Social Justice, Liberty

Kant: Libertarian or Progressive?

This is a post for philosophers; my apologies to readers who have different interests.

I want to suggest that, perhaps, libertarians can claim Kant as one of them.  I don’t say that this is the true interpretation (whatever that means) of Kant’s political philosophy, but that it is a plausible interpretation.

In the Doctrine of Right, Kant addresses the problem of justified coercion.  He writes that coercion is justified when it is a hindrance to a hindrance to freedom (Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, McGregor ed., 1992, p. 237).  That is why state coercion against a criminal is justified: he is using his freedom to hinder someone else’s freedom. The formula may also justify the use of state coercion, in the form of taxes, to support institutions that are necessary to protect freedom  –courts, police, armies.  This interpretation, of course, sits well with libertarian doctrine. The state’s only job is to protect us against one another and against foreign enemies. But does the formula justify redistributive taxation?

Progressives think that Kant has the resources to justify coercive redistribution of wealth. To get there, they expand the notion of freedom to include positive freedom as well as negative freedom.  Negative freedom is  the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints.  Positive freedom  is the possibility of acting — or the fact of acting — in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realize one’s fundamental purposes (I adopt these definitions from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) The progressive Kantian argument, then, is that once positive freedom is included in the formula, the state can hinder my freedom to exact resources that will help realize someone else’s positive freedom. Just as the state can tax me to fund institutions needed to protect negative freedom, so the state can tax me to subsidize folks whose positive freedom is impaired. (This is not the same argument as the one made by some modern Kantians, such as Ripstein and Weinrib, to justify the state’s duty to support the poor.)

Whatever the intrinsic merit of this view (and here I say nothing about this), it is hard to infer it from Kant’s formula. For Kant says that coercion is justified against someone who hinders someone else’s freedom, yet the person who is taxed for redistributive purposes is not hindering anyone’s freedom. The verb “hinders” denotes an action, not an omission. Just because someone is relatively well-off doesn’t mean she is hindering someone else’s positive freedom.  In fact, the concept of hindering someone’s positive freedom makes no sense: if I am hindering someone from pursuing his goals, then it is already a case of negative freedom. Someone’s insufficient positive freedom is not caused by the person whose wallet the state is now raiding.  (By the way, there are isolated passages elsewhere in Kant that suggest that he did not endorse state coercion to realize positive freedom, but they are inconclusive, especially because he does say some obscure things about the duty to aid the poor.)

I don’t want to be misunderstood. I don’t claim here that state redistribution is unjustified. I don’t even claim that a modified, jazzed-up version of Kantian principles (such as Korsgaard’s or Ripstein’s) would not justify redistribution. I only claim that those who seek support in Kant’s text should realize that, perhaps, progressive Kantianism had a pretty conspicuous dissenter: Kant himself.

  • I think the Libertarian vs Progressive argument over Kant has in recent years focused on Rawls use of Kant and the Nozick’s response to this. Rawls undoubtedly thought he was kantian(I think he even states this explicitly) and he taught extensively on Kant when at Harvard. The argument centres around the idea of not using someone as a means to anothers end, something Rawls is very keen on with his two moral powers. There are questions (in Nozicks mind) about whether redistributive taxation uses someone as a means to another’s end. I wonder what the blog authors views are on this?

    • Fernando Teson

       Yes. Kant considered himself a Kantian in two important ways. First, as you point out, by endorsing the anti-utilitarian idea that aggregate welfare cannot be the goal of just institutions. Second, by adopting Kant’s notion of the social contract that prescribes the most extensive freedom compatible with an equal freedom for all.

  • “For Kant says that coercion is justified against someone who hinders someone else’s freedom, yet the person who is taxed for redistributive purposes is not hindering anyone’s freedom.”

    I don’t know that you do enough to establish this, Professor. If there is a grove of fruit trees that the two of us rely on for sustenance, and I take all of the fruit and lock it away, even if I can’t hope to eat all of it before some is wasted due to spoilage, haven’t I hindered your freedom to eat the fruit? (Of course, outside of short blog hypotheticals, there would far too much available food for me to monopolize it all, no matter how industriously I approached the task, but hopefully, you take my point.) This isn’t a make a “taking more than their fair share” argument, but to say that if a freedom relies on access to finite resources, so that we have conceptualized a need for access to those resources to realize a right, isn’t insuring a certain minimum distribution acceptable in Kant’s understanding of a the allowable use of force to prevent hindrance of a right?

