It’s Your Free Choice, Research Time, 10/10/2014

There’s a line in my play You Were My Friend, when both characters have two private monologues with the audience, as their worlds and their friendship are starting to collapse under the weight of being overworked, underpaid, and overstressed. Vicki contemplates the growing nihilism of her friend and asks “What’s the point of being alive if you’re just going to give up? Giving up on finding work means starving, and who wants to starve?”

Even in this dilemma, libertarians see freedom. It isn’t just an exaggeration or a joke, like in the “Mr. Nozick’s Neighbourhood” cartoon on Existential Comics. Remember G, my more dogmatic libertarian former friend I’ve spoken about before? He once wrote to me that if you had a choice between taking a job that couldn’t even keep you out of poverty and actually starving, you were still perfectly free in your decision. In the libertarian perspective, even the most terrifying material destitution doesn’t degrade your precious liberty. At the time, I couldn’t understand it, and G couldn’t explain it to me. Oddly, C never really did explain that idea to me either, even though he always had a firm intellectual grasp of libertarian philosophy across several disciplines. 

It's not as though he's ever late getting home from work.
At least Robert Nozick could explain it to me this morning as I was taking the train home from Oakville. No action is ever totally free. I can’t speed-run home from Sheridan College in the afternoon like The Flash because it’s physically impossible, so I read philosophy on the train instead. Even if I owned a car, I’d still take the train because so many other people decide to drive that the highway between Oakville and Hamilton is often catastrophically blocked, and I’d face the irritation of spending too long in a traffic jam unable to read philosophy at all. So the free decisions of many other people to drive constitute an environment that constrains my choice of transport to the GO Train.

According to Nozick’s conception, I voluntarily choose an action if another person, agency, or institution doesn’t actively interfere with my body and force me to do that action. The free decisions of many other people constitute an ecology of actions that put environmental constraints on what is physically possible for you to do. Here’s something like the analogy that Nozick uses to describe this.

Bob wants to date Alison, but Alison is already married to Bill, and has been happily married to him for four years. They began their own relationship long before Bob even met Alison. So Alison and Bill’s free choice, to date and marry each other, constrain Bob’s actions because Bob dating Alison is off the table. But because its ultimate effects on Bob never played a factor in Bill and Alison’s decision to marry, they never made Bob’s actions involuntary, never took away his freedom. Their decision simply constituted an environmental constraint on what Bob could do.

The same, says Nozick, is true of economic constraints on your actions. The ecological relationships and dynamics of a free market are the products of millions and billions of individuals’ decisions that interact to create an immense set of environmental constraints on our actions. No one is directly forcing Vicki into a choice between finding one drudgery job after another or starving on the street, but nonetheless, those are her only alternatives. 

Even though you are materially extremely constrained, you still have your liberty because only the intentional actions of people or institutions, taking you as an object, can remove your liberty. 

The other day, I spoke about how I found John Rawls’ philosophy inadequate to the real problems of politics because his vision of justice lays aside too much about a person’s identity and history as morally irrelevant. Well, Nozick has similar blinders on his own moral philosophical vision. Moral relevance for him rests with individuals only: intentional acts to coerce and constrain which violate the liberty of an individual are immoral. But the suffering that can emerge from an environment constituted by a billion individual decisions includes no intentional acts. Most of the people whose actions contribute to these conditions of suffering, myself included, never meet the people who suffer because of the global economic and ecological relationships in which I am embedded. 

Vicki and Madison, the protagonists of You Were My Friend, suffer and are broken because of an ecology of acts that constrain their choices to desperation. Yes, they’re free in the sense that no one is physically and directly constraining and coercing them, but freedom in destitution is materially worthless.

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