A common fault of our political discourse is that crude labels, terms and slogans are used as stand in for ideas when they, in fact, only stand for attitudes and opinion preferences*. I don’t know if this is due to our ingrained habits of practicing reductionism, so useful in physical science, frequently so wrongheaded and fallacious when dealing with complex areas of life.
The idea that freedom and equality are separate and opposing ideals is often stated in attacks made on liberalism. The idea that forcing equal treatment of all people will damage the freedom of some of them seems to make sense. After all, when there is a clash of interests and the mandated results are equal, someone is usually not going to get to do something they want to do. But that assumes that all of what we call freedoms or, as some like to say, liberties, are all the same in value and necessity. It pretends that things we call “freedoms” are really the same sorts of things.
The ability to do what is necessary for the simple sustenance of life is clearly not in the same category as exercising a preference in entertainment options, though both are talked about as being “freedoms”. The freedoms of most interest to people who don’t confront a daily danger of starvation or disease are frequently those which fall decidedly into the category “optional”. I’d guess the largest number of the pixels and spots of ink spent on passionately discussing “freedom” in the United States today would fall into the range of the somewhat unimportant to the entirely frivolous and on to the clearly stupid. The English language isn’t used very precisely to distinguish between the freedom to ask for enough to eat to live another day and to freely promote the non-regulation of “new financial instruments”. And there are real consequences in that inability to rank the two in importance as the politics of the past several decades shows. It is a tell-tale symptom of a fatally sick country when there is more freedom to grab the media and political office to lie on behalf of con men and thieves than the advocates of economic equality have.
Is there a right to lie? Is there a right to promote fraud? Does the freedom to lie, as the advocates of unregulated markets have enjoyed in abundance, have any real value that we need to protect? Is it a “freedom” when the results rob millions of their money and their ability to exercise the freedom to keep what they earn and to live in a home instead of on the street?
I don’t think there is any right to lie. Especially when the lie is magnified in the mass media and produces a real loss of rights to innocent people. The “freedom” to lie isn’t a freedom that I need to defend. I think a political and legal system that doesn’t make the distinction between the freedom to lie and right to tell the truth is not viable in the long run. I don’t think a political or legal system that treats contracted lies, based in clear and well funded deception, as instruments of “freedom” granting con men the force of law is sustainable. The enormous number of means devised to lie and deceive for profit during the past forty years are what has produced the situation we are in today. Pretending that those duped by them are free agents only makes the courts and the government the allies of the thieves.
There is also no justice to be had in a legal system in which those with the financial means can hire lawyers to grind down those they wrong. There is no democracy when those with money can turn an election to those who will serve them instead of the deceived public. Any government and legal system which willfully ignores the inequality in a system such as ours and treats the entirely predictable overall result is an engine that ensures the elective freedom of the few and destroys the real freedom of the many. Real equality isn’t opposed to real freedom, it is a prerequisite for it to exist. Real justice doesn’t allow someone with vast resources to ‘freely’ use them while the opposition has no such resources. Any judge that pretends they are administering justice in such an unequal match is a fraud. A real justice system would make certain that the resources brought to bear in legal cases were the same.
While the dolor expressed by those deprived of their “freedom” to exercise their ability to cheat by deception or to enjoy the dividends of legalized theft may be quite genuine, it isn’t the same kind of thing as the anguish of someone who has been roped in by the whiles of a con man and robbed of what they need to survive. There is no equality in the cleptocracy we live in, and the freedoms are as ill distributed as the money is.
* I think this substitution of merely symbolic concepts to stand in for more complex realities accounts for a lot of the intellectual stagnation we experience. It’s harder to look at what is really there and face that there isn’t going to be any way to fit that reality into a logical or statistical engine to get an entirely stable result than it is to pretend that you can. I think that accounts for some of the more brutal blog brawls you see among people who are generally in agreement. You can reduce reality down only so far, then trying to force further reduction, however convenient it seems, doesn’t work to produce either a realistic view or something that really works.