My latest post at Libertarianism.org is up, in which I continue my critique of “maximizing liberty.” In my last post, I argued that the goal of maximizing freedom is an immoral one. In this post, I argue that is incoherent insofar as there is no non-arbitrary way of measuring liberty so as to know whether one society has “more” or “less” freedom than another in purely quantitative terms.

Supposing, for instance, that London has lots of traffic lights that require people to stop on red, but robust protection for civil and religious liberties, while Albania has lots of laws that restrict civil and religious liberties, but few traffic lights. In which society is freedom “greater”?

How would such a quantitative judgment be made? 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?

Along the way, I make the point that some freedoms conflict with others. I do this with a deliberately, and probably distractingly, provocative example: the abolition of slavery. To be sure, I claim, abolition increased the liberty of slaves. But if we understand liberty simply as the absence of interference by others with one’s actions, then we must recognize that abolition decreased the liberty of slave-owners. Prior to abolition, they were free to do control their slaves’ labor, beat them, control their movement, and so on. After abolition, they were not.

Talking about the freedom of slave-owners, understandably, makes people bristle. But the point I’m making is a purely conceptual one, not a normative one. Normatively, of course I think it is a wonderful thing that the freedom of slave-owners was restricted in this way. But conceptually, if freedom just means non-interfernce, then rules against slavery interfere with those who want to enslave others, and therefore constitute an interference with their liberty.

The upshot of this is that talking about freedom as non-interference doesn’t get you very far, normatively speaking. All sets of social rules involve some kind of interference, and it’s not clear that we can meaningfully “add it up” to see whether one society has “more” or “less” than another. So rather than comparing societies in terms of the amount of non-interference they have, I think we need to argue more substantively about the kinds of interference they condone. We can do this by distinguishing, as many libertarians do, about those acts of interference that violate rights and those which do not (although then we had better be careful not to claim that our rights are justified in terms of preventing interference, lest we fall into circularity). Or we can talk about about the relative value of certain kinds of non-interference, or the relative harmfulness of certain kinds of interference, as compared to others. Going that latter route takes us far away from the kind of a priori moralism to which so many libertarians are attracted. But I’m increasingly convinced that it’s the only honest and promising way to go.

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  • darius404

    I do have a bit of a problem with some of what you say, especially as you phrase it here:

    Talking about the freedom of slave-owners, understandably, makes people
    bristle. But the point I’m making is a purely conceptual one, not a
    normative one. Normatively, of course I think it is a wonderful thing that
    the freedom of slave-owners was restricted in this way. But
    conceptually, if freedom just means non-interfernce, then rules against
    slavery interfere with those who want to enslave others, and therefore
    constitute an interference with their liberty.

    If freedom just means non-interference, aren’t the slave-owners already interfering with the freedoms of the slaves? If it means non-interference, what justification is there for slavery in the first place? Does the freedom of non-interference mean that even those who interfere with the freedom of others should not have their interference interfered with? Is this framework of freedom as non-interference such that violations of it cannot be corrected?

    I’m not sure whether the problem I find here is philosophical or rhetorical, but it muddies the waters for me. Other than that, I find your articles on this matter a coherent critique of the idea of maximizing freedom.

  • http://twitter.com/JDKolassa Jeremy Kolassa

    I find this entire series of posts ironic, because just a short while ago I was explaining that libertarianism is all about “maximizing individual freedom.” Then this comes along, and I’m like, “Shoot! I just lost my tagline!”

    But all the points you make are good, and I’m nodding my head along, so I’m not complaining. This does make sense and I agree on many of the points. I eagerly look forward to the next installment.

    • Sean II

      Don’t throw away that tagline so fast.

      As a shorthand description of libertarianism, “maximizing individual freedom” is accurate enough that you can safely use it with about 99% of people you’ll ever meet in real life.

      Indeed, there are only two types of people who would follow that rule of thumb so consistently as to arrive at the problems Matt is discussing in this series. They are:

      a) Libertarians
      b) Committed enemies of libertarianism

      No one outside of those two groups would ever encounter the phrase “maximizing individual freedom” and manage to hear in it the crack of the slave master’s whip.

      • http://twitter.com/JDKolassa Jeremy Kolassa

        I suppose a distinction does need to be made between the intellectual crowd Matt is aiming at and the “hoi polloi” I would usually be talking to. Not that I would ever call them that….

