When looking at economic development, ethical matters or law and order, individual liberty is often a prime motivator in current policymaking in Malta. Exceptions take place when political and economic interests of the ruling elite are circumvented.
For various philosophers and sociologists, liberty is a prime motivator of human behaviour, but what this means must be qualified. I believe that when analysing this matter, one should ask how the freedom of one person can be compatible with the freedom of others.
This is different from arguing that an individual’s freedom should reign supreme and that moral systems turn us into passive and docile bodies. Indeed, many arguments for unbridled liberty are often themselves tied to moral systems: libertarianism is in itself a belief. Is a libertarian therefore a slave to endless egoism?
My perspective on freedom is also different from the belief that life is merely a never-ending struggle for survival. True, we all shall die and yes, some of us are stronger than others. But again, I may be physically stronger than my neighbour but psychologically weaker to face the challenges ahead. And as much as competition can incentivise one to improve his lot, cooperation can also have positive outcomes. I believe that context is key in this regard.
I also believe that often freedom can result in unintended consequences in various directions, both positive and negative. As regards the latter, history shows us that grand projects, which promised liberation for humanity, turned out to produce quite the opposite, often resorting to repression, imprisonment or murder of those who questioned the ‘free’ plans of the ‘enlightened’ leaders and their absolute truths.
If we transpose the ‘unintended consequence’ hypothesis to Malta today, I believe that government’s rash introduction of legislation across the board may have unintended consequences that could have been avoided had the policymaking process been more sober and holistic.
As things stand, Maltese policymaking may be tilting too heavily towards the freedom pole without considering implications such as sustainability and ethics. This approach may win the votes of those benefitting directly, but is it respectful towards the years to come and towards those who may have to pay the price for such policymaking?
I think that our country needs to qualify its view of freedom. It could be seen as sustainable if recognised as being dependent on other people’s freedom, thus reconciling itself with responsibility and interdependence. Ideally, the State should be seen as being the ultimate guarantor of the reconciliation of individual freedom with the common good. Thus, political discourse would not only focus on liberty, but would also emphasise solidarity, dignity, reciprocity and responsibility.
Notwithstanding this argument, I recognise that the freedom vs common good dialectic is at times difficult to reconcile. Politicians often have a difficult task to draw a line in policymaking, and this is also influenced by the conflicting interests of lobbyists. My fear is that the government is currently focusing too much on the lowest common denominator within the electoral cycle.
Besides, freedom may itself be an ambiguous concept. We often must make choices and live with them for better or for worse. We may not be sure about the outcomes of our decisions, and this partly explains the increased anxiety of our times.
As Eckhart Tolle once said, we often discover that life is closer to an adventure than a package tour: and attempting to flee from freedom and responsibility may be dubbed as ‘bad faith’, as Jean Paul Sartre once emphasised.
In this regard, I join Zygmunt Bauman in believing that there is never a final answer to the freedom/common good quandary. What we should do is avoid ideological absolutisms and instead invest in a reflexive society.
The aim of the latter is to equip each and every one of us to face everyday life and to pool resources to help guarantee a decent life. The former requires increased investment in areas such as the humanities, ethics and psychology; the latter requires a welfare system that looks beyond electoral cycles.