Would/do we live in a free society?

To use the words of a person I’m very fond of, I believe that “life is meant to be lived away from the television,” the History Channel, HGTV, sports, and Family Guy notwithstanding.  I think Americas could stand to consume less TV, internet, video games, blogs, the other usual suspects, blah blah blah, kids these days, etc.   Old-fashioned fresh air is under-appreciated.  I also believe that although anthropomorphic global warming (i.e., that it is caused by human activity) is very likely a big hoax, propagated by some well-meaning media types because it is allegedly supported by a (relatively infantile) scientific field, we could all use our resources more appropriately and look for more efficient ways to preserve our world.  I really do.  Honest.

Apparently the California Energy Commission is considering a proposal that would ban the sale of non-energy efficient televisions, effectively taking 25% of TVs off the market in the state, most of them 40 inches or larger.  For a lot of people, this would require a lifestyle change– relatively minor, I’d argue, and maybe for their own good– all thanks to emerging environmental consciousness.  Again, I’m not knocking this new consciousness per se; I happen to think that it should convict us in a lot of ways.  Yet, as government stretches to impact a heretofore mundane aspect of the lives of private citizens, it’s an appropriate time to worry how far this consciousness can reach, and whether this consciousness is fully based in reality (the latter perhaps being better saved for another post).

The problem is, under the current environmental/public health paradigm, nearly any activity or lifeform can be characterized as a hazard.  We’ve all heard of taxing methane-producing (i.e., farting) cows– why not tax marathon runners?  Surely, they produce an disproportionate amount of  carbon dioxide.  This may strike one as absurd, but consider– British researchers have already determined that overweight people harm the planet by eating and driving in cars more than some arbitrary normal. “We need to be doing a lot more to reverse the global trend toward fatness, and recognize it as a key factor in the battle to reduce (carbon) emissions and slow climate change,” the British scientists said.  If the government believes these things are true, might it not also reasonably ration food (and food production), how far one can drive, and, in essence, prohibit someone from being overweight?  I realize this might come off as a theoretical exercise in the slippery slope, but really– where do you practically draw the line then?  We’re already considering telling people they can’t buy big-screen TVs, and mandate what sort of light bulbs they can have in their houses.  Heck, a pack of cigarettes in Manhattan now costs over $9 thanks to new federal “sin” taxes– I’ll give you a guess as to what the impetus was there.  And remember, these types of emerging consciousnesses have a tendency to keep emerging in a given direction, so what may seem absurd to us now…

All of this begs the question: thanks to legislation, we may live in a “healthy” society, a well-adjusted society, a clean and environmentally-conscious society, a smoke-free society, but  (and I hate this question, because it’s cliche, and because it involves a matter of degree and nearly endless haggling over definition) but would we live in a free society?  Is that still important?  Which is better? Are things as simple as consumer choices worth jeopardizing the planet over?  Or do these choices comprise a sort of spiritual freedom– the very liberty heralded by those venerated Founders– which in the balance outweighs the decrees of some well-meaning bureaucrats and scientists?  Or does democratic society, however enlightened it may be, still need to forfeit its discretion to its betters in these types of cases?

Hi, I still post here.

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10 Comments

Filed under Brandon

10 responses to “Would/do we live in a free society?

  1. czfinke

    Nice post.
    I struggle with the notion that the televisions I may or may not be able to purchase are directly related to my ability to live in a free society. If my freedom to choose is partially defined by my television, do I really mind losing a bit of freedom? I don’t know. We’ve brought down the idea of freedom to tvs. (I know you mentioned the difficulty of the discussion surrounding the semantic issue of freedom, and here I see the difficulty). Part of the problem, I guess, is that I do propagate scientific hoaxes, so I don’t mind losing some option in the big box electronics store when it comes to televisions, particularly if they can cut down on waste.

  2. czfinke

    After posting here, I visited Pandas, and saw WH’s response there.
    Didn’t mean to repeat his point. Great liberals think alike, I suppose.

  3. Holly

    Thanks for raising this question, B. It reminds me of an AP story I saw today re: certain workers not having paid sick days. Though the article was in the “News” section, it was really just an argument that the US should get with it — just as 140 other countries have done — and require employers to give their employees sick days.

    Absent from the article were two things: (1) the cost to employers in giving paid sick days to their employees and the impact that might have on the economy and (2) the potential for abuse that may arise if people can just call in sick and get paid.

    Those omissions are irrelevant to my point — except for the fact that the inclusion of those two ideas may have prompted more readers to ask the question, “Why would I want my government to MANDATE certain economic behaviors?”

    I agree that workers should have paid sick days, but the ones who need to take that up with the employers should be the workers themselves. If they belong to a union, then they need to pressure the union to fight for that benefit; if they are in a profession that doesn’t give them representation or a voice, then they need to make a career change to get into a job that gives them paid sick days. Neither one of these solutions is easy, but both are an empowering exercise of one’s freedom.

