February 7, 2013 columns

Debating “Freedom”

Friedman furthers his argument on private property, drawing a moral distinction between uncreated and created property.

Let me see if I can restate Matt’s point in a way that makes clear what I disagree with. Positive freedom is about getting outcomes, and so may require others to act so as to provide them to you; if I have the freedom to be fed, someone else may be obligated to feed me. Negative freedom is about not having other people physically stop you from doing things. When the fishmonger refuses to fry up fish for a beggar, he is violating at most her positive freedom. But when he prevents her from seizing the fish that he has already fried for a paying customer, he is violating her negative freedom.

So far so good. But Matt’s claim about Cohen was that “He is arguing that they lack precisely the kind of negative freedom that libertarians purport to be concerned with—freedom from liability to physical interference by other human beings.” The kind of negative freedom that libertarians purport to be concerned about does not include the freedom to shoot other people or even to steal their fish, hence not all freedom from physical interference qualifies.

Matt conceded that point when he wrote, in the essay I responded to, that “My freedom to steal your bread and punch you in the face is, anyway, a pretty unattractive kind of freedom from a moral point of view.” But he went on to assert that private property “limits not just the freedom of thieves and aggressors, but of innocent individuals seeking nothing other than to make an honest way in the world.” Presumably what followed were examples of such.  The first involved property in land, which does indeed raise serious problems. But that was followed by the woman prevented from riding the train without a ticket and the beggar who wants fish but can’t pay for it. Unless Matt thinks there is some important philosophical difference between fish and bread, theirs is precisely the sort of freedom that he already conceded was “pretty unattractive … from a moral point of view.” So why are those examples after his introduction of “innocent individuals seeking …” instead of before?

Which gets me back to my earlier criticism of his argument. He is treating uncreated property and created property as if they raised the same moral problem, implying that enforcing the claim to own either violates the negative liberty of “innocent individuals seeking nothing other than to make an honest way in the world.”

I am puzzled by Matt’s claim that preventing someone from shooting me violates “precisely the kind of negative freedom that libertarians purport to be concerned with.” He is puzzled by my attempt to improve upon Locke’s formula of mixing one’s labor with the land. My point was quite simple. If one accepts the legitimacy of property claims to ones’ body and created objects, as most libertarians do, one can use that to derive something fairly close to ownership of uncreated property—arguably close enough for practical purposes. That is not an entirely satisfactory justification for property rights in land as they exist in real world law, but I think it comes closer than other alternatives I am aware of.