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John Holbo: Coercion vs. Freedom: BHL vs. BRG

John Holbo:

Coercion vs. Freedom: BHL vs. BRG (Happy 4th of July!: Hayek warns... in The Constitution of Liberty….

[A] person may vote or contract himself into slavery and thus consent to give up freedom in the original sense. It would be difficult to maintain that a man who voluntarily but irrevocably had sold his services for a long period of years to a military organization such as the Foreign Legion remained free thereafter…. [D]iscussing the value of freedom would be pointless if any regime of which people approved was, by definition, a regime of freedom....

Hayek wants to wield this as an argument against construing participatory political power as either necessary or sufficient for ensuring freedom. But it works as well as an argument against the sufficiency of ensuring contracting power as a mechanism for maximizing freedom….

Different ways of regulating the workplace will plausibly increase freedom-as-non-coercion relative to the levels that a libertarian regime will produce…. Perhaps contract rights are more important than freedom. But don’t say you are maximizing freedom when really you are actually trading it away for a different good…. [F]reedom is not ‘in’ the right to exchange. If you exchange your freedom for a TV you become an unfree person with a TV, not a free person with a TV, even if you prefer a TV to freedom….

Actually existing libertarianism is not a philosophy of ‘I wonder what will maximize freedom-as-non-coercion. It’s complicated, but whatever it is, I’ll do it.’… Actually existing libertarianism is the philosophy of treating as axiomatic that maximizing contract/property rights is tantamount to maximizing freedom….

Hayek fails to see that he is not actually interested in maximizing freedom because, actually, he thinks that some people’s freedom is a lot more valuable than other people’s freedom…. Best: maximize welfare (but we can’t and don’t even really know what that means). Second best: maximize freedom for only those who can best maximize welfare (but we can’t pick them out of a line-up). Third best: maximize freedom....

I think it’s pretty likely Hayek thinks (or feels) we can actually do a bit better than third best. We can pick out a class of people who are likely to be better users of freedom. This is no part of Hayek’s official philosophy, but the reason he sees coercion on one side (workers) not the other (employers), even when this is flagrantly inconsistent with his own philosophy, is that he has a strong intuition that the freedoms of workers are less valuable. Employers/capital/management will be more likely to want to do things that will, on the whole, benefit everyone. So it is more important for them to be able to do what they want. I think this unexpressed conviction explains a lot of the oddities in Hayek’s writings.

This view that Hayek is really all about the hierarchy – freedom for the better people... is a common disease: political theory as crypto-virtue ethics. You have a perhaps rather narrow sort of character ideal in mind, playing no official part in your theory, but exerting a great influence over its overall shape. J.S. Mill, for example, obviously exalts a certain sort of contrarian, cosmopolitan individualist. On Liberty is justly charged with begging the question, rather badly, on behalf of the sort of person Mill most admires. Hayek may be guilty of nothing worse: he admires economic actors of a certain sort more than other people. He maximizes freedom for them, while genuinely thinking he is maximizing it for everyone…

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