How Much Freedom Can Governments Guarantee?


By David K. Johnson, Ph.D.King’s College

Some philosophers, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, pondered on how governments can guarantee freedom. Rousseau argued that if our desires are contrary to ‘the common good’, they should be corrected. One should be ‘forced to be free’. Forced to master our lower-order desires so as to align ourselves with the common good.

Exterior view of the US Capitol building.
Governments have to try and strike the right balance between too much and too little freedom. (Image: lazyllama/Shutterstock)

Reign of Terror in France

Imagine if the government started mandating alcoholics to go to rehab, or tracked people’s porn watching habits because they might not ‘align with the common good’. What if it banned certain works of art because it thought it would make people desire bad things?

A statue of Rousseau.
Rousseau helped inspire the French Revolution. (Image: Maykova Galina/Shutterstock)

Ironically, protecting freedom often involves incursions into other kinds of freedom. This is perhaps why the aftermath of the French Revolution, which Rousseau helped inspire, was so horrific. 

During what came to be known as the Reign of Terror, the ‘Committee of Public Safety’ expelled religious figures, and up to 40,000 citizens were executed by revolutionary tribunals—arguably because their behavior didn’t align with what was perceived to be ‘the common good’.

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Shortcomings of Utopian Ideals

You also don’t want the government guaranteeing freedom of means. Although you want it to protect you from theft, you don’t want the government to guarantee that everyone has the same means to do any action they desire. 

First of all, how would that even be possible? How can the government guarantee that one has the same means to win an Olympic medal as Michael Phelps? Secondly, guaranteeing that everyone has the same means would require guaranteeing that everyone has the same amount of money. 

While that would both be a desirable and a fair state of affairs, attempts to do so in the past have turned out notoriously bad. Think of the worse failures of communism, where everyone was technically equal (except those in government) but everyone was also much worse off.

That’s not to say that guaranteeing certain basic means—like food, shelter, and education—is bad. We already do that to a degree, and we’ve seen some decent economic arguments for guaranteeing a universal basic income. But guaranteeing everyone the means to do anything they want would be especially problematic.

This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Problem of Too Little Restriction 

We also want to be free from interference. But this must have limits as well. After all, a government that restricts nothing is equivalent to no government at all. When we enter into the social contract with society, we do so knowing that we are giving up some liberties because doing so is necessary to protect others. But which liberties should the government restrict, and which ones should it protect?

The question of government restrictions and protections was addressed most famously by philosopher John Stuart Mill. He pointed out that, while the consent of the majority was certainly important, the majority can be just as tyrannical as a monarch. They can, for example, choose to enslave a minority population, like the American South had done at the time. This, he called, the threat of the ‘Tyranny of the Majority’. 

To guard against it, a government should adhere to what came to be known as Mill’s harm principle: The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. In other words, you should be free to do anything you want, as long as it doesn’t include harming others.

Mill’s Harm Principle

With his rule, Mill was actually guarding against the community dictating to individuals prescriptions on how ‘best to live’. He was especially frustrated by religious groups trying to force, by law, their taboos and moral norms onto others. 

Following his harm principle, Mill argued, was not only the best way to ensure the most happiness for the most people—by letting people decide for themselves how to live. This was also the best way to ensure the flourishing of the entire human species.

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Cost of Governments Guaranteeing Freedom

Of course, there are costs. ‘Freedom isn’t free’, as the saying goes. But that doesn’t just mean that soldiers have to fight to guarantee our freedom. They do, but it also means that guaranteeing freedom in society comes with risks. 

It means guaranteeing freedom of religion, even though some religions produce dangerous fanatics; guaranteeing the right to bear arms, even though it makes mass shootings inevitable; guaranteeing freedom of movement, even if it makes terrorist attacks easier. It means allowing people the freedom of speech, even to spread hate and bigotry. 

A group of people during body search in an airport.
An example where the cost of freedom may be too much is airport security. (Image: FrameStockFootages/Shutterstock)

The harmful actions themselves are illegal, of course, but the only way to guarantee they never happen is to completely restrict liberty.

Perhaps the best example is security checks at airports. They are an intrusion on liberty, privacy, and even dignity, for that matter. We could do away with them, but in doing so we would make it easier for terrorists to access planes. That would be the cost of freedom.

Whether the cost of freedom is worth it must be gauged on a case-by-case basis. Maybe the freedom of movement at an airport isn’t worth the increased risk of terrorist attacks. Maybe the freedom to bear arms isn’t worth the risk of near-daily mass shootings. Maybe the freedom guaranteed to business by free-market capitalism isn’t worth the resulting damage to the environment.

If freedom isn’t free, we have to consider the price tag.

Common Questions about How Much Can Governments Guarantee Freedom

Q: What is a good example of the failure of Jean-Jacques Rousseaus argument that people should be ‘forced to be free’?

Rousseau and his ideas about how governments guarantee freedom helped inspire the French Revolution. After the revolution, thousands of people were executed because they were deemed not aligned with the common good.

Q: What was the purpose of Mill’s Harm Principle?

Philosopher John Stuart Mill was wary of communities that dictated to individuals what the ‘the best way to live’ is. His principle suggested people should be free to do what they want unless what they want harms others. In this manner, governments could guarantee freedom in their respective societies.

Q: What could be the costs of freedom in society?

A government guaranteeing freedom comes with its own risks that are better considered separately in every case. For example, the freedom of religion always carries the risk of religious fanatics.

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