Orthodox libertarians think quite a bit hinges on the definition of “liberty”. They try to revise the English language and reject what philosophers call “positive” conceptions of liberty, saying that whatever “positive liberty” might refer to isn’t liberty, but is really something else. Orthodox libertarians don’t think they’re engaging in ideologically motivated linguistic revision. Instead, many of them sincerely but mistakenly believe that once upon a time, the word “liberty” just meant what orthodox libertarians mean, until some nasty Marxists corrupted our language. Others sincerely believe that the word is just really confused, and so we have to stipulate a more narrow use for philosophical purposes. My view is that the words “liberty” and “freedom” refer to a body of related but separate ideas, each marked by a family resemblance. Very little is at stake in how we define the terms. We should use the most ideologically neutral definitions. We should also avoid trying to make liberty come out to be a good thing by definition.
Some earlier posts on this issue:
A while back, David Schmidtz and I had a discussion about the concept of liberty with Philip Pettit, John Christman, and Tom Palmer on Cato Unbound. In our essay and book, Schmidtz and I defended the following claims:
- The concept of “liberty” refers to a number of related things that bear a family resemblance, including both negative liberty (the absence of obstacles) and positive liberty (the power to achieve one’s ends).
- Liberty is not by definition good. Some forms of liberty are bad. It’s not an abuse of language to say that in an absolute monarchy, the king is free to do as he pleases, but this kind of freedom is bad. In contrast, my freedom to speak my mind is good. We shouldn’t try to construct a definition of liberty such that it becomes a tautology to say liberty is good. We should instead use the word “liberty” in a relatively value-free way, such that it can be a genuine social scientific question whether a change promotes or demotes liberty. We don’t want economists, historians, and political scientists to have to first decide whether something change is good and just before they decide whether it increased or decreased liberty.
- Whether government should do anything at all about a particular form of liberty depends in part on whether government is actually any good at promoting that kind of liberty. People often assume that government is supposed to play a heavy direct role in promoting liberty. This leads them to reverse engineer concepts of liberty to fit their ideologies. But there are no grounds for this assumption. Government gets the job of promoting and protecting a particular kind of liberty only if government is better at the job than the alternatives. (Notice that this is a necessary but not a sufficient condition.)
- Historically, the most successful way of promoting positive liberty has been to protect negative liberty.
Palmer subscribes to the right libertarian orthodoxy. He was thus unhappy with our lead essay or the introduction to our book. ”. He titled his response to us, “Liberty is Liberty”. This title seems to suggest that Schmidtz and I are guilty of having a presumptuously expansive conception of liberty, while Palmer is just sticking to proper English usage. But, as I noted in a previous post, in common English, we use “liberty” in a very expansive way. Unlike most English-speakers, Palmer is only willing to call a particular form of negative liberty by the name “liberty. So Palmer is being presumptuous. If he wants the rest of us to pare down our use of the term, he needs to give us good reasons why. Otherwise, he’s guilty of linguistic incompetence.
I’m a philosopher. I use the word “metaphysics” differently from many non-philosophers. My aunt Bonnie and most other Americans think the word “metaphysics” has to do with magic crystals, spiritual energies, and ley lines. I don’t. The fact that these other people use the word differently from me gives me no reason to pause, because “metaphysics” is a philosopher’s technical term. “Freedom” is not a philosopher’s technical term, though. So we philosophers have to start with a presumption in favor of common English use. If we recommend revising language, we need good grounds for doing so.
Here are some of the arguments Palmer and others have given for revising commonsense English:
- The Why Not Just Call it Wealth Objection: We don’t need to call wealth “positive liberty”; we could just call it “wealth” instead and avoid confusion.
- The Indeterminacy Objection: If there are many different kinds of liberty, then a change (such as the passing of a new law) might increase one kind of liberty while decreasing another. It will then be indeterminate whether the situation has become more or less free overall. It will also be unclear what exactly one is advocating when one claims that freedom is a normative ideal for a just society.
- The Freedom is a Social Concept Objection: Freedom is supposed to be a social concept. A person living on a desert island can neither be free nor unfree.
- The You Might Say Something Nice about Nazis Objection: If positive liberty—the power to do what one wants—really is a form of freedom, then this implies that people living in Nazi Germany were in some respects freer than people living in poorer and less technologically advanced but more liberal societies. This means we might end up saying something nice about Nazi Germany, such as “In Nazi Germany, but not in the early American republic, people were free to drive cars, listen to music on radios, and talk on telephones.” We wouldn’t want to do that.
- The Jerks Might Do Evil Things in the Name of Freedom Objection: If you call some things by the name “liberty”, then bad people will use this as an excuse to do bad things when they have power. For example, Lenin might kill a bunch of people in the name of promoting real freedom.
I’ll deal with objection 1 today, and deal with the others tomorrow.
Palmer says Schmidtz and I conflate wealth with liberty. He says we think wealth just is a kind of liberty. A year later, I’m still not sure why he accused us of that. I met him two weeks before he wrote his response piece. He asked me for a free copy of A Brief History of Liberty, which I gave him, so he could read it before responding to us. In the book, Schmidtz and I explicitly state that when we say increased wealth promotes positive liberty, this is an empirical claim. We explain how in some cases increased wealth demotes positive liberty. We give a bunch of examples of wealth both promoting and demoting positive liberty. I also explained this point to Palmer in person. So, objection 1 is based on a misunderstanding. Alas, quite a bit of his essay simply attacked straw man.
Here’s an argument on behalf of thinking that wealth and positive liberty are intimately, though not logically, connected:
- According to commonsense use of the words “liberty” and “freedom”, the power to achieve one’s ends is one form of liberty or freedom.
- As an empirical matter, in general, when a person gets more wealth, she increases her ability to achieve her ends. When societies get wealthier on the whole, people living in those societies increase their ability to achieve their ends. ((There are exceptions to these general trends.)
- Thus, as an empirical generalization, wealth promotes positive liberty.
I don’t think positive liberty is good by definition. Some kinds of it are good; some aren’t. Superman is free to fly in a way I am not. His freedom to fly is good. The evil Green Goblin is free to fly in a way I am not, but his freedom to fly is bad.
Contrast these three questions:
- Is something a form of freedom?
- If yes to 1, is it a good or valuable form of freedom? (To whom and in what ways?)
- If yes to 2, is it a form of freedom that person is owed by right, and can demand that others respect or provide?
Answering the first question affirmatively leaves the next two questions open.
Freedom on a Desert Island
Actually, I’m not even sure why Palmer would assert that liberty is an inherently social concept. It doesn’t seem to follow from his view. As far as I can tell, though I might be wrong, he thinks liberty is the absence of wrongful interference. But a person alone on a desert island has as much liberty so defined as she could ever want. After all, no one interferes with her, wrongfully or not. We might even imagine a persecuted person fleeing to a desert island in order to be free of persecution. Palmer could revise his definition of negative liberty and say that negative liberty is the absence, in a social setting, of wrongful interference. But then we need a compelling argument for this definition. An alternative move, which I favor, is to say that one form of liberty is the absence of wrongful interference, and that this form of liberty tends to have a lot of value for us in social settings. It probably doesn’t normally have much value for us in desert island situations.
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