On Positive Liberty

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:

On bad grounds to reject positive liberty.
What is liberty?
Positive liberty and legal guarantees.

Update: I can’t get some of the links to work, so I’ll repost some points here:

Palmer’s Revisionism:

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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:

  1. According to commonsense use of the words “liberty” and “freedom”, the power to achieve one’s ends is one form of liberty or freedom.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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:

  1. Is something a form of freedom?
  2. If yes to 1, is it a good or valuable form of freedom? (To whom and in what ways?)
  3. 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.


  • Zack

    DC v. Marvel is what I mainly got out of this article.

  • Rick

    I always try to qualify myself as a “Lockean libertarian,” but even then, I’ve been amazed at how various strains of libertarianism can twist Locke’s theories to suit their own conception of what “liberty” means. But at least with Locke there’s plenty written about him, so we can really get close to what he actually meant, not to mention that the U.S. Constitutional system what built on his theory of government, and we can also derive real enforceable legal support from that.

    • matt b

      What do you mean by “Lockean libertarian” because, as you note, so many individuals claim to be inspired by Locke yet come to radically different conclusions on the proper size and scope of government.

      • Rick

        I mean especially Locke’s conception of self-ownership, and his theory that a “natural person” (white or blue collar) worker can actually own (control) his/her labor, which labor is usually represented by wages.

        But yes, I’ve found the same thing; that almost every so-called libertarian claims some basis in Locke. For example, some prominent libertarians (apparently following Rothbard, Hoppe, etc.) say we can own our bodies, but not the labor/energy that we “sell” to employers. This is absurd in my view.

        • matt b

          I think there’s a lot of confusion over what Locke actually believed. For example, he thought that taxation was justified and championed the concept of “collective consent” associated with the social contract tradition as opposed to the idea of individual consent. He opposed arbitrary taking but thought that if there was a general law demanding all people do X that would be fine since morality only demanded prohibitions against arbitrary mandates. If the majority adopted a law on a non-arbitrary basis though requiring not just some but all to do X this would be fine. So singling out Bill Gates and saying “Give us all your money” would be wrong but taxing everybody to provide some measure of redistribution would not be because you are not picking out one person but rather creating a general rule all must abide by. This is pretty far off from the libertarianism of most natural rights theorists writing today.

          • Rick

            I don’t agree that there’s any confusion over what Locke actually believed:

            (1) Locke “thought that taxation was justified and championed the concept of ‘collective consent’ associated with the social contract tradition as opposed to the idea of individual consent.”

            Yes, but speaking for the federal Constitution, no direct taxation on people or property “because of ownership” is allowed. Here, the most the feds are allowed to do under the Direct Tax Clauses is to assess the tax. They cannot collect it themselves, and must leave that up to the states. (This is why Congress greatly favors indirect taxation, but that is no fault of Locke. It is a failure of the U.S. legal system to recognize the difference between direct and indirect taxation.)

            (2) “He opposed arbitrary taking but thought that if there was a general law demanding all people do X that would be fine since morality only demanded prohibitions against arbitrary mandates.”

            Yes, and that’s why we have the 5th Amendment declaration that all property taken for public purposes (or “arbitrary mandates” as you say) must be fairly compensated. The 5th Amendment states: ” . . . nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.”

            (3) “So singling out Bill Gates and saying ‘Give us all your money’ would be wrong but taxing everybody to provide some measure of redistribution would not be because you are not picking out one person but rather creating a general rule all must abide by.”

            No, under Locke, the government is not telling Bill Gates to hand over “all [his] money.” Instead, Locke is saying that Bill Gates is entitled to 100% of the property he has accumulated by his own labor, but owes various taxes on the property he’s accumulated which are derived from: (1) hiring the labor of others; (2) the use of capital; and (3) the use of land/ocean/atmosphere (that are really “common to all men”).

          • matt b

            You don’t have to convince me. I find these conclusions to be most defensible. I was just saying that a lot people who say things like “all taxation is theft” consider themselves to be thoroughgoing Lockeans when their views are quite divorced from Locke’s.

          • Rick

            Yes, Locke gets mischaracterized all over the place. Even law school text books teach that Locke stands for widespread and prolonged intellectual property rights, when Locke would only have stood for temporary IP rights for “limited times” (as stated in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8) to allow the “natural person” inventor/author to recoup uncompensated creative labor during research and development (which often took the inventor/author many years back then). In contrast, today so-called inventors make minor adjustments to existing (mostly military, publicly paid for) technology, and then become extremely wealthy, and hold the IP rights almost indefinitely by putting them in a corporation. Here’s a funny Super Bowl ad that shows how ridiculous IP rights have become:

          • matt b

            Rogen and Rudd. That made my day haha. Good ad and good point.

          • LOCKE’S PURPOSE

            Locke’s purpose was to define the means for justifying the takeover of political power, and the artifice of the state, from the landed nobility, by the rising middle class. Thus transferring the privileges held by the landed economy to the exchange economy.

            He does not give us any fundamental truth. He gives us a convenient model of justification. His insights are instead, those that he gave us about the necessity of property. Not the moral use of it. Those and only those are what we learn from him.

          • Rick

            Whether land/ocean/atmosphere is being monopolized by the landed nobility or the transient Native Americans of Locke’s time, or by the private corporations of our time, Locke wants to show that these type of holdings cannot stand. Only “purposeful use,” living and laboring upon the land, and by creating reasonable defensible boundaries, can portions of the earth be monopolized by natural persons, and then only temporarily.

