Point What Guarantees Liberty?
by Jason Brennan & David Schmidtz
Counterpoint Social Democracy and Freedom
by Elizabeth Anderson
We often equate freedom with an absence of constraints, impediments, or interference. For instance, you have free speech when no one stops you from speaking your mind. Philosophers call this idea of liberty negative liberty.
Marxists have complained that negative liberties are worth little. Negative liberty, Marxists say, is the freedom to be poor, to be unemployed, and to sleep under bridges. Liberty is valuable only if people have the financial and social means to exercise it. Alternatively, some Marxists see liberty as the effective power, capacity, or ability to do what one wills. We can call this conception of liberty positive liberty. For example, a bird has the positive liberty to fly, but human beings do not. Many philosophers conclude that to guarantee people will be free in the positive sense, citizens need legal guarantees that they will be supplied with adequate resources.
We believe both negative liberty and positive liberty are important. It matters that citizens are not subject to continued wrongful interference, from each other or from the state. It also matters that citizens have the effective means to exercise their wills, to do as they please (provided they do not violate other citizens' rights), and to lead their conceptions of the good life.
We think negative liberty matters in part because, historically, protecting negative liberties has been the most important and effective way of promoting positive liberty. Due to economic, cultural, and scientific growth, a typical citizen of a Western nation today enjoys far more positive liberty than a medieval king. This growth did not occur because a government declared or legally guaranteed that it would occur. It occurred because Western countries adopted a good set of background institutions, among the most important being the rule of law. The rule of law provides a framework that encourages experimentation and entrepreneurship. Societies that protect property rights tend to achieve prosperity; societies that do not always fail. Cultures of tolerance and openness to change lead to more prosperity than do closed, intolerant cultures. Overall, societies succeed in promoting positive liberty when they create institutional frameworks--rule of law, constitutional democracy, and open markets--where the best shot individuals have at leading good lives is to live and work in ways that are good for their neighbors, partners, and customers, too. These institutions don't guarantee progress, but nothing does, so guarantees are beside the point.
But saying that positive liberty is a valuable species of the genus liberty tells us nothing about what the government should do. Settling on a definition of liberty cannot settle a government's proper role as protector or promoter of particular liberties. We must instead examine historical, sociological, and economic evidence to see what actually happens when people rely on any institution, including a government, to play a given role.
Do we want government to issue legal guarantees that we will all enjoy positive liberty? It depends on what happens when government issues guarantees. There is a difference between guaranteeing as rendering inevitable (as when an economist says tripling the minimum wage would guarantee rising unemployment) versus guaranteeing as expressing a firm intention or issuing a legal declaration.
Clearly, guaranteeing something in the latter sense is no real guarantee. Plenty of factors in this world can and do disrupt, corrupt, or pervert legal guarantees. Legal guarantees are good only when they work. If we give government the power to promote some valuable end, there's no guarantee that those in power will exercise it competently, and thus succeed in promoting that end. There’s also no guarantee that the people in government will use that power for the intended end, rather than for some private purposes of their own. Both of us have heard students say, "This goal of social justice is so important that even if we need something like a KGB to achieve it, so be it. We'll just have to make sure the right people run the KGB." But there is no such thing as making sure that the right people run the KGB. People who gravitate toward KGB jobs do so for reasons of their own. Philosophers don't get to stipulate that their reasons are noble.
Despite the lack of guarantees, history may well reveal that respecting negative liberties has a long, successful, non-accidental track record of making for better lives. In any case, we won't settle any debate about what negative liberty does for people by conceptual analysis alone. We need to investigate what happens to people when negative liberties are reasonably secure, and what happens when they are not.
Consider three meanings of freedom: (1) Negative Freedom (noninterference): no one interferes with your actions; (2) Positive Freedom (opportunity): you have a wide menu of options accessible to you; (3) Republican Freedom/ (nondomination): you don’t live under anyone’s arbitrary power.
