The Relative Importance of Social and Economic Freedoms

The sad passing of Whitney Houston has brought many mentions in the press about her battle with cocaine addiction.  It is, also sadly, not a new story; many celebrities have soared to the heights of popularity, only to have their lives end tragically and entwined with drugs.  Stories of stars such as Ms. Houston frequently include abuse of both illegal and legal drugs, although, as with Michael Jackson, even the legal drugs are abused in amounts common citizens could not obtain.  That said, these two stars, and many others, were exercising their liberties in consuming the drugs -- they were not killed by forced administration of the drugs.

The circumstances of Ms. Houston's demise has me pondering a conversation I had recently with a fellow libertarian, regarding the relative importance of social versus economic freedom.  This acquaintance (heavily influenced, in my opinion, by working for more than twenty years at a public university) feels that social freedoms, such as homosexual marriage, drug legalization, personal privacy, etc., are more important to pursue than economic freedoms, such as lower taxes, less burdensome regulation, etc.  Therefore, three years ago he voted for Obama (with nose held), while I voted for McCain (similarly, with nose held).

How does this question of social versus economic freedom tie in with celebrities' unfortunate tendency to self destruct with drugs? Let me rephrase the question: if we cannot simultaneously increase both social and economic freedom in this country, which goal should we pursue more aggressively? I submit the answer is clearly "economic freedom." Consider who is more free: the financially well-off person in a country where there are restrictions on some social freedoms, or the socially-free person unable to find a way to claw out of the economic gutter?

Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, et. al., are evidence of the importance of pursuing economic freedoms over social freedoms when a choice has to be made.  Having lots of money, they had no problems getting any drugs they wanted.  If Ms. Houston were to live in a state that prohibited abortion, she would (if desired) have had no problem traveling to another state, or even another country, to get one.  Even financially-secure homosexuals can readily (if not ideally) live in societies that prohibit or disdain the practice, or that prohibit homosexual marriage (John Maynard Keynes comes to mind).

Conversely, if most people are financially strapped, and are dependent up on the government for some or all of their subsistence, their lives overall are not particularly improved by broader social freedoms, such as the ready availability of abortion or drugs.  The mother on welfare who wants to abort her next pregnancy may get the service free at the local hospital, but she is still a mother on welfare with little hope of improving her station in life. Similarly, a poor homosexual couple who marries under more liberal social constraints are not better enabled to escape poverty by being married.

As our celebrities show us, financially well-off people can much more easily evade constraints to their social freedom than socially-free people can evade constraints to their financial freedom.  Therefore, I have come to the view that, given we cannot accomplish all our goals at once, the majority of the populace is better off, on the whole, if we fight first for economic liberty, then we fight for social liberty.

Jim Elwell is a retired electrical engineer and business owner/manager currently living in Utah.