J. C. Lester is a philosopher specializing in libertarianism. Apart from articles, dialogs, and book chapters—many available online—he is the author of Escape from Leviathan: Libertarianism without Justificationism (paperback 2012) and Arguments for Liberty (2011).

Editer’s Note: This post is part of a series by philosopher J. C. Lester critiquing Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org blogger Matt Zwolinski’s posts on understanding freedom. Here Lester responds to Zwolinski’s “Libertarianism and Liberty, Part 3: It Doesn’t Add Up.”

… 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.

No it did not. It diminished the license (the aggressive constraints or proactive impositions) of the slave‐​holders. License is the opposite of (libertarian) liberty. To free a slave is not to take any libertarian liberty from his slave‐​owner.

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.

No, the slave‐​owners’ power to restrict the liberty of others (to proactively impose on those others) had been reduced; they had not thereby themselves been proactively or aggressively imposed on.

… Freedom is one thing; justice is another. …

Freedom of action is one thing; freedom from interpersonal aggression (libertarian liberty) is another; justice is a third.

… 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, …

Political voting is not a freedom but an attempt to oppress others in a majoritarian way. (I have replied at length to Kymlicka’s hopeless “critique of libertarianism” elsewhere.)

… the right to practice their religion, and other civil and democratic liberties.

Many so‐​called “civil and democratic liberties” are licenses posing as 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? …

Yes we can, but it’s a rough and ready quantity rather than a precise unit. I can often tell you that one object is bigger than another—“more than twice as big”, for instance—without being able to give any exact figures. And I can often do the same with liberty. (One test of ordinal liberty in the current case, incidentally, is the direction of migration—if it is allowed at all. People tend to move from areas of greater oppression to those of lesser oppression.)

… How would such a quantitative judgment be made? …

By starting with a libertarian theory of liberty instead of freedom of action.

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?

Muddles about “liberty” aside, comparison of size simply does not entail that precise quantification is required. We know that Albanians had even less libertarian liberty than we had, don’t we?

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?

The error here is in failing to understand that the amount of the lack of freedom relates to the extent that some infringement matters to the victim. There is no full distinction between quantity and quality. Pushing a passing person into a pond is a lesser infringement of their liberty than raping them if that person finds the latter to be worse.

Libertarians are right to believe that freedom matters. …

How do you know when you don’t have a proper theory of what libertarian liberty is?

… 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. …

Libertarianism is primarily about protecting liberty. And more liberty is better than less. Individual rights are a separate and subsidiary matter.