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Freedom’s “budget”

Published on 21 March 2015
Updated on 05 April 2024

In 318, I indicated that in real life, freedom is not a “free gift.” Achieving freedom takes the form of a “budget.” The statement is startling and counterintuitive. I would like to explore the matter further. As an example, I propose to reflect on the overt and covert consequences of providing freedom of movement about town to “active” wheelchair users. The analysis is only illustrative and has no normative implications whatever.

Should “active” wheelchair-bound people be able to go about town in their vehicles?

De quoi s’agit-il? How many “active” wheelchair users – that is persons able to go about freely and independently – are there? Many wheelchair-bound people, of course, are past going out due to other disabilities, and should be excluded from the estimate (they’ll need targeted assistance in one way or the other). So “active” is a subset of “all.”

I have asked a question which is difficult to answer, for statistical data do not differentiate between these two categories. I have found indications that the gross figure for wheelchair bound people is 0.62% in France, and maybe 1% in the EU as a whole.[1] I am in the right ballpark, I conjecture, by assuming 0.4% “active.” For a city like Aix-en-Provence, which I use to contextualize my analysis, this means a pool of less than 600 persons (add in a few tourists).[2]

Are these citizens few, or many, compared to other needy citizens? To put matters in perspective, the poverty rate in the town is 14% or 7’500 households.[3] This represents about 17’250 persons.

Disability as “rights issue”

“The EU promotes the active inclusion and full participation of disabled people in society, in line with the EU human rights approach to disability issues. Disability is a rights issue and not a matter of discretion. This approach is also at the core of the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD), to which the EU is a signatory” notes the EU.[4] In implementing this Convention, the EU has issued a European Disability Strategy 2010-2020 with an impressive catalog of measures, including directives to secure effective implementation of these rights.[5]

Combating poverty, providing health and education, or employment[6] are mere “goals,” not legally enshrined “rights.” There may have been contingent reasons behind this path-dependent outcome. One wonders, though, whether the “rights-based approach” reflects the unavowed judgment that helping victims is non-controversial, hence “easy.” It projects the image of activism even if running in place.

Transforming the environment or adapting to it?

When considering the policy goal of ensuring mobility to such disabled persons, one would contrast two strategies:

  • Transforming the material environment, so that active people in wheelchairs can go about unhindered;
  • Helping them adapt to the condition, by giving them targeted assistance in going about.

Arguably, both solutions can be effective, it depends on costs and delays involved.

I have found little evidence that this means question was considered when establishing the “right” to go about in wheelchairs. Dissonance is the case particularly with international treaties (as here), for states agree to share goals while reserving the means. Even at the national level, however, policy deliberations conventionally separate issues of goals from those of means.[7]

This pragmatic sequencing of decisions has unintended consequences. Lacking a consensus[8] on “goals,” the discussion is likely to go on under the guise of “means;” the principle decision can be silently subverted or at least delayed in this context. Framing the outcome in terms of “rights” prevents subversion by stigmatizing a discussion of means as unseemly – a betrayal of the principle. Implementing the principle is unconditional and brooks no delay. TINA = There Is No Other Way but to go forward and fulfill the promise – damned the bills.

The current penchant for technocratic approaches tends to prevail over alternatives involving people providing service to wheelchair-bound citizens. Transformation trumps adaptation every time: it is visible and documentable. Underlying the non-discussion one also finds the overarching principle – the current Zeitgeist if you will – which favors autonomy over-reliance on services.

The direct cost of transformation

Transforming the material environment to allow for unhindered wheelchair access involves alterations in:

  • Public infrastructure (public transport, buildings, service centers etc.)
  • Private infrastructure (homes, office space, recreational places etc.)

I don’t think that anyone has seriously studied – before or after implementation – the direct costs involved in transforming the material environment. Nor have there been scalable attempts at exploring other options.

So, how much did it or will it cost? A back of the envelope reflection suffices. Transforming the town’s whole material environment in order to benefit a few wheelchair-bound people would seem to be a disproportionate use of means. In Aix, the whole fleet of buses in the town was replaced to allow wheelchairs to ride in them – not a small budget item. Public buildings now sport lifts everywhere. The curbs of sidewalks have been changed. There are rumors of impending widening of sidewalks to accommodate wheelchairs going past each other.

There is more, however.

