By Robert Higgs
Insofar as mainstream economics may be said to make moral-philosophical assumptions, it rests overwhelmingly on a consequentialist-utilitarian foundation. When mainstream economists say that an action is worthwhile, they mean that it is expected to give rise to benefits whose total value exceeds its total cost (that is, the most valued benefit necessarily forgone by virtue of this particular action’s being taken). But nearly always the economists make no attempt to evaluate as part of their benefit-cost calculus any costs that might be incurred as a result of how and by whom the action is taken.
Often they verge on the assumption that benefits and costs exist apart from those who take the action, even though this assumption clashes with the foundational principles of their science. Thus, in benefit-cost calculations, economists often attach a value to certain expected benefits (e.g., the dollar value of lives saved as a result of a safety regulation) and compare this value to the dollar outlays by the government that imposes and enforces the regulation and by the private parties who are compelled to comply with it, often at great private expense.
I cannot recall, however, ever seeing a benefit-cost computation that attaches any cost valuation to the loss of freedom by the regulated parties. It is as if it matters not at all that an action is mandated, as opposed to freely chosen. Freedom itself is, in effect, considered worthless, and hence its loss entails no sacrifice regarded as worthy of receiving weight in the calculation.
On the basis of such procedures, at least in a pro forma sense, countless regulations and laws have been imposed on the public willy-nilly. Apart from the many questions that might be raised even in the context of the usual benefit-cost study, one who values freedom cannot help but be struck by how entire societies have been overwhelmed by suffocating regulations and by how drastically people’s freedoms have been curtailed, all under the presumption that each drop of this deluge constituted a net improvement in social well-being. Insofar as the trampled freedom is concerned, the motto seems to have been: nothing valued, nothing lost.
In a more fundamental sense, the essence of such mainstream benefit-cost calculations boils down to a glorification of the material and the measurable and a complete denial of the spiritual. With such a mentality, rulers justify making each of us a puppet at the end of the strings they pull and jerk. That we value above all the capacity to make our own decisions, to shape—insofar as the laws of nature and economics permit—the contours of our own lives matters not a whit to our rulers and their apparatchiki. They know what is best for us to do and to refrain from doing—indeed, they have the numerical studies to prove that they know best!
Freedom, however, needs no benefit-cost justification. To deprive us of it is to deprive us of a priceless part of what makes us human beings, rather than programmed robots or puppets on strings. For too long people have deferred to the imagined expertise and superior judgment of those who presume to rule them even in the tiniest details of their daily lives. Little by little, as mentalities adjust to such continuously growing controls, people are losing not only latitude for self-direction, but a core part of their very humanity.
In the most economically developed parts of the world, this process has already proceeded so far that one wonders whether the Communists’ vision of creating a New Man was so far-fetched after all. For the sake of our humanity, for the sake of our very souls, we must challenge the continuation of this onslaught. No doubt you and I may sometimes decide badly in one way or another, but unless we have the freedom to make decisions for ourselves—and, as the necessary correlate, the obligation to bear full responsibility for any harm we cause in the process—we shall ultimately find ourselves in that horrifying dystopia where everything that is not required is forbidden and where we are no longer truly human at all.