When is government interference with an individual’s freedom Essay

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In order to establish when it is justifiable for a government to interfere with an individual’s freedom it is necessary to establish first what that ‘freedom’ is. Although ‘freedom’ is a popular political slogan, its definition has always been a source of confusion and conflict for political theorists. A reasonable starting-point, however, is that suggested by Barry i. e. that “in ordinary speech we understand liberty or freedom to mean the absence of constraints or obstacles” i. . that ‘freedom’ is the state of not being subject to constraints or obstacles. In reality, of course, no individual has or expects to have absolute ‘freedom’ in the sense of being subject to absolutely no constraints or obstacles. Instead citizens expect to enjoy specific freedoms to do or be something – and even then they expect there to be at least some limitations on those specific freedoms.

In a modern society few would argue against the proposition that that there have to be at least some restrictions on individual freedom(s) imposed by the government to protect the interests and freedom(s) of the rest of society. “Since any society will have a whole range of perfectly justifiable restrictions on liberty, there can only be particular arguments about specific liberties. ” N. Barry 2000 p188. In the field of political ‘freedom(s)’, of course, relevant constraints or obstacles will be constraints or obstacles which are imposed by government or, possibly, which government could remove.

It would be absurd to argue that an individual is not truly ‘free’ in a political sense simply because there are constraints or obstacles (in the shape of the laws of anatomy or physics) which prevent him or her from running at 1000mph or from travelling backwards in time. (cf. Lucas, 1966,p146). Hobbes argued that only a physical constraint truly deprives an individual of freedom and that individuals can be seen as being ‘free’ to do something even if by doing so they would be exposing themselves to the risk of punishment.

Laws imposed by a government can, after all, be broken, and citizens can choose whether or not to obey them. In ordinary speech, however, there is difference between being physically capable of doing something and being ‘free’ to do it. In ordinary speech, to say that a person is ‘free’ to do something necessarily implies that they will not expose themselves to the risk of punishment if they do it. True freedom involves the absence of constraints or obstacles, not just the absence of insuperable barriers.

It involves “the non-restriction of options”: Benn and Weinstein, 1971. There has been much debate about whether being free to do something without being able to do it constitutes a true freedom. If an individual is free by law to do or be something, but lacks the opportunity or resources to do or be it, then many would argue that this lack of opportunity or resources constitutes a relevant constraint or obstacle and that the individual is therefore not truly free to do or be that something.

People who subscribe to this belief support a ‘positive’ theory of liberty as proposed by Isaiah Berlin in his essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’. In this essay Berlin defined freedom as either a ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ concept. Berlin saw negative liberty as an individual’s freedom to be left entirely alone free from any interference in order to make a personal choice. He saw the grant of a positive freedom as involving a duty to intervene in an individual’s life in order to free that individual from circumstances beyond his or her control which rendered that individual unable to act in a free manner.

To those who see freedom only in terms of negative freedom, all government interference with an individual’s freedom will limit that freedom and can be justified only if that interference is necessary to protect the freedoms – or at least the interests – of other members of society. To those who believe that for an individual to be truly free he or she must be able actually to exercise his or her freedom(s), government interference will be necessary to make individuals truly free and will be justifiable on those grounds alone.

A believer in ‘negative freedom’ will oppose large-scale state interference on the grounds that it inhibits an individual’s ability to make a personal choice. A positive liberty supporter, however, will believe that only state regulation can liberate all citizens to pursue their true interests in a society. One of the criticisms of Berlin’s essay has been that, although it defines two different perceptions about freedom, it fails to clarify the root of the disagreement between those two alternate concepts of liberty.

In order to clarify the debate over positive and negative freedom MacCallum 1972 tried to focus specifically on what people were free from and what people were free to do. He proposed a value-free concept of freedom in the form of the equation : X is free from Y to do or be Z. This equation serves to illustrate the disagreement about freedom. It is the difference in opinion as to what constitutes Y (i. e. the obstacle to freedom) that separates those who support ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ liberty.

Supporters of negative liberty believe that the only restrictions on freedom are legal or physical obstacles and therefore desire minimal government interference. From this perspective they reject the idea of a large welfare state funded by taxation as it means that individuals are not free to spend their money as they desire. Supporters of positive liberty, however, see a lack of material resources and social deprivation obstacles to freedom. They see a need for a welfare state to redistribute the resources in a community otherwise deprived individuals without the necessary means cannot accomplish what they desire.