  • Seven

    “Or we can talk about about the relative value of certain kinds of non-interference, or the relative harmfulness of certain kinds of interference, as compared to others. Going that latter route takes us far away from the kind of a priori moralism to which so many libertarians are attracted. But I’m increasingly convinced that it’s the only honest and promising way to go.”

    What makes certain kinds of interference harmful? What makes certain non-interference helpful? Only a moral theory will give you answers to these questions. Libertarian moral arguments may sound a priori, even justifiably so. However, there are ways to develop a moral theory through rationality/logic, that don’t limit us to merely thinking in the margin about relative harm.

  • Aeon Skoble

    “But conceptually, if freedom just means non-interfernce, then rules against slavery interfere with those who want to enslave others, and therefore constitute an interference with their liberty.” No- you’ve conflated freedom and liberty in an illicit way between premise and conclusion. Interfering with your freedom to act isn’t identical with violating your liberty (thinking, just as one example, of Locke’s distinction between liberty and license). Your liberty has to be defined with a compossiblity addendum or it’s incoherent, but freedom-of-action will definitely be (rightly) bounded by that. Morally legitimate boundaries on my freedom of action are the one that prevent me from violating others’ equal liberty. So the slave-owners’ liberty is not violated by aboloshing slavery, since they have no right to enslave in the first place. Their freedom-to-act is of course being bounded, but that’s (a) good, and (b) just like your example from a previous thread about swining fists and others’ noses.

    • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

      Well, again, this just sounds to me like a very unusual way of using the term “liberty”. Nothing is to count as a violation of one’s liberty unless it Also counts as a violation of one’s rights. But then why not just talk about rights? What’s the point of using the word liberty at all?

      This way of speaking seems to me similar Too what egalitarians do when they argue that egalitarian social policies aren’t really incompatible with liberty, because nobody has the real liturgy to act in ways that violate equality. Or when the More theologically inclined argue that laws restricting a moral behavior aren’t violations of liberty, for the same reason. If liberty means not freedom to act as one wishes without interference, but rather freedom to act in ways that my moral theory says you have a right to act without interference, then it seems to me that the value of the word is significantly, if not entirely, diminished

      • j_m_h

        If we take your approach and liberty is a neutral term then just what do “libertarian” and “libertarianism” stand for? Slave ownership? Well, I suspect no self-professed libertarian would agree with that interpretation.

        I don’t get what is gained by accepting the neutral interpretation of the word in terms of either communicating with anyone or getting others to “see the light” and convert.

        • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

          I don’t claim that my usage of the term makes for a better sales pitch. But I think it’s more honest.

          And yours is a good question. If “liberty” means what I says it means, then “libertarianism” is a bit of a misnomer, since a very dominant strand of libertarianism isn’t really fundamentally about liberty at all. It’s about property rights. Hence, “propertarian” might be a more accurate name.

          Not that property rights and liberty – real liberty – are unrelated. But they aren’t the same thing. I do think there’s a historical strand of libertarianism that took real liberty more seriously, and I think part of what we’re about here at BHL is bringing that strand back to the fore. But perhaps I should only speak for myself.

          • j_m_h

            Having just look in my computer’s dictionary perhaps this is one of those philosopher versus non-philosopher things:

            1 the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behavior, or political views: compulsory retirement would interfere with individual liberty.
            2 the power or scope to act as one pleases: individuals should enjoy the liberty to pursue their own interests and preferences.
            • Philosophy a person’s freedom from control by fate or necessity.

            Clearly the first includes the concept of limits to one’s actions where as the other does not. I’ve always taken the libertarian, and the classical liberal, view to be in accord with definition 1 rather than definition 2.

            I’m not sure what you’re doing with “real liberty” in your response. Is that different from liberty (or is it a scottish thing ;). If you’re trying to separate liberty and property rights then I’m not sure why your neutral usage of the word is any more honest than the more general usage of the word liberty.

          • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

            My use of the phrase “real liberty” was ill-considered. Trying to dash off a comment too quickly. All I really meant was liberty as non-interference – the kind of non-moralized liberty that I’ve been contrasting with Rothbard et al.’s moralized version.

