The Pharaoh’s Freedom

Pileus blogger Jason Sorens recently released his co-authored study “Freedom in the 50 States.” This is now the second edition of the report, and it has deservedly generated a lot of attention. Even Paul Krugman has added his two cents.

At, Andrew Leonard criticizes the report under the sarcastic headline, “Why do liberals hate freedom so much?” Because the Mercatus Center, which sponsored the research that led to the report, has received funding from the Koch Foundation, by a long chain of guilt-by-association reasoning, Leonard implies that the intent of the report is not really to gather and present data that provide an objective, quantifiable measure of both economic and personal freedom in each state, but is rather simply to bash liberals. A rather egocentric view of the world, that.

Of course, even if Leonard’s insinuations were true, that the study were part of Charles and David Koch’s nefarious plot to, well, extend economic and personal freedom, that fact would have no bearing on whether its findings were true. Attacking an author, or an author’s (alleged) motives, does not defeat the author’s argument. Philosophy 101: the ad hominem fallacy is . . . a fallacy.

But Leonard raises two other objections. The first:

[According to the report,] Most Americans are not free. A telling example: In the Mercatus rankings the two states blessed by the highest freedom quotient boast a combined population of a little over 2 million—South Dakota and New Hampshire (the latter of which, admittedly, went for Obama in 2008). The bottom three states were New York, New Jersey and California, which have a combined population of over 65 million.

Sixty-five million Americans in just three states cower under a totalitarian shadow! That’s a little distressing!

(Why “admittedly”? Is Leonard aiming to provide analysis, or advocacy? But that is by the by.)

As analysis, this is quite weak. Sorens and his co-author William Ruger claim that there are real differences between the least “free” and most “free” states in their report, but they do not claim that even residents of the, by their measure, “least free” state, New York, face anything like what people in, say, North Korea face. Although there are real relative differences among the states, no place in America is under a “totalitarian shadow.” To say otherwise is just moral posturing.

More substantively, however, one need not believe that their conception of economic and personal “freedom” is the only or the best one. They provide an explicit definition of their terms; they provide explanations and justifications for the metrics they use; and their data are openly available. If they make an error in their math or their reasoning, that should be simple enough to discover and point out. Leonard does not do that.

Leonard apparently wants to define “freedom” differently. Fair enough. He unfortunately is not as explicit about his own preferred definition as Sorens and Ruger are. Yet Leonard does, perhaps inadvertantly, disclose a clue about what his definition of freedom would be. He writes:

But from my perspective, not having access to universal healthcare is an imposition on my freedom. The fact that for most Americans healthcare is tied to one’s employer is a dread shackle limiting the freedom of movement of every worker. How much more liberated would we all be if we could switch jobs or work for ourselves without the fear that at any moment we might be crippled by an exorbitantly expensive health emergency? Similarly, a state requirement that employers offer paid parental leave (another black mark against California) clearly frees me to be a better father to my newborn. I’d really love to see what would happen to internal migration patterns in the United States if all the big blue states had universal single-payer healthcare, while everyone else was left at the mercy of a completely unregulated private market. That civil war would end rather quickly, I suspect. [Leonard’s emphasis]

So his objection is that Sorens and Ruger do not consider the enjoyment of government-provided health care as an element of freedom, along with government-mandated (paid, presumably) parental leave from work. How much freer would Leonard be if he did not have to pay for his own health care? How much freer would he be if he did not have to work to support his family, but could instead simply spend time with his family?

How much freer indeed. The life Leonard wants for himself has its attractions. It is the life of an old-fashioned aristocrat, of a manorly lord. Leonard has the freedom of leisure to be a gentleman, pursuing properly gentlemanly ends—not the ignominious and base life of a man who has to actually work to support himself in the lifestyle he chooses. 

Now, Leonard has the feigned greatness of soul to allow that he would like this life of gentlemanly leisure for “all” of us. But that is dishonesty. He knows as well as anyone that we cannot all be leisured gentlemen. Someone will actually have to labor to provide the goods and services off which the gentlemen will live. Who are those people making his life free? Who are the people providing him his health care, paying his bills while he takes time off to romp with the kids, bearing the costs generated by his insousciant skipping from one activity to the next as he follows his bliss?

