Liberty, Libertarianism

A puzzle about an argument against a thick conception of economic liberty

Hello there,
Sorry for the long absence. As my students might say, I’ve had some personal ‘issues.’
Anyway, I am linking to Will Wilkinson’s blog post of an argument by Samuel Freeman in his paper “Capitalism in the Classical and High Liberal Traditions” Will’s blog post can be found here: and Freeman’s article can be found here:

The relevant section of Freeman’s paper is section IV. In my view, you can get a good grasp of Freeman’s arguments just by reading Wilkinson’s post.
I think Wilkinson’s criticism of Freeman is correct, but on the grounds that confirmation bias is the most powerful force in the universe, I thought it would be useful to pose the question to readers of this blog: is Wilkinson correct in his criticism of Freeman? I thought it was worth posting on this, because Freeman’s type of argument against a thick conception of economic liberty seems to me not uncommon, and like Wilkinson I remain puzzled by the argument.

  • Joseph Stromberg

    Er, “confirmation bias is the most powerful force in the universe”? — next to *God,*  one supposes. 

  • It is really hard to see how the idea that *all* rights require institutional elaboration (cf btw the recent work of Rainer Forst) helps your, libertarian,  side of the argument. Rather the contrary, I’d have thought. If all rights have an irreducibly conventional element “high liberals” can  specify the detail of *all* rights with an eye to their expected outcomes (including their propensity to result in desirable distributive patterns).

    • You are running issues together, Chris.  There’s an argument for high liberalism and against classical liberalism that depends on a distinction. We show that the distinction is either spurious or does not do the work required of it. That is one issue out of the way.

      Then the high liberals come back with your argument: if all rights are conventional, we can invent new conventions. That is an argument that deserves serious consideration; but it is a different one to the one we are considering.

      •  Fair point: I was starting from what I took to be the conclusion of Wilkinson’s argument and wondering whether that conclusion is helpful to libertarians.

        I’m not sure that he reads Freeman right though. Freeman is making a distinction between those aspects of production that pertain to its material content and those which are ascribable to its social form, a distinction found, for example, in Marx. Wilkinson wants to doubt the intelligibility of that distinction but I can’t say I’m convinced.

        • I cannot comment of Freeman directly, as I have not read his paper (I don’t have access to it). But look at my example below. Mr B contributed to the material content of the table by refraining from swiping A’s wood; C contributed by refraining from smashing up the part-constructed article; D contributed by suffering the noise and forbearing from sending the boys round.

    • Kevin Vallier

      Chris, unless you think institutional elaboration can be done through social morality rather than political coercion, following Jerry Gaus in The Order of Public Reason. In that case, institutional elaboration can significantly limit the state. The political order, on Gaus’s view, is required to get us out of publicly unjustified social-moral rules in equilibrium, but the state can mess up as often as it succeeds, so the role for the state in a publicly justified moral order must have a classical liberal “tilt.”

  • Here is an example that might make Wilkinson’s point in a more straightforward way. Mr A has some wood and he labours to convert it into a table. Who has contributed to the production of that table? Well, Mr A, of course. Who else? Well, there was Mr B who wanted some wood for his fire but who refrained from taking Mr A’s wood; and there was Mr C, who loves nothing more than smashing up half-constructed tables; and there was Mrs D who could not read her book with all the noise of Mr A’s hammering and sawing and planing, but who refrained from sending her six boys round to put a stop to the noise; and there was…

    Who can be distinguished here as the natural contributor to the production of the table? The table would not have been made unless all of these people played their part. What distinguishes A as the sole producer is that he was entitled to do what he did without consulting the others; i.e., he had the liberty to construct the table and the right to exclude others from interfering. In short, A is the sole producer because of property rights.

    • good_in_theory

      So all the meat of this example rests on the decision, at the beginning of the example, to write, “Mr. A has some wood and he labors to convert it into a table” rather than, “there is some wood and Mr. A labors to convert it into a table.”

      • The point of the example is unchanged if you re-write that sentence your way. The point is this: what we count as a contribution depends on what (usually implicit) conception of property rights we assume. If we assume, for instance, that Mrs D has the right to the peaceful enjoyment of her property, then Mr A cannot make his table without getting the consent of Mrs D, in which case Mrs D, if she gives her consent, is a contributor to the production of the table. On the other hand, if we assume that Mr A has the right to make as much noise as he wants in his place, then Mrs D is not a contributor. Similarly for the other cases, mutatis mutandis.

        • I think, fwiw, both you and Wilkinson have misunderstood what’s going on here. The distinction (however infelicitously expressed) isn’t really between a natural and a social contribution but between a description of the process that includes social relationships expressed in terms of rights and powers of persons in relation to other persons and a description that omits that information. So, two people dig a hole together by shifting earth with spades. That is a common element to a scenario in which they might be slaves, wage-labourers, friends working together in the garden, an employer and employee etc. Wilkinson conflates the more general issue of social meaning (what makes this count as an act of digging? etc) with the restricted issue of social relationships expressed as rights and powers.

          • I think you are right. That is, I think we can talk of contributions to the product independently of any assignment of rights, etc. If so, I was mistaken in saying that what counts as a contribution depends on a conception of property.

            But the problem I identified, or a parallel one, arises for the purely naturalistically described situation. For example, one of the things that makes the act count as an act of digging is that Mrs D has not sent the boys round to prevent any digging taking place.  Lying unconscious on the ground, as a result of being hit over the head with a spade, does not count as an act of digging. The digging takes place only on condition that no-one else interferes with it. All the people who could have interfered, but did not, thereby contribute to the hole being dug.

            If this is right, then Wilkinson was wrong to say that all contributions to production are ‘institutionally dependent.’ To put the point another way: there is a level of description of production which strips away all the moral relationships. After all, we talk of bees producing a honeycomb, for instance. But Freeman is also wrong in saying that the contribution of non-labourers is ‘institutionally dependent.’ I don’t need an institution to be able to hit someone over the head with a spade, or to refrain from doing so.

            What do you reckon?

          •  I reckon that refraining from impeding hole-diggers from digging holes should not count as a contribution towards the digging of holes.

          • You may well do; and the hole diggers might agree with you. But the people on the sidelines may well disagree, especially if, for one reason or another, they do not want the hole to be dug.

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