Social Question

wundayatta's avatar

How do you maximize personal liberty? Is this a good thing to do?

Asked by wundayatta (58525points) February 16th, 2012

Captain Harley made a comment to me in another discussion that I interpreted to mean that his principle for making our lives the best we can is to maximize personal liberty. He didn’t say what he meant by that, so I’m asking this question to give people a chance to say what the concept means to them.

Then I’d like to know if this is a good thing. It seems to me there is a tension between cooperation and individual liberty. I believe that cooperation helps more people to a greater degree. Maximizing individual liberty helps fewer people but for those it helps, they get a much greater amount of help.

Is this another version of the socialism vs capitalism debate? Whatever. Try to stay concrete both in definitions and in marshalling facts to support the idea of whether this idea of unfettered personal liberty is good for all of us or not.

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33 Answers

CaptainHarley's avatar

I said “maximize” personal liberty, not run hog-wild with it! LOL!

CWOTUS's avatar

God help us if you’re seriously questioning whether this is a good thing to do. The alternative is to control others’ lives (or have our lives controlled by others). I don’t want to be a slave owner or a slave. Of course it’s a good thing to have maximum personal liberty.

I may be irresponsible at times with my life, my career, my health, my relationships – with everything, in fact. But I have myself to answer to for that, and no one else to blame. Nor do I want to blame anyone else for poor choices that I’ve made – or share much credit for the good ones, for that matter.

wundayatta's avatar

@CWOTUS Can we put some boundaries on this notion of not controlling others? Do you support laws against criminality? What about offering financial incentives for people to do things that lawmakers think are good, like going to college or owning homes? What about paying a minimum wage? What about making businesses tell the truth in disclosing their lending policies?

Our society controls others in a myriad of ways. Which ones, if any, would you retain in maximizing personal liberty?

thorninmud's avatar

For me, freedom is not first and foremost a lack of external constraints. I take for granted that there will always be a large number of constraints imposed by society, and that my freedom may not necessarily be improved by removing them, because many of them are there to keep others from encroaching on my freedom. “My freedom ends where that of another begins” is, I think, how that goes.

I see freedom first in terms of freedom from my own mental barriers. I, like everyone else, have a tendency to draw barriers where none naturally exist. Some of those are helpful, even necessary barriers. Many are quite unnecessary and harmful. Taking down these barriers is my primary concern.

But it should be said that this is not a work of throwing my elbows in order to win a greater space of freedom for myself. It’s more a work of breaking down the separations between me and others, letting them in and –- by the same token – letting me out.

CWOTUS's avatar

Okay, sure. I don’t believe in “total freedom”, as @CaptainHarley has already said. I think we should continue to agree to “drive between the lines” on the highway, for example, and agree on which lanes go in which direction.

I agree with laws against initiation of force against others, and I agree with laws against fraud.

I emphatically do not agree with “financial incentives for people to do things that lawmakers think are good” – absolutely not. That’s one of the reasons we’re in the mess we’re in. People should be able to “choose their own good” and follow that for their own incentives. I don’t agree with “minimum wage” laws.

As for businesses telling the truth in lending policies, I think some of that falls under my “laws against fraud”. I would generally support that. However, “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” is a nice goal, but an impossible target.

Absolute freedom is also impossible, but we want to aim for more rather than less.

syz's avatar

In light of our current social/political atmosphere, I’m having trouble separating personal liberty as pertaining to me as an individual from issues like having access to birth control, access to safe abortion, equal pay for equal work, and equal marriage rights for me and my partner. I can’t even come up with issues on a smaller scale.

Blackberry's avatar

This will be a thousand year war, because people have different versions of personal freedom. Maybe one’s freedom involves taking the freedom of others because that’s what their beliefs dictate, for example.

CaptainHarley's avatar

The Constitution only promises the right to PURSUE happiness, not happiness itself. It is not part of the government’s responsibility to encourage things like eating right, going to college, buying a home, or any of the multitude of things it currently “encourages.” The primary functions of government should be to provide for the common DEFENSE ( not undeclared wars to install democracies, or to stage preemptive attacks ), promote the GENERAL welfare ( not support those too lazy or too stupid to provide for themselves ), and insure that we have enough freedom to “secure the blessings of prosperity” for ourselves and our families ( not take money from one group to give to another ).

nikipedia's avatar

I don’t think personal liberty is inherently good.

I do think cooperation and compassion are inherently good.

TexasDude's avatar

@Blackberry anyone who infringes upon the rights of someone else under the guise of being a part of their own freedom doesn’t know what freedom actually means and what they are doing has nothing to do with actual freedom. Coercion is not freedom.

