Maxine Udall had an excellent post yesterday on liberty. Here’s a lengthy excerpt from the end:
Liberty (or consumer sovereignty, which seems often to be the sole embodiment of liberty in some discourse) is not so straightforward. Am I free and sovereign if I’m acting on manipulated, distorted information provided by the manufacturer of a (harmful) good? Am I free and sovereign to impose costs on my neighbors, my community, and my nation by failing to purchase health insurance or by repealing health reform, and then expecting to be treated, at the expense of taxpayers or individuals who did purchase health insurance, when I show up at the emergency department? To what extent do ethical constraints restrict liberty and do such restrictions represent a loss of freedom or a gain? If individuals and corporations have a right to free political speech, do they also have ethical obligations or may they simply pursue single-minded, self-interested ends with little regard for the long-term consequences to the rest of us? What does profit represent? Is it a return to the ability to dupe amateurs or is it a return to the ability to provide expert information about a product and to help amateurs to identify the product that best fits their preferences, their budget constraint, and their long-term goals?
The last is the commercial exchange that I grew up with. It did not require regulation. We understood that we were the experts and that our expertise was why our customers were paying us a mark up above costs: not to dupe them, but to help them achieve that maximum of utility our economics textbooks extol.
The above are all questions that we as a society, as a nation, and as a discipline must start to ask and to answer (in more than the 25 word sound bites that play well at MSNBC and Fox news). Economics and economists understand better than most the impossibility of a Paretian liberal. We as a discipline must advance this dialogue in ways that move us ahead in resolving the necessary conflicts of a society that values individual freedom and choice, the social benefits of efficient allocations and prices, and some necessary, yet to be determined, level of collective well-being that enhances those same freedoms, choices, and efficiencies.