I’m going to have a few posts on liberty. In particular, I will explain why the libertarian opposition to positive liberty is misguided.
If you’re going to philosophize about liberty, here are three questions to ask:
- What is liberty?
- What value does it have, if any?
- What, if anything, should government or other institutions do about it?
The most intellectually honest way to deal with these questions is to answer them in this order.
Alas, most people who are interested in politics are more concerned with defending their turf and maintaining their sense of themselves than seeking the truth. So, it seems that most people reverse the order of these questions. They start with a predetermined conception of what government ought to do, and then come up with a theory of liberty and its value to fit and reinforce this conception. People who favor strongly limited governments define liberty in the way they regard as most favorable to that ideology. People who have a fetish for democracy reverse engineer a conception of liberty to make it almost definitional that democracy promotes liberty. And so on.
Orthodox right libertarians are at least as guilty of this as anyone else. In my experience, their blood boils if you make either of the following two claims:
- Positive liberty—defined here as the power to achieve one’s ends*—really is a form of liberty.
- Positive liberty is very valuable, perhaps as valuable or even more valuable than negative liberty.
Orthodox right libertarians reject both 1 and 2. I was once told by a right libertarian that the whole idea of positive liberty was introduced by Marxists as a calculated move to destroy people’s ability to think clearly. Many right libertarians will even assert that claims 1 and 2 are just obviously stupid. Still, I haven’t yet encountered a good argument from them against claims 1 and 2.
I think libertarians should just admit that positive liberty really is a form of liberty and really is very valuable. I’ll start explaining why tomorrow.
*N.b.: This isn’t how Berlin used the term, but this is the most common way the term is used today.