Sunday, June 12, 2005

Poverty as Unfreedom

Some libertarians ground their political philosophy, not in self-ownership, but in the veneration of negative liberty. Their fundamental value is non-interference. In the linked posts I make various objections to this impoverished and merely "formal" view of freedom. But this post will demonstrate that, even by their own definition, libertarians are committed to recognizing poverty as a form of unfreedom.

The conflict between rich and poor is typically seen in terms of the rich man's liberty against the poor man's well-being, where liberals favour the latter value and libertarians the former. It isn't commonly recognized that the liberty of the poor is also at stake here. But, as James P. Sterba argues (p.238):
What is at stake is the liberty of the poor not to be interfered with in taking from the surplus possessions of the rich what is necessary to satisfy their basic needs.

Needless to say, libertarians would want to deny that the poor have this liberty. But how could they justify such a denial? As this liberty of the poor has been specified, it is not a positive right to receive something, but a negative right of non-interference. Nor will it do for libertarians to appeal to a right to life or a right to property to rule out such a liberty because on the view under consideration liberty is basic and all other rights are derived from a right to liberty. Clearly what libertarians must do is recognize the existence of such a liberty and then claim that it conflicts with other liberties of the rich. But when libertarians see that this is the case, they are often genuinely surprised - one might even say rudely awakened - for they had not previously seen the conflict between the rich and the poor as a conflict of liberties.

Which liberty ought to win out is a topic for a future post. [Update: see here.] For now it is enough to upturn the common assumptions, and recognize that poverty is itself a form of unfreedom, and enforcing property laws is form of intervention. When you bar the starving man from taking a loaf of bread from your store, you are interfering with him. If he takes it anyway, and you call the police, then you are licensing state intervention to thwart the liberty of another individual. If negative liberty is our foundational value, then - as Sterba points out - one cannot rule out the prima facie importance of these liberties. We are going to have to carefully weigh the conflicting liberties against each other. The libertarian cannot just assume that the liberty of the propertied classes will come out on top. There is a genuine issue here, that the intellectually honest libertarian has to confront.

I have shown that poverty in a capitalist society involves exactly the sort of interference and lack of negative freedom that libertarians claim to abhor. But the commonplace rhetoric is so rarely challenged that it may be difficult to overcome one's deeply ingrained assumptions and recognize this brute fact. To help with this problem, Cohen (p.58) offers an illustration to help us see things in a new light:
[B]egin by imagining a society without money, in which courses of action available to people, courses they are free to follow without interference, are laid down by the law. The law says what each sort of person, or even each particular person, may and may not do without interference, and each person is issued with a set of tickets detailing what she is allowed to do. So I may have a ticket saying that I am free to plough this piece of land, another one saying that I am free to go to that opera, or to walk across that field, while you have different tickets, with different freedoms inscribed on them.

Imagine, now, that the structure of the options written on the tickets is more complex. Each ticket lays out a disjunction of conjunctions of courses of action that I may perform. I may do A and B and C and D OR B and C and D and E OR E and F and G and A, and so on. If I try to do something not licensed by my tickets or ticket, armed force intervenes.

By hypothesis, these tickets say what my freedoms (and, consequently, my unfreedoms) are. But a sum of money is nothing but a highly generalized form of such a ticket. A sum of money is a licence to perform a disjunction of conjunctions of actions - actions like, for example, visiting one's sister in Bristol, or taking home, and wearing, the sweater on the counter at Selfridge's.

Suppose that someone is too poor to visit her sister in Bristol. She cannot save, from week to week, enough to buy her way there. Then, as far as her freedom is concerned, this is equivalent to 'trip to Bristol' not being written on someone's ticket in the imagined non-monetary economy. The woman I have described has the capacity to go to Bristol. She can board the underground and approach the barrier which she must cross to reach the train. But she will be physically prevented from passing through it, or physically ejected from the train, or, in the other example, she will be physically stopped outside Selfridge's and the sweater will be removed. The only way that she will not be prevented from getting and using such things is by offering money for them.

