The Curves of Social Cost

July 12th, 2011

In the comment thread of my post on Why is the Second Amendment different from all other rights, frequent commenter A.J. Sutter makes an interesting point about the relationship between liberty and government. In The Constitutionality of Social Cost, I describe the relationship between individual liberty and the power of the state as inversely related:  “Securing liberty is inversely proportional to the power of the state to order society.”

Though A.J. disagreed with the general premise of my argument, he contended that, in theory, a different curve would represent the relationship between liberty and the power of the state: “Maybe the relationship is more like an inverted parabola, where there’s an optimal level of state power that maximizes the security of my liberty.” To illustrate these points, I plotted these curves (plus another one I’ll explain in a moment).

First, a disclaimer. I don’t purport that social constructs like liberty or state power are easily reducible to plots on a graph. I also put aside for the moment what the equations, and values of these curves are (I leave everything in general percentages). I create this plot for the sole purpose of comparing the relationships between these different views of liberty and government.

The X-Axis represents the power of the state. Assume X=0% is effectively the state of nature, true anarchy, where there is no government. X=100% is a totally repressive state where the government controls all aspects of society (think 1984, except worse). The Y-Axis represents individual liberty. Assume Y=0% reflects a state with no individual liberty (a person cannot do anything with the permission of someone else, presumably the state). Assume Y=100% reflects a anarchist utopia where a person can do anything she wishes.

Curve 1 (Blue), reflects an inverse relationship. This is the relationship I describe in the Constitutionality of Social Cost. As the power of the state increases, individual liberty decreases. Where there is no government, there is 100% liberty. Contrariwise, when the state has 100% power over the people, there is no liberty. This model assumes that liberty, as well as the power of the state, can equal 100%, rather than simply approach 100% (similar to a limit approaching, but not reaching a number). Similarly, this model assumes that liberty, as well as the power of the state can equal 0%.

Curve 2 (Red), depicts the inverted parabola (I think) A.J. described. When the power of the state is equal to zero, there is no individual liberty. Likewise, when the power of the state is equal to 100%, there is no individual liberty. This model assumes that liberty can never be greater than some optimal level less than 100% (say 50% for simplicity’s sake), and that quantity of liberty can only be secured with a certain amount of government power less than 100% (again, say 50% for simplicity’s sake). This model assumes that the power of the state can be equal to 0% or 100%. The optimal balance of liberty and the power of the state occurs at L2.

Curve 3 (Green), depicts a hyperbola. A hyperbola is distinct from a parabola (and a line), in that the curve never touches the axes (it is asymptotic to the X and Y axes). On this curve, both individual liberty and the power of the state can never equal 0% or 100%. Beyond this fact, the hyperbole is similar to the inverse relationship–when government approaches 0%, liberty approaches 100%; when government approaches 100%, liberty approaches 0%. This model will never permit liberty=100 or government=100.

These three curves represent, very generally speaking, three different philosophies of liberty and government (I apologize for my gross oversimplifications. I make them solely to illustrate this point. I do not think they are particularly accurate as applied to individuals).

Curve 1, broadly stated, is the idealistic libertarian position. The less government that is imposed, the more individual liberty you have. This view fetishizes a world without government as a Utopia that will maximize individual liberty (think Galt’s Gulch). Likewise, this view fears a world where increasing statism diminishes individual liberty, up to a point where that liberty is equal to zero.

Curve 2, broadly stated, is the progressive, position. This view fears a world with no individual liberty, but sees two possible routes to that dystopia. First, in agreement with both mainstream and idealistic libertarians (see intersection L3), in a world with 100% government, there would be no individual freedom. Think of any dystopian novel you have ever read (1984, Brave New World, etc.) and that is a world that both progressives and libertarians fear. Second–and here the libertarians and progressives depart–in a world without any government, there can be no individual liberty. This view requires that some government exist to secure rights.

A.J. provides a very good example to illustrate Curve 2. Assume the liberty interest is the right to have sex with whomever one chooses. AJ writes, this example “may seem like the epitome of an individual liberty, but have I really ‘secured’ this if I’m in danger of being lynched by a mob that disapproves of my choice of partner? (to choose another historical example).”

