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The Policy Paradox Implicit in Defining Freedom as Agency



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The principal aim of our regime is to maximize individual freedom, and this aspiration is increasingly understood in our culture as a nearly unfettered capacity to do what one wishes as long as it does not injure someone else. However, as alluring as this view of freedom as personal capacity to do what one wishes within very broad bounds may appear, it assumes perfect or near-perfect agency. That is, to adopt it one must also assume that individuals always know what they want, or better, perhaps, what they need. But that is surely not the case. Human beings are variously mature and wise, possess different levels of education and exhibit markedly different capacities and proclivities for insight and sensitivity. Moreover, they do not live as autonomous individuals, but in families and households that shape them in manifold ways. Even the most perspicacious among us may not always know what we need and we are unlikely in practice to make many judgments concerning such matters by ourselves in any case.

To complicate matters still further, what I have noted thus far assumes we are discussing people of at least normal intelligence and without addictions or impairments of various kinds, whether physical, intellectual or psychological. Individuals with these characteristics may lack sufficient agency to assume responsibility for their choices or even to understand those possibilities fully. Nonetheless, how one is to make a judgment concerning their relative fitness to make decisions for themselves as a matter of policy is ever a vexing issue in our culture, given our organization around a liberal ideal and pervasive assumption that freedom means choosing for oneself.

This paradox of how to address human imperfections of capacity in a society that defines freedom as the ability to choose is evident in many policy issues. A few examples will illustrate the concern. In child welfare policy, the courts and agencies alike today routinely seek to maintain children with their biological parent or parents whenever possible in lieu of removing them to foster care when the birth parent or parents falter in their parental duties. As a practical matter, this predilection often involves keeping children who have been neglected by a drug-addicted mom or dad with those adults and providing the parents counseling or support. In other cases, it involves allowing an intellectually impaired or mentally ill mother or father to retain custody of a child or children despite repeated instances of possible neglect or abuse linked to their condition. This stance is taken believing that youngsters will be better off with their biological parents, whatever their capacities and history. Deciding for those parents that they are incapable of caring for their children unless massive evidence can be adduced to support removing them from their care is now widely considered an abridgement of the parents’ rights and freedom.

If drug addicted, mentally ill and impaired individuals pose a dilemma of how much to defer to their standing as parents when considering the often-difficult implications of their condition for their children, the same issue characterizes treatment of alcoholics who are parents. Like drug addiction, alcoholism can and does impair judgment while also creating untenable conditions for minors who may go unsupervised or be asked to shoulder undue responsibility due to the debilitation of one or more of their parents with the disease. But when do such conditions constitute sufficient neglect to require that a child or children be removed from their home? When a youngster ingests dangerous prescription medicines while their parent is unconscious from drinking too much? When a toddler wanders aimlessly about the neighborhood until a local resident recognizes him or her and calls the authorities? Alcoholics, like most other people with addictions, will nearly always promise that the most recent scenario of neglect or torpor will be their last, even as the recidivism rates associated with the malady belie their contention. When and how should policy-makers decide that an individual does not deserve an additional chance and (in these examples) should no longer be trusted to care for their children when the undergirding policy assumption is that they should enjoy such standing in principle as free individuals?

The same dilemma obtains in international development, but for different reasons. In this case, would-be aid workers are persistently challenged to ensure the freedom and dignity -- understood as capacity to choose for themselves -- of those they would assist. But how does one do that when individuals receiving succor may have no wherewithal to judge whether the proposed intervention is good or bad for their interests? This may be so not because they are unintelligent or incapable, but because they have had no experience with a proposed alternative and therefore possess no ability to judge its implications for their lives. Is one impairing their freedom and patronizing them by suggesting it really would be a good thing if they undertook a step when they themselves are uncertain concerning whether or how to proceed for any of these reasons? Has their freedom been undone thereby, and is one per se guilty of the worst sort of condescending behavior in urging such a course?

Finally, our collective liberal view of freedom poses a dilemma for those people among us who are severely or profoundly intellectually impaired. How do we ensure that these individuals are treated with dignity and their rights protected when we so lightly and so often assume that freedom is contingent on one’s capacity to make autonomous choices? In many cases, plainly, these people cannot make decisions for themselves, but should that make them less free or less deserving of their full human rights and standing thereby?

In sum, United States social policy-making today is rife with examples in which officials charged with implementing various programs must make choices concerning the relative capacities of individuals to undertake their responsibilities. We now err in favor of the persons addressed in the name of assuring their freedom and because we commonly assign such rights to them a priori. Nevertheless, that course may be neither wise nor judicious in specific instances. Yet, we have created a social expectation that now governs policy practice that we should defer to individuals nominally responsible for their own or others’ lives and the choices that shape them. To address this paradox, it appears we must first acknowledge the implications of our understanding of freedom for our social policy, and second and thereafter, begin to develop guidance and programs that can be sensitive to situational realities, rather than circumscribe them by adopting a paradigm and decision rules rooted in unrealistic and sometimes inapplicable in-principle claims arising from the assumed agency of the principals involved.

Publication Date

June 26, 2013