We often equate freedom with an absence of constraints, impediments, or interference. For instance, you have free speech when no one stops you from speaking your mind. Philosophers call this idea of liberty negative liberty.
Marxists have complained that negative liberties, by themselves, are worth little. Negative liberty, Marxists say, is the freedom to be poor, to be unemployed, and to sleep under bridges. Liberty is valuable only if people have the financial and social means to exercise it. Alternatively, some Marxists see liberty as the effective power, capacity, or ability to do what one wills. We can call this conception of liberty positive liberty. For example, a bird has the positive liberty to fly, but human beings do not. (As I mentioned in a previous post, commonsense English speakers think of liberty both in positive and negative terms. Some people pound the table and insist only negative liberty is liberty, and I’ll respond to this claim, and the thin arguments meant to support it, later this week.)
Many laypeople and philosophers who lack training in the social sciences conclude that to guarantee people will be free in the positive sense, citizens need legal guarantees that they will be supplied with adequate resources.
I believe both negative liberty and positive liberty, so defined, are morally important. It matters that people are not subject to continued wrongful interference, from each other or from the state. It also matters that people have the effective means to exercise their wills, to do as they please (provided they do not violate other citizens’ rights), and to lead their conceptions of the good life.
Negative liberty matters in part because, historically, protecting negative liberties has been the most important and effective way of promoting positive liberty. Due to economic, cultural, and scientific growth, a typical citizen of a Western nation today enjoys far more positive liberty than a medieval king. This growth did not occur because a government declared or legally guaranteed that it would occur. It occurred because Western countries adopted a good set of background institutions, among the most important being the rule of law. The rule of law provides a framework that encourages experimentation and entrepreneurship. Societies that protect property rights tend to achieve prosperity; societies that do not always fail. Cultures of tolerance and openness to change lead to more prosperity than do closed, intolerant cultures. Overall, societies succeed in promoting positive liberty when they create institutional frameworks–such as open and competitive markets–where the best shot individuals have at leading good lives is to live and work in ways that are good for their neighbors, partners, and customers, too. These institutions don’t guarantee progress, but nothing does, so guarantees are beside the point. This is one of the main theses of my book with David Schmidtz.
Saying that positive liberty is a valuable species of the genus liberty tells us nothing about what the government should do. Settling on a definition of liberty cannot settle a government’s proper role as protector or promoter of particular liberties.
One reason that settling on a definition of liberty doesn’t tell us what government should do is that even if X is a valuable species of liberty, it might not be something that other people owe me. Unlike certain billionaires, I lack the (positive) liberty to fly to outer space. I’d love to do some space tourism. But even though the rest of you could pony up $10 million or so to get me on a Russian rocket, I don’t have any legitimate grounds for complaint when you choose not to do so.
Another reason why settling on a definition of liberty doesn’t tell us what government should do is that it’s often an empirical question whether government can be effective at promoting liberty so defined. We must instead examine historical, sociological, and economic evidence to see what actually happens when people rely on any institution, including a government, to play a given role.
Do we want government to issue legal guarantees that we will all enjoy positive liberty? It depends on what happens when government issues guarantees. There is a difference between guaranteeing as rendering inevitable (as when an economist says quadrupling the minimum wage would guarantee rising unemployment) versus guaranteeing as expressing a firm intention or issuing a legal declaration. Clearly, guaranteeing something in the latter sense is no real guarantee.
For instance, imagine a world haunted by an evil demon. In this world, whenever a government provides a legal guarantee that citizens will achieve some goal, the demon intervenes and prevents the goal from being achieved. In this imaginary world, if you wanted to achieve goals, you wouldn’t want government to issue legal guarantees. You’d have to find some other way of achieving those goals.
Now, we don’t live in a world haunted by evil demons. But there are things in our world that function much like my imaginary demon. Plenty of factors in this world can and do disrupt, corrupt, or pervert legal guarantees. Legal guarantees are good only when they work. If we give government the power to promote some valuable end, there’s no guarantee that those in power will be able to exercise it competently, and thus succeed in promoting that end. There’s also no guarantee that the people in government will use that power for the intended end, rather than for some private purposes of their own.
I once heard some law students say, “This goal of social justice is so important that even if we need something like a KGB to achieve it, so be it. We’ll just have to make sure the right people run the KGB.” But there is no such thing as making sure that the right people run the KGB. People who gravitate toward KGB jobs do so for reasons of their own. Philosophers don’t get to stipulate that their reasons are noble. The same goes for any other institution.*
Despite the lack of guarantees, history may well reveal that respecting negative liberties has a long, successful, non-accidental track record of making for better lives. In any case, we won’t settle any debate about what negative liberty does for people by conceptual analysis alone. We need to investigate what happens to people when negative liberties are reasonably secure, and what happens when they are not.
Note: If you're a trained economist or political scientist, you might think my argument here is pretty obvious. Nevertheless, many laypeople, and my fellow philosophers frequently make the mistake I diagnose here. One man's "duh!" is another man's "Hmmm…"
*Unless you are doing “ideal theory”, in which case yes, you can stipulate that people have noble goals. But then you need to make sure that just because a set of institutions works well under “ideal” conditions, you don’t assume that they will work at all under realistic conditions.