A free market in false choices

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

Leon Louw, Exec Director of the Free Market FoundationEarlier this month, Business Day published a quite peculiar column by Leon Louw, executive director of the Free Market Foundation. It’s peculiar in a number of ways, ranging from its poorly motivated hostility towards “most journalists”, academics and the Right2Know Campaign; its engagement with a straw-man version of arguments against the Protection of State Information Bill (PoSIB); some failures of logic; and finally, the apparent assumption that because he’s a libertarian, the rest of us must also be.

The column starts with a non sequitur: because “most journalists salivate with glee at every state intervention”, they should be delighted that the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) have passed the Bill. Instead, they are “squealing like stuck pigs”. But it doesn’t require the sort of special pleading Louw alleges for journalists to be particularly concerned about PoSIB by comparison to other threats to freedom (if they even are – Louw provides no evidence for the journalistic bias he alleges). Their jobs hinge on being able to disseminate information, and it thus stands to reason that state intervention in that domain is objectively more important to them than state intervention in other domains.

Louw thinks it a problem that some journalists, academics and the folk at R2K repeat the mantra that “people have the right to know” as if it settles the matter. That is true – any mantra that isn’t backed up by some argument is a problem, which is why it’s useful that the R2K campaign have provided this guide as to how the Bill still fails their “freedom test”.

Personally, I find some of the R2K arguments overly scaremongering, and have on occasion taken issue with their strategic choices (the timing and implementation of vigils, sit-ins and the like). But their role is precisely to be the flag-bearer of freedom as it pertains to PoSIB, and it makes little sense to criticise them for not being concerned with other freedoms.

Louw also accuses “the media” of being inconsistent, saying: “But people also have the right to food, clothes, healthcare, insurance, liquor, banking, jobs, cigarettes, energy and much more. By logical extension, the media should demand unregulated retailing, medical schemes, insurance, alcohol, banking, labour, tobacco and electricity with comparable conviction. But they don’t.”

I don’t need to find my copy of the Constitution to establish that Louw is (hopefully) engaging in hyperbole with regard to some of those rights, such as to cigarettes or liquor. I’d imagine that Louw and I might even be in agreement that positive rights are in general best avoided – and we have enough difficulty providing the more sensible ones (education) to start to try to provide cigarettes for all.

So let’s assume he’s talking about our “rights” to smoke where we like, when we like. I’ve written before about how our current legislation consists of a gross violation of liberty, but that doesn’t mean that all restrictions on where smokers can smoke are equally unreasonable. “Logical extension” does not require that “the media” should demand unregulated freedoms in other areas, for two simple reasons: those other areas might not be analogous; and Louw’s “logical extension” is a blatant straw- man.

“They” (the media) don’t demand unregulated freedom of information, but rather, more sensibly regulated freedom of information. What they (whomever they might be) consider sensible or not can of course be debated, but I’ve seen few in the media, few academics, and nobody in R2K demanding that we all get to be Julian Assange.

Louw seems to regard PoSIB as far less threatening than many others do, describing it as “comparatively benign”. This is of course a matter of interpretation and of our varying appetites for trusting the judgement of state bureaucrats. I agree with Louw that it’s not as threatening as some seem to think – especially in my main area of concern, academic freedom.

And Louw is certainly correct in pointing out that similar sorts of legislation exist most elsewhere in the world, where they typically haven’t led to some form of police state. But just because the R2K campaign and others argue that the Bill gets various things wrong does not mean that they have to subscribe to the same general philosophy with regard to freedom that Louw does. In other words, they are not being inconsistent when arguing against PoSIB while remaining silent on other intrusions on freedom.

This is most obviously the case for the reason I state above – they were formed in opposition to PoSIB. As for the media, information is a necessary good, so it makes perfect sense that they be more concerned about restrictions on that than any other restrictions. And, for both these groups, excessive rhetoric can be expected (and, can be effective) in trying to rally a largely apathetic public to support their causes.

But there’s also no obligation on the media or R2K to defend the same freedoms that Mr Louw and his organisation do. They are not being inconsistent through not taking a libertarian stance on freedom in general. Sure, they might be wrong to not do so, but that’s a separate matter. Louw needs to judge them on their own ideological stances, and not on his (while trying to change their ideologies, if he so chooses).

“Unlike people who espouse self-serving freedoms, lovers of liberty espouse freedom for all”, says Louw, followed by the hopeful observation that the debate might serve as a “wake-up call for those journalists who have never internalised the immortal observation that freedom is indivisible”.

Freedom is indeed indivisible. But that doesn’t mean we can’t disagree on how to define freedom, or on how to campaign towards those definitions of freedom that we find most coherent and pragmatically feasible to attain. In the unlikely event that we ever do reach agreement on those matters, it will still be possible for different people and different groups to campaign for various aspects of that freedom. Louw, by contrast, seems to be arguing that those who want to save the rhinos must simultaneously want to nuke the rest of the environment and its residents.

But if Louw is indeed correct in his definitions of what freedom is and how best we can protect it, it is his job to make that case. But he shouldn’t be surprised to find that those who are “squealing like stuck pigs” over PoSIB might not be all that receptive to hearing someone, ostensibly campaigning for freedom, telling them that this means becoming a “praise singer for government intervention against everyone else”.

In this season of gifting, I can’t help but think that for the Free Market Foundation, free markets seem to mean that each shelf should be stocked with the same false choice as the next one.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.