A recent survey revealed that 41% of French adults would support a lifetime limit of four flights per person due to climate change concerns. Among those aged 18 to 24, the restrictions were favoured by 59%.
Once a large portion of a society feels justified to restrict people’s choices, opposition voices can be overwhelmed. Covid restrictions were accompanied by free speech being oppressed while people’s careers were sometimes at risk if they challenged the favoured orthodoxy. Meanwhile, cancel culture-type threats thrive at many universities and more broadly.
Even the most ardent defender of personal freedoms should accept that a pandemic could be sufficiently dangerous that significant restrictions would be justified. Truly extreme circumstances might even justify coercing people to be vaccinated if they were unwilling or unable to isolate themselves. However, there should be broad acceptance that the potential for such scenarios does not justify squashing dissenting views; quite the contrary.
Serious threats to societies will continue to emerge and the time to assess them and react will sometimes, as with wars or Covid, be measured in days, weeks or months, and other times, as with climate change, years or decades. Pandemics are naturally occurring threats and the Coronavirus served as a pop quiz for nearly all societies. While few governments would dare to brag about how they responded, the deeper difficulty is that public opinion in many countries is still divided along partisan lines. What does this tell us?
While most societies are vastly wealthier than they were, say, two hundred years ago, improvements in survival prospects over the past century have been no less consequential. Famines had always been far more common than pandemics but, in recent decades, the global economy has nearly extinguished them, with the only exceptions being in the worst-governed countries.
Of course it is a huge plus that in most societies survival to old age has become the norm, yet this has coincided with – or perhaps provoked – a diminished willingness to acknowledge and manage tradeoffs. With Covid and climate change the tradeoffs among generations are stark and, as with the wars in Ukraine and Israel, attitudes about freedom feature prominently.
Even if all groups’ views were tightly clustered around today’s median expectations about climate change, younger people would still be much more concerned as the risks compound over time. Thus, those in their later years are inherently less motivated to support coercive means to reduce carbon emissions than twentysomethings.
Efforts to save older lives during Covid through prolonged lockdowns negatively impacted child development. People will differ over how to balance the interests of the two groups and this will mix with a range of views regarding the importance of protecting the right to move about freely. Cancelling other people’s freedom of movement, due to Covid-induced lockdowns, or limiting access to flights due to climate change concerns, blends complex technical analyses with substantial uncertainties and views about freedom.
When survival of the community was clearly the primary objective, this objective wasn’t forgotten when other priorities created tradeoffs. When nearly everyone in a society can reasonably expect to reach a ripe old age, then seeking incremental improvements in public health outcomes should be more subordinate to protecting personal freedoms, not less.
Whereas Adam Smith enlightened us about productivity gains from specialisation of labour along with an invisible hand guiding us to benefit ourselves by benefiting others, a few decades later, David Ricardo highlighted the immense, and rather similar, advantages of international trade. Their insights explain much of the progress that has subsequently freed so many from survival pressures. That these insights followed from the UK’s 17th century political revolution to devolve power, and recognise rights, explains much of why Europeans swiftly advanced in the sciences, commercially and militarily.
A near contemporary of Smith and Ricardo was the idealist Hegel who believed that freedom is so essential to human nature that we cannot be fully human without it. He further believed that true freedom is the ability to live in accordance with our rational nature, and this requires us to respect the freedom of others.
If we were being rational, we would prioritise freedom and this requires an economy where nearly everyone can achieve sufficient productivity to become independent agents navigating along their chosen paths. Instead, a majority of today’s young South African adults will never be meaningfully employed – in the sense that employers will invest to develop their skills. Most will go through life reliant on grants and other forms of patronage designed to make them reliant on political overlords.
Being able to fly, particularly to other countries, is an extraordinary freedom, but not an exorbitant one. While progress continues to gain momentum, it requires that societies rationally prioritise and manage tradeoffs.
People fly in pursuit of adventure, ideals and building relationships – including doing business with distant peoples. The more materialistic option would be to greatly restrict container and bulk shipping. As such extreme measures would pummel poverty alleviation, economists tend to believe that we should rather include environmental costs in market prices. Yet today’s disparate governments struggle to agree upon a rational system to tax carbon emissions.
Restricting people’s freedom to fly also has an egalitarian appeal. Yet if societies become much less materialistic, concerns for income equality will likely plunge alongside freedom being ever more prioritised. Such prioritising would greatly emphasise reducing poverty and unemployment over concerns about inequality.
Hegel also believed that freedom is not something we can possess in isolation but rather that freedom is only possible in the context of relationships with others. He further argued that we need to interact with other people and to participate in social institutions in order to be fully free.
The more interaction among people from different countries and regions, the greater the sense of shared interests. An acceptance of shared interests is needed for distant governments to agree on solutions to global challenges.
It is as if by rejecting it, that our government has confirmed Hegel’s contention that to be free we must be rational. Neither minimising suffering nor maximising happiness is consistent with seeking equality in a country beset with rampant poverty and unemployment. Minimising suffering while expanding happiness requires progress which – now perhaps more than ever – benefits from freedom.
Marx emerged amid a world significantly influenced by Smith and Hegel. While he greatly admired both, instead of embracing how increasing productivity and cooperation could expand freedoms, Marx fixated on materialism and class conflict.
Little more than a generation ago, most of the world’s wealthiest people, like those before them, had gotten rich by controlling real estate or below-ground resources. While Marx appreciated how capitalism spurred much progress, he also saw how extreme inequalities often stemmed from people getting rich through controlling scarce resources.
The global economy has been evolving very rapidly over the past half century. Great fortunes today are rarely achieved by controlling finite resources like land or mineral deposits. Rather, ideas are conjured up, some can attract funding to become functioning businesses, and then consumers decide. Coal deposits, among others, are becoming stranded assets while commercial real estate contends with work from home and online shopping trends. All the while, rising productivity breeds expanding freedoms.
South Africa’s discords stem from subordinating freedom and progress to the pursuit of equality. We offer the world much painfully acquired evidence that restrictions which block hiring freely, at market determined wages, won’t spur greater unity, freedom or equality. Nor will flying restrictions.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR
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