“That, gentlemen, is freedom.”

So spoke an esteemed friend and mentor to me, decades ago, on listening to clarinetist Edmund Hall play an effortlessly glorious solo on the Louis Armstrong record Ambassador Satch. “What could he mean?” I wondered. “What has making music to do with freedom?” He did not explain.

I now believe what my friend had meant (he had played the clarinet himself) was that Edmund Hall had trained himself to such mastery of the instrument that he could produce whatever sound a clarinet could produce. As a clarinetist, Edmund Hall faced no limits. He had overcome them all. Through genius and practice, he had set himself free.

The many faces of freedom

I sometimes think of Edmund Hall when I read about or hear people talk about freedom. I remember that there are different kinds of freedom.

  • Some kinds—such as the freedom to play whatever one wants on the clarinet—can only be earned by individual effort.
  • Another kind of freedom which we all have initially but can lose by lack of self-restraint (sometimes combined with genetic predisposition) is freedom from dependency on alcohol or other drugs. Once lost, that freedom is hard to win back, though many regain it “one day at a time.”
  • Another kind of freedom we retain, curiously, even in prison, is the freedom to think for ourselves, to believe what we believe.

Not all freedoms are the proper concern of government, obviously. Governments can’t give us the freedom Edmund Hall had to make the clarinet sing. It can’t free us from alcoholism. It can’t take away our freedom to think our own thoughts.

So what freedoms can and should government protect and assure? My answer draws from Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address: “A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free […] This is the sum of good government.”

Government’s job is to keep us free from injury by other people, including government itself.

When we get confused about freedom

Tomorrow is Freedom Day, and it’s an opportune time to distinguish between those kinds of freedom that are governments’ business and those that are not.

In a recent post entitled “Do Libertarians Want Freedom or Not?” Jerry Taylor of the Niskanen Center confuses the kinds of freedom that are not government’s business with those that are—in effect advocating that the government violate freedoms it should be protecting in order to offer freedoms it has no business providing. For instance, he says:

It should be fairly obvious that one’s freedom is enhanced when one has the resources to act freely. We increase the amount of freedom in this country when we eliminate the greatest obstacle to living freely: poverty.

I agree, as long as we are careful about whom we mean by “we” and about how “we…eliminate…poverty.” If “we,” here, means private citizens or philanthropic organizations voluntarily devoting their time and money to reducing poverty, then bravo. But Taylor continues:

Accordingly, libertarians should champion public assistance to the poor, but should do so through more efficient and effective vehicles such as wage subsidies or a guaranteed basic income.

Here’s where Taylor goes wrong. By “public assistance,” he means assistance from government, paid for with taxes. Surely “wage subsidies or a guaranteed basic income” would be preferable to the mess of anti-poverty programs we have now, but taxation needed to pay for them still violates individuals’ freedom to use what they have earned as they wish.

Freedom to thrive

What government should do to relieve poverty is not to infringe on people’s freedom through taxation, but to remove government-imposed restrictions on our ability to support ourselves. That could include:

  • Removing minimum wage laws, union laws, and occupational-licensing laws that block people’s freedom to work.
  • Replacing tax-supported, government-provided schooling with policies that allow people to spend their earnings on the school of their choice.

In the end, government intervention is interfering with individual opportunity, and that’s making it harder for many individuals to break free from poverty than if the government just stepped aside.

Freedom to be a jerk?

Taylor also challenges freedom of association,  such as, the freedom of “white restaurateurs […] to ban African-Americans from lunch counters, or [of] white businessmen […] to ban African-Americans from the workplace.”

Certainly such racial discrimination is wrong. It should be vigorously condemned and opposed. But should bigots’ freedom to use their property in their own way be denied? Absolutely not.

As my philosopher friend Andrew I. Cohen says, people have a right to do wrong on their own property. When Taylor says that upholding a property owner’s freedom of association and dis-association “is, in effect, a … way of continuing to deny freedom to most people” he is correct. But the freedom to go into others’ lunch counters or workplaces conflicts with the freedom of the owners of those establishments to choose with whom they will associate.

Which freedom should the government uphold? That of the owners. Nobody has a rightful freedom to go onto another’s property uninvited.

When the government enforces social norms…                           

But can’t laws sometimes help to enforce positive social norms? On this topic, we should remember that the incentives in a free market, where private property rights are upheld, strongly tend to break down racial segregation and discrimination. Keep in mind that the Jim Crow Laws were laws. The racists had to pass laws to enforce the segregation they wanted because market forces were breaking it down. If the government had not passed those laws in the first place, perhaps it wouldn’t even have been necessary to discuss imposing new laws to reverse the effect of the old ones.

There are many kinds of freedom, but only one kind that governments should defend: freedom from being coerced by other people or entities. Attempts on the part of the government to guarantee other kinds of freedom arise from a fundamental misunderstanding of the proper role of government in a free society.

We would do well to remember this as we celebrate Freedom Day.