These freedoms are distinct. You could have negative freedom and positive freedom without republican freedom: you live at the mercy of a dictator, but the dictator allows you to do what you like and spreads his vast wealth among his subordinates, so that everyone has lots of options. You could have negative freedom and republican freedom but little positive freedom: you are alone on a little island—there is no one to interfere with you, and no one dominating you, but you have nothing to do but eat coconuts. Finally, you could have republican freedom and positive freedom, but at the expense of certain negative freedoms: you live in a social democracy like Sweden, which harnesses a vibrant market economy to a government-run system of free universal education, universal health care, comprehensive social security, minimum wages, and other regulations that secure everyone from poverty and dependence on the arbitrary will of others while generating lots of prosperity, consumer choices, and varied job opportunities for all. To provide this system, certain negative freedoms have to be sacrificed: everyone has to pay high taxes, and certain contracts, as into slavery, servitude, and sub-poverty wages, are prohibited.
So there are tradeoffs among the different types of freedom. Which should we accept? The conventional debate goes as follows. Libertarian advocates of laissez-faire capitalism claim that individuals have a right to negative freedom, nobody has a right to positive freedom (a right that others actually supply goods and opportunities to them), and if they enter into a contract involving their subordination to others, this is by their free consent and so unobjectionable. Negative freedom trumps the other freedoms. Social democrats, on the other hand, claim that negative freedom means little to the desperate and impoverished, who are driven by necessity to bargain away what few negative freedoms they have just to survive. Hence they are forced into conditions of destitution and servitude—consider the 18 million debt slaves worldwide. Nobody, say the social democrats, has a right to a system of property and contract that leaves so many people with so few options and subordinate to others, having to beg for whatever freedoms their masters are willing to grant.
While I would gladly accept the social democratic side of this conventional argument, it’s missing a key insight: even the justification of private property and competitive markets presupposes the priority of positive freedom and non-domination over negative freedom. Consider a world of perfect negative freedom: nobody is entitled to or does interfere with anyone else’s freedom of action. Under such conditions, the world would be an unregulated commons. Everyone would be free to use whatever they like.
The liberty-based argument for private property observes that in such a system of anarchist communism everyone would be poor because people would deplete the commons. Forests would be razed; fisheries destroyed; game hunted to extinction. No one would want to invest their labor in farming or other productive pursuits, because the product of their labor would be seized by others. However, if we allowed private property, then individuals could appropriate parcels from the commons. Out of self-interest, they would conserve the resources they own and invest in productive activities in the confidence that they would be able to reap rewards from this. Allow markets to arise, and everyone can get richer by making mutually beneficial voluntary trades with others. Everyone gains from having private property and markets.
This is an excellent argument. But note what it implies. To grant Sarah private property in some parcel P, the law—the government—must take away the negative freedom of 6.7 billion people to use P. What could justify this massive restriction of negative liberty? The vastly greater opportunities or positive freedom everyone enjoys through the higher productivity of a society with private property and markets. The argument for private property already presupposes that opportunity—positive freedom—often overrides negative freedom. Considerations of nondomination also override negative freedom. That’s why capitalist countries, unlike feudal ones, declare contracts into slavery and serfdom void and illegal. Once we recognize that the general case for private property and capitalist (non-feudal) contracts is based on the priority of positive freedom and nondomination over negative freedom, nothing stops us from configuring property rights (for example, to social security) and contractual limitations so as to abolish domination and maximize positive freedom for all. The same logic that justifies private property and markets justifies social democracy.
About the Issue
Point author: Jason Brennan is Assistant Professor of Philosophy Research at Brown University. he is the author of The Ethics of Voting (forthcoming from Princeton University Press, 2011) and with David Schmidtz, A Brief History of Liberty (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). David Schmidtz is Kendrick Professor of Philosophy and joint Professor of Economics at the University of Arizona. He is author of Rational Choice and Moral AgencyElements of Justice (Cambridge) and Persons, Polis, Planet (Oxford). (Princeton),
Counterpoint author: Elizabeth Anderson is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and John Rawls Collegiate Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She writes extensively in moral and political philosophy and the philosophy of the social sciences.
Edited by: Aaron Bekemeyer
Cover by: Jill Brandwein