December 18, 2012 essays

This is part of a series

Negative and Positive Liberty, Part 2

Further Comments on Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Jason Brennan

Smith discusses some of the problems in libertarian theory caused by the many different conceptions of liberty.

Before continuing with my discussion of negative and positive liberty, a few housekeeping details are in order.

I recently learned that David Schmidtz and Jason Brennan discussed “Conceptions of Freedom” over two years ago in Cato Unbound. The lead article, which appears to be based on the introduction to their book, A Brief History of Liberty (which I have not read), covers the issue of negative and positive liberty in more detail than does Brennan in Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know. I therefore refer readers to that discussion for additional information about Brennan’s views.

I also recommend Tom Palmer’s critique of the article by Schmidtz and Brennan. It will become obvious, if it is not obvious already, that I agree wholeheartedly with Palmer’s remarks.

I would also like to call attention to Brennan’s comments on the first three parts of my series. Although I do not wish to interrupt this series in midstream by responding to his criticisms in detail (I may do this later), I do wish to comment on two things.

First, Brennan corrects my statement that no writings of Murray Rothbard are mentioned in the “Suggestions for Further Reading” at the end of his book. He points out that Rothbard’s For a New Liberty is listed under the heading “Libertarian Anarchism.” I stand corrected. My oversight was caused by relying on the index, which gives only one listing (on page 11) for Rothbard.

Second, Brennan writes:

At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what we call positive liberty. If, for ideological reasons, Smith and other libertarians insist on revising the English language so that only negative liberty counts as liberty, fine. Instead of positive liberty, call it “zlarp”. My point is that a commitment to the value of zlarp isn’t an argument for Marxism, but an argument against it.

I wish to make it clear that I have no desire to revise the English language. There have been various notions of positive liberty (or freedom), some of which go back to some ancient Greek philosophers, such as the Stoics. And Brennan’s particular notion of positive freedom—by which he means the power or ability to do something—has a respectable pedigree in political philosophy, as we find in the writings of Thomas Hill Green, a leading philosopher of the “new liberalism” in late nineteenth-century England.

In “Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract” (1881), T.H. Green defended what he called “freedom in the positive sense.” He contrasted this positive freedom with what he regarded as the anemic (negative) conception of freedom defended by classical (or “old”) liberals. As Green put it:

[T]he mere removal of compulsion, the mere enabling a man to do as he likes, is itself no contribution to true freedom. In one sense no man is so well able to do as he likes as the wandering savage. He has no master. There is no one to say to him nay. Yet we do not count him really free, because the freedom of savagery is not strength, but weakness. The actual powers of the noblest savage do not admit of comparison with those of the humblest citizen of a law-abiding state. He is not the slave of man, but he is the slave of nature. Of compulsion by natural necessity he has plenty of experience, though of restraint by society none at all. Nor can he deliver himself from that compulsion except by submitting to this restraint. So to submit is the first step in true freedom….

If the ideal of true freedom is the maximum of power for all members of human society alike to make the best of themselves, we are right in refusing to ascribe the glory of freedom to a state in which the apparent elevation of the few is founded on the degradation of the many, and in ranking modern society, founded as it is on free industry, with all its confusion and ignorance license and waste of effort, among the most splendid of ancient republics.

[W]e shall see that freedom of contract, freedom in all the forms of doing what one will with one’s own, is valuable only as a means to an end. That end is what I call freedom in the positive sense: in other words, the liberation of the powers of all men equally for contributions to a common good. No one has a right to do what he will with his own in such a way to contravene this end.

Green’s notion of positive freedom played a crucial role in the overthrow of the negative freedom defended by classical liberals, so it is understandable if modern libertarians are skeptical of efforts to incorporate positive freedom into libertarian ideology. Of course, Brennan is aware of this history. His basic point is that to embrace positive liberty as an authentic kind of liberty does not necessarily mean that a government should promote positive liberty directly. Rather, positive liberty can best be furthered by the indirect means of free markets.

As I noted in my last essay, the same point can be made—and has been made many, many times—with the straightforward argument that free markets produce the greatest material abundance for the greatest number of people. Why Brennan decided to make exactly the same point by bringing in the notion of positive liberty, with all its attendant complications, remains a mystery to me.

