in which the river which supplies water to a town crosses my property. If I am allowed to engage in any activity I want on my property, I could hold the entire town hostage to my will, by threatening to render the river water unpotable, or to redirect the river. I might not be planning to deliberately poison the river. I might instead simply build a factory, whose runoff causes dangerous chemicals to enter the river. Forbidding such activities might lower my own freedom, but it guarantees that the people of the town will be free from being tyrannized by me.

This principle extends to environmental protections as a whole. We are all reliant upon the earth for our lives. To permit a corporation or group of people to jeopardize the global ecosystem upon which we depend, is to threaten the individual liberties, and perhaps the lives, of an enormous fraction of the human population. Thus, environmental regulations, when they are based upon reasonable scientific evidence, have the paradoxical effect of increasing the amount of liberty which people in general are guaranteed.

Applications to Economics

An individual person can become an economic tyrant, if they control enough of the resources (including money) in a society. If, in a certain town, a single person owns all the businesses and buildings, and if there are no regulations or social safety net, then in what sense are the other people there free? They will be forced to accept this economic tyrant’s terms of work, to rent from him, and to buy their food from him—and they will have no power to negotiate, should they find his conditions intolerable or disadvantageous.

Therefore, it is necessary for the maximization of liberty, that we prevent any one person, or small group of people, from controlling so much of society’s resources, that another contingent of people are forced to acquiesce to them in order to survive. We must ensure that everyone has the ability to meet their basic needs, without having to agree to the demands of any one powerful individual or institution.

One example of this would be in the provision of healthcare. Since medical care is essential for survival, those who control access to healthcare could easily tyrannize over those who need healthcare. Presently, in the US, this gives an enormous amount of power to employers who provide healthcare to their employees, since to lose such a job means not just losing a paycheck, but also often losing the ability to afford healthcare. On the other hand, countries which provide healthcare to everyone through governmental programs do not merely alleviate this problem, but also have better health outcomes and lower healthcare costs as a percentage of GDP. It is, therefore, hard to avoid the conclusion that a public health system results in more freedom for most people in society. To pragmatically maximize individual liberty, we should utilize some degree of economic regulation in order to provide some form of public health system.

On a similar note, we could greatly increase individual freedom and opportunity by imposing a moderate redistribution of wealth directly, via a universal basic income, or negative income tax. Both of these policies result in the same net transfer of wealth via taxation. With universal basic income, everyone receives a certain amount of income, funded by taxes. With a negative income tax, people in the lower tax brackets pay a negative tax, meaning that they receive money instead of paying it. The outcomes are mathematically the same. In either case, thanks to technology, it should be possible for people to be freed from many aspects of mundane work. However, since much of this technology is controlled by only a few people, there are instead fewer jobs available, and this change in supply and demand conditions for labor means that workers have less bargaining power than they used to. Look at how wages have changed with productivity: since the 1970s, productivity per worker has risen substantially faster than wages, which have remained almost stagnant. A universal basic income would change the balance of power between employers and workers, giving workers the ability to bargain more effectively.

The free market is very effective when there is no monopoly, and where all parties have bargaining power. However, it falls apart whenever control of the market falls into the hands of a small group, or when some of the parties lack bargaining power. In the case of medical care, people do not really have the choice of refusing medical care, which means they lack bargaining power. In the case of universal basic income, the problem, as noted above, is that employers are beginning to have too much power relative to employees (and the fact that soon enough jobs may be automated that not everyone will be able to be traditionally employed). Under these conditions, the overall amount of individual liberty can be increased by moderately restricting the economic liberty of the wealthy.

An additional advantage of universal basic income over other forms of welfare is that it requires less bureaucracy for its implementation than means-based welfare. With means-based welfare, a bureaucratic network is required to determine which individuals qualify for which benefits. Universal basic income eliminates this, and thus results in a more efficient usage of taxed funds. It may therefore actually bring more economic freedom for everyone, including those who bear the biggest tax burdens.

Liberty, Regulation and Social Media

There is another instance in which regulation can promote individual liberty, which was possibly not so much of an issue until recent developments in technology: the restriction of speech that is mediated by telecommunications and social media platforms. In recent times, there has been some debate about the degree to which social media platforms should be allowed to regulate communication between their users. Historically, when this question arose for telephone communications, the US answered by ruling that these services should be very limited in the degree to which they are permitted to act as censors. Because they are considered public utilities (in the US), they are not allowed to censor their users. This, I think greatly raises the level of individual liberty. Imagine if a phone company could cut off any phone call in which a person expressed support for legal abortions, or for increased border security, or expressed their faith in Hinduism. Such a world would have far less freedom, despite the fact that the phone company would be slightly more free.

Similarly, a social media platform that advertises its primary purpose as being a public forum for communication should be limited in its ability to censor to those things which are not legally protected free speech (such as immediate exhortations to violence, or child pornography). The situation is not an exact parallel to that of the phone companies, of course, but it would greatly increase individual freedom for most people, with a minimal decrease in the freedom of the companies involved.