    • Fernando Teson

       Fair enough. However, I think Kant would ask who has property rights over the grove. For Kant, it is essential that rights be legally defined in the civil condition.

  • Fernando,
    I don’t claim to be an expert on Kant, but based on what I have read, your interpretation is right. However, this reading raises the same question that is commonly used as an objection to libertarianism. That is, opponents argue the doctrine would call for letting innocent widows and orphans starve in the streets rather than employ nonconsensual taxation to save them.

    However, as you know, Kant also held that we have positive duties of virtue, including beneficience. But, since the exercise of this broad obligation necessarily involves moral discretion, coercion to enforce it cannot generally be justified. I am wondering, though, whether in extreme cases we might interpret Kant as holding that a duty of beneficience is enforceable to the extent necessary to preserve innocent life, in that w/o such coercion the lives (and “freedom”) of rational agents will end. In the context of Kant’s thinking about our positive duties, I wonder if “hindering” can include extreme indifference to the fate of other rational agents. 

    • Fernando Teson

       Agree. As I said n my comment to Dan, I think Kant argues for a minimal safety net to prevent people from dying of hunger, etc..  Above that threshold, it is dubious whether his writing support a standing power of the state to redistribute wealth.

  •  The Categorical Imperative is a game-theoretic concept that (potentially) resolves this question. We agree strategically to a social contract that both defends our liberty and prevents us from starving should circumstances go against us in the marketplace.  We choose thereby do to other what we would have them do to us. A Nash equilibrium of the classical liberal state emerges with strong defence of negative liberty (not using anyone as means), and assurance of a frugal social minimum in situations of  extreme distress.   

    A detailed argument on the classical liberal social contract using this game theoretic approach is outlined in the manuscript I’m currently writing – its draft is available here:

    Sanjeev Sabhlok

    • Fernando Teson

       Very interesting; look forward to reading it!

  • CFV

    Good post. In my view, your case against Kantian progressives doesn’t seem to depend on the possibility of drawing a distinction between negative and positive freedom, and saying that Kantian libertarians embrace the former, whereas Kantian libertarians the latter. And if that were your case, it would be unsuccessful, because negative freedom suffers from conceptual and value-instability. Cfr. Spector, H. Autonomy and Rights (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), 53-63.
    Your argument against Kantian progressives relies on denying the moral symmetry between acts and omissions. 

  • Guest

    I’m a little confused about what you’re trying to do here. 

    If the question is whether Kant’s view has the resources to justify an enforceable duty to support the poor, then the one thing we can say conclusively is that Kant himself thought so.  His reasoning for it is admittedly cryptic, but that Kant believes there is such a duty is pretty unambiguous.  “For reasons of state,” he says, “the government is therefore authorized to constrain the wealthy to provide the means of sustenance to those who are unable to provide even for their most necessary natural needs” (Metaphysics of Morals 6:326).  Why does Kant think this?  I don’t know, but it might help you to look at the part that comes before the “therefore” in that sentence I just quoted–you know, the argument–rather than speculating about what Kant might say based on the combined evidence of one sentence taken from 50 pages earlier in the book.

    If the question is whether the “Progressive Kantian Argument” you describe would work as an extension of Kant’s own view, then you’re right that it wouldn’t.  Kant wouldn’t have supported state coercion to realize positive freedom, because Kant’s conception of freedom is quite different from positive freedom as Berlin understands it.  In the Doctrine of Right Kant understands freedom as “independence from being constrained by another’s choice” (6:236), which doesn’t map on to the positive/negative liberty distinction very neatly.  So, yeah, it shouldn’t surprise us that Kant wouldn’t be in favour of state coercion to advance a conception of liberty that he didn’t hold.

    As far as I can tell, your argument is: “Here’s a sentence from Kant that seems to have libertarian implications.  Let’s see if that sentence is consistent with an argument I just made up based on a concept of liberty that Kant didn’t hold, to the effect that redistribution is justified.  It isn’t.  Therefore Kant was probably against redistribution.”

    • Fernando Teson

       I agree. I don’t think the Kantian text supports a standing power of the state to realize or equalize positive freedom. On the other hand, I am convinced that the text you and Dan cite argues for a safety net to save the poorest in society. Notice his emphasis on the necessary link of the state to the preservation of its members, which suggests a minimal safety net, not a duty to reduce inequality.

      • Guest

        My problem was not with the claim that Kant wouldn’t have supported redistribution for the sake of realizing or equalizing positive freedom.  That seems to me obviously right, if only because the very idea of “positive freedom” is quite foreign to Kant’s political and legal thought. 

