Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Substantive Freedom

One of the major criticisms of libertarianism that I keep coming back to is their impoverished conception of freedom as mere non-interference. A "freedom from" only has substantive worth insofar as it gives rise to a complementary "freedom to". It's the latter that really matters, and I can't see how anyone who has reflected upon the matter could possibly deny this. If you tie me up, that's bad because it stops me from doing the things I want. If untying me wouldn't change any of that, then it wouldn't do me any good. And if I could continue to do all the things I wanted despite being tied up, then it wouldn't really be much of a harm. What matters, in either case, is what opportunities are open to me. Whether I've been "interfered" with is of secondary (and derivative) importance.

An example I often use to demonstrate the emptiness of negative freedom is to imagine that you are stuck down a well. (Suppose that you are there through no fault of your own. One day you just woke up, and found yourself stuck down a well. Perhaps a freak wind deposited you there.) Now, the libertarian seems to suggest that you are perfectly free so long as everybody else leaves you alone, as that way you suffer no interference. But surely we can see that this is mistaken. If left alone, you will dwindle and die. That's not any sort of freedom worth having. Substantive freedom requires that you be rescued from the well -- until that happens, you do not have any real opportunities open to you. And that is clearly what really matters.

Of course, once a libertarian realises this, they will be forced towards liberalism. It is not enough to leave poor children alone: by letting them starve, we do not thereby make them "free" in any worthwhile sense. The fulfilment of basic needs is a prerequisite to any form of freedom worth having. And, on top of that, education and parental love are necessary to a child's development into a fully autonomous and flourishing human being. (And, again, this is surely what matters.) Granted, the state cannot provide parental love - though it might help enable it, through family support and provisions for parental leave, etc. But anyone who genuinely values freedom ought to support making high quality education freely accessible to all - and not just to children of the rich.

But I digress. My main point here is philosophical rather than political. Even if you argue about the details, you must agree that it is substantive freedom that really matters. Elizabeth Anderson offers another example to reinforce this idea:
If the only kind of freedom that matters is that no one intentionally interfere with one's formal freedom of action, and not that one's opportunity set be large and full of worthwhile options, then freedom-lovers would have to oppose traffic laws, stop lights, and so forth, for interfering with freedom of movement. The result of a lack of such laws, however, is not actual freedom of movement, but, in areas of high traffic density, gridlock. (And, in areas of high traffic flow, grave danger.) To be sure, in a state of gridlock, one has the formal freedom to choose any movement in one's opportunity set--which amounts to being able to rock forward and back a couple of inches from bumper to bumper, getting nowhere. Some freedom! By contrast, if we give up certain formal freedoms--to run red lights and stop signs, to drive indiscriminately across lanes--we get in return a vastly expanded opportunity set, including the ability to actually get to places one wants to go, more safely and quickly than if we hadn't given up those freedoms. The point of formal freedom of movement--the right to move around, without coercive inteference by the state or other people--is that it is instrumental to expanding actual opportunities to move around where one wants to go. Merely formal freedom of movement, with nowhere to move to, or nowhere worth moving to, is not an end in itself.

Moreover, libertarians aren't even consistent here. As I've previously argued, property laws are a restriction on formal freedom, so the consistent libertarian ought to oppose the institution of property. Anderson notes this as well:
[P]rivate property essentially involves securing the owner's opportunity freedom at the expense of everyone else's freedom-as-non-interference. This has to be a losing argument, if freedom-as-non-interference is the freedom that matters. For private property essentially involves the use of coercive power to exclude others from using it. It essentially involves coercive interference, or the threat of interference, with everyone else. Common property in the earth and in things does not have this feature. Viewed from the static point of view of freedom-as-non-interference, the institution of private property involves a net loss of freedom.

(She then adds, in case it wasn't obvious, "This is a reductio of the conception of freedom as non-interference as the fundamental measure of freedom, not an attack on private property.")

So, given all of this, could someone please explain to me why anybody would ever think that mere negative freedom is somehow the most fundamental value? Because to me that position looks an awful lot like sheer idiocy.


  1. I explained that to you this afternoon, Richard:

    You said, "I'm not an economic libertarian: because I recognize that substantive freedom is what matters..."

    To which I said the following: Freedom in the political context is not freedom from reality, no matter what label you want to put on it; as I've said before, freedom in the political context means no more nor any less than freedom from physical coercion.