Money provides freedom, and to lack money is to lack freedom. If the poor man tries to pursue his ends in life without the money to pay for them, then others will forcably interfere with him. The thief interferes with the liberty of rich to dispose of their holdings as they please; but likewise, the security guard interferes with the liberty of the thief to take from others' holdings as he pleases. This is a genuine clash of liberties, and it cannot be decided without appealing to some other, non-freedom, value (such as self-ownership).

That's the end of the negative-liberty-based argument. Of course, for the record, I must reassert the utter uselessness of negative (formal) liberty possessed in the absence of positive (substantive) capability. If you're stuck down a well, and I refuse to throw you a rope, you don't have any "freedom" worthy of the name. If everyone ignores you, consistently with perfect non-interference, that does not make you perfectly free. Unless you consider death to be perfect freedom, that is.

Cohen, G.A., Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Sterba, J.P., 'From Liberty to Welfare' in Ethics: The Big Questions. Malden, MA : Blackwell, 1998.


  1. You are quite correct when you say, "one cannot rule out the prima facie importance of these liberties. We are going to have to carefully weigh the conflicting liberties against each other. The libertarian cannot just assume that the liberty of the propertied classes will come out on top. There is a genuine issue here, that the intellectually honest libertarian has to confront."

    It doesn't follow, however, "that poverty is itself a form of unfreedom." Poverty is a lack of positive freedom, not a lack of the negative freedom we are talking about here. It may seem as though it is a lack of negative freedom, but it wouldn't seem that way if the hungry man escaped from his poverty by getting a paying job instead of shoplifting. In doing so, he would be creating wealth and keeping the fruits of his labour, instead of redistributing existing wealth by depriving others involuntarily of the fruits of theirs.

    Which brings me to a second point. Cohen doesn't appear to understand that money is a medium of exchange of wealth, either. He starts by imagining a society in which "each person is issued with a set of tickets" (by whom?) and finishes by suggesting that in our actual society, each person is issued with "a sum of money". That's a very misleading description of the labour market.

    Obviously, the institution of property rights is a solution (the one favoured by libertarians) to the conflict of prima facie liberties. I look forward to seeing your argument for which liberties should win out in a future post.

    - Richard (the libertarian)

  2. I would have thought stealing is a negitive strategy - that is in general (this is sort of rule utilitarianism I guess) it is a form of exchange that destroys more than it creates. thus for libiterianism to work strategies like that and murder and intimidation and so forth need to be removed. A law tht does that creates more liberty that it destroys and prevents libiterian being an argument for caveman anarchy.

    this somewhat derives from liberty in that a negitive strategy is (theoretically) just an imposition on your freedom as opposed to any gain being involved. however it in a sense is a positive liberty because "but for the states actions" there would just be cave man anarchy liberty - which is pretty poor indeed.

    Thus explaining why Im not a libiterian!

  3. Quote > In doing so, he would be creating wealth and keeping the fruits of his labour, instead of redistributing existing wealth by depriving others involuntarily of the fruits of theirs.

    Yes .. but if other's ownership of basic ecomonic resources keeps a person from getting (let alone keeping ) the full fruits of his labour he is not AS FREE as the owners.
    Someone once commented that when the american slaves were 'set free' many were worse of. At least when they were 'chattels' of the landed class they were looked after so that they might be healthy enough to do the required work.
    Once they were 'free' they had no protection, no land of their own and were even more exploitable.
    One gets back always to the opposing positions people take on rights to natural resources.
    Not to manufactured ' man made' property but to the land.
    And not just as a bare natural resource either.
    Space ( land) within a community aquires a use (and tradeable) value which is dependent on and created by the communities efforts as a whole.
    Hence this particular property value can be said to belong to the community by right .. very much in contrast to libertarian thinking.
    I am curious to see what more richard comes up with.


  4. Hi Richard (this could get confusing - can I call you Rich?)

    I think you may have missed the central point of my post. You are right that poverty by itself is a lack of positive (not negative) freedom. However, it is when you combine this with the enforcement of property rights that it also becomes a lack of negative freedom, that is, freedom from interference.

    This is because, as the main post explains, poor people are interfered with when they attempt to make use of resources and do not have the money to pay for them. So this genuinely is a clash of negative liberties, not merely negative vs. positive liberties. (I'll hopefully post about the resolution sometime in the next few days.)