        My problem–or maybe better, my confusion–is a bit more simple-minded than that.  I’m confused about whether you’re trying to show that that Kant *himself* was a sort of libertarian, or whether you’re trying to make the claim that contemporary progressive Kantians are accepting inconsistent premises.

        Regarding the latter claim: it’s true that Kant’s account of justified coercion (as a hindrance to a hindrance to freedom) doesn’t justify coercion to realize positive freedom.  But then all you’ve shown is that progressive Kantians must either reject Kant’s account of when coercion is justified, or that they have to adopt a different conception of freedom.  That doesn’t strike me as a particularly thorny dilemma.  It seems to me that the progressive Kantian could easily abandon either or both of those premises and still call themselves a “Kantian.”  (I don’t think Rawls, for instance, accepts the Kantian account of when coercion is justified, but you’d be hard pressed to say that Rawls isn’t a “Kantian” in some familial sense; Ripstein and Weinrib, as I understand them, reject the idea of “positive freedom” in favor of an account of freedom more in line with Kant’s own view that political freedom consists is independence from being constrained by the choices of others.  And it seems you could easily imagine a view that rejects both the Kantian account of justified coercion and the idea of positive freedom that would still be Kant-y enough to be called “Kantian”).  Thus showing that these two premises are in tension doesn’t get you very far, because I don’t see why a Kantian has to be committed to either.

        On the other hand, regarding the former claim: If you’re trying to say that Kant *himself* was a kind of libertarian, then your argument is extremely weak.  You need to look at Kant’s own arguments about redistribution, rather than just speculating about what he might say.

        For what it’s worth, my own understanding of Kant’s argument for redistribution (and I studied the Doctrine of Right under Ripstein, so I admit that perhaps my reading is biased) is this: the problem with the destitute person is he has no freedom of choice.  That is, anything he might do, any choice he might make, is completely subject to the will of others, because without their help he has no means at his disposal to realize any of his ends, whatever they happen to be.  Even his continued existence, his very survival, depends upon others’ private charity.  That is inconsistent with a system of universal freedom, according to Kant.  Thus it is necessary that the state provide the poor with a minimal safety net.

        The “safety net” can’t be provided through private charity, according to Kant, because that doesn’t solve the underlying problem: even if a system of private charity is quite generous, still the destitute person survives only at the mercy of others’ choices.  It’s only if the poor are guaranteed a certain minimal level of resources, as a matter of right rather than as a matter of mere beneficence, that their freedom of choice is secured from the choices of others.

        If that’s Kant’s argument, then you’re right that Kant’s argument justifies only a minimal safety net, and in that sense it is somewhat more “libertarian”  than contemporary progressives might like.  But in another sense Kant’s argument is radically progressive, in the sense that it justifies an unconditional right to public assistance for anyone who might need it.

        Anyway you don’t have to accept my reading of Kant’s argument.  But if you want to talk about Kant’s views on redistribution, you do have to actually talk about Kant’s views on redistribution.

  •  Kant is fairly explicit in the Metaphysics of Morals about the scope of the right of taxation, including as it relates to relief of the poor:

    The sovereign, as undertaker of the duty of the people, has the
    right to tax them for purposes essentially connected with their own
    preservation. Such are, in particular, the relief of the poor,
    foundling asylums, and ecclesiastical establishments, otherwise
    designated charitable or pious foundations.

    1. The people have in fact united themselves by their common will
    into a society, which has to be perpetually maintained; and for this
    purpose they have subjected themselves to the internal power of the
    state, in order to preserve the members of this society even when they
    are not able to support themselves. By the fundamental principle of
    the state, the government is justified and entitled to compel those
    who are able, to furnish the means necessary to preserve those who are
    not themselves capable of providing for the most necessary wants of
    nature. For the existence of persons with property in the state
    implies their submission under it for protection and the provision
    by the state of what is necessary for their existence; and accordingly
    the state founds a right upon an obligation on their part to
    contribute of their means for the preservation of their fellow
    citizens. This may be carried out by taxing the property or the
    commercial industry of the citizens, or by establishing funds and
    drawing interest from them, not for the wants of the state as such,
    which is rich, but for those of the people. And this is not to be done
    merely by voluntary contributions, but by compulsory exactions as
    state–burdens, for we are here considering only the right of the state
    in relation to the people. Among the voluntary modes of raising such
    contributions, lotteries ought not to be allowed, because they
    increase the number of those who are poor, and involve danger to the
    public property. It may be asked whether the relief of the poor
    ought to be administered out of current contributions, so that every
    age should maintain its own poor; or whether this were better done
    by means of permanent funds and charitable institutions, such as
    widows’ homes, hospitals, etc.? And if the former method is the
    better, it may also be considered whether the means necessary are to
    be raised by a legal assessment rather than by begging, which is
    generally nigh akin to robbing. The former method must in reality be
    regarded as the only one that is conformable to the right of the
    state, which cannot withdraw its connection from any one who has to
    live. For a legal current provision does not make the profession of
    poverty a means of gain for the indolent, as is to be feared is the
    case with pious foundations when they grow with the number of the
    poor; nor can it be charged with being an unjust or unrighteous burden
    imposed by the government on the people.
    This is rather distant from the libertarian conception of public right, as is abundantly clear to anyone who attempts even a cursory reading of the work.