This would, of course, constitute regulation of how a private company is allowed to conduct its business. However, this is something which we already do in many, many ways, which are not considered severe restrictions on liberty. A good example of this is truth in advertising laws. Businesses and companies are not permitted to utilize advertisements which contain deliberate falsehoods, or, in some cases, unfounded claims. Although it restricts the freedom of the company, overall it increases individual liberty and empowerment, since it enables people to know what, precisely, they are actually buying.

Such restrictions are already in place for many forms of telecommunications. It would be reasonable, and in keeping with the spirit of these regulations, to require that social media platforms should be prevented from engaging in censorship of their users. It is notable that already, in California, private companies are in some cases considered to be providing a public forum, and prevented from restricting free speech (see Pruneyard Shopping Center v. Robins, 1980). At the very least, we should require that, if companies wish to censor their users, they should be considered publishers, rather than public forums, and thus be liable for any content they allow. But if we truly wish to maximize individual freedom, it may be necessary to require all companies whose product is advertised as a public communications service to be regulated in the degree of censorship which they are allowed to impose.

Ironically, this argument in support of free communication for individuals, which one might expect to be taken on by liberal, leftist politics, has been put forward by conservatives, while the opposite view, that private companies should remain unregulated, has been touted by such purported leftists as Ted Lieu, an American congressman. I suspect that there are two underlying reasons for this: first, leftists are not always proponents of individual liberties. While the left has generally been associated with things like civil rights, they have also been associated with some authoritarian regulation. In this particular case, however, a second reason is probably even more important: currently the tech companies tend to mostly censor views with which Lieu himself disagrees, and to allow the promotion of those that align with Lieu’s own. But to conclude that, because one happens to agree with the censors, the censorship is okay, is not only ideologically questionable, it is also incredibly short-sighted. As free speech advocates have always observed, since you cannot guarantee that the censors will always agree with you, it is a mistake to give them power in the first place. It would be interesting to see whether the same people would be advocating the regulation of social media if the ideologies which seem to be facing the most censorship were to change.

However, the people arguing against regulating social media include those who consider themselves classical liberals, or libertarians. Their argument is that private corporations should not be regulated, and the free market should sort this out. Their error is in failing to realize that a corporation that has taken over the vast majority of the market is nearly impossible to replace. Efforts to find a substitute for Facebook or Twitter have failed (so far), because they fail to draw users, largely because having a large user base to begin with is a big advantage for a social media platform. As such, these social media moguls have gained substantial power over everyone in society. Curtailing this power would barely affect the individual liberties of anyone involved in these platforms per se, while it would vastly increase the individual liberties of everyone in society. This may be seen as parallel to the way in which taxing those in the upper income brackets has little effect on their personal freedom, but provides resources to greatly increase the liberty and potential of everyone in society.

The Power of Employers

As technology continues to change our social landscape, it may become necessary to consider other areas of regulation in order to preserve individual freedoms. More and more, people are being harassed and even fired for opinions or jokes which they have made on social media. This has an incredibly chilling effect on individual freedom. However, any attempt to regulate employment conditions could be seen as an imposition on the freedom of private employers to decide whom to employ and how to negotiate the terms of that employment. Nonetheless, just as workers’ rights obtained through labor laws and union negotiations have overall, in my opinion, increased the amount of individual freedom in society, it may soon be pragmatically beneficial to consider having some restrictions (whether contractual or via legal regulation) on the reasons for which a person can be fired or refused a job. This has been argued by Virginia Mantouvalou, a professor of human rights and labor law, who writes

The ECtHR[sic] has repeatedly said that the right to freedom of expression may cover speech that offends, shocks or disturbs, and there is no reason to think that this principle should not apply in the workplace. The employer cannot police workers’ moral character, their political opinions or their preferences. The retention of someone’s job should not depend on the tabloid press and the effect of its (mis)reporting on employers’ reputation. At present, speech that is protected against state interference is not protected in the employment context against dismissal and other disciplinary action. This is disturbing.

Similarly, Katy Barnett has argued that attempts to induce companies to fire people should be ruled as a civil violation. Whether influenced by the demands of a mob or not, an employer should no more be allowed to police the moral character of an employee than the government should be allowed to police the moral character of its citizens. Thus, employers should not be permitted to punish their employees for actions undertaken outside the workplace, regardless of how the employer may feel about those actions (except, of course, in those cases in which the actions are already proscribed by law). At the very least, such a condition should be imposed upon those employers who receive the tax benefits of being incorporated, or trade stock on the public market. Such employers should be required to judge their employees solely upon their performance of their jobs, and not upon their personal lives. Otherwise, the employer becomes a de facto tyrant over the employees, holding the prospect of financial ruin over their heads, capable of controlling every aspect of their employees’ actions.


To protect and promote individual liberty, it is not only necessary to guard against governmental tyranny, but also against economic and mob tyranny. Sometimes governmental regulation, which may seem to have the immediate effect of reducing liberty, will result in an increase in individual liberty and opportunity. This does not, of course, mean we should be entirely utilitarian in our approach. Some freedoms must be granted, even if this could lead to a net loss of freedom in society. But if we begin with the ideal of maximizing personal liberties, we will naturally be led to a degree of government-provided social safety net and regulation, contrary to the sort of completely laissez faire systems proposed by many of those who call themselves libertarians.

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