Jaxk's avatar

Individual freedoms are tenuous at best. They tend to disappear in very small chunks, and always with your own best interest at heart. If you make good choices in life, you should be happy. If you don’t then we, as a society, must compensate you for those bad choices. Of course the next step is to make sure you make good choices. And since you’ve shown that you are not capable of making the right choices, we’ll make them for you. It’s just better for society in general. What you can eat, drink, drive, and buy will be decided by the collective. Or more specifically by those in charge of the collective.

Jaxk's avatar


Cooperation and compassion are only good if freely given.

nikipedia's avatar

@Jaxk, thanks for sharing your opinion, but by describing them as “inherently good” I think it is clear that I disagree.

Qingu's avatar

I think it’s important to recognize that there are many ways to lose your personal liberty. To put that another way, there are many parties that can deprive you of your personal liberty, in addition to the federal government.

The most obvious example of this was slavery. Pullman towns are probably more relevant today. Pullman towns still exist in China, manufacturing our iPads. Many people grow up in families that deprive them of personal liberty.

Personally speaking, the two people who can most directly affect my personal liberty are my boss and my landlord.

Any “power”—federal, state, local, corporate, small employer, family—can deprive people under its umbrella of personal liberty. The best way of ensuring personal liberty is ensuring that people can “vote” for how these powers behave, and also balance these powers against each other with checks and balances.

Jaxk's avatar


Ah yes, the forced cooperation model. Better known as the police state. Not exactly my cup-of-tea, but I suppose it has it’s supporters.

wundayatta's avatar

@CaptainHarley I think that you see government’s responsibility as being severely limited, presumably by what is written in the constitution. Is the government responsible to the constitution or to the voters? I’m guessing you would say it’s the Constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court.

Of course, the Constitution can be amended by voters. It seems to me that the voters are the final authority. Therefore, if we want to give the government the responsibility for watching over people’s health or welfare, we can. Indeed, I think we (the majority) do that.

What is your desire to limit government based on? Why do you think it unwise for voters to choose to create a safety net (if that’s what you believe), for example? Do you smoke? In either case, why is it so heinous to you that government would vote to limit smoking in certain establishments? Are there rights involved here?

@Jaxk Where does this idea that people are advocating that society compensate folks for bad choices come from? Do you really think that is what people want? Or is that a rhetorical device?

What is wrong with trying to encourage people to make better choices? Especially given that we, as a society, may end up paying for the consequences of people’s bad choices? Why is this some kind of slippery slope to a “A Wrinkle in Time” society?—Fully regulated, including what time to bounce the ball and how many times to bounce it. Or would you prefer “1984” metaphors? Why does this bother you so much?

vitro's avatar

Personal liberty is only good for those who are responsible enough to handle their own life and accept the consequences of their actions.

For someone who is, for example, poor, then obviously they’re not responsible enough and require handouts from those who are.

With cooperation only the irresponsible benefit from those who are responsible. There is no liberty for the responsible person. A responsible person is forever enslaved into helping those who are irresponsible. Do I have to take care of every damn mistake someone makes in their life? How much children are born to parents who cannot take care of them which then forces the burden on to someone who is responsible. When is it enough going to be enough already?

So in the case of personal liberty, it helps a certain amount of people, and in case of cooperation, it only helps a certain amount of people. There is no balance.

No one has a right to decide for someone on how much liberty he/she should have, or if they must cooperate. If they do, then that’s fighting words from the get-go.

If someone tells me I need to be regulated and taxed, that is an enemy for life.

Jaxk's avatar


It’s not rhetorical. I’ll give an example but it winds it’s way through our entire society. I used to love my motorcycle. But once the helmet law was enacted, I just don’t get the same feeling that I had without the helmet. So much so that I no longer even own a motorcycle. The argument for the helmet law was that if I hurt myself by not wearing a helmet it would be left tot he rest of society to care for me. Of course for that argument to work we have to ignore the fact that I have insurance already (a requirement for licensing). So the way I read the argument, if I make a bad decision, The rest of society must compensate me for it by handling my medical care, so I’m not allowed to make that bad decision. Of course whether or not it really is a bad decision depends on your perspective.

