Does anyone really believe in freedom? (other than us, of course)

by Carl V Phillips

Bear with me.  This ends up on-topic.

Today I experienced the remarkable coincidence of having twitter arguments (which I never ever do, because trying to converse on twitter is stupid[*]) with two professional colleagues, who are also friends,  They would generally be regarded as pretty much, respectively, left-wing and right-wing by many observers, and both (I would venture to say) see themselves as staunch defenders of the rights and freedoms of individuals.  Both conversations consisted of me challenging them over statements that struck me as harmfully anti-freedom.

[*To avoid any risk of unintentional offense, I will explicitly point out that this parenthetical is self-referentially ironic, self-deprecating, and obviously false.  A gentleman never offends someone unintentionally.]

From the left came an attack on the U.S. government trade negotiators, who are objecting to proposed special tariffs on cigarette imports (probably all tobacco products, actually) by countries in a free-trade zone.  Just to clarify, free trade would still allow them to impose sales taxes and other restrictions on tobacco sales, as is common — they would just not be allowed to favor domestic products over imports by adding a special tax on the imports.  My friend is an expert economist and acknowledged the great value of free trade, but argued that for these particular products, the health concerns outweigh the value of freedom.

My point (to the extent that I could make it using 20 word bursts) was basically: Who gets to decide what is the one exception to a useful principle of freedom, that one thing that is unlike any other?  (This is rather similar to the classic political science question, Who guards the guardians?)  One minority, which happens to hold a lot of sway over several governments right now, believes that tobacco (notice I did not say “cigarettes”) is the one item that rises to that level of exceptionalism.  Other minorities, some of which hold sway over some governments, are quite certain that the “so bad that it constitutes the unique exception” category is books, or “blasphemous” artwork, or Hollywood movies, or any recreational drug no matter how benign.  Still other minorities (mostly without much sway in the world) would make exceptions to free trade (in support of their personal political goals) for certain foods, coffee, children’s cartoons and toys, petroleum from Canada, etc.

My point was not that there is a slippery slope (though that may be true also), but rather is why should anyone get to decide that their favorite cause, no matter how good a case they think there is for it, constitutes the exception to a valuable general freedom (which in this case, the commentator agreed is valuable), especially when many people disagree with their view?  The answer is, of course, that despite the timeless insights of Madison, Jefferson, and many others, it is difficult for anyone to accept the value of a principle or process (be it freedom or anything else), no matter how important it is, when it conflicts with their gut view about what people ought to be doing.

There is also the problem that many people subconsciously think their political faction will remain in power or soon be in power and stay there, so there is no worry about the harm that would be caused by someone else imposing their “bad” views about what exceptions should be made.

I had a friend (much older than I, obviously) who had been personally attacked and seriously harmed by the Joseph McCarthy witch-hunts by the U.S. government.  And yet he was the staunchest paleo-liberal believer that government was the solution to most every problem.  Continuing the irony, his academic and political career was devoted to fighting for particular freedoms in the education system, but he was very much on the losing side when I knew him.  His preferred version of the system had been completely crushed by actions of the Bush administration and many states.  And yet he remained opposed to, say, free-choice in education that would allow some enlightened people to pursue his vision, because he was subconsciously certain that his side would ascend to power and be able to impose the choice throughout the system.

Coming from the political right today on twitter was an endorsement and continued defenses of this horrible editorial at a magazine/website that is a flagship for the self-proclaimed “libertarian” movement.  The commentary criticized — indeed, aggressively ridiculed — prisoner Chelsea Manning (nee Private Bradley Manning, US Army, the Wikileaks leaker) for declaring her new name and gender identity today.  Setting aside the author’s glaring ignorance of the difference between gender and sex (you think he might have bothered to learn that before opining on the issue), why would a supposed defender of liberty attack someone for exercising this most intimate of personal freedoms?

Seriously — if they were looking for a way to support the widespread stereotype that people who adopt the political identity “libertarian” are mostly just extremists of a different sort who merely pretend they are all about liberty, then they could not have done much better.  Keep in mind that the author and my friend were not criticizing, say, an illiberal government dictate that the press must refer to someone with her preferred gender pronoun even if their stylebook calls for basing that on sex rather than gender.  They were attacking her for declaring her new gender and politely requesting that others respect it.

Why would libertarian commentators proactively tout this message that serves no apparent purpose other than announcing, “just as you might have suspected, we really only believe in the liberties that we personally (or our rich patrons) want to exercise — beyond that, we have the same illiberal ‘moral’ preferences as anyone else”?  The answer is, of course, in my phrasing of the question.  Very few people, left or right, no matter how dedicated to individual rights and freedoms they geninely believe themselves to be, can overcome their personal moral/emotional/subconscious disgust, disdain, or mere patronizing looking-down-upon about the choices that some other people want to make.

