The political framework – Part 2

Continued from part 1

OK so we have laid out a basic framework which considers two axes as a way of characterising political belief.

A number of criticisms can immediately be raised. The big ones are

  1. Are the axes really independent? I mean, does my position on one axis reflect my position on the other one?
  2. Is one’s position on the axis fixed or might it change due to some other factor (such as age, income, etc)?
  3. Are we losing something by just considering “the number” of claims on each axis, rather than their nature? For example, could two people have the same overall “number” of resource / behavioural claims but find themselves political opponents?

All of these criticisms are valid. In short, no; the axes probably are not independent, no; one’s position probably does change throughout the course of life and with circumstance, and yes; we do lose a lot of “colour” (or variability, as a mathematician might say) by trying to simply count claims, regardless of their nature. Examples of these criticisms could be

  1. I might be happier to “share more” (i.e. accept more claims on my resources) if I have some say in your behaviour (what you do with my resources)
  2. I might be in favour of more resource claims when I’m young (and a net beneficiary) than when I’m older (and a net contributor)
  3. What if I think everyone should go to church, and you think everyone should go to the mosque. Or what about if you think everyone should be vegetarian?

I think that we should accept that one’s position on each political axis is not independent of the other axis, and that it might change over time depending on other things (such as wealth).

Regarding the third point, about the “nature of behavioural claims”; this is important to get clear in our heads. Two people might have the same number behavioural claims and yet disagree (e.g. church or mosque). Indeed, the more behavioural claims you have, the more likely you will disagree with people who have different claims (or who want fewer claims made on them). Societies with a high number of behavioural claims only “work” if everyone basically has the same set of social norms.

In our framework, a behavioural claim is:

  • a restriction on a non-rivalrous freedom

Non-rivalrous means that my access to this freedom does not restrict or constrain your access to this freedom in any way.

Gay marriage is a good example. Gay people seek the right to marry, which does not restrict heterosexual peoples’ freedom to marry in any way. Seeking to prevent gay marriage is therefore a behavioural claim, while seeking the right to marry is not a behavioural claim, because it is non-rivalrous.

Another example is free speech. This is a non-rivalrous freedom that is nevertheless subject to behaviour constraints imposed by others.

What about something like smoking? During our analysis of political discussions we will come across some “genuine” behavioural constraints, and some which are actually about externalities. If I require you not to pollute a river which I use for water, it is not a behavioural constraint, it is simply preventing you imposing (real) costs on me, so this sort of (economic) argument falls better into the “resource” axes. The same might go for smoking where my health is affected, or where I pay for a public health system that will treat your self-inflicted injuries for free. But in the absence of “second hand smoke” or a public health system, smoking would indeed be a “non-rivalrous” freedom, and if I tried to stop you smoking, that should count as a behavioural constraint.

Opponents of gay marriage might argue that if gay people are admitted to the “institution” of marriage, this “changes what marriage is” and so although it doesn’t restrict heterosexual people’s freedom to marry, it forces them to belong to a “different sort of institution” without their consent.

This argument essentially means that any freedom granted to you must necessarily result in a decrease in freedom for me. It means there is no such thing as a non-rivalrous freedom, and everything is a zero-sum game when it comes to liberty.

This is another way of looking at freedom, which is perhaps just as valid as the “non-rivalrous” concept I proposed above. However it requires that we then draw a line in the zero-sum sand to work out what constitutes a “behavioural claim”, and what doesn’t.

I propose that the way we draw that line is the “non-rivalrous” method, or if we phrase it in the zero-sum framework:

  • A behavioural claim must result in a restriction of someone else’s freedom, not only a change in the nature of that freedom (for example, more people having access to the freedom).

Also, the economic concept of externalities should be use strictly for real costs, not things like unhappiness or mental distress for the people who want to impose the behavioural constraint. That is not to dismiss the unhappiness or distress (e.g someone uses their “speech freedom” to carry out racial abuse), but it’s just to draw a line in our definitions over what is a genuine behavioural claim, and what isn’t.

The alternative is that an action like freeing slaves can be interpreted as a reduction in freedom (and therefore a behavioural claim) for everyone else, simply because the “club of free people” suddenly got bigger to include “ex-slaves” (changing the nature of the freedom, or perhaps distressing them, etc).