We are headed further down this road by looking to regulate fast foods, or smoking, or any of a thousand things you may do that carry risk. First we encourage better choices (I have no problem there) then we regulate better choices. As with my motorcycle, I would rather way the risk against the reward myself. Sometimes the greatest rewards carry the highest risk. And the lowest risk can mean no reward what-so-ever. I don’t want my life to be controlled. I don’t want to live in a bubble. I would find a world where everybody is the same to be totally unbearable. What you consider unacceptable risk, I may find quite acceptable. I’d rather you didn’t make my choices.

saint's avatar

Personal libery means you get to do what you want to do, unless, in a social context (and all human beings live in a social context) what you do gets in the way of somebody else doing the same thing. This principle conforms to the truth of nature, and is thus is a morally good idea, until Collectivists decide that society is an organism, sort of like the cells in a human body, and everybody has to chip in to pay everybody else’s bills in order to keep the “organism” alive. At that point, the Useless begin to demand their fair share of the Not Useless’ production. Then, suddenly, there is no personal liberty. There is only cost/benefit analysis. And the Political State has discovered that it has a chance of continuing it’s on going pleasure cruise of perks, priviledges and power by ignoring the euphoria of personal liberty, and instead turning it into a social problem. If I am happy, and prosperous, and I do not fuck with your life, I am thus a problem as long as you are a loser. The way to maximize personal liberty is to minimize the extent to which the political class plays social puppeteer. Until then, there is no true liberty. There is only a debate about the appropriate level of statist control. Which is the state of American politics. The two major parties accept the statist notion that the government must control and manipulate the governed. The only difference is how much.

Paradox25's avatar

I think that what you’re implying goes beyond the socialism vs capitalism debate and veers into something much deeper, is communitarianism better than individualism. Communitarians (also known as radical centrists) tend to believe in the needs of the community over the individual whilst individualists (or liberals) tend to believe that if the needs of the individual are addressed then the individual will return the favor and help the community through their own free will. There is also an ideology known as communitarian libertarianism which attempts to combine the most feasible elements of the two.

My own personal opinion on this is that when individuals are miserable and are forced to do things they really don’t want to do, nothing productive will come out of it for the community as a result regardless. In a country, and world, where so many different types of people have their own ideas of what ‘freedom’ is we can only co-exist through some type of reasonable compromise. Maybe a version of communitarian libertarianism is what would be beneficial to the majority of us, as a whole and as individuals.

mattbrowne's avatar

To me radical individualism is a danger to society.

“Some people advocate freedom or independence as the ultimate good; others do the same with devotion to one’s family, community, or society. Interdependence can be a common ground between these aspirations.”

CaptainHarley's avatar


The Nanny State. “We’re going to protect you from yourself if it kills you!”

Jaxk's avatar


It’s merely taking the old adage “the best things in life are FREE”, to the extreme. Let’s make everything Free except the citizenry. I am my brothers keeper (and sugar daddy).

CaptainHarley's avatar

Sigh! All too true. : ((

wundayatta's avatar

@Jaxk So you don’t have a problem encouraging safer behavior. You just don’t want it regulated. This is especially true if you are adequately insured for the social consequences of your risky behavior.

Are there any limits on this principle of insuring for risk? Like should I be allowed to handle all kinds of high explosives in my house next door to yours, so long as I have adequate insurance to cover the loss of your life should I happen to blow us both up? If not, where do you draw the line? What risks should be regulated against because they cause unacceptable harm to others?

Edit—also thanks to all of the rest of you posting on this question. It is really helpful.

Edit Edit—I like the idea of letting you ride without a helmet so long as you are adequately insured. Move to my state and you can do that. Of course, we’ve seen a striking increase in traumatic head injuries since the helmet law was thrown out, but if they are all paying for their own health care… it seems like the impact on the rest of us reasonable. We lose medical care capacity, but probably not too much of it.

CWOTUS's avatar

Given the presumption of privacy in our homes (more or less), how would you even know whether a neighbor is working with high explosives, if he wanted to keep that quiet? How do you know that one of your neighbors isn’t already doing this?

My presumption is always on an expectation that my neighbors are more or less as sane, cautious and responsible as I am: imperfect, but reasonably careful. If my neighbor tells me that he’s working with explosives in his basement, or if I can observe incidents of carelessness, then maybe it’s time to start talking about what he’s doing and how he’s doing it – and how he’s protecting the safety of my family and property from his actions.

This is a common problem of “negative externalities”. That is, things that are external to the principal actor/s, and in this case “things that may be problems”. We can’t always know in advance what those may be, but “blowing up your house and the neighborhood in a potential accident” is a fairly predictable negative externality from working with high explosives. If the neighbor has no provision for security of his premises, no safe working conditions, no plans for safe disposal of waste products and limited or no protection from fire and explosion, then he’s an obvious menace to others – an accident waiting to happen – and should be regulated or shut down on that basis.

A more common occurrence happens when trying to locate some businesses in some locations. For example, should your neighbor be able to open his house as a bar? a strip joint? The negative externalities are increased traffic, nighttime noise, concentration of “undesirable elements” and such risks. But if my neighbor can manage or mitigate the problems with the business, what’s a valid complaint?