And now we see the real import of the “freedom” Leonard wants. It is the freedom of the pharaoh: the serfs, whom I never deign to see and whom I never condescend to consider, will labor to provide me the comforts and enjoyments and leisure I require. I am not held responsible for them—that would be beneath me.

I believe that is not only a loathsome attitude, but it is a morally reprehensible position. Mr. Leonard, you have no right to live off the fruits of others’ labor. Yes, it would increase your freedom if you could command others to work for you, but yours is a moral code that entitles one group of people to live at the expense of unwilling others, that requires one group of people to be held responsible for the leisurely lifestyle of another, that treats one group as superior to others and fails to respect the inherent dignity of the members of the other group as independent moral agents and indeed as fully human.

Realizing that we are not entitled to others’ labor, and that we are ourselves responsible for the choices—and the consequences of the choices—that we make is bracing and can be, depending on where our moral heads were to begin with, startling. But it is the only way to respect human dignity, both in ourselves and in others. And it implies the only freedom worth the name.

9 thoughts on “The Pharaoh’s Freedom

  1. What always amazes me is the arrogance and Worldview of the “limousine Liberal” Socialists. “Do as I say not as I do” is the height of hypocrisy. Its all based on the same Leftist premise that all wealth somehow magically appears from some kind of “money tree”,and that the serfs should be seen and not heard and that they,the anointed,,tenured few should sit up on high and tell everybody how to run their own lives,,be Politically Correct, and place tax alms at the feet of failed social welfare programs. Just shut up and pass the Grey Poppon.

  2. Andrew Leonard is looking for hits and is therefore compelled to sensationalize quite a bit.

    But, James, your smarmy response to his smarmy response really doesn’t do anybody any good. Especially when you hit on the real issue–there are different definitions of freedom. To suggest that Leonard wants “the Pharaoh’s Freedom” is no different than him sarcastically suggesting that New York labors under totalitarian impositions on freedom. It’s worthless rhetoric-to-the-extreme. And, frankly, I think that Pileus (with the exception of Grover Cleveland) is better than that.

    I think one of the real weaknesses in the libertarian argument is the assumption that the definition of freedom is some sort of holy writ. That has certainly been subjected to much more intellectual criticism than the likes of Andrew Leonard. But it would have been nice to have read a piece where an intelligent libertarian had sincerely critiqued the European socialist view that some social freedoms (the freedom to enjoy a healthy life, for example) carry with them some social burdens instead of falling into the knee-jerk trap of ridiculing something to the extreme in a fashion that honestly didn’t follow from Leonard’s piece.

    1. See, you cleverly criticized this position by denying that it is intellectually based. There are obviously good reasons why the concept of freedom does not extend to include what many people like to refer to as “positive freedoms” (which invariably consist of goods and services belonging to other people that the proponents of this view would like to take for themselves). Chief among them is that it is impossible to achieve “positive” liberties without impinging upon other people’s “negative liberties” by either stealing their property without their consent, or holding them as slaves, bound to perform services without their consent. It is not necessary for someone who believes in freedom to rehash the age-old argument that stealing and slavery is immoral every time he opens his mouth. It is not necessary to write a treatise on the ills of European Socialism (although I would suggest opening your local newspaper if you’re interested in some real-world arguments in terms of Greek riots). But by mentioning your view on the “freedom to enjoy a healthy life” you adopt the very argument that the poster refuted as being entirely arbitrary and the product of the whims of people with power. One does not acquire a “healthy life” (by which you mean the services of others, and not the ability to live free from the interference of others, which is an entirely different concept) without either stealing someone else’s money to pay for it, or enslaving someone capable of providing it. This differs from the freedom to sit atop a throne in degree, but not kind.

      1. I’m not accusing James of having any less intellectual basis in his argument than he credits Leonard with. At the root of both of these arguments are tomes of intellectual background going back centuries. I resent Leonard’s oversimplification, but assert that nothing more can be expected from Salon. I resent James’s oversimplification, asserting that I’ve come to expect much more from Pileus.

