Monday, February 05, 2007

Freeing Constraints

Sometimes, paradoxical though it may sound, constraints can make us more free. The classic example features Odysseus binding himself to the ship's mast so that he might safely listen to the Siren's song. Mundane examples along the same lines might involve self-imposed threats and incentives to encourage our future selves to overcome weak-willed procrastination. In such cases, we sacrifice our freedom at a moment in order to achieve greater freedom overall.

But not all instances of "freeing constraints" involve cross-temporal tradeoffs. Another important class of freedoms may be obtained by relieving an unwanted option from others' expectations. I've previously explained the potentially liberating effects of making cycle helmets compulsory in a society where there had been social pressure against them, for example. A more serious example would be headscarf bans in French schools, which free Muslim girls from culturally imposed (and not always welcome) dress norms.

G.A. Cohen has made similar observations about how constraints can improve the options open to the desperate in bargaining situations. Consider a desert island situation: if my life depends upon your co-operation, then you are in a position to demand anything at all from me in exchange. But if there are constraints on what I am free to give, then these are also constraints on what you can demand from me.

If I can't repay my debts, might I be forced to sell not just my house, but also my kidney? Or might someone be disqualified from unemployment benefits because they haven't tried the "option" of prostituting themselves? (Of course, a total ban may not be the only - or the best - way to protect against these threats. But they serve to illustrate the general point.)


  1. Another G.A. Cohen example is redistributive taxation. Even if I believe I ought to give lots of my money away in order to benefit the poor, I may not trust myself to do this freely, and so campaign for compulsory taxation.

    Also, another example to illustrate your second point is banks who put their vaults on special locking systems. By locking themselves out of their vaults, they decrease the ease of bank robbery.

    (on a tangential note, I was reading up on bike helmets the other day; apparently their fail to decrease bike accidents since people compensate by riding/driving more riskily.)

  2. I was thinking of it this way, in terms of desires v. freedoms:

    1. What things do you desire to do that you are not free to do? (make a list)
    2. What things do you desire to do that you should not be free to do?

    (1) might be easy to answer. You might desire to do something against the law in your locale (e.g. medical marijauna; say that you am convinced that it actually may be beneficial to you) that you are not free to do. (2) is harder. You might think that your desire is to pay no taxes, but then on reflection you really don't desire that, since if that desire were permitted to be fulfilled, then everyone would clamor for the same freedom, and then where would the society you live in be?

    For (2): is there really anything you desire to do that you should not be free to do?

  3. I agree that constraints can promote freedom.

    But re-consider the case raised by Cohen. Suppose that, shy of me giving this guy everything I own, he won't cooperate with me. But I need his cooperation to live. A constraint that would prevent my giving everything to this guy just amounts to my being constrained from saving my life in a case like this. Since I prefer my life to everything I own, this would be a bad constraint in a case like this.

    The case of the kidneys and prostitution lends itself to your point in the case you give. But suppose the case is different. Suppose I have no particular attachment or hang-ups about selling my kidneys. Suppose I don't feel disgust or displeasure at the thought of selling it. Why shouldn't that be part of my option-set? I suppose if there are spillover effects (my selling my kidney might add to the pressure Jones feels for selling his, even though that's the last thing he wants to do), then that would be reason to worry. But.... still...

  4. I think there can be no question that freedom is attained by the imposition of limit. Water without a hose will not run and use factor is limited or lost. Discipline results in the attainment of greater freedom. The only real question to be answered I know of is who shall impose the restriction.


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