Libertarianism is associated with what many philosophers call the idea of “negative freedom” i.e., freedom from the coercive interference of others. To the extent that I am not restrained, by the use or threat of physical force, from acting according to my own judgment, I am said to be free.
Freedom in this sense depends on how others act in regard to me. And since actions are guided by value judgments, I can be free only to the extent that others value my freedom by refusing to aggress against me. This brings us to a key question: Why would other people value my freedom?
The reasons for respecting the freedom of others fall into two broad categories, which I shall call pragmatic and moral. The difference involved in my distinction may be illustrated as follows.
Consider the hypothetical case of Jack, an ethical nihilist who does not believe in any moral principles whatsoever. He sees other people as natural resources that may be exploited for his convenience, beasts of burden that may be beaten into compliance or even killed, if necessary. Jack, in other words, draws no moral distinction between persuasion and coercion. Whether he deals with others voluntarily or through the use of physical force is a purely pragmatic decision.
Now, let us suppose that Jack needs to go up a hill to fetch a pail of water but that the pail will be too heavy to carry back by himself. Jack needs the assistance of Jill, but he is morally indifferent as to how he gets it. Whether he uses persuasion or force is a pragmatic consideration, a matter of expediency rather than ethics. In this particular case, however, Jack decides to try voluntary persuasion first (Plan A) and then, should this plan fail, resort to threats of violence if Jill does not agree to help (Plan B).
It turns out that the voluntary method of Plan A does the job. Jill, unaware that Jack even has a Plan B, agrees to help, so up the hill they go. In this case, Jill is objectively free vis-à-vis Jack. She has in fact been persuaded rather than coerced, even though (unbeknownst to her) Jack would have resorted to the coercion of Plan B if Jill had refused to assist him. Jack’s external behavior conforms to the rules of justice, despite his ethical nihilism and willingness to use force.
What factors might Jack have taken into account during his pragmatic deliberations? What might have persuaded him to choose Plan A over Plan B? An obvious factor is the fear that Plan B might land him in jail. Or if Jack is familiar with Jill’s character and knows her to be a generous person, he might assume that she will readily agree to help, thereby rendering coercion unnecessary. Or if Jack wants to get the water as quickly as possible, he might think that Jill’s voluntary labor will be more efficient than her coerced labor. Or if Jack wishes to interact with Jill in the future, he might reject Plan B as something that will cause Jill to dislike and fear him. Or if Jack moves in the same circle of friends as Jill, he might fear that news of Plan B will quickly get around and ruin his reputation.
These are among the considerations that might cause Jack to prefer Plan A over Plan B. Some of these factors (such as Jack’s concern about his reputation) are more farsighted that others, but all are essentially pragmatic, inasmuch as they deal with the relative efficiency of different means. Whatever Jack decides—whether he chooses Plan A or Plan B—Jill’s freedom is nothing more than a cipher in his pragmatic calculations. Jack sees Jill as a means to his ends, not as an end in herself.
Let us now reverse the situation and make Jill the person who wants Jack to go with her up the hill to fetch a pail of water. Unlike Jack, however, Jill is a libertarian who strongly believes in the moral autonomy and rights of all persons. Freedom, for Jill, is a fundamental moral value, so she will deal with Jack voluntarily or not at all.
There is a crucial difference between these two scenarios. Although both Jack and Jill chose persuasion over coercion, they arrived at their decisions by different means. Whereas Jack deliberated between Plan A and Plan B, Jill never had a Plan B to begin with. She never regarded coercion as a feasible option; she viewed persuasion not as one possible plan but as a moral precondition of all plans. Although coercion was for Jill a physical alternative (i.e., it was a course of action that she was physically capable of performing), it was not a psychological option.
This distinction between physical alternatives and psychological options is essential if we are to understand a fundamental role of moral principles in decision making. Most of our everyday choices involve pragmatic values, so we make them without consulting our moral principles. But the range of our pragmatic alternatives is extremely limited. We do not, because we cannot, weigh the pros and cons of every physical alternative when deciding upon every course of action, because the number of such alternatives is virtually unlimited. If we tried to take each possible alternative into account before deciding upon a course of action, we would spend a lifetime deliberating and never act at all.
When deliberating how to act we select from a limited number of psychological options, not from an unlimited number of physical alternatives. Most physical alternatives are screened out in advance, leaving only a handful of options for serious consideration. Our moral principles play a crucial role in this screening process.
For example, most people who need to raise money do not regard bank robbery as one pragmatic option among others. It is not as if they undertake a cost-benefit analysis of bank robbery and then reject it for pragmatic reasons; rather, this alternative is screened out beforehand by their moral principles and so is prevented from entering into their pragmatic deliberations. Bank robbery, though a physical alternative, is not a psychological option for most people.
Every purposeful action involves a choice, and every choice is driven by a value preference. Given the number of choices we must make every day, our lives would be horrendously unmanageable if we had to assess every possible course of action on its own merits, without the assistance of general principles.
Our general principles, or norms, delimit our range of options in typical situations. Thus, rather than having to choose from a vast number of physical alternatives, norms enable us to focus on a manageable number of realistic options. When such norms embody our fundamental values—when they state, for example, that we should exclude the initiation of force as a legitimate option in social relationships—then we are dealing with moral norms. Moral decisions reflect our basic values, and moral norms determine the nature and range of morally legitimate options.