Supporters of negative freedom also reject the idea of individuals being prohibited by law from causing themselves harm. For example: the introduction of a law making the wearing of seatbelts compulsory was seen by many of those who support negative liberty as an unjustified interference by the state since individuals should be free to decide for themselves as rational beings whether or not they wish to protect themselves and the state has no right to make that decision for them.

The only even vaguely acceptable argument for making seatbelts compulsory was, in their view, that by doing so the government was protecting the interests of other members of society who would, through taxation, have to pay the cost of providing medical care for those who chose not to wear seatbelts. Strong believers in positive freedom are much more inclined to argue in favour of restrictions which prevent individuals from doing themselves harm, at least in circumstances where it can be said that the individuals in question are not truly exercising a free choice.

They would argue, for example, that a drug addict does not really have a free choice about whether or not he should take the drugs to which he has become addicted and so, by the state interfering and preventing him from taking those drugs, it is actually liberating him from his irrational compulsion and allowing him to make a genuinely free choice in the future.

Even keen supporters of negative freedom recognise that in a modern day society there has to be at least some level of government interference with the freedom of an individual in order to preserve the freedom of the community at whole. They argue, however, that this intervention should be minimal. “The end of the law is not to abolish or restrain but to preserve and enlarge freedom” Locke 1960 p38. The majority of a society would agree that laws are essential in order to ensure that the actions of some individuals do not harm the lives of others.

As RH Tawney said : “The freedom of the pike is death to the minnows” A Heywood 1999 p255. If the ‘free’ actions of an individual or group result in the oppression of a different individual or group then one has not freedom but licence. Licence “is the point at which freedom becomes excessive” A Heywood 1999 p256. There will always be scope for argument about the point at which liberty becomes licence. This is particularly true, in a capitalist society, where money is concerned.

A believer in negative freedom will consider that each individual should be free to spend his or her money as they desire and will therefore consider it ‘liberty’ rather than ‘licence’ that there be very little taxation and as a consequence minimal public services. A supporter of positive freedom will take a different view. He or she will believe that it is only by taxing those with money that those without money will have the benefit of acceptable public services and will therefore be able to enjoy true freedom.

A right wing libertarian would argue that the freedom to spend one’s money as one chooses is an essential freedom: a socialist would argue that economic freedom lies at the root of all freedom and that, unless wealth is fairly distributed throughout a community, only those with money are truly free. Cohen believed that, in a capitalist society, since laws which protect rights to property prevent non-owners from using it, they can and should be seen as restricting the freedom of those (i. e. the proletariat) who own no – or no significant – property.

Property owners see the protection of their property by law as protecting their liberty from the intrusion of others, whereas non-owners see that protection as oppression and consequently licence Cohen, 1979. Whatever one’s views as to the true nature of freedom, the short answer to the question of when it is justifiable for a government to interfere with an individual’s freedom(s) is, of course, that it is justifiable to do so only when such interference is necessary in order to bring about some greater good.

In many circumstances there will be widespread agreement as to what is or is not a greater good. Few would doubt, for example, that the prohibition on murder constitutes a justifiable interference with an individual’s freedom to act as he or she wants or that a government is justified in interfering with an individual’s freedom to travel if he or she is suffering from a serious contagious disease. In those circumstances the ‘greater good’ (i. e. the protection of the lives and/or health of other members of society) is clear and indisputable.

In other cases, however, the position will be much less clear and the answer which one gives to the question will depend upon one’s personal views and priorities. The reality is, of course, that almost any step taken by government can be said to constitute an interference with the freedom of at least some individuals and that, particularly if one accepts the concept of ‘positive freedom’, almost any such interference can be argued to be necessary in order to grant true freedom to those same individuals or to others.

Those who object to a ban on fox-hunting, for example, argue that such a ban would constitute an unjustifiable infringement of their freedoms (and even march under the banner ‘Liberty’) whereas their opponents contend that a ban will not only free foxes from the threat of slaughter but will liberate fox-hunters from their irrational compulsion to kill animals for fun. Equally, those members of the world community who wish to invade Iraq talk of ‘liberating’ the Iraqis from the tyranny of Saddam’s regime whereas Saddam’s supporters would no doubt argue that in resisting such an invasion they would be fighting for ‘freedom’.

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