I think a lot of this could be handled with a requirement – not too intrusive upon individual liberty – that anyone engaging in a business or hobby which has potentially extensive negative externalities (such as a manufacturing plant, bar, shooting range, landfill, etc.) should have insurance to cover the best estimate of potential liability. The policy holder’s insurance company (or pricing of the policy) would demand locations away from large concentrations of people in order to limit his own liability. The market could work.

The argument that “this has never happened in history” is trite and invalid.

vitro's avatar

You will never be able to regulate what you cannot see or ever know of.

Negative externalities do not require regulations, they can be resolved by well defined property rights. So for example you’re a neighbor to a plant that produces plastic material and the fumes that come out of that plant are toxic which go on your property and pollutes the air you breath. Well if the property rights are properly defined, such as the air on your property and above your house belongs to you, then the plant owner cannot have his fumes come anywhere near you. It works the same way with toxic dumping or anything else that is harmful.

It forces the business man to rethink his game plan. How to create a fine quality product without violating someone’s property. No regulations are need which means no taxes needed. Regulations cost $200 billion in tax dollars, contracts and property rights would cost $0.

In the explosive case, there is no way around it, even with the property rights because you don’t know he is doing it, so it really doesn’t matter. However, if you do know he is doing it, and it poses a threat to your property, then I think action can be taken through the legal system.

As for cases where it is not about private property, then you have contracts. Before making a trade with anyone, you sign contracts. If the contracts are manipulated, then it’s a breach of contract, and you take it up in court. Each case is handled individually so as not to burden the tax payer with someone else’s problems.

The alternative is an inefficient corrupt regulatory system that has a scary track record of not only not doing what it was designed to do (protect people) but is used by market participants as a tool to attack the rest of the market while favoring their own interests. This on top of the $200 billion in taxes it costs us.

Jaxk's avatar


Actually I would say even if I’m not adequately insured. If I’m not insured, donate my organs, I’m OK with that. I took the chance and I lost. Don’t force me to adhere to you rules just so that you can ease your conscience.

As for your explosives example, it would take monitoring similar to the ‘1984’ example just to know if anyone is doing that. And yes, I would be opposed to that kind of monitoring. It is the type of example we hear all the time to enact some massive restriction on our personal liberty. We have to pass this monstrous bill costing billions, to insure someone doesn’t do something that is so unlikely it doesn’t pass the laugh test.

I don’t have a problem with most zoning rules. They are imposed locally and can be both helpful and flexible. I would and do have a problem with federal zoning laws.

Qingu's avatar

@Jaxk, do you think the state should intervene to stop people from becoming addicted to heroin, or from committing suicide?

Not trying to start an argument here, just wondering. (I personally lean towards “yes,” though I think the US drug policy is insane)

bkcunningham's avatar

@Qingu, if you don’t mind me jumping in here, I just wanted to say that I think your questions are very good. I’ve known and do know herion addicts and there isn’t anything that I know of that anyone can do to stop people from becoming addicts or committing suicide. One of the first programs that was undertaken to help addicts was methadone. Sadly, even methadone is abused.

Jaxk's avatar


I have no problem with heroin being restricted. As far as commiting suicide, I consider that your right. I would agree that our drug policy needs work.

Qingu's avatar

I agree with you about helmet laws—I think—but I’m uncomfortable for some reason with the idea of not having seatbelt laws. Especially for children. And I’m trying to figure out an underlying principle for where I draw the line for society “protecting people from themselves.”

I guess the issue to keep in mind is that our individual actions affect those around us, often deeply. If a family member commits suicide, I’m going to be depressed for a long time. Suicide doesn’t just harm yourself. I agree that individual freedom should be maximized, but at a certain point I think that deliberately choosing to harm one’s self causes enough harmful echoes through the rest of society to be prohibited. Obviously I’d place that level well above “smoking pot alone in your bedroom,” but below “drunk driving.”

Jaxk's avatar


The problem I have with that is when you start making my decisions, you tend to spread them like peanut butter across society. We have an exemption for living on life support. You (or your designee) can choose to end the life support. But even that is not without problems (remember Terri Schiavo). Then you get to the people that have a terminal illness and are in great pain (the Dr. Kevorkian issue). Do you let them go or force them to live in agony. We currently force them to to live.

I have no interest in trying to incur undue suffering for the friends and family but do we leave these life and death decisions to government? Do we retain any control what-so-ever on our lives?

When we get to children I have a somewhat different view. Children are not capable or expected to make these decisions. I may think we’ve gone too far in taking the decisions away from parents and putting it in the government but some restriction on abusive parenting seems appropriate.

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