  • Fernando Teson

    Point well taken. I am aware of the passage that Dan cites. I would only observe that this argument grounds support for the poorest in society. It does not ground redistributive taxation to equalize positive freedom in society. Also, some authors have noticed the tension between this passage and Kant’s treatment of justified state coercion.

  • Jake Roundtree

      “if I am hindering someone from pursuing his goals, then it is already a case of negative freedom. “>>>

    Not necessarily, because I for instance can hinder someone’s positive freedom by running my competing firm better than they run their own and thus drive them out of business. 

  •  I find this discussion awfully simplistic.

    First, the distinction between act and omission. How meaningful is it? An omission, just like an act, is a choice with consequences.

    Second, it just isn’t true that rich people do not potentially limit the opportunities available to poor people by their very existence. For example, if I go into business making widgets and I outsource labor to some third world country, then my very efficiency (which is perhaps laudable) limits the choices and opportunities of other people. The same can be said of land ownership. If I own all the land and exclude others from using it or, more likely, force them to pay me rents in order that they have an opportunity to grow food for their own survival, then my existence as a rich person obviously impacts the choices and opportunities available to others. This really is no different than theft. Theft limits the person who is socially recognized as being the “owner” from the choices and opportunities associated with the physical or intellectual thing in question, which we call “property.” In a similar manner, a landlord who controls access to land that is necessary for survival limits the choices and opportunities of tenants.

    I am not saying, at least not here, that these sorts of objections cannot be addressed. But I find it awfully amazing that we have here a libertarian academic no less who actually thinks the superficial level of analysis that he is bring to the table is actually very useful. It is not as though people had not every thought carefully about whether the existence of large amounts of inequality impacts those who get the short end of the stick and only if they would briefly consider it, they would realize that it just doesn’t matter.

    Here is how I define the rich and the powerful. People who control access to resources such that other members of society must look to them to provide them jobs in order to survive are, by my definition, rich and powerful. Maybe in some cases such power is justified. But, to act as though having exclusive control over massive amounts of resources does not impact those who are excluded from those resources is, it strikes me, so self-evidently wrong as to not be worth taking seriously.

    The existence of rich people do not affect the choices and opportunities of poor people? I beg to differ. We can talk about whether the affect is negative or positive, but there is no legitimate debate that such affects exist and that society has a legitimate concern about how those with more power exercise that power.

    Can libertarianism really be reduced to the simply axiom that private power does not exist? If so, it is not a philosophy worth much.

  • Boris Matic

    I’m a bit late I know but I have an example for you that I might use in my own paper.
    In Sweden we have the almost anarchist concept of everyones right to walk the land. “Allemansrätten”. It stems from ancient concepts such as that mother earth belongs to all.
    Today we also have property rights which make possible the purchase of the land.
    But you are not allowed to forbid someone from walking on your land if he does you no harm. 

    In this case the state guarantees both the positive freedom to walk where ever you want and the negative freedom not to be bothered/threatened. There are always dubious cases and cases where selfish and obscure individuals will claim that it “bothers” them “terribly” just cause someone is walking on their ranch even if he’s out of their sight, like some people do in America when they put up “Beware the Shotgun” signs.

    But if you think about it carefully it really is a good compromise. A compromise that for most people almost always protects both rights and thus both freedoms. 

  • ‘nonymous

    The person being taxed isn’t hindering anyone’s freedom regardless of whether or not they’re being taxed to protect the positive or negative freedom of other people. I don’t understand how libertarians can justify taxation for any reason.

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