Social Liberty

image source; link to Wikipedia article on Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, who campaigned against social discrimination against Untouchables in India

image sourcelink to Wikipedia article on Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, who campaigned against social discrimination against Untouchables in India

Like B. R. Ambedkar, whose words you can see above, John Stuart Mill argued that protecting civil liberty is not enough; social liberty must also be protected. It is possible to force most people into conformity with prevailing opinion by criticism, disapproving glances, and mockery of nonconformity. Here is how John Stuart Mill puts it in the 5th paragraph of the “Introductory” to On Liberty:

Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant—society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it—its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.

As an academic, I notice how powerfully the opinion of other economists–whether right or wrong–operates in controlling the behavior and the research priorities of the typical academic. It is hard to think of many people who could be more safe from harsh practical consequences for a dissenting opinion than tenured professors, yet most still meekly follow the opinion of the crowd within their discipline. Is this the way it should be? Is this the way to best advance science? I don’t think so. Surely, a bit greater variance in expressed opinion would be more productive of scientific progress than the degree of conformity that prevails within most scientific disciplines, including economics. 

Turning to a non-scientific social norm in economics, to my mind there is too much emphasis on sheer quantity of mediocre publications within economics (at least if those mediocre publications are in top journals) relative to (a) the quality of work that comes from spending the time to think deeply about issues before trying to publish and (b) quantity of searching and wide-ranging discussion with other economists. 

Fortunately, I think the economics blogosphere is beginning to right this balance. The economics blogosphere is the kind of freewheeling domain that John Stuart Mill is recommending. I am willing to predict that the continued progress of the economics blogosphere will improve the ability of economics as a discipline to process ideas and to gain greater intellectual depth. 

Update: Bruce Bartlett emailed this and said I could share it with you:

… good point about social liberty today. This is an issue that today’s libertarians almost never mention because they are concerned with one aspect of liberty and one only—freedom from government coercion. Implicitly, all private coercion is okay as long as it is not illegal. Thus discrimination against blacks, women, immigrants, gays etc is all okay in the libertarian world. To admit otherwise would force libertarians to admit that government can play a positive role in expanding liberty. I have never once heard a libertarian praise the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which did more to expand liberty in this country than anything else in the last 50 years.

Bruce also sent the link to his Cato Unbound post “Freedom is More Than Small Government,” and wrote “Check out American Amnesia by Hacker & Pierson. Due out shortly.”

One thing this discussion makes me realize is that abridgements of social liberty are not just against intentional nonconformity but also against being born different, or simply being born in a group to which undesirable difference is imputed.