Or, to borrow a passage from my article, Omniveillance, which considers the relationship between the right to privacy (protected by the state) and the right of free speech (individual liberty), there has to be a “dynamic equilibrium between free speech and privacy that can promote the optimal level of expression.”

Privacy and free speech can be thought of as two sides of the same coin. They are complementary, rather than competing, interests.81 When properly balanced, they yield optimal results. To further explore this, it is necessary to visualize two extremes. In a world with no privacy protections and unrestricted free speech rights, where everything can be known about everyone, free expression would suffer. A person would not want to express his true thoughts for fear of embarrassment, ridicule, humiliation, or retribution.82 This fear would result in the ultimate chilling of speech.

However, in an alternate universe with absolute privacy rights and no free speech, there would be a similar outcome. A person would not be able to express his true thoughts, and would have to keep all of his emotions to himself. This restraint would also result in the ultimate chilling of speech. Therefore, rather than existing as competing interests, privacy and free speech complement one another when properly balanced to provide a symmetry to optimize people’s desire to express themselves, and at the same time, minimizes any apprehension that such an expression may cause. Without privacy, people do not comfortably speak candidly.83 Without free speech, people cannot speak candidly. For this reason, society should strive to achieve a dynamic equilibrium between free speech and privacy that can promote the optimal level of expression.

On Curve 2, where the power of the state is equal to zero, individual liberty (sexual autonomy) would also equal zero. What good is this right if the state fails to provide adequate protection to enforce it. In Lockean terms, when people leave the state of nature, they delegate their executive power to the state in order to allow for the protection of certain rights (life, liberty, and property).  In other words, you need some amount of government to achieve some amount of liberty.

Curve 3, broadly stated, is the mainstream libertarian position. Frequently, idealistic libertarians are attacked for desiring that that liberty should equal 100% (anyone can own a nuclear warhead without any regulation!), or government should equal 0% (Sic utero tuo ut alienum non laedas) .

Government can never be equal to 100%. I referenced dystopian novels as examples of 100% governmental power because in reality, such power is impossible. Pick North Korea, East Germany, the Soviet Union, or any totalitarian state. Even with absolute freedom, people still have at least (a greatly limited) freedom of thought. Likewise, government can never equal 0%. Even in the most free societies, certain norms and structures emerge.

What Curve 3 captures is that there will always be some government, and always some liberty. As more government is added, the rate at which liberty exists decreases. Thus, the optimal amount of liberty on this curve is achieved through less government.  But, you need *some* government to protect this liberty. This view, presupposes, that government is not viewed as a good unto itself, but merely a utilitarian means in order to obtain liberty. To put it in Jeffersonian terms, “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

(I have some difficulty plotting social conservatives on this plot. In many respects, they view social ordering of individual liberty as a good unto itself, which really blends the X and Y axes. I’ll consider this a bit more later.)

Now, let’s consider the intersecting points.

Curve 1 and Curve 2 intersect at L2. This represents the point, where most libertarians and progressives will agree.. Almost like a Goldilocks point–not too statist, not too anarchist, just the right amount of liberty.

Curve 1 and Curve 3 intersect at L1. Here, both groups find that liberty can be maximized where government is minimal (though liberty never equals 100%, and government never equals 0%).

Curves 1, Curve 2, and Curve 3 all intersect at L3. All groups agree that when government is approaching 100%, individual liberty is effectively 0%.

So, broadly stated, idealistic libertarians want to achieve L1. Progressives want to achieve L2. Mainstream libertarians want to achieve some point along Curve 3. All groups want to avoid L3.

I welcome comments on this plot. As you can tell by this lengthy post, which I spent some time thinking about (and if you ask A.J., I’m sure he’ll probably say I totally missed his point), I heavily rely on blog posts to learn from others, preferably those I disagree with. Through this process, I recognize the shortcomings of Curve 1, which I adopted in my article. I hope to elaborate on this plot in the future works.

My deepest thanks to Militza Machuca Franco and Corey Carpenter for helping me visualize parabolas, hyperbolas, and lines, items which I tried to repress in my memory as soon as I graduated from high school. 

Cross-Posted at