            I should clarify that I don’t think “liberty” is a term with only one real meaning. I think it makes sense, for instance, to talk of a “free people” or a people enjoying “the blessings of liberty,” and that this usage has more in common with the dictionary’s first definition than its second, and also more in common with Rothbard’s moralized account of liberty than my neutral one.

            Context matters a lot here, though. And it seems to me that the moralized use of “liberty” obscures more than it illuminates, at least in certain contexts – specifically the Rothbardian libertarian’s primary focus on property, rather than liberty as non-interference.

  • Balls&Strikes

    I think you are just identifying the problem with any system that attempts to maximize a virtue. The same problem arises with utilitarianism: suppose the slave holders really really liked having slaves, much more so than the slaves did not like being slaves. In this circumstance, utilitarianism requires slavery – even though we all agree that result is abhorrent. It was this kind of teleological problem that led Rawls to conclude that the Right must be defined independently of the Good. As Rawls does for his theory, libertarianism must come up with some non-circular justification for the rights it poses before it can coherently articulate why maximizing those rights is laudable, let alone explain why some rights (say freedom of speech) are qualitatively more important than other rights (say freedom to not stop at intersections).

  • j_m_h

    While I agree with the idea that we cannot quantify freedom/liberty in the cardinal sense you’re criticizing I’m concerned with the “if freedom just means non-interfernce” claim. Since when has that been a unconditional statement? You’re basically saying freedom is about my ability to swings my fists about without regard for where you nose is.

    I don’t think any libertarians hold such a position so I’m wondering just who it is you’re arguing against here.

    BTW, I think you’re going down the same old path of social welfare calculations and interpersonal utility comparison discussions of years past.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=19002050 Jameson Graber

    One way a libertarian might respond to this line of critique is by insisting that the goal is local, not global, maximization. Moreover, we want to assume (a certain form of) equality of all individuals a priori. So to be precise, the goal is a society in which everyone enjoys the same freedom, and that freedom is maximized. From this perspective, slavery can be instantly rejected because it gives some individuals a form of freedom that others don’t have. On the other hand, a state religion, for example, can also be rejected, not because a state religion doesn’t apply equally to everyone but rather because it infringes on everyone’s liberty of conscience. We can add that this infringement is unnecessary, because we can all have certain views on religion without diminishing others’ ability to hold different ones. Thus the principles of equal liberty and maximal liberty work together to form the libertarian’s vision of what should and shouldn’t be law.

    Maybe this doesn’t make a complete political theory, but it seems to me a bit more precise than the one you’re critiquing, and I think it avoids some of the criticisms you make.

    • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

      Hi Jameson,

      I agree that this formulation is better, at least if I’m understanding it correctly. To me, it sounds equivalent to Spencer’s law of equal freedom, which holds that “every man has the freedom to do all he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.” Does that sound right to you?

      My next few blog posts at L.org are going to be on liberty and property, but after that I hope to do at least one or two on this particular idea of Spencer’s. So I’ll be curious to hear your response to them.

      • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

        I may be missing something pretty basic here, but I don’t see how Spencer’s formula is at all helpful. Why can’t an amoral or immoral person hold, consistent with this formula, that he has the freedom to murder, rob, and do other nasty things to people because he accepts the “equal freedom” of others to do the same (including to him). It’s just that he feels he is better at doing these things with impunity than others, and he wishes to enjoy this “freedom.” Don’t we need some moralized concept of “liberty” or “freedom” for this shibboleth to make any sense?

        • http://plenarchist.wordpress.com/ plenarchist

          Spencer’s first principle of maximal social evolution is, “Every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.”

          I say “social evolution” because Spencer was not a libertarian per se. He was a social philosopher who spent much of his life examining how civilizations evolve and arrived at equal freedom as the best means to maximize progress. By “evolved,” he held to mean the greatest *individual* happiness across society. Spencer believed that happiness is subjective and can only be determined by each individual for him or herself. So he concluded that equal freedom would be the best political arrangement by which all individuals would have the opportunity to attain their greatest happiness. And if all the individuals in a society are “happy” (their needs and wants largely satisfied), then we can conclude the society is fit for its condition. This is the Spencerian view I think.

          So taking the second clause of his first principle, it prohibits all acts that would infringe on the equal freedom of others. Murder, assault, rape, etc. are acts that infringe on another’s freedom to act.