    This does not mean freedom from the laws of nature. If I am stuck down a well and there’s no one around to throw me a rope, no matter how you try and spin it that does not represent any lack of political freedom; it represents a lack of intelligence on my part in getting stuck down there.

  2. Richard,

    The argument I have tended to be exposed to is specific to government action - it is somthing along the line of
    "on average, people end up 'at the bottom of wells' because they made a mistake."
    "facing the concequences of their actions will force them to change those actions or will eventually eliminate the problem (them)"
    "(generally speaking) fighting this natural force is a futile waste of resources, the above will occur anyway all you can do is waste resources to delay it"
    "therefore net benefit to everyone of libiterian strategy (in general)"

    there is some validity to this some would not hedge it like I have but i think that ideological argument is a bit weak to come from my mouth.


    > If I am stuck down a well and there’s no one around to throw me a rope, no matter how you try and spin it that does not represent any lack of political freedom with no communication with others

    Er... if being stuck down a well doesnt represent a lack of political fredom, what does?

  3. 'Genius' you said, "Er... if being stuck down a well doesnt represent a lack of political fredom, what does?"

    It represents a lack of ~existential freedom~. You understand the difference between existential freedom and political freedom, don't you? You don't remove the substantive differnce between the two by collapsing the distinction between them.

    A well and a jail are not the same thing, except perhaps in places where neither freedom exists.

  4. PC, I've stipulated that you ended up down the well through no fault of your own, so you cannot answer that it "represents a lack of intelligence". Moreover, the problem is not that there is "no one around" to throw you a rope, it's that there are people who recognize you are down there but simply ignore you instead. Now, the libertarian must say that their actions are perfectly consistent with your continued freedom. My point is that they are patently not contributing to any sort of freedom worth having. Can you honestly deny this?

    Besides, if you don't like my 'well' example, carefully read Anderson's traffic example instead (it's probably better, since more explicitly political).

    In any case, the general question remains: of what value is mere non-interference if it does not actually contribute to one's opportunity set? Surely you must recognize that what really matters is what we're free to do (not merely what physical constraints we are free from)?

    I don't know why you think that freedom to means "freedom from reality". Obviously we can't change the laws of nature, and nobody is proposing that we try. But we can increase people's opportunity sets, by various political means, some of which will require some small sacrifice of other, less important, freedoms. For example, traffic laws, or the institution of private property.

    Don't you like private property? ;)

  5. We can perhaps increase the 'opportunity set' of a burglar' by allowing him to take your computer. Are you in favour of that?

  6. Obviously there are trade-offs. I need my computer for several projects that are central to my life, so losing it would impair my own set of opportunities.

    (You seem to have missed the point that private property enables substantive freedom. Indeed, as the main post points out, substantive freedom is the only sort of freedom that can justify private property. Mere negative freedom is incapable of doing so!)

    In fact, to not interfere with a burglar would be a form of negative freedom -- as I stressed in my recent response to you, and earlier, e.g. here.

    So even negative libertarians like yourself need to acknowledge and resolve such conflicts of liberties. Read this post to see where the negative libertarian's own commitments will lead them, if they are intellectually honest.

    Substantive freedom, by contrast, would involve not merely "allowing" the burglar to take my computer (i.e. not interfering with him) -- since that merely involves negative liberty -- but also, my actually ensuring that the burglar has adequate access to my computer. That is, I would have to unlock my door and let him in. :)

    (Of course, that is what happens if you only consider the freedom of the burglar and ignore everyone else affected -- and I've already pointed out the mistake in that! A broader perspective will in fact support respect for private property.)

  7. Richard, you are still avoiding the distinction between political freedom and existential freedom. The idea that there is some 'conflict' between freedoms that needs to be acknowledged is only the case if you insist on conflating

    Private property supports existential freedom. The protection of private property requires political freedom. I do find it ironic that the effect of your conflation of the 'two freedoms' means you support the freedom to be protected from physical coercion, and you want a guaranteed income to boot! How's that for irony.

