From one perspective, this is not all that far from the basic moral principle (with plenty of Judeo-Christian expressions): “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Kant said much the same thing as a premise of his moral philosophy (which he called the “categorical imperative”).
Now it’s no coincidence that these ideas were being bandied about in the 17/18C at the same time as the so-called “scientific revolution” was gathering speed. The rational analysis of the way the world and nature work was closely connected to the rational analysis of how humans and societies work.
Here’s the problem: the more we know about how the world works, the more we understand the ramification of human actions/omissions, the more we see how those actions can infringe on the lives/liberties/property of others, and therefore, the more we are therefore obliged to constrain our actions (i.e. reduce our liberty).
Thus, the discovery of knowledge (e.g., about pollution, or psychological distress, or market pricing mechanisms) has to lead to a loss of liberty. The addition of laws about sulfur dioxide emissions, hate crimes, or price-fixing are a tangible manifestation of the increase of knowledge, all of which goes a long way towards explaining why a mere ten commandments is wholly insufficient for a modern society.
This tension is not novel; human societies have been developing more and more constraints for millennia. Even ten commandments were not enough for Hammurabi (whose code (from about 3700 years ago) ran to about 300 laws. Debates about freedom burgeoned in the 17/18C in which state intrusion into individual liberty was consistently decried; sometimes in opposition to despotic/absolutist monarchical power, sometimes against more modern modes of the “State” (whether democratic or dictatorial). The most frequent concern was with taxation, constraints on trade were also a popular subject of attack. Typically, those with property are better positioned in society to participate in the political process, so much is heard of infringements of “private” economic power. These groups have been (as Marx said) in control of the “means of production,” so they are also concerned with the state’s infringement of their liberty to operate their businesses. Thus, the consistent string of attacks on the “regulatory state.”
So, where does the knowledge part fit in? First, as the basis of an expanding set of “regulatory state” rules limiting the actions of those with power in society in order to protect the individual liberties of those affected by that unbridled power. Labor, antitrust, and environmental regulations are important parts of this category. Other incumbents (e.g., professionals from lawyers to hair dressers) also push for limits on entry (i.e. on competition), nominally to protect innocent consumers. All of this arises because we have plausible theories of causation and effect (e.g. OSHA-like rules to prevent black lung disease, prevention of monopolies which raise prices, and mandatory composting ordinances to reduce the stress on nature from land-fills). Yes, it’s true that the Code of Federal Regulations now runs almost 200,000 pages (about a 9-fold increase since 1960). The question I’m raising here is to what degree this increase is a function of changing levels of understanding of how private actions affect others (as compared with changing political outlooks (e.g., “liberalism’s” pro-active approach to addressing societal challenges)).
The second way in which there is an inverse correlation between knowledge and liberty approaches the same phenomenon from another angle. The premise of modern liberalism is that the state needs to actively support the abilities of all individuals to fulfill their goals (consistent with the usual caveats). So, the same increase in understand of cause and effect—in terms of both the world/nature and humans/society—means that we now understand that there is more for the state to do to foster that aspect of liberty (“positive liberty” as Isaiah Berlin called it). This means not only more protections (the flip side of the regulatory state noted above), but also increased intervention in basic economic arrangements of society, i.e. redistributive economics and progressive taxation.
None of this analytic framework which I have just laid out tells us very much about exactly where lines should be drawn in particular situations. There are still justifiable concerns about overreaching bureaucracies and stifling of individual initiative. There are still plenty of reasons to be concerned about economic inequality and the inability of the market (or should I say the unwillingness of those with economic power to alter fundamental market parameters) to recognize and incorporate into its pricing mechanisms the real effects of many human actions. There is still a need for ethical debate and the outcome, as I say, in any particular case is not so clear.
Nonetheless, as a historian, I can’t help but wonder about how the continuing increase of knowledge (of causes and effects) will alter our mix of liberties. We can’t “unknow” the implications of our actions. We can, however, accept that some degree of these generally visible harms might be acceptable as a trade-off for the less visible harms of the loss of liberties. Such an exercise in subtle political engineering might be beyond the capabilities of our current political culture. So we end up with less effective policies, less liberty, and a gnawing sense of unease that we’re off track.