Nevertheless, I have no desire to revise the English language. If some people wish to use “freedom” in the positive sense, so be it. But, as I also pointed out in my last essay, we should not suppose that positive and negative freedom are different species of the same genus. True, both go by the same name, but this should not blind us to the fact that positive and negative freedom signify different things altogether.

The observation that the words “freedom” and “liberty” have been used in many different ways is scarcely new. “No word has received more different significations and has struck minds in so many ways as has liberty.” This passage from Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws (1748) was echoed several decades later by Edmund Burke: “of all the loose terms in the world liberty is the most indefinite.” And in 1895 the liberal historian Lord Acton said that liberty “is an idea of which there are two hundred definitions, and … this wealth of interpretation has caused more bloodshed than anything, except theology.”

In his 1958 lecture and essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” Isaiah Berlin followed Acton in referring to “the more than two hundred senses of this protean word recorded by historians of ideas,” while noting that the meaning “freedom or liberty” is “so porous that there is little interpretation that it seems able to resist.”

Although Berlin did not originate the distinction between negative and positive liberty (or the terms used to describe this distinction), his influential essay played a major role in sparking a protracted debate about the distinction among modern philosophers. Ironically perhaps, Berlin’s defense of negative liberty and his criticism of positive liberty led some critics to suppose that Berlin was defending laissez-faire capitalism, so Berlin set the record straight in his 1969 introduction to Four Essays on Liberty.

Berlin explained that he intended to clarify the meaning of “freedom,” not to defend negative freedom in all cases. In practice, according to Berlin, freedom understood as “non-interference (like ‘social Darwinism’) was, of course, used to support politically and socially destructive policies which armed the strong, the brutal, and the unscrupulous against the humane and the weak, the able and ruthless against the less gifted and less fortunate.” Berlin continued:

The bloodstained story of economic individualism and unrestrained capitalist competition does not, I should have thought, today need stressing. Nevertheless, in view of the astonishing opinions which some of my critics have imputed to me, I should … have made even clearer … the evils of unrestricted laissez-faire.

Since I am ignorant, perhaps blissfully so, of the “bloodstained history” of laissez-faire capitalism, I wish Berlin had done something more than mention economic conditions in Victorian England—which, so far as I know, did not involve the shedding of blood. When Herbert Spencer and other libertarians argued that the poor should be able to spend their money and educate their children as they see fit, they engaged in “an odious mockery” of freedom, according to Berlin. “The case for intervention, by the state or other effective agencies, to secure conditions for both positive, and at least a minimum degree of negative, liberty is overwhelmingly strong.” Berlin concluded:

The case for social legislation or planning, for the welfare state and socialism, can be constructed with as much validity from considerations of the claims of negative liberty as from those of its positive brother.

We thus see that even defenders of negative freedom do not necessarily oppose economic intervention by government. It should also be noted that Berlin’s conception of positive freedom differs substantially from Brennan’s conception.

Given the welter of confusion and disagreement over the meaning of “freedom” and “liberty,” libertarians should take pains to be clear about what they mean when they use those terms. They should distinguish what they mean from other meanings, and they should be extremely cautious about elevating other meanings to the same status as negative freedom within their ideology.

Consider, for example, Martin Luther’s celebrated discussion of “Christian liberty.” Based on Luther’s theory of divine grace, which could not be earned by good works, this denoted an inner freedom from the spiritual demands of Catholicism. So what should libertarians say about Luther’s notion of Christian liberty? Should we say, as Brennan does about positive liberty, that Christian liberty is a “form” of liberty and should therefore be incorporated into libertarian ideology? Should we say, as Brennan does about positive liberty, that to embrace Christian liberty as an authentic form of liberty does not necessarily mean that a government should promote Christian liberty directly?

I think not. We could pose the same questions about many different conceptions of liberty found in the history of philosophy and theology, but what would be the point of answering such questions in a roundabout Brennanesque manner? What purpose would be served by embracing dozens upon dozens of different conceptions of liberty, as if each conception is on a par with negative liberty in libertarian theory? Rather, we should simply point out that such alternate conceptions are not relevant to libertarian theory in any fundamental sense, period.

This is part of a series