Strange But True: Public Goods Promote Liberty

By Ryan McGreal
Published December 14, 2007

Libertarians like to argue that public services like universal health care reduce freedom by forcing people to contribute to the program through taxes. People should be allowed to opt in or out, and in any case, whatever the government can do, markets can do better.

I've been asked many times to defend the idea of universal public education or universal public health care in the context of individual liberty. On the face of it, this seems like a tricky proposition. However, the answer depends on what you mean by 'liberty'.

The freedom to die, penniless, from an easily treatable disease is no kind of freedom at all. It seems to me that anyone who would insist liberty can only mean freedom from rather than freedom to in the face of this is either hopelessly dogmatic or else psychopathic.

Reductio ad Absurdum

Anti-government ideology is a reductio ad absurdum.

If my employer refuses to provide a safe workplace, I shouldn't expect the government to enforce workplace safety standards - I should just find a job somewhere else.

If I don't have the skills to do another job, I should have gone to school. If my parents couldn't afford to send me to school (since public school is 'anti-liberty'), maybe someone will volunteer to donate some money so I can go to a charity school.

In any case, my parents were free to work 18 hours a day and skip eating if they thought it was that important for me to get an education.

And hey, if I decide to punch you in the mouth and take your wallet, why should the government be allowed to stop me? If you don't want to be punched, you should get martial arts training or buy a handgun to protect yourself.

It's clear that a society based on the idea that social services are 'anti-liberty' would quickly devolve into a barbaric mess of casual violence, warlords and appalling crimes.

Most people who aren't psychopaths recognize that this would be a lousy way to live, so we agree to some enforceable ground rules to make sure our society is reasonably safe and that people have opportunities to educate themselves, take care of themselves and reach their potential.

Results, Not Ideology

At this point, the discussion is no longer based on ideology but on identifiable results. Of course, it's important to have principles to follow so we can decide what our goals ought to be.

I favour liberal democracy in a messy world - finding the most effective combination of protecting individual liberties and promoting the public weal.

Note that this is not a straight trade-off between freedom and security. Acting to promote the public weal (through universal public education and health care, for example) can itself protect and enhance individual liberty by giving people more opportunities and more choices than they would otherwise have, so they are not simply free do die penniless of a treatable illness.

If a large majority of people believe a public service should be a basic right - like the right to an education or the right to health care - and they're prepared to pay for it, then it's incumbent on the government to establish and defend those basic rights.

That's democracy - government working for its citizens instead of against its citizens.

Of course, some people will argue that governments cannot do anything right. In fact, a steadfast belief in this tenet can be self-fulfilling, as we see from looking across the border.

However, the evidence is clear that while markets generally do a good job of promoting allocative efficiency (allocating capital to where it can generate the most profit), government can perform other services very well - in some cases, much better than markets.

Public Goods Promote Liberty

Countries that press their governments to work for their citizens produce a better quality of life by a variety of measures; higher levels of public approval and support; less socioeconomic inequality (and corollary problems with public health and crime); more upward mobility (the US is about the least economically mobile country in the OECD); more personal choice; safer, healthier and more vibrant communities; and more freedom-oriented legal frameworks for personal activities.

Which countries have the most choices for political representation and the most proportionately representative governments? Which countries have the highest standards of government accountability and transparency? Which countries have balanced government budgets?

Which countries have the highest rates of postsecondary education? Which countries have the highest median incomes? Which countries have the longest life expectancies, the lowest mortality rates, the lowest morbidity rates?

Which countries allow the most personal choice in lifestyles, family arrangements, working arrangements, and so on? Which countries have the most liberal social policies? Which countries have the lowest rates of crime and incarceration?

Which countries are the best places to raise a child?

It's no coincidence and should come as little surprise that expansive civil liberties tend to go together with treating essential public services like education and health care as inalienable rights.

This affords citizens a baseline level of civility, protection and sheer humaneness to establish and defend more positive, more liberal, and more free societies.

Good for Business

Ultimately, market forces cannot produce the preconditions conditions under which markets function most effectively. As Robert Kuttner argued forcefully in his book Everything For Sale: The Virtues and Limits of Markets, "The goals, values, habits, and institutions of a good society may include an essentially market economy, but must be set by extra-market processes and forces." In fact, trying to redefine public, non-market values in market terms tends to erode them and undermine the basis of commerce.

Perhaps counterintuitively, the elements of a humane society can actually increase overall productivity growth, since well-fed, well-educated, healthy people tend to be better thinkers and workers.

Countries like Switzerland, Finland, and Sweden have managed to do this without stifling profitable investment or producing a 'welfare culture' of dependency and entitlement.

More locally, Toyota decided in 2005 to build a manufacturing plant in Ontario instead of the southern US, even though the US states offered large tax incentives and subsidies.

Toyota explained that their workers in Ontario are far more productive thanks to Ontario's public education and health care systems. That is, workers in Ontario are faster and easier to train, perform better work, and payroll taxes are lower (though corporate taxes are around the same).

This is not a matter of capitalism versus socialism, or freedom versus coercion, or any of the other abstract metaphors used to prevent clear thinking about functioning democracy.

Stripped of ideology, it's nothing more than people in communities working together where it makes sense to establish a baseline of civility and compassion in which everyone has a chance to enjoy a humane life.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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