    Cohen's point is about the labour market, but about the "reified view of money" that predominates, especially in right-wing thought. How we get the money is irrelevant to this point, and I do not believe that Cohen ever says that in actual society "each person is issued with 'a sum of money'". He does not talk about how we get (or are "issued") money. His focus is elsewhere. He instead begins by recognizing that people have various "sums of money" (without concerning himself with where or how they got this sum), and he effectively asks: what is the status of this money, what does it mean, what can it do?

    Cohens answer, which I think is quite correct, is that: "A sum of money is a licence to perform a disjunction of conjunctions of actions", just like a very highly generalized ticket. The point is that if you don't have money, then you are going to be forcably prevented from doing those actions. It is (in this respect) as if you had no tickets in the ticket-economy. Without the tickets/cash, you are not at liberty to perform various actions. If you try, other people will forcably prevent you.

    That's the point. It's nothing to do with the labour market. It's about what money is, not where it comes from.

    "It may seem as though it is a lack of negative freedom, but it wouldn't seem that way if the hungry man escaped from his poverty by getting a paying job instead of shoplifting."

    Two responses:
    1) As noted above, it is a brute fact that the poor man is interfered with (and thus suffers a lack of negative freedom) when he tries to meet his basic needs by taking the loaf of bread. There's no "seeming" about it.

    Of course, if the hungry man can escape from his poverty then that will indeed provide him with a greater degree of freedom. But that says nothing about his (negative) freedoms while impoverished. (At most, it suggests he has more positive freedom than we might otherwise have thought.)

    2) There's no guarantee he will be able to get a job. Suppose he is a black man in a town of racists, so that nobody wishes to employ or otherwise help him in any way. The libertarian believes they are all within their rights to ignore him and leave him to starve. But... well, I won't repeat myself, just re-read the end of my post about the man stuck down the well. If we want to say there is something wrong about this, then we have to go beyond libertarianism. (It doesn't help to say that "in practice" such situations would not arise. Libertarianism is supposed to be a just theory in principle.)

    Genius - there are of course utilitarian reasons to discourage theft. But the libertarian is supposed to value liberty over utility. (Otherwise they might have to support redistribution, if that would have the best consequences.)

    David has a good point about ownership of land and natural resources. See also my post on initial acquisition, or this excerpt from my essay:

    "Discussing the transfer of property rights begs the question of how one could acquire title over unowned resources in the first place. Consistency should commit the libertarian to denouncing unilateral appropriation of common resources as a form of theft, since it peremptorily deprives others of their liberty to use the appropriated resources. Autonomy recommends that individuals have a veto over appropriations which exclude them from the commons."

    But I'd better stop before we get too off-topic here...

  5. Sorry, that should have been, "Cohen's point is not about the labour market, but about..."

  6. For a liberty to be a libertarian (or “true”) liberty it is not only required to be a negative liberty, that’s in fact secondary to the fact that it is required to enable everyone to have equal liberty.

    Some negative liberties are of that nature that everyone can’t have them, while some negative liberties are available to everyone.

    As with positive liberties the negative liberties that are not available to everyone (any time) will grant some liberties at the expense of other individual’s liberties. Some individuals will involuntary lose liberty and will get their freedom and right to self-ownership reduced. Therefore they cannot be libertarian liberties.

    You write about the liberty to take others possessions and property without interference. This negative liberty, if we assume that everyone are ought to have equal liberty, is at conflict with itself, because as soon as the poor man attempts to steal the rich man’s property the rich man can respond by using the same negative liberty to attack the poor mans property (including the poor mans body), and as a consequence kill him. The poor man will now have been denied his liberty by means that are legitimated by the same liberty.

    Any liberty of this kind will include the right to reduce others freedom, in the end including freedom of the same kind. Therefore, the freedom to invasion is a false and contradicting (non-existent) freedom.

  7. That's an interesting point, though it would seem easy enough to overcome by adopting a more specific description of the action type. Consider the freedom of the poor to meet their basic needs (when they have no other means of doing so) by appropriating from the surplus wealth of the rich. That sounds like a liberty that could be consistently universalized. The rich could not take their wealth back, not by this liberty at least, and they certainly couldn't kill people. I take a closer look at this specific liberty in my sequel post: A Reasonable Resolution.


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