Book Reviews: "Modern Liberty" by Charles Fried & "Development as Freedom" by Amartya Sen

I recently finished reading the books Modern Liberty by Charles Fried, and Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen. The first was part of the "Issues of Our Time" series, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr., of which Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele (which I recently reviewed) is also a part; the second was one I chose as a comparison book mentioned in a review for the first on Amazon. Both deal with liberty and freedom, but in rather different ways. Below are my brief, decidedly nonspecialist thoughts on these books (content and style). After the jump will be some musings about issues related to these books. I am not a philosopher, nor am I an economist or sociologist, so many of the things that I say will probably be wrong or inconsistent; please feel free to point out issues in the comments below.

The book by Fried is a detailed defense of what appears (to my untrained eye) to be a centrist libertarian conception of liberty. The author essentially posits that human actions, and therefore the liberty to do so, are essentially individual in origin, so individual liberty should be held paramount, and can be taken to exist even in the absence of the state. He acknowledges the legitimacy of the state to tax and spend (even when the taxation is progressive), but argues that people should keep in mind that the state can simultaneously be the best friend and worst enemy of liberty. Additionally, he argues for equal application of the law as much as possible, and for the state to not interfere with people's choices when such interference would reduce choices that they would otherwise have no problem making, especially when those choices do not directly harm others in a criminal manner, focusing on three examples in particular throughout the book. With this in mind, he argues that the state should discourage certain behaviors through taxation rather than through heavy-handed direct intervention, and that stability in the laws and tax systems enforced is the least bad thing that the state can do with respect to liberty. Though I've focused specifically in pointing out things related to the state, he focuses on more abstract philosophical notions of liberty while simultaneously bringing the reader's attention to more mundane matters such as work, market transactions, and even sexual intercourse to better illustrate these points.

The book itself is fairly short, and moves along reasonably quickly (though I admit that I did get lost in some of the finer philosophical points). When introducing each justification for its conception of liberty, it also introduces each common criticism of that justification, and tackles almost every criticism head-on, without fear. There are quite a few things that I don't agree with about the ideas in the book. The overarching difference that I have is that this conception of liberty focuses on its origin within individuals, whereas I see the manifestation of liberty as being more dependent on societal contexts. An example of this would be in his contention that things like language, music, and culture originate within individuals; I would posit that these things would be meaningless for a single human in vacuum without any human contact, and it is only contact (and the history of such contact) with other humans that gives these things meaning. This is what I see as further leading to the author's general neglect of the consequences of liberty, choosing only to talk about the origins and processes of liberty; while I can see that this is philosophically consistent with the axiomatic treatment of the individual origin of liberty (and this also seems to be consistent with the desire for a static, predictable state due to its focus only on the unchanging processes of liberty, though I wouldn't agree with that either), the biggest issue that I have is that the author brings up the problem of the homeless person who has liberty but cannot make use of it if all property in that person's area is privately owned (and would therefore lead to the homeless person being kicked off of that property), but dances around this issue without really addressing it in a satisfactory way. With all of that said, I did enjoy reading this book overall, as it got me to think about the fundamental origins and processes of liberty in a new way, because before that, I was really only thinking about its manifestations/consequences.

The book by Sen is a longer exposition into how economic and political freedoms have to go hand-in-hand if they are to both be meaningful, and how human development is part and parcel of both. The author goes into how while utilitarian consequential formulations and libertarian process formulations of liberty are both important, both must be taken together instead of taking one or the other for liberty to be meaningful in the context of economics or politics. He further discusses how measures of economic development based solely on income or GDP/GNP per capita are quite flawed, so more nuanced, granular metrics are required, based on how different people's "functions" and "capabilities" operate, are fulfilled, and can be altered. Ultimately, he demonstrates that free markets and economic liberty, in conjunction with institutional corrections for certain glaring inequalities in capabilities, would allow the greatest human development leading to the greatest freedom.

Reading this book made me realize that I had intuitions for many ideas that the author clearly put into words (so I guess for now my lay economic views have a lot in common with those of Amartya Sen); in particular, I was already thinking about how Fried's neglect of the consequences of liberty made his treatment somewhat incomplete, and how humans being social animals means that the circumstances of one's political and economic existence cannot be ignored when considering the meaning of liberty, even before picking up Sen's book. However, there are a couple of issues that I have with this book. One is that there are several times where he repeats a point overly much. I don't mean that he just just repeats few words over the course of the book: I mean that he sometimes repeats entire multi-paragraph passages for no good reason, so the book could be a lot more terse and concise than it is. The other is that he argues that loss of income can affect a person mentally and physiologically in more lasting ways than simply by loss of purchasing power, especially if that person is ill, disabled, or so on, so he argues that specific institutional safety nets (presumably like social security, food stamps, and so on) and not simply lump-sum transfers of money (or increases in income) are necessary for countering poverty and promoting human development. I'd argue instead that if he can say that loss of income (and not just low income) is enough to push people into that downward spiral, then it would stand to reason that providing a strong enough guaranteed safety net through a simple money transfer (essentially, a minimum income, which I will discuss farther below) should be sufficient to prevent that, while simultaneously giving people the choice as independent agents to spend it as they like. Finally, at vary points, he promises to discuss how lessons from development in underdeveloped countries can be applied to the development of marginalized groups in more developed countries, yet as far as I could tell, that promise was never satisfactorily fulfilled. (Also, as a minor quibble: he makes reference to Madhavacharya having catalogued various schools of "Hindu" thought, including Buddhism, Jainism, and various atheist schools of thought, while calling him a Vaishnavite. A simple Wikipedia search shows that this Madhavacharya was a follower of Advaita philosophy, and was a separate person who was born only in the last few years of the life of the Dvaita founder Madhvacharya. It seems odd that Sen, who seems familiar with the "atheistic schools of Hinduism" catalogued by the later Madhavacharya, would make this error, so perhaps this was an oversight by the editor, or maybe the distinction between the two only became clear with scholarship after the publication of this book.)