        I did not take a position on the underlying issue, and certainly didn’t assert any position on a right to enjoy a healthy life.

        However, the “positive freedom/negative liberty” argument is unconvincing and, frankly, more indistinct than mainstream libertarian thought concedes. A major critique is that ones “liberty” (under that definition) frequently impinges on the liberty of others in no less significant way than by enforcing “positive freedoms” through the coercion of the police state. An example of that is the liberty to do with your property what you please: the common law is dense with cases where one man’s liberty is another man’s imposition and whole bodies of law have grown to deal with those problems. The question then becomes how to deal with those impositions.

  3. In addition to John’s point, I think the aristocrat/pharaoh/serf terminology obscures the reality that the welfare state is essentially a transfer from the wealthy to the less wealthy, or at least middle class to middle class (in the main, e.g. social security). Trying to depict Leonard as a man of privilege mooching off those poorer than him isn’t going to fly.

      1. There is an inherent externality is disparity. When that disparity attains a certain unbearable level, the rich ALWAYS lose everything they have anyways. Whine all you like about the ‘fairness’ of it, Rudy, and you’ll go down with all the other insensitive, dogmatic and delusional imbeciles that ignored that fact. People will NOT put up with it. God, you’re as bad as a communist complaining about scarcity sometimes.

        Actually, here’s more general point about the majority of your posts: have you every pondered the fact that you can’t necessarily extract the wealthy from the society they form a part of in anything but abstract and hypothetical modelling? In every one of your spiteful arguments you try to make it seem as though the wealthy are always compensated appropriately for whatever labours raised them to their present economic status, and that this rule ‘obviously’ holds for the poor as well (those damned, dirty leeches…). Wake up to reality you fucking asshole and at least recognize that it doesn’t perfectly mirror these idealist and simplistic moral fantasies you conjure up. You’re making such extreme moral judgements on half-truths and limited information. Poor people don’t always deserve it, and the same goes for the rich. A lot of these so-called ‘socialist’ policies you’re always going on about are employed to keep the masses from revolting when the model fails to allocate in a morally acceptable fashion. Yes, and it does fail sometimes — take your head out of the fucking toilet.

  4. “So it’s okay to steal if the person you’re stealing from is wealthy (by your definition)?”

    Your inference that I perhaps condone this doesn’t follow from what I said. I only stated that the author’s analogy to the pharaoh was tortured, seeing as how the typical net tax consumer is isn’t among the wealthy elite.

    But to answer your question, probably not, because a kind of rule utilitarianism warns against it. I don’t buy into natural rights, but prudence and the empirical results of populist revolt and politicized envy tell me allowing for the wealthy to keep most of what they’ve earned is generally a good thing. But that’s me in political philosophy mode, which isn’t how people operate most of the time.

    Would I pilfer from some rich asshole that I’d likely never meet again in some uncommon instance? Sure. But probably just from the liquor cabinet or something.

  5. Wait a second James. While I doubt Leonard had this in mind, there’s a rich political tradition that has defined leisure as the end goal of “the good life.” The Cavalier society of the Chesapeake was rooted in the idea of leisured gentlemen dependent on the labor of others to provide the lifestyle that would make a republican government possible. Up until around the 1860s there was a flourishing ideology in America that living a life of leisure was not only desirable, but this life of leisure was the basis of a successful republic.

    You rightly point out that it’s difficult to live this life of leisure without appropriating the work of others. The South depended on a system of slavery. But there were non-slave owning proponents of leisure and republicanism who found other sources of income, primarily ownership of land and estates and living off the rents from tenant farmers. This was a respectable foundation for republicanism from agrarian country radicals in England to the Democratic politicians of the Hudson River valley.

    At what point did the link between leisured gentlemen and republicanism break down? Today the idea that we need a class of leisured elite to run our republic is outdated and an anachronism. But why not? What’s so radical in suggesting that freedom is leisure?

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