When Is Less Personal Freedom Better than More?

By Shlomo Maital


   Personal freedom – the right, nay the OBLIGATION, to find personal fulfillment, pleasure and happiness – is a dominant social trend – on a “nearly uninterrupted 40 year winning streak”, as NYT columnist David Brooks notes (April 3/2013).  We have seen enormous expansions of social and lifestyle freedom, in the 1960s,  and economic freedom, in the 1980’s.  Personal freedom has become the highest ideal.  In undemocratic nations, where people are enslaved, this remains true.  But Brooks asks, have we overdone the value of personal freedom [in democratic nations]?  Has it actually begun to make us less happy rather than more? 

      His brilliant perspective on the gay marriage firestorm in America, involving the Supreme Court, is this – Gays are abandoning personal freedom (the right to make and dissolve unions, at will, instantly) for ‘chains’ of marriage.  They are fighting hard for those chains, and they believe it will make them happier. And it will. 

      Things that constrain our freedom sometimes help, rather than hinder.  Brooks quotes Edmund Burke: “…men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites…society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less there is within, the more there must be without”.   Our own internal constraints on our need for instant gratification (“within”) have become greatly weakened. Result:  obesity, divorce, drugs, etc.   We need more “do without”, “do with less”, “give it up”. 

       In the past 45 years, I wrote and published many academic research papers.  Very few of them are worth anything. But perhaps one of them is.  Economists claim that the more choice we have, the better. I provided theory and evidence,  in a rather obscure journal,  that sometimes, we are better off when we constrain ourselves, put chains on ourself.  As,  when I make myself finish revising a chapter, before going for a pleasant run along the beach.  No-one paid attention to the article, but I kind of like it.  Here is the reference, on the off chance someone might want to dig it up [“Prometheus Rebound:  On welfare-improving constraints”, Eastern Economic Journal, XII (3), July 1986, 337-344.]

     If people have a psychological tendency to prefer instant immediate gratification over deferred gratification, then things that constrain this ‘quick buck’ appetite can be very helpful and make us better off.  If society doesn’t provide these ‘chains’, perhaps we can invent our own.  We should understand, if Brooks is right, that “the balance between freedom and restraint has been thrown out of whack”.