There’s much that’s misleading in politics. But perhaps the worst offender is the common claim that Right-wing “libertarians” (e.g. ACT) champion the value of individual freedom. They stand for non-interference, but this “negative freedom” is only half the story. The more important aspect of freedom is opportunity.
Imagine you find yourself stuck down a well. Libertarians claim that you are perfectly free so long as everybody else leaves you alone, since that way you suffer no interference. But surely we can see that this is mistaken. If left alone, you would dwindle and die. That’s not any sort of freedom worth having. Real freedom requires that you be rescued from the well. Until that happens, you lack any opportunities to act and achieve your goals. And that is clearly what really matters.
Of course, most of us aren’t stuck down wells. But the example proves an important point. If you agree that the person stuck down the well lacks freedom, then you are committed to the view that freedom requires more than mere non-interference, for they suffer no lack of that!
For a more politically relevant example, consider the consequences of poverty. It is not enough to leave poor children alone: by letting them starve, we do not thereby make them “free” in any worthwhile sense. The fulfillment of basic needs is a prerequisite to any form of freedom worth having.
When right-wingers claim to stand for “freedom”, they conceal this crucial point. What they really stand for is non-interference, and that only means freedom for those who have the means to take advantage of it – freedom for the rich, in other words. Non-interference won’t free children from poverty any more than it will free the person stuck down the well. Sometimes freedom requires positive action.
Further, sometimes achieving an important freedom requires us to sacrifice a less important one. Do traffic laws count as “government interference”? Clearly the laws do restrict us, removing our right to drive wherever we please. But in return, we get functioning roads that enable us to actually get where we want to go. Some interference is justified for the sake of improving our real opportunities. This sacrifice yields a net benefit to our real freedom.
So how about poverty, then? Could tax similarly be justified on the grounds of freedom itself? Sure, the rich might have to give up their caviar. But if this enables the poor to meet their basic needs, get a decent education, and so forth, then this too looks like a net gain for freedom. More opportunities have been gained than lost. And that’s what really matters.
Non-interference is utterly worthless in the absence of opportunity. Ford used to say, “You can have any colour you want, so long as it’s black.” Some choice that is! But for people who lack options to begin with, that’s the only “freedom” that the Right wing has to offer. Don’t let the common rhetoric mislead you. They promote non-interference, whereas the Left promotes opportunity – thus enabling people to lead the lives they want to live. If you agree that it’s the latter sort of freedom that matters, you might find it better championed by the Greens than ACT.