Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Complexities of Freedom

I was listening to the radio a few days ago and heard Janis Joplin's "Me and Bobby McGee", which contains the famous line: Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose. It got me thinking.

Basically, I think she's right. Taking an overly-analytical approach, suppose you did have something to lose. Then you could be threatened by its loss, and such threats might cause you to change your behavior. If someone else can force a change in your behavior, then you are not free. You might be mostly free, but not completely free.

You might object that the things you could lose might be of very small value, but this doesn't save your freedom. While you might not change your behavior on something big when threatened by the loss of something of small value, some small behavior change could still be forced as long as you had something to lose. Indeed, I would argue that these conditions are identical: if you would not change your behavior in any way, however slight, to protect a thing, then that thing must have no value to you.

There is still, though, a possible escape. Suppose you had things to lose, but they were so arranged that the loss of any of them would result in a larger gain elsewhere. I can't imagine in practice how this would work, but if it did, you could theoretically have something to lose but would be willing to lose it. Still, in practice if you could exchange something of smaller value for something of larger, wouldn't you do it before the appearance of a threat? So I won't worry about this theoretical case.

However, imagine that you truly have nothing to lose. Is such an existence desirable? As I have argued above, having nothing to lose implies valuing nothing. You would not be able to have friends. Possessions, of course, would be out. You could not make a stand "on principle". This seems highly undesirable. In a sense it's akin to Nirvana, but the Buddhist ideal is more extinguishing the "negative" emotions of greed, anger, and so on. One who valued absolutely nothing would also have to extinguish positive emotions like love and compassion.

There is a logical problem that appears here as well: complete freedom should mean having the freedom to acquire things, or make friends. But then you would not be free, or at least would risk starting to value something and thus losing your perfectly free state. So it is questionable whether the sort of complete freedom we contemplate here is even achievable.

Putting that aside for the moment and stipulating that the logical paradox does not arise, it seems clear that almost no one would be happy being entirely free in the sense I have described. We "voluntarily" accept chains to the things we value. I added the scare quotes because it's a bit slippery what we mean by "voluntary" here. It's clearly not entirely voluntary: having valued something, we open ourselves to its possible loss, and thus to a possible loss of freedom. But the actual curtailment of our freedom might never occur; it might only be imposed from the outside in the form of threats, which may never materialize. (In practice, many of the threatened losses are inevitable conflicts between things we already value, and thus are not imposed by an outside party.)

In a sense, then, freedom is the freedom to choose our chains.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Ron Paul and the Possibility of a Brokered Convention

Ron Paul is apparently executing an end-around strategy to win the GOP nomination: delegate targeting. The idea is that, even in states he does not win, by careful management of the delegate-selection process, he could manage to control a majority of actual delegates to the convention.

In states that do not bind their delegates (to vote for the nominee selected by the state's primary), these delegates could theoretically vote for Paul regardless of the popular vote total. In states that do bind their delegates, Paul's strategy is even more long-game: in the event of a brokered convention, the delegates could become unbound and then Paul could have a majority.

During the tumult of early primary season, the possibility of a brokered convention is often bandied about. There hasn't been one since 1952, but there certainly could be again. This year, Intrade estimates the odds at 26%, up from 5% two weeks ago. No doubt this is due to the rise of Rick Santorum. Super Tuesday will sort much of this out; if the Intrade odds remain this high after those primaries, I'll be really interested in this scenario.

However, even if one candidate locks up the nomination, there's another upside for Paul: "[T]he more delegates Paul controls, the more of an impact he can have on determining the GOP platform at the convention." True. Unnerving, but true.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Catholics and Contraceptives

At first blush, the Obama administration's heels-dug-in posture of not allowing a religious exemption to the requirement for insurance to cover contraceptives and abortifacients seems like a political mistake. But I wonder if there's a grand plan here?

First, a quick overview of the arguments on both sides. Catholics and conservatives say that this is an attack on religious freedom. Liberals say that Catholics are hypocritical to object since some large percent of them use contraceptives anyway (I've heard 50% and I've heard 98%, but I will argue that the actual number makes no difference). The liberal argument is incorrect on two grounds. First, it isn't hypocritical. Many Catholics drink alcohol. That doesn't mean the State should force the Catholic Church to buy it for them. Second, even if it were hypocritical, that wouldn't argue in favor of the requirement. Liberals often use "hypocrisy" as a brickbat to attack principled arguments. But merely because a person has a gambling problem doesn't mean he's wrong to oppose gambling.

Conservatives are, I think, in the right here. It gets worse when you consider that the Obama administration has already granted over a thousand waivers to other PPACA requirements. They are meant to show that the law is "flexible". Not, apparently, in this case.

There may be method to the madness, though. If the administration continues to be uncompromising, the result will probably be that the Catholic Church will cease to provide health insurance to its employees, and will pay a fine instead. Fast forward a few years. The next step the liberals will take is to continue the push to a single-payer system, and then they will tout the current crisis as a point in their favor! Look, they'll say, this whole thing could have been avoided if we had a single-payer system. The Church wouldn't have any objection, no one would have lost insurance coverage, and everyone would have been happy.

Of course, there still would be a loss of religious liberty. Catholics would still be paying for contraceptives and abortions, via their tax dollars instead of their tithes.