Freedom is (intrinsically) Worthless

Hugh Burling explains how calls for ‘freedom’ are really calls for someone else to give up something precious to them so you can have something you want instead.


Political rhetoric involves a lot of appeals to ‘freedom’, ‘liberty’, and ‘liberation’. ‘Liberalism’ covers a vast swathe of political tendencies and programmes. When we want to advocate a policy, we often reach for freedom first, and dignity or justice only when ‘freedom’ doesn’t stick.

Taking schools and hospitals out of democratic control is dressed up as giving parents and patients ‘more choice’. Legally affirming the collapse of marriage, from a society-shaping institution into a contract between two lovers, is described as ‘ending a ban’. Violently wrecking foreign countries’ governments when they disobey American diplomats is touted as ‘spreading freedom’.

‘Freedom’ is not valuable in itself. The word ‘freedom’, in the mouths of all but the most arcane metaphysician or political theorist, is free of any meaning. It’s a Trojan horse used to package projects and goals we want, then smuggle them into others’ minds when we can’t convincingly articulate why those goals are worth pursuing.

We appeal to ‘freedom’ when we want the government not to do something, and when we want the government to take steps to do something; when we want to be left alone and when we want special treatment.

Consider a nice, straightforward case: the freedom to drink. Let’s make it even simpler by considering just one kind of drink, gin.

I’m not free to drink gin if the government bans it.

But I’m also not free to drink gin if it’s too expensive for the Dutch to export it to my country.

My freedom to drink gin is going to be relative to my income, and relative to my drinking habits.

If I’m a recovering alcoholic I’m not free to drink gin because I need to stay on the wagon. But if I’m an alcoholic, I’m not free to drink gin because I must drink it.

To maximize my freedom just along this trivial gin-based dimension, the government would have to interfere less in the economy (cut gin taxes), but more in another nation’s economy (cut a trade deal), but more in the economy (secure a level of income for me which makes gin affordable).

It would need to cut back on support for Alcohol Aware and Alcoholics Anonymous, because by reminding me of my resolution to stay off the sauce, they interfere with my freedom.

But it would need to give more support for Alcohol Aware and Alcoholics Anonymous, because by helping me fight my alcoholism, they support my freedom.

So ‘more freedom’ can mean less coercion by governments which is obvious (through a ban) as well as less coercion by governments which is more subtle (through taxes and trade deals). But ‘more freedom’ also means more of the actual ability to get what we want, through our economic fortune and our personal virtue (or, if you prefer, ‘mental wellbeing’). And these might require more coercion by governments, through minimum wages, or public education and health services, for example.

And then there are freedoms which can only exist when their end exists: I can’t be free to marry in a society where everyone lives in communes, like 1960s China, or where people have been raised psychologically incapable of keeping lifelong promises, like Belgium in the current year. I can’t be free to drink gin in a society which hasn’t discovered distillation.

Why would less coercion by governments matter? Only because government coercion can prevent us from getting things we want, from acquiring and securing what is good for us. Imagine a ‘noble savage’, an individual living free of any government coercion. Throw in, if you are a proper progressive, the absence of any customs, institutions, traditions and strong, interesting beliefs which might limit the ‘free’ operation of her ‘natural’ will and intellect.

Now make the thought experiment really interesting: put them before a friendly Skynet console with access to infinite material resources. Anything they want, so long as they can key in a command for it, will be provided by Skynet’s graces. Our savage is now maximally free. But suppose there isn’t anything she wants.

(There are two reasons someone who doesn’t have everything, might yet not want anything. They might be ignorant of what’s good for them. What determines what’s good for someone? Their nature. Food and shelter and fellowship are good for us because we’re humans, but not much good for stars or computer programmes. The other way for someone to want nothing is if they only want what’s good for them, but have no nature, so that nothing is good for them.)

What would our noble savage’s freedom be worth to her if she didn’t want any particular thing? Nothing at all. Freedom is only valuable as a means to an end, as an instrument.

Once we recognize this, we can understand why people with such radically different political goals can all appeal to ‘freedom’, and all have different views about what roles governments – and ‘the market’, and traditions and customs – should play in different parts of our lives.

They disagree about which goods are important, and how much, and how to weigh them against each other. What’s more, the goods about which people disagree can be very different in kind. So securing access to one might need the government to take positive action in one way, whilst securing access to another might need it to back off in another way.

For example: if a group sets a higher value on raising children and praising God than on romantic love, then they will be more concerned about school autonomy than ensuring teachers toe society’s line on marriage. If another group ranks these two goods differently, then they might be ready to risk the security of the former goods to expand access to the latter good – perhaps by altering the legal framework surrounding popular institutions which celebrate romantic love.

Of course, goods can be described in more or less appealing ways to try and shift how opponents weigh different goods – or reinforce how our allies weigh them. “The traditional family unit” sounds like an option in a kitchen catalogue. Not worth protecting if there’s some other good we might expand access to. “Obedience to the crackpot schemes of a grumpy sky-fairy” doesn’t sound worth securing access to, at the risk of access to romantic love.

But “cellophane-wrapped flowers and cuddles” doesn’t sound worth securing access to, either; not, at least at the risk of…well, it doesn’t sound worth risking anything for. Compare “unborn children” with “tadpoles”, or “job security” with “red tape”. It’s goods, and loaded descriptions of them, that determine which specific freedoms, and which kinds of freedoms, people care about and fight for. ‘Freedom’ itself is not what’s at stake.


Some people prefer waving flags and taking their clothes off. Some people prefer not being laid low by musket balls. Liberalism offers no advice on weighing these competing goods. (“Liberty Leading the People”, by Eugene Delacroix.)

But by spinning this illusion about the existence of ‘freedom’ as a thing in itself, and talking up how precious it is, we get an easy way to drum up energy among our allies – when we march, we march for liberation! And we get an easy way to demonize our enemies – they want to oppress you!

That ‘freedom’ is used in this way is good news for you. If you are reading this, you are probably a student at an expensive and prestigious university. This means that you are overwhelmingly likely to be involved in producing and disseminating propaganda later in your life. This could be directly, by going into politics, journalism, the ‘third sector’, or the academy. Or it could be indirectly, through earning more money, paying more taxes, and deciding to do nothing to frustrate the propaganda programme you pay for, and your former classmates operate. Now, when people you don’t care about make a nuisance of themselves by trying to secure something they want in a way which jeopardizes your access to something you want, you can cry ‘oppression’ against them and cast yourself as a ‘liberator’. You’ll almost certainly shut them down, and it feels good.

Hugh Burling is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Cambridge.

The  featured artwork is “Gin Lane”, by William Hogarth.

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