And that brings me back to on-topic, as promised.  I have often said that the choice of what to smoke/chew/vape/inject/snort/etc. is the most intimate personal choice after the choice of who to sleep with.  (I think I may need to put the choice of gender up above it now too, though that is a comparatively rare consideration.)  But there is a remarkable tendency of people who engage in one of those behaviors that is under attack from a special-interest minority (say, vaping) to join in the disdain for people who engage in another one of those behaviors that is under attack from a special-interest minority (say, smoking).  I notice that the vaper-vs-smoker bickering seems to have flared up again on twitter (I need to get out more, don’t I?).

Most notoriously, the International Harm Reduction Association (now known as HRI) aggressively rejected the adoption of tobacco harm reduction as part of their goal because, well, defending the rights of junkies is important, but tobacco use is just Irredeemably Bad.  In an interesting contrast, the pro-cannabis activists seemed to have played an important role, alongside CASAA and others, in finally defeating the proposed California restrictions on e-cigarettes this week.  Unfortunately, this may not represent a move toward “we drug users are all in this together, so let’s make common cause”, but rather was because they wanted to protect the availability of hardware that is similar to e-cigarettes for their drug of choice.  Once their political position is more secure, I am not sure we can expect their help again.

As one comment on the anti-Manning editorial noted, that commentary represented an attitude that is born of privilege.  If someone is quite sure they will never have need to exercise a particular freedom, it is easy to forget all those nice words about individual freedom and react only with personal policy preferences or disgust.  Someone who would never consider smoking (or smoking again) finds it all too easy to attack cigarettes, smoking, and smokers and not notice the similarity of that to attacks on their belief in the sacred right to vaping, or smoking weed, or being GLBT.

You see my point, so I will be brief in my conclusions:  My dear fellow THR advocates and practitioners, you have seen and felt the threat to freedom from the anti-THR special interests.  Realize that you cannot credibly argue for your favored personal freedom while attacking someone who is exercising another  very personal freedom.  Try to persuade smokers to adopt THR while still respecting them as allies even if they are not persuaded.  And perhaps even think a little bit about non-tobacco freedoms and seek common cause with their defenders.

8 responses to “Does anyone really believe in freedom? (other than us, of course)

  1. The reason why smoking and drug use are libertarian causes is that the authorities will fine, arrest or possibly imprison you if you break any of the numerous laws that limit or prohibit their use. By contrast, none of the supposedly hypocritical libertarians are calling for the state to take action against Manning because he has decided he would like to be a woman. Nobody is demanding that he be punished or censored for changing his name. He is free to live as he likes (with the large caveat of his 35 year prison sentence!) and to call himself what he likes. Whether people choose to recognise his new identity or ignore it, there are no issues of liberty at stake. At worst, those who ignore it could be accused of hurting his feelings, but they are not depriving him of his liberty. Indeed, it is more likely that the person who ignores Manning’s request will find himself at the wrong end of some law against transphobic hate speech, if not now then in the future.

    The focus of the weird twitter arguments today is not that Manning declaring that “I am female” (his exact words) is immoral or offensive or anything like that. It is just that he is empirically wrong. Whatever the differences between gender and sex, the word “female” has a very clear definition that cannot be obscured by cultural Marxism and relativist waffle. He can say he wants to be a female, or that he feels female, or even that is convinced that he literally is female, but that does not actually make him a female. Maybe there are half-witted sociologists who would complain that the dictionary is an oppressor of people and we should be free to change the meaning of words as and when we like, but I have no time for such sophistry. People are free to treat Manning as if he were a female – and I would probably do the same if I knew him – but it is strange and rather Kafkaesque to be accused of bigotry for pointing out the simple truth that he has XY chromosomes and no ovaries.

    • Carl V Phillips

      Without belaboring it too much, because it is rather off-topic: Sex refers to the biological phenomenon, and is determined by objective characteristics, while gender is a matter of social construction (about self-identity and how someone lives) and, most who understand the concept would argue, is entirely determined by the individual. So in actual “fact”, someone declaring herself female does make her female (gender). It turns out that even for sex, the line is not clear-cut a nontrivial portion of the time, though I have not heard any suggestion that Manning has any sex ambiguity. The editorial author repeatedly claimed that Manning was declaring a change in sex, when obviously she was talking about gender, which alone is reason to be embarrassed about the commentary’s existence in a publication that is strongly associated with a particular political faction.

