Monday, February 21, 2011

An Honest Man

Here's cartoonist Scott Adams talking out loud and metaphorically letting his slip show...
I wonder if freedom can be quantified. Everyone wants more freedom. But sometimes we want a bit less for other people. I want the freedom to watch a movie in peace and someone else wants the freedom to talk at the same time. There’s a general agreement in that case that the movie watcher wins. But wouldn’t it be nice if freedom could be somehow scored? That way we’d know how to distribute freedom for the greater good.

Freedom comes in lots of forms. Good health gives you more freedom than poor health. Money gives you more freedom than poverty. Education gives you more freedom than ignorance. You might say I’m talking about options, or opportunities, not freedom in some legal or moral sense. But it all feels the same. Happiness is the ability to do what you want when you want to do it. Everyone wants more of it for himself.

The tricky part is that we’re all interconnected. If I pay for your education, I have less money, and less freedom, because I can now afford fewer things for myself. On the other hand, if I’m a billionaire, paying for your education is a huge increase in your freedom but probably doesn’t have any real impact on my own.

What would happen if you designed tax policy based on the concept of freedom? If you did, I assume it would look like socialism, where the rich are taxed until their freedom reaches some sort of average with everyone else. Personally, I don’t favor that because I’m too selfish. And it would destroy individual incentives because our system depends on selfishness, doesn’t it?
The problem with Scott Adams' analysis is that he fails to quantify the freedoms of his descendants and the world they inhabit. Unless he is a total egotist, as a parent he would normally want his children to enjoy a world that is pleasant and friendly. By participating in a society that ensures that the next generation is educated and doesn't grow up as violent anti-social thugs because they have no skills and no place to "fit in", we all get a better world for the future.

When he asks "What would happen if you designed tax policy based on the concept of freedom?" I would answer that we get a "progressive tax system" and we thereby hand our descendants a better world.

When Scott Adams says "Personally, I don’t favor that because I’m too selfish" he is doing his best to imitate Muammar al-Gaddafi, they tyrant who is happily murdering his citizens as they protest so that he and his family can skim off billions to continue their selfish lives. I'm surprised that Scott Adams freely indicates that he stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Gaddafi and is prepared to order armed thugs to shoot down protesters in cold blood. But I do appreciate his honesty.

I find this claim to be preposterous: "There’s no practical and honest way to organize society around the notion of freedom." That is like saying that since fresh strawberries and cream are not the absolutely most tasty food around, nobody should ever eat strawberries and cream. No society is perfect, partly because a society is not a static thing. Youth grow up and have to be incorporated. Old cartoonists turn mean and snarly in their old age and dote on dictators and greed. These too need to be "re-educated". So there will never be perfection. But that is just being a jackass. As Voltaire pointed out "Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien".

I think Scott Adams needs to "wake up and smell the roses". He lives in a society with a good deal of freedom and it works fairly well. Perhaps Scott Adams thinks there is no "practical" or "honest" distinction between his current society or the "worker's paradise" of Stalin's Russia? Most people, other than cartoonists who delight in ├ępater le bourgeois, think that most modern developed countries have achieved a "practical and honest way to organize society around the notion of freedom".

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