    Regarding your 'well problem,' you say "Moreover, the problem is not that there is "no one around" to throw you a rope, it's that there are people who recognize you are down there but simply ignore you instead. Now, the libertarian must say that their actions are perfectly consistent with your continued freedom." Indeed, in the political context that may be correct, but you need to recognise that laws are not everything, and do not ban generosity. There are certainly some people who would benefit from being left down the well, but even Saddam Hussein or Robert Fisk would no doubt find a TV network somewhere to take on their cause. :-)

  8. No, PC, I have repeatedly explained that there is a conflict in freedoms from interference, i.e. what you call "political freedom". I have repeatedly pointed out that you keep missing this point, and yet you just keep on missing it. It's very frustrating. Please re-read the posts I linked to (especially my thorough response here) before you keep making the same mistakes. There's no point talking to you any further until you start paying attention to my previous arguments.

    As for your other points, I am not "conflating" anything. I am well aware of the distinction between freedoms "from" and "to", my point is that the latter is of fundamental importance. Again, that much should be obvious if you actually bother to read what I have written.

    My position would only seem "ironic" to one who fails to understand it. Is it "ironic" that you support the freedom to be protected from physical coercion, and yet you wish to physically coerce those who attempt to take resources from your possession, "to boot"? Of course not - such a resolution of conflicting liberties makes sense. But my position is analogous with respect to substantive freedom: some tradeoffs must be made, and some freedoms must be sacrificed for the sake of other ones. I do not hold that negative freedoms provide absolute and overriding rights -- and neither should you, or else you must oppose the institute of private property!

    Finally, your response to the 'well problem' still fails to address the worth of liberty. Suppose for the sake of argument that literally nobody wishes to help the person down the well. (You cannot object that 'in practice' somebody would, for the point of this is to challenge libertarian principles.) The stated scenario is consistent with the values libertarianism espouses (generosity is purely optional, after all). My question to you is this: Does the person down the well have any sort of freedom worth having?

    You refuse to give this question a straight answer, which probably means you recognize as well as I do that the answer is "no". What really matters is substantive (or, as you seem to call it, "existential") freedom.

    Now, given that substantive rather than negative freedom is of fundamental value, why on earth would you build a political philosophy solely concerned with the latter? Libertarianism depends upon taking negative liberty to of fundamental importance. But I have shown that negative liberty is not of fundamental importance -- what worth it has is derivative from its effect upon substantive liberty. So surely our political philosophy ought to instead take the promotion of substantive freedom as its fundamental aim. That's the logical conclusion, and I don't see how you can escape it.

    (Of course, you may stipulatively define "political freedom" to mean negative freedom, but that does not show that negative freedom is all that our policies and laws ought to promote. You cannot establish such a conclusion by mere linguistic stipulation. What I have shown is that "political freedom" (as defined by you) is of secondary importance to substantive freedom. Surely our political philosophy ought to reflect that.)

  9. PC, allow me to summarize my claims, in the form of a numbered list, which you may then respond to one at a time as you please. (This complements the five criticisms I outlined previously that you are yet to respond to.) I hope that this may encourage you to address my specific arguments.

    I) Even negative (or what you call "political") freedom gives rise to conflicts between rival liberties.

    II) Property rights cannot be justified by negative liberty alone.

    III) Substantive liberty is of fundamental importance. Negative liberty without substantive liberty is worthless.

    IV) Our political philosophy should concern itself with what really matters.

    V) Our political philosophy ought to concern itself with the promotion of substantive liberty.

    VI) Sometimes this will involve sacrificing a less important liberty for the sake of a more important one. (But even libertarians are committed to this -- see I)

  10. Richard, I'm not particularly familiar with the actual justifications libertarians use; but I'm not really convinced by your argument, in part because it seems to me that libertarians don't identify non-interference with freedom -- rather, they identify it with the exercise of one's rights; what is distinctively libertarian is the view that non-interference is the most politically salient necessary condition of the exercise of the supposed right to self-ownership. Given this, it doesn't seem so likely that there are any conflicts between rival liberties, at least not generated by non-interference; the issue of non-interference is itself governed by the higher-order principle, which would be able to act as a criterion in apparent conflict. There is no appeal to freedom-as-non-interference; the appeal is to rights that must not be interfered with, and it is those rights that constitute the freedom to which libertarians actually appeal.

    Likewise, it seems to me that a great many libertarians would agree with some of your claims (e.g., "anyone who genuinely values freedom ought to support making high quality education freely accessible to all - and not just to children of the rich") but deny that this is relevant to politics. In other words, they would take liberalism to involve a confusion between the moral and the political. There can, for instance, be a moral claim on society to provide good education for all, without there being a claim on the state to provide it -- indeed, a libertarian would say that whatever the claim on society, there is a claim on the state to restrict itself entirely to regulations 'protecting against fraud and force' (as the slogan goes). Of course, many libertarians obviously don't tend to separate the moral and the political this way, but that doesn't necessarily reflect on the political position itself.

