AC Grayling: Freedom to make bad choices

Respect the principle of liberty
April 23, 2014

The statue of Freedom in the capitol, Washington DC

We are required by law to wear seatbelts in cars and crash helmets on motorbikes, to refrain from smoking in public indoor areas, from injecting heroin and smoking marijuana—all in the interests of our health, well-being and safety. Such laws imply that the government knows best what is in our interests, and has a duty to act accordingly.

Is this always right? Consider a more recent and apparently more anodyne matter. In the last budget, the Chancellor announced that pensioners will be able to dispose of their savings as they see fit, a reversal of current policy in which pensioners’ savings have to be deployed in a prescribed manner.

Critics claim that people in general are not good at making long-term plans, and that their pension plans should therefore be arranged by professionals. Freeing pensioners to dispose of their savings at will, say the critics, is in effect imprisoning them in the consequences of their ignorance and short-sightedness. Current policy protects them against this; the Chancellor is now permitting them to make bad choices just where he should be doing the opposite on their behalf.

What is at stake in this quarrel? The answer is: liberty. When the authors of the Federalist Papers were debating whether to add a Bill of Rights to the new United States Constitution, Alexander Hamilton objected that drawing up a list of positive rights would imply that they were the only ones to which citizens were entitled, whereas the absence of prohibition left open the whole field of what Isaiah Berlin later called “negative liberties,” defined as absence of constraint. Pertinently, Berlin declared himself wary of “positive liberties”—those permitted or (worse) enjoined constitutionally or by statute—on the grounds that they are in the interests, as decided by those who know best, of those destined to enjoy them.

Once our legislators are endowed with the power to decide what is in our interests, it is not long before they begin to exercise them. We think it is a joke to say that sugar will soon be the new heroin, to be proscribed as injurious to health—but laws on the size of soft drink bottles in New York (a way of limiting corn syrup intake by the American obese) are a staging post on the way thither. It is accordingly important to distinguish between laws that require information about the content of foodstuffs—stating how much fat and sugar they contain—and laws that (might one day) ban sugar, because the former provide people with information on which they can choose for themselves how to act, whereas the latter embody the principle that nanny knows best.

Does nanny know best about pension plans? Almost certainly. Does that mean nanny should tell people what to do with the money they have earned and saved? Not one bit. If as much effort went into reminding people that they have to take responsibility for themselves as goes into taking decisions for them, the latter might be less necessary.

There is a difficult line here, of course. Through its representatives in government a community might make rational decisions to do certain things that limit individual freedoms in the interests of all—such as requiring everyone to drive on the same side of the road, and not to do it under the influence of mind-altering substances—but the temptation to paternalism and condescension in the form of other less evidently publicly-beneficial laws that prohibit this or that behaviour because it is not in the interests of individuals to engage in it—the drug laws are a prime example—is another matter. The line in question is now regularly and in large strides overstepped by governments of all stripes, not least because of the passivity with which such tramplings on individual liberty are received by the trampled.

Independent of the financial wisdom of the Chancellor’s decision about pensioners’ savings, the principle behind it is a good one in relation at least to the autonomy that individuals should have over decisions about their future. Such autonomy carries a responsibility, one that is no different from the responsibility that anyone has for choosing whom to marry, where to live, what careers to pursue, whether to have children, and the like. It is not often these days that individual liberty is increased by a government measure; the critics in this case, implying that most people are not up to the liberty in question and need to have matters decided on their behalf, are on the wrong side of the argument.