Freedom Is Not Ability, And It Never Was

Bad Arguments Vol. 52


It’s hard to believe that I’ve been doing this for a year! When I first started this series I didn’t think that I would end up continuing it for this long, but I wanted to give thanks to the folks at Think Liberty for having me for this long, and to all of you out there that read and engage with my works. Looking back through all of the arguments I’ve tackled over the past year, I found myself looking for something deeper to address to make this particular installment a little more noteworthy. Almost with perfect timing, Bernie Sanders decided to open his mouth and talk about freedom.

Quite often in the public sphere, we’ve seen the argument that in order to claim we have freedom, we need to “have the freedom” to pay for things like doctors or certain necessities. I find that of all of the common rhetorical devices that are misused, the concept of acquiring more freedom for the citizenry is both the most used, and the most deeply damaging.

There are two key fallacies at play here that need to be addressed. The first is what is known as the “Motte and Bailey” fallacy. This fallacy involves using a bait-and-switch approach to push a weaker argument via the strength of an alternative one (that’s scarcely related). This argument does this by starting with the weaker argument that we need to completely socialize everything (the bailey) then falls back to a more easily defended position (the motte) such as “I’m trying to support freedom” or “We should want to improve the lives of our citizens.”

The tactical reason for doing this is so they never have to acknowledge that they have been defeated on a point (because, technically, they weren’t as they just shifted the conversation), and so they can use the easily defended strong point as a bolstering point for their weaker or more radical positions. To make this work involves the use of the second fallacy.

The other primary fallacy with the concept of socialized anything being a part of freedom is what is known as an “Equivocation” fallacy. This fallacy occurs when a person uses a term to mean one thing in one part of their argument, then changes or uses a different meaning in a later part of their argument. For example, consider the following:

1. Yard work is a real pain
2. Tylenol gets rid of pain
3. Taking a Tylenol will get rid of my yard work

The fallacy here is clear. By switching the meanings of the term we reach silly or illogical conclusions. This is exactly what happens when people argue for “freedom” in the form of government handouts.

Often when freedom has historically been discussed in politics, we use the term in a “negative” sense. I’m definitely not saying that freedom is negative, but rather that we talk about it with the natural extension of “freedom from” some impediment. For example, freedom of speech is a negative freedom as it only requires that you be free from censorship. The right to bear arms, similarly, doesn’t mean the government needs to positively enforce the freedom by issuing guns to all citizens, but, rather, needs only abstain from impeding that freedom.

The equivocation fallacy comes into play when we see arguments for what I will call “positive freedom” is clear as well. In these types of arguments, such as the one made by Bernie, when we call positive abilities or boons a freedom. If I were to reword it to make the different meanings clear, this argument for positive freedom amounts to the following: “If you do not have the ability to do something, are you truly not being impeded by others?” This is a non-sequitur, and utterly illogical. By using the word freedom, however, they attempt to pervert the word to their usage. This is something that we cannot abide.

The fallacies themselves aside, there is little logic to be found in trying to call an ability a freedom. By employing this logic, we end up with ridiculous results such as “Am I truly free if I can’t buy a Ferrari?” “Are you free if you can’t get a better job (or, more accurately, because no other employer thinks you’re worth hiring)?”

Ultimately, even if we lack the ability, we do already have the freedom to do those things. I could, theoretically, go and buy a Ferrari if I so chose to. No one is stopping me other than my wallet (which I swear I heard cry a little at the thought). The point that Bernie is trying to make (before we get too caught up in the kinds of arguments his logic leads to) is that I shouldn’t be impeded by my financial status or ability to do something and, if I am, then I am not truly free. I could touch on the entirety of the taxation system and it’s impediments to everyone’s financial abilities, but considering the audience this is likely to reach, that can be understood without needing further details.

To summarize, the idea of economic freedom as is used by progressives is a bastardization of the term and one that attempts to conflate abilities and positive rights with negative ones. It assumes that if you’re free to do something, the government (through the impediment of all citizens via taxation and various legalities) should get involved to enable your course of action beyond your own capabilities. It’s this poisonous notion that, above most others, has lead to the continuous government overreach and involvement in our markets that, much to our detriment, continues to make doing these things ourselves harder. If we want true economic freedom, we need to be free to practice economics and participate in markets without impediment from external sources. If the government really wanted us to have economic freedom, they’d stop being involved entirely.

Read more from Killian at Think Liberty here.



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