Liberal vs. Prohibitive society

Under any law, any given action is either permitted or prohibited. Under a liberal set of laws, anything is permitted unless it is expressly prohibited. Under a prohibitive set of laws, anything is prohibited unless expressly allowed.

In Western Liberal Democracies (a term we use in debating to denote a more or less coherent group of countries where classically liberal and democratic values are largely observed), the general idea has been to maintain liberal societies, where the state may only prohibit some specific actions which society deems harmful or dangerous.

I don’t think we live in such a society any more (if we ever have). More specifically, it does not seem that people think this way. Instead, when I hear people complain about something, they ask “Why is this permitted?”, “Why does the state allow this?” or “I can’t believe this is allowed!” Such statements express a sentiment that everything is prohibited unless allowed (and, even worse: allowed specifically only be the state, an authority we did not create ourselves). Where does this sentiment come from?

Maybe it is a reaction to our innate idea that one is always right. Accordingly, ideas or actions that do not correspond to one’s own values should be prohibited. In a society, what is right and wrong is determined not by individuals, so what society regards as wrong is prohibited. This is fine when it concerns ideas or actions definitely harmful to others (murder, for example). However, when you think you’re right and everything else is wrong, of course everything else will also be useless or even harmful and should be prohibited. Murder is a good example where societal ethics and morals trump individual advantage. Being able to take a defend your ideas in public (freedom of expression) is a good example where personal (or small-group) interests trump societal rules (that the protesters are wrong).

Belief in authority also plays a big part. I avoid saying “trust in authority”, because in my experience, people do not have much trust in real-world authority (that is, state actors such as the police). Rather, they believe that there is some more-or-less natural, mythical high authority; something that understands them and what they (or society) want and believe. This is where such people’s question of “Why is this permitted?” comes from. Surprisingly, belief in authority lasts very long. The Habsburg empire, which had a relatively solid, well-run and far-reaching bureaucracy, impacts people’s life in Central Europe to this day, as people in areas formerly subject to Habsburg rule still trust and believe in authority more than people in other areas. (Full paper: Becker/Boeckh/Hainz/Woessmann – The Empire Is Dead, Long Live the Empire! Long-Run Persistence of Trust and Corruption in the Bureaucracy)

Austrians are particularly susceptible to belief in authority, as it provides a convenient way to absolve oneself of any responsibility (Austrians hate responsibility). Anybody who has ever held a party in Vienna can confirm this: Your neighbors will not ask you to be quiet; they simply call the police to do that job for them.

That said, it becomes clear that most societies live somewhere between liberalism and prohibitivism. Sure, the law is liberal, but there are so many laws, rules and regulations and they are so vague that is becomes impossible to decide if a certain action is actually prohibited or not.

What can we do about that? We need to assume more responsibility for ourselves, because with responsibility comes authority. If you can honestly say that you are responsible and liable for your actions, you have authority over those actions and everything associated with them. If we take individual responsibility for society serious, the result will be more individual authority instead of deferring to the vague notion of state power.

4 thoughts on “Liberal vs. Prohibitive society

  1. Actually as long you here more people complaining that something is permitted than something should be permitted you are living in a quite liberal country where the law making agency (monarchy, democracy or whatever) does not give too much on the ideas of liberty restricting individuals.

  2. I’ve never thought about these categories before. I think I see myself as one who asks, “Why is this prohibited?” more often than the other. I think generally US Americans think that way too, with the exception of some political extremists. However, the lack of responsibility is a problem for us too. Lots of entitlement here.

    • This is a good point, and I definitely noticed it during my time in the USA. In fact I experienced Texas, which is stereotypically seen as ultra-conservative, as a very liberal place, where the rule was: “Do whatever you like as long as I can do so as well.”

What do you think?