Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Free to Choose for Yourself vs. Free to Choose for Others

Chris Dillow at Stumbling and Mumbling wonders if there might be less than meets the eye to last week’s blog debate on economic growth.
But might they all be right? Could it be that growth shouldn't be an aim of policy, but rather that it'll emerge naturally, as a result of desirable policies? In other words, growth is an unintended consequence.

So here are my questions. I ask Chris [Bertram]: do you want policies that actually restrain growth? Or do you just want whatever growth arises from your preferred policy framework? And I ask Tyler and Glen: what policies do you want that would raise growth and which are not desirable for other reasons?
Good question, and my answer is “none” (that I can think of). I agree with Tyler’s assessment: “I don't wish to force anyone to be richer than East Berlin circa 1985, but if you give them liberty, almost everyone will try to exceed that level, and not just by a little bit.” Economic growth is a natural side effect of liberty. Prosperity matters because so many people want prosperity.

In Dillow’s comments, Bertram says, “I think you've got me about right there,” and he adds, “I'd like people to have the freedom to choose less work and more leisure (or the reverse if they really want it).” So it might seem that there really is no disagreement here. But I think there is.

While everyone seems to be taking a “free to choose” position here, our notions of freedom are rather different. The difference tracks Benjamin Constant’s distinction between the liberty of the ancients and the liberty of the moderns. The liberty of the ancients – as in the ancient Greeks and Romans – means the right of a member of the polity to take part in collective decision-making. The liberty of the moderns, on the other hand, means the right of individuals to make decisions for themselves. When Bertram defends the choice of “Germans” as a group (or “Europeans” more broadly) to adopt economic policies that discourage growth, usually by imposing burdensome restrictions on the labor market, he champions the liberty of the ancients over that of the moderns. I prefer the liberty of the moderns, which implies leaving the labor market largely unregulated and allowing workers and employers to make their own decisions about the trade-off between prosperity and other values.

1 comment:

Gil said...

I'm with you, Glen.

"The liberty of the ancients" concept always strikes me as bizarre, but I do encounter people who seem to think it's a useful concept.

To me, liberty only makes sense in the context of an individual's mind, because that's where all choices are made. Collective decisions are a fiction that usually just serves to obfuscate what's really happening.