Respect the principle of libertyby AC Grayling / April 24, 2014 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2014 issue of Prospect Magazine
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 entitl…