      More to the point of my post, that bright line view of defending freedom — if government interferes with a personal liberty it is bad, but if someone else tries to do it, it is of no consequence — is not what most people would consider a serious defense of freedom. It puts a finer point on that comment about this being an attitude born of privilege. If we remove restrictions of various drugs (including tobacco) from the question, which is the government illiberalism that is the most materially oppressive for most people, I would guess that about 75%, maybe 90%, of the population cares far more about their losses of freedom created by private actors rather than high-level government. If you just ask a vague question about government and freedom you will get a partisan political views (right-wing Americans who do not like government ensuring that “those people” have health insurance cry that the Affordable Care Act hurts their freedom, even though it actually has zero material impact on almost all of them). But if you asked about actual real impacts you would find that most of the losses of control over their own lives that they care about (other than drug use) come at the hands of employers, landlords, banks, etc., and from social discrimination, simple poverty, and harassment by the police (which is local government, of course, but feels very different from the vague principles that get talked about as libertarian issues). This is why many consider those on the left to be the real defenders of individual liberty and the “libertarian” political movement to just be the 1% (who have so much power that they are not subject to all those other losses of freedom and merely are trying to avoid paying taxes for the commonweal) trying to increase their own power at the expense of everyone else’s freedom. (Fwiw, my personal view is that both sides of the fight about who is really the defender of liberty have some valid points and that there is no clear winner.) As long as the political actors consider large-scale wealth distribution and its consequences to be central to “liberty”, discussions of “liberty” will really be about the power politics of that issue (and both sides can legitimately state their arguments in terms of someone’s liberty since it is, roughly speaking, a zero-sum liberty) and such issues of personal liberty as drug use and free speech will just be caught in the crossfire.

      Oh, and I don’t think Marx had anything to say about gender identity, one way or another. But that caustic remark does kind of relate my facepalm about that editorial. Why would a libertarian spokesman choose to go out of the way to ridicule something that many people consider to be among the most sacrosanct personal liberties, and that no one considers a threat to liberty (except perhaps a few bigots who are insecure about their own sexuality and take it out on others — not exactly who you want to be seen as allied with)? Especially when the individual in question is also widely considered a champion of free speech and a martyr to the worst kinds of government secrecy? Seriously bad tactics, dude.

      Relating these observations back to the topic of the blog, it is just a bad move to alienate potential allies with gratuitous comments (like the above or like “I don’t want to have to vape outside with the filthy smelly smokers”, an epithet which typically described the speaker himself for decades until just a year ago). There are so few issues of freedom that cut across class and “moral” beliefs that it is easy for people to forget that there are any at all. Thus it becomes easy to think that only the people in “my silo” (be that silo “freedom to accumulate wealth” or “freedom from gender discrimination” or “freedom from feudalistic oppression by the 1%”) are potential allies. That explains lots of dumb moves, like the IHRA refusing to seek common cause with THR — they see themselves as lefties and see THR as a righty movement (and this seems to be the case largely due to personal moral views about wealth distribution). If supporters of THR (and drug use freedom more generally) can step outside their gut moral instincts about wealth, drugs other than the one they like, guns, abortion, gender, militarism, etc., and also discipline their subconscious belief that people who share all their views will soon take over the government and make everything all right, then there is a much better chance of winning. Currently we are divided and increasingly conquered.

  2. Bravo Carl! Well said

  3. Excellent post, Carl! Thanks for helping solidify some thoughts that have been running around in my fuzzy brain for a while.

  4. Pingback: Does anyone really believe in freedom? (other than us, of course) | vapeforlife

  5. My right to swing my fists extends everywhere. Your right to swing your fists ends.
    That seems to be the new saying.
    What’s funny is when you stand in the middle you get attacked from both sides as the extreme opposite.

    I noticed when my state passed medical marijuana and included IBD (Crohn’s) they exempted users from dismissal based on blood tests. When they tried to allow hospitals to fire based on nicotine use there was no such exclusion for medical use for IBD (Ulcerative Colitis).
    When passing MMJ the ones who voted against it were the ones who tend to be against ACA wanting government to stay out of people’s doctors offices.
    It makes my head spin.

    • Carl V Phillips

      Nice observation. It certainly is true that many of those who invoke “freedom” mean “just for me and mine”. For readers who might not know, the reference is to the classic observation about the non-absoluteness of liberty, “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” which is believed to have first been written (and was at least made famous by) Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes. Anyone who claims that it is always self-evident which policy is supported by an appeal to liberty needs to be pointed toward this observation. As I noted in a previous comment, many liberties are zero-sum, and in the case of fist swinging much worse than that (freedom to swing fist does a lot more harm to others than it does good to the attacker).

      What constitutes protected freedom is largely about power politics (smokers have ceded their potential political power, thus no protection for medical uses; fortunately vapers got organized and proud before they could be turned into the equivalent of abused spouses who subconsciously side with their oppressors). All the more reason to seek common cause. The ACLU pulls it off, getting support from people who are worried about one particular issue (e.g., government secrecy) while including other related principles (e.g., identity-based policies) that the same people might not care about or even oppose at a policy level. It can be done.

  6. Pingback: Carl Phillips: Big Lies and Reconciliation - Page 2

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