          From Spencer’s “Principle of Ethics” he wrote, “It is a self-evident corollary from the law of equal freedom that, leaving other restraints out of consideration, each man’s actions must be so restrained as not directly to inflict bodily injury, great or small, on any other. In the first place, actions carried beyond this limit imply the exercise on one side of greater freedom than is exercised on the other, unless it be by retaliation; and we have seen that, as rightly understood, the law does not countenance aggression and counteraggression. In the second place, considered as the statement of a condition by conforming to which the greatest sum of happiness is to be obtained, the law forbids any act which inflicts physical pain or derangement.”

          Sounds like the non-aggression principle, right? The NAP to me implies equal freedom since unequal freedom would mean in a political context aggressing with impunity against others.

          But Spencer’s first principle is a philosophical ideal and needs to be fully developed into a viable political model (which I’m attempting to do as time permits) with a set of laws that promote it as much as possible.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Thanks. I strongly suspected that Spencer did intend something along the lines you have described. He certainly couldn’t have meant the sort of “equal freedom” to murder, rob, etc. that I suggested as being consistent with the stupidly literal reading of his principle. Lurking behind his unadorned use of “freedom” are “self-evident” moral views regarding what “freedom” permits and excludes. I believe that when people use “freedom” or “liberty” they are implicitly including some ethical constarints, without spelling them out. This, more controversial discussion begins when we start taliking about “rights.”

        • j_m_h

          I’m not sure one needs to have a moralized understanding. Perhaps it just me but the idea of “equal freedom” probably requires that if I enjoy freedom X then everyone must also have that freedom (ignoring the aspect of capacity). I don’t think that’s sufficient. In you example of freedom to murder, while we allow that all have the freedom the exercise of that freedom by one person has a great impact on the murdered persons exercise of a whole host of other freedoms.

          I do think you’re right that if you push far enough down the path of reasoning/justification we will always come to some moral underpinning. I just suspect in a lot of cases we have sufficient cause to understand why some “freedoms” are not well before we get to the moral core.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            JMH: Thanks for the input. It is certainly true of my purported counter-example to the coherence of the “equal freedom” principle that, as you say, “the exercise of that freedom by one person has a great impact on the murdered persons exercise of a whole host of other freedoms.” However, without some moralized concept of “freedom,” an exponent of this notion could simply say “so what?” He claims the “freedom” to do whatever he can get away with to others, and they have the same “freedom” to do the same to him. This is perfect “equality,” and without some moral boundaries, it is also (I think) qualifies as “freedom.” A completely immoral version of freedom, but this is exactly my point. To rule out this claim, we need “freedom” to mean that we should be permitted to do things subject to some (at least vague) understanding about what is morally permitted. And, this is exactly what I think 99.9% of people mean by “freedom.”

  • famadeo

    Insofar as freedom is th pervailing concern, I find that formulating questions to the effect of “what do we do in order to prevent or promote this and that?” is inadequate. I notice this sort of institutionalist bias is very strong in analytic philosphy circles where ethics are dealt with. The problem, essentially, is that there seems to be a presupposition regarding the legitimacy of intitutional organs to settle these issues. It seems much more natural to me to ask questions regarding character or virtue (Aristotle, Nietzsche): what kind of life do I want to live?, how do I want to relate to the world/others?, etc.

  • I’m arightwingextremist

    Matt seems to be channeling Jacques Derrida. Liberty does not need deconstruction.

    Liberty is a social good, a state of equality of rights between individuals where their
    fundamental human rights are not infringed by the state. Liberty exists in the content of the state and only has meaning in reference to the state.

    In an anarchic society there can be no issue of individual liberty
    because there is no state. In a totalitarian state there also can be no issue
    of individual liberty because the state is omnipotent.

    The forgoing leaves unstated a definition of fundamental
    human rights, but this problem is not the same as stating that liberty is esoteric
    or ambiguous.

    • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

      Derrida? Goodness, you really know how to cut a guy.

      Really, though, I think the claims you make about liberty show that some kind of analysis *is* necessary. For instance, the claim that liberty exists only in the context of the state strikes me as deeply problematic. If one individual kidnaps another in the state of nature, it sure seems like the victim’s liberty has been infringed. Do you disagree?

  • tomkow

    You need a better account of the connection between rights and freedom from interference. Cf. http://tomkow.typepad.com/tomkowcom/2010/01/retributive-ethics.html

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