Putting a Price on Freedom


The debate about today’s increasing push for government expansion focuses exclusively on cost, without evaluating whether such expansion is morally proper.Imagine a negotiation like one commonly seen at an auto dealership. The seller pitches a price; the buyer complains it’s too high.  They fiercely consult and haggle, and eventually strike a deal.  Now imagine a similar scene, but where the object of contention is not a car, but a human being.  Are these two scenarios essentially the same?  We would say not: Whereas there was a legitimate and genuine disagreement over price in the former case, we can’t say the same about the latter. Though still arguing over price, the two parties have implicitly agreed upon and pushed aside the deeper issue of whether it is proper to sell a man’s freedom.

The same situation—a superficial dispute that masks underlying agreement on a flawed premise—is true of recent political debate on the economy. The Bush and Obama administrations have pitched an expansion of government far-reaching in scope and breathtaking in cost.  They have taken ownership of America’s banks, seized control of the nation’s largest carmaker, proposed legislation to drastically change the way energy is produced and sold, and set out to dramatically “reform” the nation’s healthcare system (to name just a few).  The price tag has already run into the trillions, and promises to grow larger.

It hasn’t been an easy sell.  The strongest and most common objection—heard from many on the right, some on the left, and various others—has been that this is all too expensive.  They have (rightly) warned that the new spending is “reckless and unsustainable” and will create a government “that our children won’t be able to afford.”  Advocates of the new programs have reluctantly yielded to this concern and agreed to negotiate.

But this too is an ultimately superficial disagreement because there is a largely unquestioned deeper agreement that the government ought to do things like “fix” failing companies or the healthcare industry.  Both Democrats and Republicans have come together after initial conflict to create vast new government programs—they have merely disagreed on price tags.  John McCain has said “it’s the cost that’s the problem” creating the “fundamental contradiction” between the parties.  On this view, money is the only thing left to iron out before Washington creates new far-reaching programs and policies.

In fact, just as with the farce of a buyer and seller haggling over the price of a human slave, the cost is not the actual problem.  The problem is the nature of the programs and policies themselves.  While those fighting for fiscal responsibility deserve praise for their efforts, they are committing a dangerous mistake by focusing on cost as the most important problem with government expansion.

To see why, we can start by asking the question: if a government program is free, is it therefore legitimate or desirable?  There are many ways government could “reform” how we live without any cost at all.  Suppose Washington passed sweeping changes intended to improve your daily life, imposing on you these rules: no laying in the sun for more than 15 minutes without sunscreen, no drinking coffee, no dropping out of college early, and no staying up past midnight.  None of this would have any impact to your financial bottom line.

This proposal would clearly be outrageous. But why?  It has no cost; our children could easily afford such a government.

We would consider it outrageous because it goes beyond any legitimate scope of government authority, and would represent a blatant, unjustified assault on our personal freedom.  We would rightly demand:  what business is it of the government whether I have coffee or when I sleep?  I should be free to decide such things for myself.

Freedom is a fundamental requirement of human life: It is the precondition for creating and enjoying all values in life, including wealth.  Our ability to determine our goals, where to live, what career to pursue, which hobbies to enjoy, how to spend our money—in effect, our very ability to direct and enjoy our lives—requires that we be free to think for ourselves and act on our individual judgment.  The moment others forcibly interfere, that ability is diminished or destroyed.  It was this recognition that drove the Founding Fathers in their fight against tyranny, and it’s what motivates most Americans today to defend their freedom when they perceive it to be threatened.

Yet we continue to surrender our freedom (and focus instead on cost) precisely because the threat is difficult to perceive.  Politicians and pundits are careful to use words for their proposals that mask their coercive nature. They offer to “fix” the financial industry and “reform” energy production.  President Obama does not say he wants to control American healthcare; he merely wants to “change” how it works.  As the title of a recent politically-influential bestseller by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein suggests, the government needn’t force anyone to do anything—it just needs to “nudge” them.

All of these are euphemisms for the restriction of freedom. The actual way the government has acted to “assist” the troubled financial industry is by force: forcing taxpayers to hand their money to failing banks, forcing banks to operate according to government terms, forcing investors and lenders to suffer losses without legal recourse.  The actual way that Washington seeks to “reform” healthcare is by exerting control over the decisions of countless individuals: dictating to doctors and hospital administrators which tests and procedures will be allowed in the future, dictating to insurance companies how they do business, dictating to individuals that they purchase health insurance whether they want to or not, and dictating to others that they help pay for it all.  Certainly, as many have pointed out, this all carries a destructive economic impact.  But the violation of freedom is the fundamental danger—control must come first before cost can follow.

In addition, there is a difference between the visibility of the costs that government imposes and the freedoms it takes away.  While spending is quickly reflected in higher debt and taxes, decreased freedom is harder to see.  We experience the loss of freedom not chiefly in the form of “Prohibited” signs, but as absence: absence of choices and options that would have existed except for their displacement or prevention by government decree.  That is, we do not perceive a loss of freedom because there is, in a sense, nothing to perceive.  Many financial products, for example, that would have existed under a free market simply cease to exist under a regulatory regime.  The possibility of having, say, a $30 electricity bill or $1 gasoline vanishes under government-managed energy production.  A doctor under government-controlled healthcare does not show you a list of options with some crossed off—he just hands you a shorter list than he otherwise could have.

America was founded on the premise that the achievement of happiness and financial security requires the freedom to pursue them.  This is the basis of the idea of limited government, i.e., a government limited in its ability to wield force only for a specific purpose: to protect individual freedom.  Within this bound, government is an indispensible value; beyond it, it is an unparalleled threat.  By haggling over cost and not insisting on freedom, the opponents of government expansion have rendered themselves impotent in resisting it.  We ought to demand, first and foremost, an answer to the questions: what business is it of the government what health care decisions we make and how we choose to pay for them or whether or not we want to lend our money to bankrupt companies?  We should be free to decide such things for ourselves.

If we want to preserve our wealth and our freedom to live life to its full potential, we must recognize and reject the encroachment of Washington.  We must consistently refuse to use the fluffy euphemisms of “reform” and “change” and identify them for what they are: force.  We must insist that our representatives oppose bigger government not merely on the grounds of its high cost, but on the grounds of its unacceptable control over our lives and property.  In sum, we must not forget that one cannot put a price tag on freedom.

Noah received his BS in Computer Engineering and MS in Information Assurance from Iowa State University. He currently works in the defense industry as a software engineer in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Posted by on September 16, 2009. Filed under Fall 2009, Government & Law. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
  • Jon Keel

    Great article. Cuts right to it –
    gov’t FORCE and CONTROL – and how embarrassingly obvious those euphemisms are (“fix”,”assist”,”reform”,”change”);
    Also clearly names the result of a decrease in freedom: a difficult-to-see LACK of choices-not a gun, but a poison gas…
    Good for you, good article.

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  • Beth Laughton

    Just graduated from law school – I noticed that one of the most prevalent topics of discussion on all classes in terms of law reform was how “we” could “incentivise” “desirable” behavior. The issue of whether such government incentives were coercion was simply never on the table – it was accepted that is the proper role of the government to determine what activities were desirable and then go about setting up a system that “incentivises” them. Sigh.

    (Nice article. BTW I’m a new OAC student – hi!)