            Locke also wants to give us a sort of property rights hierarchy which starts with the individual’s ownership of his/her body, then spreads to private ownership of physical things by “mixing” the body’s labor, and with the state performing a trustee function for holding land, not an ownership function.

            Locke (along with Jefferson and Madison) also wants the state to forcibly protect a property right in the individual’s labor, although this is much less clear today than it was in the Civil War era.

          • Rick. Didn’t see this when you wrote it. I agree with your statement. However, it doesn’t contradict my statement either. The enlightenment’s problem required transitioning legitimacy. He succeeded. The state however, was not a commons but a private corporation. He made the argument that it was a commons, possible. That’s the problem with his strategy. The democratic state has proven as bad or worse than constitutionally limited monarchy.

          • Rick

            “The state however, was not a commons but a private corporation. He made the argument that it was a commons, possible.”

            I agree that in Locke’s time the state was not a commons, and therefore not a trustee, but a private corporate owner.

            However, most American colonies, and later the federal government, *were* formed as publicly-owned corporations, i.e., “the people” are the shareholder/owners, with government not legally capable of being anything other than a trustee of the people’s land, money and natural resources. And to seal the deal, all government employees are required to take an Article 6 oath to agree to this arrangement (of government’s role being limited to that of trustee).

            But I don’t see how it follows that the failure of Americans to understand and enforce this arrangement means that “the democratic state has proven bad or worse than constitutionally limited monarchy.”

        • Rick.

          Not sure how you’re getting there.

          a) Rothbard and Hoppe expressly state that your actions are your property. What they (correctly) state is that you do sell your labor (physical and mental) at market prices. But that you can have no claims to ownership in the product you’ve produced by virtue of having applied your labor ALONE.

          b) See “labor theory of value” versus “subjective value”. You may own a percentage of a finished product in addition to having sold your labor, if you negotiate that in a voluntary exchange with those with whom you trade your labor. But you have no ‘right’ to such ownership by virtue of having sold your labor alone. You can’t have a right to anything involuntarily extracted.

          • Rick

            Curt, all I really know about Hoppe is this 2004 article by him: … In my opinion, he’s hung up on requiring something physical for the laborer to feel, touch and sense before he allows property rights in labor, when we really can’t physically hold our labor (which is usually represented by wages). This view is not “Lockean” and he does not seem to support the idea that, as you say, our actions/energy/labor can be our property.

            In other words, why shouldn’t the laborer have (a government enforced) property right in his/her wages alone, whether or not s/he walks away with a physical product? We don’t need “claims to ownership” of a portion of whatever an employer hires us to “mix” our labor with … in order have control/ownership over our labor.

            We just need employers, banks and governments to recognize that our labor requires legal protection as a personal property right (which recognition seems to be a political “third rail” because it would mean that wages cannot be treated/taxed as “income”).

            Also, we should distinguish between “labor theory of value,” which is a Marxist central planning idea vs. “labor theory of property,” which is Lockean.

  • martinbrock

    The usual distinction between “positive” and “negative” also bothers me but not because I would expand “liberty” to incorporate more positive liberty. What many libertarians call “negative liberty” seems positively positive to me, so rather than expand libertarian “liberty” in a more positive direction, I would contract it in a more negative direction.

    For example, according to some libertarians extolling the virtue of negative liberty, if I draw a line around a parcel of land and threaten to shoot you for crossing it, and if I’m the first person to draw such a line around a particular parcel, and if I’ve altered the parcel by my labors, then my coercive force imposed upon you is a “negative liberty” defending me from your coercion. This construction of “negative liberty” seems ridiculous to me. I clearly impose upon you in this scenario, not the other way around.

    Threatening to shoot someone for using a parcel of land, for any reason whatever, is a positive liberty imposing a cost on persons who would use the land without the consent of a proprietor. If this positive liberty is useful, then let’s defend it as such, but let’s not pretend that it’s somehow a defense of one’s personal liberty, because a parcel of land is not one’s person.

    If a group of people would respect Rothbardian propriety on some large parcel of land divided into smaller parcels, with each smaller parcel owned individually and this individual ownership forcibly imposed upon everyone crossing the larger parcel, then so be it. These people have constructed a state and must defend it from outlaws.

    I have no fundamental problem with this sort of state as long as other persons may organize themselves otherwise (as long as Rothbardians leave as much and as good for persons desiring to live by other rules), but let’s not pretend that the Rothbardians have not constructed a state. Let’s not pretend that Rothbardian propriety is handed down by God on stone tablets and even less subject to dispute than Newtonian Gravity.

  • Don Kirk

    The ‘problem’ is that there is no word in the English language which properly describes liberty or freedom by communicating two thoughts: First, that freedom is anabolically moral, not an ideal (Joseph Raz’s work), and that without some moderating measure of self-constraint freedom can become catabolic, not life-flourishing (mass murderers are champions of freedom, as in ‘Mein Kampf’).
    I use the term, ‘freedomist,’ to convey the two thoughts. The definition is “a freedomphilic, prudent, pragmatic pluralist.” Over time, if the secular term catches on with the philosophy profession (currently it is also used by a cult of liberty-loving Christians), it might help resolve the differences of opinion about ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ liberty, and sharply differentiate freedom as an ideology (libertarian) from freedom as a philosophy (freedomist).

  • good_in_theory

    Your response to objection 2 should be interesting in light o Matt’s points a couple days ago about measuring freedom.

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