Perfect freedom and frictionless surfaces
Posted by aogMonday, 06 October 2003 at 09:17 TrackBack Ping URL

Viet Dinh, a former assistant attorney general, says that “distinctions between citizens and foreigners are justified” [via Brothers Judd]. He defends this with a concept that some restrictions of liberty are required in order to promote order which is a prerequisite for liberty. This is of course something I believe as well.

The concept of perfect freedom, unlimited liberty, is a useful one. But it’s useful the same way that frictionless surfaces and massless pulleys are useful in physics. It can serve to illustrate key, underlying principles, to perform simplified thought experiments. One can think about ultimate limits. My favorite is the Carnot Cycle Engine which operates which is made of perfect, frictionless materials. One can’t actually build one but it does demonstrate an upper limit on how well any material device can actually work. If a Carnot Engine can’t do it, then there’s no way a less than perfect physical engine can.

Simiarly, when we use perfect freedom with angelic citizens to think about limits on possible governments and illustrate principles. However, when you switch from conceptual philosophy to the real world, you have to add the friction back in. This is the key step that many of the fringe seem to forget. The restraints on freedom necessary to secure other freedoms is simply the fact that we live in a material world where nothing is perfect and there are always tradeoffs and compromises. Many political theorists seem to have the same disdain for that as programmers do when they’re confronted with the fact that modern computers don’t have infinite memory and customers aren’t willing to wait an arbitrary but fnite amount of time for the computation to finish. It’s a bitter thing indeed to have a beautiful theory slain by an ugly fact.