    When we ask our government to solve our simple, localized problems (e.g. fatness, carbon footprint, lack of retirement funds, inability to afford our jumbo mortgages, etc.), instead of working to remedy these issues for ourselves, we invite upon ourselves a nanny state. We become again like infants — safe and secure, but ultimately without much responsibility and freedom. Kids don’t get to set their own rules until they grow up and leave the house. Why do we want to move back in with our parents?

  4. jdm

    It is not uncommon for the market to fail to accurately price a commodity. Goods can have externalities, which are the good or bad effects of the commodity that are not captured in the price of the commodity. A classic example of a positive externality is the polio vaccine. Our parents generation was vaccinated and we have received the benefits of that good without having to pay for it. A classic example of a negative externality is pollution that a factory dumps into a stream. It costs the factory nothing but those who live downstream pay the price.

    When externalities exist, either positive or negative, the market often fails to price these into the good. When this occurs it is the role of the government to step in and correct these market errors. This is something that both neo-classical economists and heterodox economists agree on. What they disagree on is how much “externality” must exist before the government steps in and how the government should address the externality.

    The big screen tv is a perfect example of a commodity with a negative externality. The price on the tv at Best Buy is not the accurate price. It fails to take into account the pollution that the tv will create. Since no single person bears the weight of the pollution from the non-energy efficient tv the market finds it difficult to accurately price such a good. When the market fails, the government should step in to establish an accurate price. Since the government would have an equally difficult time is establishing an accurate price for the tv a more efficient way to deal with the issue is to restrict the sale of the good it in some way (such as taxes in the case of negative externalities or subsidies in the case of positive externalities).

    The government stepping in to address market failure is the exact opposite of limiting freedom. Rather, it is returning the market to equilibrium and restoring freedom. If we lived in a society where the government failed to address market failures we all would be burdened with the unpaid costs of other people’s decisions. What do you call a society where you pay for other people’s choices? I call that an un-free society.

    A free society is where you get to make your choices and you reap the true costs or benefits of those choices. When the market fails, these costs and benefits are distributed across the society. Unless the government corrects these market failures we would no longer live in a free society.

  5. blraatikka

    czfinke – I appreciate your consistency– it’s a position I can respect, given the way I framed the issue. Hopefully I framed the issue correctly, though, but maybe you could dispute that too.

    jdm – Your response fascinates me, as I’m not more than an incredibly amateur economist. Thanks for your insights and the fact that you know what you’re talking about.

    But, under the environmental paradigm I describe (perhaps inaccurately), nearly everything causes the type of negative externalities that should cause the government to act, because the paradigm holds that the situation is so grave. The TV example is a great analog for our discussion, as the production of any good, and the functioning of any electronic good, will cause pollution. Thus, I’m not sure if appealing to externality can help us in this particular case, unless you’re willing to concede government should heavily regulate all goods (whereas something more obvious, like the byproduct of environmental waste in the course of manufacturing is a no-brain case for regulation.)

    Another problem is determining what an accurate price should be to account for the externality. I would guess an externality is nearly impossible to measure– thus, a “correct” price would be hard to arrive at. Would the unfettered market be less incorrect than government acting under what I assert are suspect impetuses? (The latter is probably a lynchpin in what I’m saying.) And, speaking with the assumption of a zero-sum game, governmental subsidies to correct market inefficiencies aren’t any more efficient to most market participants, since they are the taxpayers supporting the subsidies.

    I suppose reiterating the other problem you mention– how much externality should exist before the government acts?–adds nothing uniquely meaningful to my contentions, since it’s a controversy that has existed outside the particular context since universities started funding economics departments.

    And finally, “What do you call a society where you pay for other people’s choices?” A society with universal health care. 😉

  6. GCC

    The simpler issue regarding the cost of externalities is the comment’s reliance on logical fallacy. One cannot logically draw and affirmative conclusion from a negative premise. Here, the negative premise is that the markets cannot deal appropriately with these externalities. The affirmative conclusion is that the government can. There’s no logic in that.

    Furthermore, in the case of a TV, it is not the TV that has a negative externatility. It is the production of the TV. And subsequently the production of the energy used to power the TV. Those activities have negative externalities, not the TV itself. Thus, the idea of containing the negative affects that bigscreen TVs have on the world through by limiting their sale does not address the problem. As a result, the loss of freedom – minor as it may be – is not counterbalanced by any good. There is, however, a way to address the issue without limiting the freedom to by any TV. To find it, we must focus on the true source of the negative externalities that have been falsely attributed to TVs. For instance, if we developed a way to price the negative externalities of power generation, the cost of operating a bigscreen TV would go up. As a result, those who do use their big screen TVs would pay for any indirect externality. Still though, they would be free to have and use the TV the chose.

