In most political rhetoric, the ideal of freedom is accepted a priori- as both the medium and end goal of all economic and political organization. Such a sentiment is nowhere more tangible than in Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. The majority of arguments put forth by Hayek assume the necessity of freedom and subsequently debate the best way to promote it through government intervention (or the lack of it). Indeed, I am inclined to agree with this conception of freedom as a believer in democracy and open markets. Nevertheless, Hayek’s seemingly blind acceptance of freedom irked me. The following are my thoughts on the true importance of freedom, examined using logic and my free time.
Freedom as the key to happiness
Utilitarian philosophy, used quite widely due to its convenience and objectivity*, would dictate that maximizing happiness is the point of any socioeconomic organization and activity. Many people additionally believe freedom is the most important factor determining the happiness of a life. Following this logic, then, freedom is a valid goal as maximizing freedom also maximises happiness, thus fulfilling the inherent purpose of socioeconomic activity. However, the flaws in this thinking have already been widely discussed, such as the lack of measurability of “freedom” and “happiness”, both subjective terms. Additionally, and perhaps primarily, the causal connection between freedom and happiness is not as obvious as it first seems. How would one set about proving that all people consider freedom paramount to their happiness? It is impossible to consign such a subjective relationship to the realm of commonly accepted natural laws. We can thus conclude that freedom being important due to its importance in our happiness an incomplete and unprovable, although not illogical or impossible, point.
Freedom as a proud tradition
Hayek makes the point that freedom has been an ideal enshrined by centuries of Western political thinkers and philosophers, beginning as early as Aristotle and Seneca. This intellectual tradition, then, delineates the importance of freedom as a societal ideal. It is not difficult to refute this point. As Amartya Sen rightly pointed out in Development as Freedom-
There is a substantial tendency to extrapolate backward from the present. Values that European Enlightenment and other relatively recent developments have made common and widespread cannot really be seen as part of the long-run Western heritage … What we do find … is support for selected components of the comprehensive notion that makes up the contemporary idea of political liberty.”
That all of Western thought collectively deifies the ideal of freedom is a weak argument, based on a narrow view of history and its philosophers. Additionally, even if this point was assumed to be true, it does not justify the importance of freedom today. Tradition does not necessarily equal morality. Other clearly evil traditions such as slavery and misogyny were similarly a significant part of Western history, yet nobody argues to preserve these traditions, justifiably viewing them as unnecessary and backward.
Examination of necessity
Perhaps it would be more fruitful to examine what is necessarily important, searching for a common characteristic that makes things worth idealizing and defending. For example, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who would seriously make the point that food, water or heat are unimportant. The only common characteristic between food, water and heat is that they are all biologically necessary to survive**. It seems that are no other things or properties that can be confidently said to be necessary and important to all persons.
We are forced to conclude, then, that beyond those things made necessary by biological conditions, the “importance” of any ideal in society is purely dictated by arbitrary conventions of morality and tradition. This is a wholly unsatisfying, trivial and obvious conclusion. Further exploration of the ideal of freedom is required to yield any useful or new thoughts.
*Relative to other philosophical schools of morality
**This calls for a further analysis of various paradigms of necessity, such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.