January 25, 2013 columns

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Libertarianism and Liberty, Part 3: It Doesn’t Add Up

Is libertarianism best understood as a doctrine committed to the maximization of freedom? In my last post, I presented a moral argument against this interpretation. In brief: the goal of maximizing freedom is compatible with violating the liberty of the few, so long as their loss of freedom is sufficiently compensated by the greater freedom of the many. This stands in stark contrast to the libertarian view of freedom, in which each individual’s liberty is seen as a (nearly) inviolable constraint on the way in which other individuals or groups may legitimately pursue their goals.

In this post, I want to present a different kind of argument against this “maximizing” interpretation of libertarianism. Not only is the goal of maximizing freedom an immoral one, for the reasons I have already articulated. It is, arguably, an incoherent one. When we think about it in a casual way, it’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking that we know what it means to maximize freedom. But this is an illusion that can be quickly dispelled by pursuing a few lines of thought more deeply.

We can begin by noticing that the idea of maximizing freedom will only make sense if we are able to compare different people, situations, or social systems in terms of the amount of freedom they have or allow, and to say whether one has more or less than another. Is this something we are able to do?

It’s easy to think of a few simple cases where we seem to be. Consider the abolition of slavery in the United States. Prior to abolition, slaves lacked (among other important freedoms) the freedom to control the own labor. After abolition, they possessed this freedom to a much greater degree. If anything could make a country more free, surely the liberation of some 12 percent of the population from the bonds of slavery is it. The United States without slavery certainly wasn’t maximizing freedom, but it at least came closer than it did with slavery.

This seems like an easy and obvious case. And it would be an easy an obvious one if all that the abolition of slavery involved was the granting of new freedoms for some members of the population. If the freedom of all non-slaves was unaffected by abolition, and the freedom of slaves was unambiguously increased, then we could confidently conclude that the freedom of society (i.e. the sum total of the freedom of all individuals in society) had increased.

This is not, however, what abolition actually did. Abolition did, of course, increase the freedom of slaves. But it also diminished the freedom of certain non-slaves. Specifically, it diminished the freedom of slave-owners.

This sounds like a shocking claim. But it shouldn’t be. If we understand freedom in the way that most libertarians do – if we understand it, as Rothbard did, as the “absence of molestation by other persons” – then it is actually quite obvious. Prior to abolition, slave-owners were able to do certain things to their slaves without fear of interference by other persons. They could force their slaves to work, physically restrain them, beat them, and so on, all without the law doing anything to stop them. After abolition, they could no longer engage in these activities without fear of legal intervention. Before abolition, the law allowed them to do certain things. After abolition, it didn’t. Their freedom had been reduced.

Now, obviously, I think it is a good thing that their freedom had been reduced in this way. The activities that slaveowners were no longer allowed to engage in were ones that violated the moral rights of their slaves. A just society will not allow its members this freedom, any more than it allows its members the freedom to kill each other, or steal from each other. But from the fact that the exercise of these freedoms is unjust it does not follow that they are not really freedom after all. If I could snap my fingers and make it the case that you were able to do whatever you wanted, just or not, without interference from others, you would be more free as a result. If I snapped my fingers again and thereby magically prohibited you from doing anything unjust, you would be less free. Freedom is one thing; justice is another. And very often what justice requires, in the case of slavery and in many other cases, is that certain freedoms be curtailed so that others might be enhanced.

I will explore the theme of conflicting freedoms in more detail in my next post. For now, the important thing to note is that if the abolition of slavery increased some people’s freedom, and reduced the freedom of others, then determining the net effect on freedom becomes considerably more difficult. For now we must determine whether the gains in freedom were greater than the losses. And it is just not at all clear how we are supposed to do that. Presumably, we would have to add up the freedoms gained by the slaves, subtract from that the freedoms lost by the slaveowners, and see if what we’re left with is a positive number. But how, precisely, is this to be done? What is the “unit” of freedom on which our operations of addition and subtraction are to be performed?

This last question is especially important, and challenging. To make it clearer, consider the following example from the philosopher Will Kymlicka’s critique of libertarianism. Suppose we want to compare the freedom of people in London with that of people in pre-1989 communist Albania. People in London have freedoms like the right to vote, the right to practice their religion, and other civil and democratic liberties. People in Albania, let us say, lack these freedoms. “On the other hand, Albania does not have many traffic lights, and those people who own cars face few if any legal restrictions on where or how they drive” (143). Kymlicka’s sense, which I share and I expect most of you do too, is that Albania’s lack of traffic regulations does not compensate for its lack of basic civil liberties. It is, on the whole, a less free society than London. But the question is: can we account for this judgment simply in terms of a quantitative judgment about the amount of freedom in Albania as compared to London?

How would such a quantitative judgment be made? Should we count up the individual, particular action-tokens that are forbidden in Albania and compare them with the action-tokens that are forbidden in London? If we discovered that, over the course of a year, red lights produce 18,623,545 instances of people being prevented from acting in the way they desire to act, whereas denial of the right to vote produces only 42,658 such instances, would that be sufficient to demonstrate that the red-lights are more freedom-restricting than the denial of political liberty? Or should we be counting not individual action-tokens but more general action-types, i.e. “the right to vote” versus “the right to drive through intersections as one wishes”? And whether we choose types or tokens, just how are we supposed to individuate actions in order to add them up? Is the right to marry the person of your choice one action? Or a shorthand way of describing an enormously large number of discrete actions?

However we decide to count up actions, the whole exercise seems largely to miss the point. For it assumes that what we care about when we care about liberty is (merely) the total number of actions allowed or prohibited. But why think that all freedoms are of equal value? Why should the freedom, say, to be governed by one’s own conscience in matters of religious belief count for no more than the freedom to count the blades of grass on one’s lawn? Why believe that all that matters in assessing the freedom of a country is the numerical quantity of freedom allowed, and not the substantive quality of that freedom?

Libertarians are right to believe that freedom matters. They might even be right to believe that it is the highest political value. But it is a mistake to think that these ideas, however true they might be, can be fleshed out in terms of a commitment to maximizing freedom. Morally, a commitment to maximizing freedom is inconsistent with libertarianism’s proper concern for individual rights. And conceptually, it is based on the incorrect assumption that freedom is the sort of thing that can usefully be measured, compared, added, and subtracted. In certain easy cases this may be possible. But the possibility that certain cherished freedoms can be gained only at the expense of other freedoms makes generalized comparison in terms of freedom alone difficult, if not impossible.

This insight has important implications for libertarianism in general, but especially for a correct understanding of the relationship between liberty and property. And so it is to this topic that I will turn in my next post.

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