In the Amazon review that I read, it seemed like these two books would oppose each other, but I would instead posit that they complement each other nicely. That brings me to the end of the review. Follow the jump to see some further thoughts on minimum income and related things that have been bouncing around in my head of late.

I recently saw an article by Sarah Smarsh of The Guardian show up in my Facebook news feed, so I went through its discussion of how white working class voters in the US have as diverse political views as the rest of the country, despite recent stereotypes of their voting preferences in this election cycle, and how monolithic views of the white working class have festered in the absence of any real interest among those in the media in understanding how white working class voters really feel. I had also recently seen an article (or book, I forget) about how many white working class citizens in the Midwest have seen their livelihoods fall apart due to economic stresses and globalization, yet soldier on with their lives; this article mentioned things like how they maintain small-town communitarian values in the face of liberal elitist hopes for a universal urban cosmopolitanism and conservative elitist views that this is just the Darwinian free market at work (so those who don't like it should just pack up and move), yet I can't seem to find this article (or book) anywhere online where I search, so if anyone knows what I'm talking about, please do let me know. Anyway, both of these things got me thinking about the possibility of minimum income to mitigate the effects of sudden plunges into poverty (whatever the cause), and whether this is really compatible with communitarianism and the idea of building upon one's capabilities.

Thus far, I've thought of the minimum income as an essentially conservative idea. A very progressive tax would be instituted to provide a basic standard of income for everyone. This would replace or drastically reduce the size of many current government safety nets, such as food stamps, housing subsidies, unemployment benefits, and so on; large public goods such as health care (which is still a matter of debate in the US) and defense would still be covered by the government, though education might be a matter of debate (whether a minimum income would feasibly allow for fully privatized education without further exacerbating systemic socioeconomic inequalities), and the government may still have to enforce regulations (clean water, clean air, food safety, et cetera). The point is that by giving everyone money, this would make both production and labor markets far more competitive (provided that the government actively took steps in that direction too, such as removing or drastically reducing artificial monopolies like copyrights and patents, and at least initially busting monopolies). People would be able to leave their jobs without worrying as much about the deleterious impacts of unemployment, and while unemployed, they would be able to more easily build skills and take entrepreneurial risks. In doing so, they would be able to form small businesses by themselves or associating with other like-minded people, and if enough people do so, many different markets could become more competitive, bringing down prices for everyone. At the same time, firms would no longer have to pay minimum wages because that would be taken care of by the minimum income, yet because employees would more easily be able to leave at any time due to the safety net of the minimum income, firms would have to become more competitive in the wages that they pay and the benefits that they provide in order to attract and retain talented employees. It would seem to me like this would enhance the freedoms of people to associate, produce, and transact, unleashing the power of the free competitive market. (Note that in this description, I have not touched upon the monetary policy implications of the minimum income idea, and I am probably leaving out a lot of the fiscal policy implications too; remember, I am not an economist.)

But is the minimum income compatible with the small-town communitarian values cherished in the communities most hurting from trends like globalization and automation of labor? The book by Sen seems to suggest that capitalism in general need not be incompatible with higher ideals of community and things like that, and it doesn't need to only be formulated from the perspective of the pursuit of greedy self-interest. The issue with my above thinking is that if people were truly free to leave their jobs at any point, if jobs happened to leave a particular geographic area, then they would be forced to move. The minimum income would give people the money to make such a move much more easily than would be possible for poorer people today, but that would seem to suggest that minimum income would lead to further atomization of communities, and would lead to concentrations of people in established large urban areas to the detriment of smaller towns. While things like schools, hospitals, parks, and places of worship anchor people to a given place, those institutions can't be sustained if enough people aren't there to support them, and the incentives would be better for people to start businesses or find jobs in existing urban areas rather than taking the risk of starting businesses in smaller towns or rural areas where that sort of infrastructure doesn't exist (if the town has already been decimated by economic decline, causing everyone to move out). Does this mean that the "liberal cosmopolitanism" of urban concentration mentioned earlier (from the article whose existence I may have imagined) is the inevitable end of a minimum income? That would seem to suggest that Sen's argument for institutions has more merit than I initially thought in terms of both preserving communities and preserving opportunities for those less able to physically move, but that would in turn seem to suggest that there really isn't any magic bullet (as a minimum income might initially seem) to producing more competition and mobility in the production or labor markets. Is there another way for the government to expand opportunities for mobility and competition, and therefore economic liberty, in a direct way for the most people possible (if political freedoms already exist)?

Perhaps the solution to this comes only in the context of what a minimum income is supposed to solve anyway, and that is the massive job loss (beyond a certain critical point) that would come with automation and AI penetrating into fields which right now would require a college (or even postgraduate) education. The above analysis assumes that there will still be plenty of jobs at existing companies to go around, which would lead to their concentration in existing large urban areas. If instead most existing jobs were to disappear for humans, then the few jobs left may still be concentrated in existing large urban areas, but this desirability would presumably push the rents in those areas so high that large, dense urban areas would have to spread out (just as a result of the housing market at work). This wouldn't affect small towns and rural areas as much, so if there aren't really many jobs there to begin with, then minimum income would allow people in those job-scarce areas to create their own jobs for themselves and their family and friends, further allowing them to maintain the communitarian institutions that anchor them there (namely, schools, libraries, parks, places of worship, et cetera). Essentially, the massive job losses would require a massive downward redistribution of the (presumably large) gains in income for companies from automation and AI toward the general population in order to maintain a certain standard of living among a growing population, and doing it in the form of minimum income would still preserve the liberty of the general population.