Free to Choose

In a follow-up entitled "Tale of the Serf", Brad DeLong gives the hypothetical:

Here are two situations:

In the first, you are a free and independent peasant living in a village. Your field is your own. Your crops are you own. After working, you huddle before the fire in your peasant hut until you fall asleep. A smallpox epidemic comes. You, your spouse and your children all die.

In the second, you are a peasant living in a village. Once a year a thug with a spear--Sir Pierre de Bois-Guilbert, say--comes and takes 10% of your crop. He uses his takings to live well in the castle up on the hill. He also employs a troubadour who comes and entertains the peasants nightly in the village square, singing, juggling, and telling stories. He also employs chirurgeons who undertake research into the balance of the four humours. One day, the chirurgeons come with their knives: they cut the arms of you and your family, and insert some cowpox-infested tissue. When the smallpox epidemic comes, you and your family (and the other families in the village) survive.

In which situation are you "freer"? Do you really care whether you are "freer"?

Absolutely I care whether I am freer; my liberty is very important to me. Given the fixed constraints of DeLong?s hypothetical(†), there is no question ? I would choose the first situation. My life is my own, and I recognize no claim of a greater authority over it than my own.

I?m sure DeLong and most his commenters would choose the second situation. The sentence I just wrote is very important because it contains a key word on which the moral balance of hypothetical posed rests. That word is choose. You see, DeLong would choose to have the thug with a spear take his crop, and choose to have chirurgeons insert the vaccine into his arms. The chirurgeons would have his consent. That is his preference.

We all have different preferences. Depending on the circumstances, my preference might be to not have my crop taken from me and to not have the chirurgeons insert vaccine into my arms. Perhaps I believe the vaccine to be unsafe. Perhaps my crop will be better invested by my decisions. In the end, the specific reasons do not matter; what matters is consent.

However, based on his preferences, DeLong is willing to violate my consent.

In a free society, sovereign individuals respect each others preferences. DeLong could consent to give a portion of his crop to the thug with a spear and allow the chirurgeons to inject vaccine in his arm. Conversely, I could choose to keep my crop and choose not to be vaccinated. You would be free to choose, and others would respect your choices. That?s what civilized individuals do.

Of course, DeLong would likely make up some excuse for violating my consent anyway, like public goods problems, negative externalities, or simply the vague, undefined pit of darkness known as the ?common good?. But that doesn?t make it right. Violating another?s consent based on your own preferences is the ultimate selfishness.



(†) ? I have focused on the moral arguments in this response to DeLong?s questions. However, the entire hypothetical is a false dichotomy, as it is based on the consequential premise that it requires thugs and bandits for individuals to have vaccines, bards, and juggling.

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De Long's scenario makes the

De Long's scenario makes the same assumption as Marx: that exploitation is a necessary phase for history to move through, before "progressive" ends can be achieved. A free society of peasant cultivators and self-employed urban craftsmen could not, by voluntary cooperation, have brought about technical progress.

According to Marx, a society of free laborers, organized on the basis of voluntary cooperation and free exchange, would have stagnated in a pattern of primitive agriculture and individual artisan labor. According to Marx, exploitation can only end after ruling classes have a few thousand years to bang working peoples' heads together to impose technical progress on them and force cooperative forms of production on them from above. Working people are unable to cooperate with their fellows out of self-interest.

DeLong seems to agree. Had it not been for enclosures, expropriation, and the rest of that ball of wax, England would still be a nation of five or ten million peasants sitting on the front porch playing their banjos.

I don't believe that. I believe that at any point in history, existing technology could have been integrated into either a libertarian or authoritarian framework. Had the first states never come about, the free peasantry would have developed new ways of making their labor more productive. The artisan classes, livewise, would have engaged in cooperative labor and introduced new techniques to make their own labor easier and more productive. A society of increasing leisure would have supported the arts and scientific investigation.

Had not the absolute states of the early gunpowder age beseiged and sacked the free towns, and turned their countries into occupied territories, industrial technology and steam power would have been introduced through the framework of free guild federations. The technical basis of steam power had already been developed in the monasteries and urban communes of the high middle ages. If anything, the steam revolution was aborted and delayed a century or more by the absolute state.

Had the peasantry been left in possession of its own land, neighboring farmers would have cooperated voluntarily to share the expense of mechanized equipment.

Nice idea, wrong species.

Nice idea, wrong species.

Marx and all the other authoritarian wankers were right, we have to go through the thug stage, but wrong about why this is so because they didn't understand humans.

i like this site a lot its

i like this site a lot its helped me with school projects and i like the second choice more because you at least get to live. and for me theres tons of people with athority over my life like my parents im only 13 i cant control my life if i wanted to