Freedom to pursue your own goals and ideals is an essential component of the individual liberty inherent in each human life. Problems arise when individual goals diverge from majority opinion as to what is best for the public interest or the collective good. The classic notion of a ‘free society’ is one in which the collective good, however defined, should not override individual liberty. Classical liberal philosophy thus defends the pursuit of individual goals on a number of different grounds.
First, the freedom to pursue individual goals respects diversity. Different people want different things in life, and thus pursue different goals and priorities. Shocking, I know. Diversity is one of the most beautiful attributes of humanity. That each human being is unique does make life a bit chaotic and untidy and unpredictable, but also colourful and dynamic and vibrant. Each individual thus pursues a 'life plan' that is personally meaningful, even though their life may be constructed in a way that someone else would not find attractive, that has aptly been described as 'the moral essence of personhood':
That's the first factor that cannot be collectively defined.
Second, nobody knows what would be best for everyone as a collective goal. There are too many variables for any overlord to capture, in creating a goal that will work well for everyone. We can all agree that ‘fairness’ and ‘justice’ are good things, but we do not all agree on the precise content of these ideals or how to allocate scarce resources in pursuing them. Two examples: we can all agree that ‘education’ for children is paramount, but disagree on the institutional form that education should take and how it should be funded. We all think good jobs are important for workers, but disagree on the precise characteristics that make a job attractive.
Therefore, while most people would agree that government plays an important role in preventing social conditions from descending into anarchy, it is wise to defend the fullest possible scope for individual liberty.
A basic aspect of being human is being able to live your life the way you want to (subject, of course, to not killing, stealing, cheating, or expecting other people to fund your choices). A key component of individual liberty is economic liberty. This is the freedom to decide certain economic questions for yourself: what Tomasi describes as ‘liberties of working and owning’. Freedom to decide what commercial activities to get involved in, to negotiate your own terms and conditions of work, to decide for yourself how to spend your money, choose what to keep for yourself and what to give away to causes that you want to support.
You can immediately see that these are questions that other people will have strong opinions about, and if your view of these things does not accord with the majority perspective there is a grave danger of being compelled to live your life the way other people would like you to live it.
In modern society, a ‘free society’ has gradually come to mean a society in which noble ideals such as equality and distributive justice are so important that of course they should override individual liberty because, after all, what sort of individual would oppose such virtuous ideals? Probably not the sort of individual we should be too concerned about thwarting as he tries to pursue his selfish goals, it would seem. Yet while social justice ideals are attractive in theory, they have pernicious implications for individual liberty.
One reason why it may seem justifiable to abrogate individual preferences in favour of the public interest or collective good is the revulsion many people feel to the notion of 'selfishness', hence the idea that other people should be forced to prioritise the public interest if they fail to achieve this moral standard of their own accord - the idea is that it's all very well to talk about freedom and liberty, but if you come across somebody being selfish and refusing to share their stuff nicely with others you should by all means set them straight by force if necessary. Freedom is reserved only for those who exhibit generosity of spirit and choose a life path that will be pleasing to others.
Another reason is that the scope of private decisions is these days very narrowly defined. It's ok to make private decisions about what to eat for dinner, or what to watch on the telly, etc, because that probably affects nobody but yourself if you do it in the privacy of your home where nobody will ever hear about it. But anything that will affect your neighbours, such as being massively richer than them, which will make them feel bad, consumed with all that envy, should be forbidden. Why should they have to suffer the ignominy of seeing you enjoying things they can't afford? Being richer than others is actually very antisocial, when you think about it, and it's amazing that it isn't outlawed in this enlightened age when the value of everything is evaluated by reference to how it makes other people feel.
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