    This whole TV sale restriction nonsense smacks of the kind of thing that seems like a really good idea at first, but as you turn on your brain and actually think it through you start to realize it makes no sense. Other examples: deciding a tattoo would be awesome when you’re drunk, the cloverleaf on/off ramps on MN highways, moving in with a girlfriend just to save money, etc.

  7. jdm

    In economics, especially political economy, we are less interested with logic and more interested in reality. When discussing policy and its implications the simplistic and unconstructive response is to revert to accusing others of committing logical fallacies. Such accusations are a way of avoiding the issue. Its a dodge meant to make one look intelligent when one has nothing to say.

    Regardless of the logical fallacies the governments can address market failure, its a generally accepted fact that, in the real world, this is the case. From Adam Smith to David Riccardo to Karl Marx all the way through Alfred Marshall, John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman political economists have viewed the world as a clash between two titans: the market and the government. The Classical Economists (Smith, Riccardo, Marx) along with Keynesians viewed the government as playing an intrusive but corrective role in the market. However, even the neo-classical economists (Marshall, Friedman, et al) recognize that the market fails and when this happens the only other power large enough to deal with the failure is the government. While neo-classical economists believe that the market fails less often then the Classical or Keynesians, they still recognize that the market fails. Such examples (check out any econ 101 textbook) would be natural monopolies (utilities), public goods (national defense), and cases where severe externalities exist.

    While, GCC, you are right that the real culprit is not the tv but the production methods of the, such an argument is pointless. What does the price of the tv in a non-regulated market represent? The costs of the production of the tv. When purchasing any good you are paying for all the inputs (labor and capital) that went into the tv. Say we follow your advice and, instead of raising the price of the tv (or imposing a production quota), we require the inputs of the tv to be re-priced or restricted. What will the producer of the tv do? He or she will simply have to raise the price of the tv to cover the additional costs of inputs. Your point is pointless because in the end we are concerned with final goods and the price of final goods reflects all the costs of all the inputs.

    The same thing is true of your idea for raising the costs of power generation for the tv. Besides the invention of new technology (as well as the invasion of privacy) required to tell how much power an individual uses on their tv alone, the raising of prices to power tvs results in an outcome no different from raising prices on tvs. When someone buys a tv they must think not only about the one time fixed cost of buying the tv but the recurring variable cost of powering the tv. When a consumer makes the purchase decision they are not interested in either the fixed or variable cost but rather the total cost (fixed plus variable). By raising the cost of power the total cost goes up. The consumer doesn’t care whether the fixed or variable cost has gone up, all they care about it that the total cost has gone up. I wonder if there was not some hidden irony in your final comments about “the kind of thing that seems like a really good idea at first” because that is an exacting description of your comments.

    If you raise the price of power the consumption of tvs will fall in the same way that if you raise the price of tvs the consumption of tvs will fall. The only difference between your proposal and my proposal is that yours requires the invention of new technology and the invasion of my privacy to determine how much power I send to my tv. If, by raising the price of power, you meant all power consumed by individuals then you have placed us into a un-free society where I am forced to pay the price of your consumption.

    Finally, I just want to point out that this whole discussion between brandon, you and me accepts as foundational the need for government to address externalities. After claiming my argument was fallacious, you, GCC, go on to promote the idea of the government correcting for the incorrect cost of power generation. As I mentioned in my first post, the argument is not about whether or not the government should intervene but at what level and to what degree. The government is here to protect our freedom and, when the market impinges on those freedoms I want my government to restore us to a free society.

  8. whb

    I still don’t have any clue why the government (democratically elected) is somehow less interested in good than the free market (big-ass companies). To return to the idea of “liberty”–what is being bemoaned here is the lack of freedom to consume what we want to consume in the manner we want to consume. The essential question is: who cares (unless it impinges upon real liberties–birth control, for example)?
    I just can’t wrap my brain around the idea that our fundamental rights are somehow related to our consumptive patterns.

  9. Wes, I think Jeff brings up some valid points that are worthy of consideration. You may disagree with Jeff, which Jeff is clearly open to when he mentions “degree,” but I think Jeff’s questions and positions are valid even within a democratically elected, liberty-driven framework of government. Maybe you agree, but when you say “no clue,” I’m lead to believe otherwise. Correct me if I misunderstood.

    Do we not have, or ought we not to have the responsibility make the air more how it ought to be – cleaner? If we have a responsibility, then isn’t there a standard to which we have a responsibility? If there is a standard, then wouldn’t that be indicative of a “right?” Producing and consuming whatever one desires probably does not always align with being responsible.

    What do you deem or understand as your real liberties and/or fundamental rights? Is there anyway in which they could be connected to support Jeff’s argument?

  10. blraatikka

    Gentlemen, let’s bring some of the discussion over to Wes’ new guest writer post, and leave the economics slugfest between JDM and GCC to continue here, which frankly I’m learning a lot from.

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