How far does individual freedom reach?

The costs of prohibition are great, but can people be trusted to make the best decisions for themselves?

DANIEL JACOBSON: The term liberal has changed its meaning over the course of the twentieth century and it's confusing in a lot of ways. Nowadays people use it often, especially in the United States as a synonym for left wing or progressive, but liberalism was a movement in political philosophy and the history of ideas that was more coherent than that. And that has some aspects of left wing and some aspects of right wing politics. So, it's not really useful to try to locate it on some political spectrum. The best way to think of liberalism, I think, is as individualist rather than statist. So the classical liberals, and I'll just use liberal from now on to mean classical liberal, valued individual rights, personal responsibility, democracy. They favored democracy because democracy was the rule of the people by the people rather than the rule by someone else. But they saw it as having some inherent dangers. Rule of law, the same rules should apply to everyone in society, but liberals thought that laws should be constrained, that there were limits to what legal authority could do to the individual, how it could compel the individual.

Liberals see freedom primarily in terms of what's sometimes called negative freedom. Freedom from being compelled either by the state or by other people by society as opposed to the freedom to do various things. What kind of political coercion would be a violation of individual freedom. Well, for Mill this sphere of liberty, this doctrine of the rights of individuality, he calls it, which extends to self-sovereignty, to sovereignty over my own mind and body to the liberty of us to associate consensually, and to liberties of conscience including freedom of speech. He thinks that those are inviolable, those liberties. This is a radical doctrine. It's a radical doctrine even for liberals because it means that all forms of compulsion designed to protect people from themselves, to keep people from harming themselves or to force people to do things that are good for them.

Now it should be said we're talking about sound-minded adults here, not children and people with mental illness. But even there it would rule out many forms of legislation as fundamentally illegitimate. It would rule out laws that prohibit the use of recreational or experimental drugs, for instance. It would rule out seatbelt laws. Mill thinks all of that sort of legislation, paternalist legislation is fundamentally illegitimate. Not because he thinks there aren't bad choices but because he thinks that it's up to individuals to choose whether they're going to do the things that are genuinely best for them.

So let's try taking that seriously. What would happen if we allowed say recreational drug use of all kinds, not just legalizing marijuana but legalizing opiates, say. Well, it's hard to justify the legalization of all drugs, but one thing that we can see is the cost and ineffectiveness of prohibition. Prohibition hasn't stopped an epidemic of opiate use. It has great financial costs, and it also has costs in terms of human lives.

Well, it's not clear to me that Mill was right that we have this absolute sovereignty over our bodies. I do think that it's clear that there are great costs for trying to prohibit what people do to themselves and it can be argued that we should be further towards Mill than we actually are. That we should allow people more freedom to decide how they're going to treat their own mind and body than we actually do. There are tradeoffs between different forms of good. And most liberals aren't quite as radical as Mill and they're not quite as radical not just because there are some drugs that they think it's okay to, that they think that the costs of prohibition aren't as great as the costs of legalization would be. But also because mandatory vaccinations, for instance, are coercively imposed on people who doubt their efficacy or think that they are dangerous. Nevertheless, most liberals think that those, that mandatory vaccination is worthwhile despite the sacrifice in individual freedom that it imposes. Because this is a case where the good of herd immunity is so great that it outweighs the bad of compulsion.

The crucial point for liberalism then isn't so much whether you're going to be an absolutist about self-sovereignty as holding, as not just Mill but all liberals do, that liberty ought to be the assumption, the default. That it should be hard to justify compulsion, especially about these most fundamental aspects of the way that we live our lives and that we should be extremely cautious when we do so and recognize what we're giving up as well as what we're gaining.

  • Classical liberals favor democracy because it operates as a ruling of the people by the people, rather than rule by someone else.
  • This lends itself to the concept of negative freedom, or freedom from being compelled by the state or other authority to do something. So Daniel Jacobson, professor of philosophy at University of Michigan, raises the question: Do we have absolute sovereignty over our bodies?
  • The crucial point for liberalism is that liberty ought to be the default. It shouldn't be easy to justify compulsion.