A paradox of liberty in U.S. and European politics

Jack Herrorwitz
Aug 9, 2016 · 3 min read

A common theme in U.S. and European politic​s that runs deep yet we tend to overlook.

Throughout history, there has been a debate on the desirable level of governance on both sides of the Atlantic. In the U.S. the tussle has manifested itself in the competing notions of “Federalism” and “States’ rights” whereas in Europe it comes in the flavor of “integration” versus “sovereign nation states.” Much like with the campaign for Brexit, soaking in the admiration of Europe’s far-right, we often see this sort of debates pitched around the word ‘liberty.’ The go-to rhetorical tool for stirring the emotions.

While we can find all the ingredients for a bona fide debate here, there is a point beyond which relaying more power to lower levels of government might open the door to ​political favoritism of certain constituencies over the others. This gives rise to the paradox in which more liberty at a lower level (closer to the individual) could end up leading to more disparity at the level of the individual. Case in point here is what has been the cauldron of Reproductive rights v. Religious freedom in the U.S.

Part of what helps sustain this paradox is the relative ease with which lower levels of governance are capable of staying under the radar of public attention even as they pursue discriminatory policies. On the flip side however, involving stakeholders and observers from a broader sphere helps steer our proceedings toward the admission of higher ethical standards. A U.S. example here is the tendency how before the “New Federalist” shift it was the ruling of the Supreme Court that would put the final nail in the coffin of repressive state statutes. An example from Europe is the induction of ex-Eastern bloc countries to the EU in 2004 and 2007. This required that they undergo “Law Harmonisation” which included stronger Human Rights provisions.

Perhaps speaking to the paradox the most is the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 — arguably the pinnacle of humanity’s collective political achievements. “Yet, in this first decade of the twenty-first century, there still remains a long way to go in order to achieve the plenitude of the international protection of human rights,” argues Antônio Augusto Cançado Trindade, former President of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, where “the advances of the international protection of human rights depend nowadays, to a large extent, on national measures of implementation.”

None of this is to suggest that all power be exercised at the highest possible level. Not only does it historically run the risk of the abuse of such a centralized power, it would also be a great loss in flexibility not to mention a hindrance to innovation at the local level. Somewhere in between there lies a sweet spot all right, but there is more to this. What makes this balancing act even more delicate is the psychological phenomenon which has us feel losses more intensely than gains. This is something that renders humans risk-averse. Shifting therefore too much power to the more capricious lower levels of governance might just be at odds with the very notion of individual well-being.

Momentous decisions such as the Brexit referendum call (or alas should have) for a cool head. One can even make a convincing case against subjecting such decisions to the whim of the voter. Even so whenever faced with one, we ought to take a detached look at the arguments of the ones who shriek ‘liberty’ the loudest. Especially when they happen to be coming from those who make entire careers out of conflating it with actual individual liberty.

The article also appeared on herrorwitz.org.

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