What’s Liberty For?

Prodigal Son raises an interesting point, but I tend to agree with the commentariat. He’s wrong, but not as wrong as they argue.

School me on promises, TJIC:

Where libertarian shades into libertine people become very skittish about future self paternalism – they worry that making any sort of commitment (“yes, I’ll be there at 5pm”, “yes, I’ll pay back this mortgage”, “yes, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part”) will reduce their future radical freedom.

…and, of course, it will.

When you say that you’re going to be somewhere at 5pm, you have to be there.

If you say that you’re going to pay back a mortgage, you can’t later decide that backpacking in Nepal sounds like more fun, and up and run.

When you get married, you can’t decide that boning the waitress would be the more zesty experience.

Actually, you can. Commitments aren’t operative until the promise price is paid. Commitments don’t reduce future freedom, unless you’re a strongly moral actor. So I think libertines like PS are being bluntly honest about the unknowable fluctuations of morality. They’re not only concerned with reducing their freedom, but guarded against making a bargain they may not be able to fulfill.

As libertarians who at least nod at the fatal conceit, I think we should be careful of ascribing simplistic reasons to complex phenomenon.

All of this reminds me of our previous discussion of gender roles. Marriage strikes me as a similar institution. There are significant benefits. There are significant costs. But what people like TJIC and Brian aren’t fully acknowledging is that those costs and benefits are radically different for each particular marriage. Defending the institution means that you must believe that on balance, the benefits outweigh the cost across the majority of cases.

Given that roughly half of marriages end in divorce, I think Prodigal Son is making a plausible case that the institution is not, on balance, good. The customization of society, as applies to gender roles, family roles, and the roles of institutions in our lives, is more complicated than either a for-or-against stance. Each person or couple has to work that out for themselves. I think PS is taking too strong a stance when he extends his reasoning beyond himself, and I think Brian goes too far in extrapolating from his personal case to the institution itself.

Prodigal Son has worked out his own analysis. Maybe he’ll meet someone who changes the calculation. Maybe not. Either way, I wish him complete fulfillment in his path.

The great thing about freedom is that the married folk and the libertines can live side by side, each enjoying the institutional or gender arrangements that maximize their personal happiness (or utility, or whatever).

We live in a world that’s particular, not general. For the same reasons libertarians object to forced community and coerced association, we should refrain from generalizing from the specifics of our anecdotal lives. To paraphrase the damn hippies, normal isn’t normal.

Sweet wedding photo from Christopher Chan.

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3 Responses to What’s Liberty For?

  1. TJIC says:

    At work now, and I can’t write much or the SOB boss will have my hide (a little self-employed humor there – I own and run SmartFlix.com where I work…), but there are some good points here, and I’ll try to respond later.

    For now, though:

    > The great thing about freedom is that the married folk and the libertines can live side by side, each enjoying the institutional or gender arrangements that maximize their personal happiness (or utility, or whatever).

    We 100% agree on this, the glory of freedom.

  2. Prodigal Son says:

    Yes, I agree with you Aaron. It is due to freedom that my libertine lifestyle could coexist with TJIC and we can continue to have lively (but peaceful) debates.

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