Norms in this sense do not determine specifically how we should act; they do not prescribe one option, a, to the exclusion of all other (physical) possibilities (b, c, d…z.) Rather, moral norms set the parameters of legitimate options in typical situations. They specify not that option a is mandatory but that among all possible alternatives (a through z) only a certain number (a, b, c) should be seriously considered by the acting agent. Norms allow us to isolate a manageable number of pragmatic options, any one of which may be appropriate, from a vast array of physical alternatives.
To say that Jill, unlike Jack, does not have a Plan B is to say that the alternative of coercion has been screened out by her moral principles and thereby precluded from consideration as a pragmatic option. Thus, although both Jack and Jill may ultimately decide to use persuasion rather than force, they arrived at their respective decisions by different routes. Jack regards Jill’s freedom as a pragmatic value, as something he may or may not respect, depending on the outcome of his cost-benefit analysis. Jill, on the other hand, respects Jack’s freedom as a moral value, as something that enjoys moral immunity from her pragmatic calculations. Jill views Jack as an end in himself, not as a means to her ends.
Jill’s freedom, since it depends on Jack’s pragmatic calculations, may be called pragmatic freedom. And Jack’s freedom, since it depends on Jill’s moral values, may be called moral freedom. This does not mean that Jack somehow has “more” freedom than Jill; the distinction here is qualitative, not quantitative. Jack has a better quality of freedom than Jill, because his is more secure.
My distinction between two kinds of freedom has been recognized by some libertarian philosophers over the past several centuries, even if it has not been expressed in the same words. But the word “freedom” has been used to cover both cases, so we do not have a convenient way of differentiating between them. It is with this problem in mind that I shall introduce a terminological distinction between freedom and liberty. (Although some libertarian philosophers have given different meanings to “freedom” and “liberty,” the words are normally used interchangeably. I am differentiating between them for the purpose of this essay, to make a point, without suggesting that others should follow my lead.)
Freedom, as I shall now use the word, exists whenever a person is not subject to the compulsion or constraint of another person. This describes an objective state of affairs. In our previous scenarios, both Jack and Jill were objectively free vis-à-vis the other person, because neither was actually threatened with force. The fact that Jack was willing to use force, the fact that he was willing to resort to Plan B if Plan A had failed, is irrelevant in this context. Subjective intentions and values have no bearing on our description of the factual state of affairs, the objective relationship between Jack and Jill.
Nevertheless, there is a significant difference between the freedom of Jill vis-à-vis Jack and the freedom of Jack vis-à-vis Jill. Jill owes her freedom to a pragmatic decision by Jack, whereas Jack’s freedom is based on Jill’s moral values.. Freedom based on the moral values of other people is what I shall call “liberty.” Liberty is principled freedom.
Similar distinctions between freedom and liberty have cropped up many times throughout the history of libertarian thought. When the British Parliament repealed all import duties on the American colonies (except the tax on tea, which was reduced by two-thirds), Parliament also reaffirmed its sovereign right of taxation. American radicals spurned this conciliatory gesture, because the freedom from taxation was granted to them by permission, not by right. This rolling back of taxes, though it increased the freedom of Americans, was widely seen as a threat to their liberty. Many Americans believed that if they voluntarily complied with the reduced tax on tea, they would implicitly acknowledge the principle of parliamentary sovereignty and would thereby lose the ideological war.
Another example occurred in the realm of religious liberty. Toleration was regarded by Thomas Paine and other libertarians as a counterfeit liberty, because governments permitted religious freedom as a matter of policy, not as a matter of justice. But what a government gives a government can also take away. Paine defended “liberty of conscience” as an absolute right, in contradistinction to the contingent freedom of toleration.
A similar issue emerged in the American antislavery movement. When it was proposed that abolitionists should purchase slaves and set them free, William Lloyd Garrison opposed this strategy. To purchase slaves, he argued, implicitly sanctions slaveholding, because it treats the master as a legitimate owner of the slave, whom he then has the right to sell. This strategy, reasoned Garrison, might achieve freedom for some, but it would endanger the liberty of all by undermining the principle of self-ownership, which was fundamental to the abolitionist movement.
We now come to an important conclusion, namely, that the expression negative freedom can be misleading when used to depict the libertarian ideal of a free society. Although libertarians are (and should be) willing to argue for the pragmatic benefits of freedom, most libertarians also understand that a free society must ultimately rest on a moral foundation a positive respect for the moral autonomy of individuals. In short, freedom has both negative and positive aspects.
No one understood the dual nature of freedom better than Ayn Rand. As she put it, with characteristic lucidity, in “Man’s Rights”:
The concept of a “right” pertains only to action—specifically, to freedom of action. It means freedom from physical compulsion, coercion or interference by other men.
Thus, for every individual, a right is the moral sanction of a positive—of his freedom to act on his own judgment, for his own goals, by his own voluntary, uncoerced choice. As to his neighbors, his rights impose no obligations on them except of a negative kind: to abstain from violating his rights.
George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith's fourth book, The System of Liberty, was recently published by Cambridge University Press.