The silent transformation of the inner city

The law now prescribes that all shops be wheelchair-friendly by 2016. Aix is a medieval town on a slope. The roads are set out higgledy-piggledy. Raised door sills compensate for slant, but also serve to keep out muck and flood water after a squall. Doors tend to be 80 cm wide while wheelchairs need at least 1 m in width for access. So, simply making all shops accessible demands large investments. The layout of the shop also needs to take the width of the wheelchair into account; shelves must be accessible in this configuration; stairs need replacing by elevators. Shelf space will shrink. Reconfiguration for enhanced accessibility may mean less profitability for the shopkeeper.


Many artisans in Aix have their shops going back generations. Today, these shops are still the soul and face of the inner town. Some shops will adapt easily, others will face the impossible. They will close. “Outlets” and flashy stores, cafés or restaurants plying the tourist trade, rather than the residents, are likely to replace them. The streets would become noisy by day and night. As the older generation moves out, students (Aix is a university town) move in, intensifying the pull to transform public space. The owner of my favorite bookstore told me the other day: “Mine is a neighborhood store. There is no longer a neighborhood. I’m closing down.”

Slack enforcement – “the Provençal way” – might soften the blow. Slackness is discretionary, read arbitrary, and destroys trust in the authorities. Of course, the wheelchair “right” is but one contributing – say accelerating – factor in the silent transformation of the city. Whatever the meandering path, the outcome seems foretold.

Introducing such “rights” disproportionately affects historically grown structures and puts them at a competitive disadvantage against green-field operations. The approach is a massive and silent destroyer of culture. I am not sure that the politicians and bureaucrats who so easily handed out “rights” were aware of what they were about to work on the town.

Sharing the burden of transformation

Rights are a collective obligation. The burden of implementation should fall on the state as the agent for the polity. While the state takes up some of the burdens, in this case, the cost of implementation also falls to a good extent on the private sector – her the owners of properties needing transformation. Compensation (e.g. in form of tax credits or subsidies) should be in full but is seldom adequate.

Consequently, the law is a form of cold taxation. This form of taxation violates the principle of equitable burden-sharing. It capriciously falls on some and not on others. Its effects are at times even prohibitive – having to close up shop is akin to expropriation of one’s place of work.

At this point, the imbalance between means and results comes to haunt the progressive politician. People ask themselves: “Why should we transform our stores or residences for a few wheelchairs that will never eventuate?” People grumble, justifiably so.

Freedom’s “budget”

Beyond the issue of proportion of ends and means looms the most fundamental issue of justice. The comparison between the number of wheelchairs and that of poor people in Aix (or people with other disabilities for the matter) opens up the question of society’s priorities as well as means to fulfill them.

  • Why should shopkeepers, be coerced to fulfill a public goal? Why should a majority directly subsidize the few?
  • Both overcoming poverty and handicaps compete for limited resources. We have a choice, which entails opportunity costs: what could we have done instead with the resources?

The majority feels that it is an ATM on which politicians draw to fulfill all sorts of minority concerns. People feel abandoned. People turn to the illusion of populism.

It seems that we have turned the meaning of welfare topsy-turvy. If the few were once asked to submit to the needs of the many, now the opposite eventuates. The few lord it over the many. The main justification is that they are “victims” of some sort. The successful grievance is akin to holding a winning lottery ticket. There is little rationality to winning the ticket, however. The greasy pole of victimhood is as slippery as that of power.


[1] https://www.newdisability.com/wheelchairstatistics.htm

[2] This figuer does not coincide with my subjective experience of wheelchairs about town, but I’ll leave it at that.

[3] https://www.inegalites.fr/spip.php?article1619

[4] https://bit.ly/18lHHxm

[5] https://bit.ly/1G12sd6

[6] See e.g. Cass R. SUNSTEIN (2004): The second bill of rights. FDR’s unfinished revolution and why we need it more than ever. Basic Books, New York.

[7] Structuring the deliberations in time is one of the most difficult issues in a democracy. Amazing, the matter of the mechanisms of deliberation and their impact on polica choices has received very little reflection so far. See: Paul PIERSON (2004): Politics in time. History, institutions, and social analysis. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

[8] Nomadic societies are based on consensus, for opponents would vote with their feet after defeat. This is not possible with sedentary societies.

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