Why freedom means responsibility

I’m reading Graham Maxton’s The End of Progress.  I’d recommend it. But in particular I’d quite like the populations of modern democracies to read Chapter five – “The Damaging Power of Me”.

The idea of freedom lies at the heart of the way we run the West. But according to Maxton, the way we now interpret that idea has become one of the biggest hurdles we need to overcome if we are to address our many problems. Today we see freedom as a kind of “immunity from obligation.” If we are free, we can dress as we wish, spend our money as we wish, travel as we wish and work (or not) as we wish.

But this is a relatively new and simplistic interpretation of freedom. John Stuart Mill, a thinker at the forefront of the Enlightenment saw things in a more balanced way. In his On Liberty (1859) he wrote that liberty means that “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign”. He believed that we must be able to say and do as we wish without fear and that the fact that we might in doing so do ourselves some kind of moral or physical harm is no reason for our freedom to be curtailed.

However, the next bit of his work is the bit that we no longer have as much time for as we once did – the Harm Principle. With freedom, said Mills, comes responsibility. The one time that power can be “rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community against his will” is when his actions might cause harm to others. This is pretty all embracing stuff in that, clearly, one person’s idea of what constitutes harm is very different to another’s and our government’s view of what constitutes harm is often very different to almost everyone else’s. However, the point is that Mill’s idea of freedom was one that came with a sense of duty rather than an immunity from obligation.

So, “freedom does not mean that mortgage salesmen should sell loans that will lead the borrowers into financial ruin; freedom is not about farmers burning the rainforests and fishermen emptying seas for short term gain;” and it isn’t about companies shifting around the globe to exploit weak regulations in different countries or fund managers constantly demanding higher profits in the short term with barely a nod towards long-term sustainability.

Clearly, Maxton and I would disagree on all sorts of levels about what should and shouldn’t be regulated and banned – what is serious enough to be considered harm and what is not. But it is hard to argue with the basic idea that not many people spend enough time considering the social and long-term consequences of their actions these days. More on this in this week’s editor’s letter out in subscribe to MoneyWeek magazine.