    I don't understand Anderson's traffic laws point; the libertarian justification of traffic laws is the simple one of protection from violence, e.g., being run down, which in turn they think is legitimated by a relevant set of rights. And likewise I don't understand your arguments about the justification of property rights -- libertarians don't justify property rights by appeal to non-interference, they justify them by appeal to more fundamental rights that they think require non-interference.

    Of course, as I noted above, I could be missing something.

  11. PC, my point was - you are highly unlikely to be running the government from the bottom of a well.

  12. Brandon, you're probably right that most academic libertarians ground their political philosophy in self-ownership rather than liberty. Indeed, I say as much here. But PC objected to that characterization. So the present post is aimed towards those libertarians that see freedom as being of fundamental importance.

    Since I am arguing that substantive liberty has greater fundamental worth than negative liberty, a non-liberty-based libertarian might not be too concerned by my arguments. (For example, they could grant my point but insist that self-ownership is more important than freedom. Though, as I note in the linked post, merely formal self-ownership seems to suffer a similar problem of being quite obviously of lesser value than substantive self-determination.)

    But even so, I wonder if my point might still stand. The rights-based libertarian takes freedom as derivative, such that one is free if nobody is infringing upon your rights. But the 'well problem' shows that this is inadequate to guarantee any substantive self-determination. So, again I ask, is the rights-based libertarian offering us any sort of freedom worth having?

    (One might thus re-interpret my argument as pointing out the inadequacy of merely 'negative' rights. They fail to account for what truly has value.)

    Finally, if rights are prior to freedom, then we will require some independent account of what those rights are, how we have them, and so forth. They sound entirely mysterious to me. It isn't clear that such a position has any appeal, especially compared to the obvious value that substantive freedom has!

  13. I have a bit of difficulty following the whole dispute, but it seems to me that PC's problem with the self-ownership point is merely that the 'ownership' part can't be taken too literally -- his view seems to be that the phrase identifies something real, but misleadingly (and he thinks you've been misled). But I agree that self-ownership is always the weakest part of libertarian expositions.

    I'm not clear why you think the libertarian takes freedom as 'derivative'. Surely the libertarian takes freedom not as derived from rights but as constituted by them -- and some of the rights have, as a necessary condition for their exercise, non-interference by the state. I also don't think libertarians have a conception of rights that is purely 'negative'; I think the negative rights are just a way of protecting the rights to which the libertarian appeals. On the libertarian view, you have the right to do anything you please, provided that it does not involve fraud or violence against another; that doesn't seem very negative. But I do agree that a libertarian needs a coherent account of why the relevant rights should be attributed to us -- just as you need a coherent account of why 'substantive freedom' should have the particular content you attribute to it.

    The well example, I think, is a two-edged sword. I'm not sure I wholly follow PC's argument, but I take it that one of the reasons he regards you as conflating freedom from and freedom to, is that he sees your claims as an argument for a negative freedom, not a positive one: namely, freedom from the constraints of well-like conditions. Whether that's his view or not, the point can be made. Your 'substantive freedom', one could say, is just an argument for a circle of non-interference that a libertarian will not accept; a libertarian disallows interference from people and states, while you disallow interference from circumstances. In both cases you give the state the power to guarantee this non-interference. On the libertarian view, however, the former is feasible while the latter would ultimately require giving the government an insane amount of power over everyone's lives. Thus from a libertarian perspective, it is your view that actually leads to the reduction of substantive freedom. Using the well as a metaphor: on his view a few people end up in wells by chance, on your view everyone ends up in a well on purpose, as the state constrains more and more of their lives in the name of rescuing people from wells. I don't say that the point is exactly right, but it seems to me that that's how the libertarian would tend to view your appeal to the well example: as a sleight of hand, whereby you really take away what you are claiming to give.

  14. Brandon, it's true that if we take a broad enough view of "constraints" (or "interference"), such as to include natural circumstances etc., then this will unify the concepts of negative and substantive freedom. I talk about this here. The unified concept takes the form, "S is free from C to A", where A the enabled action that S is now free to do now that constraints C have been removed. Freedoms "to" and "from" can thus be understood as merely elliptical forms of this unified concept. But I had avoided this approach presently, since the libertarian will not generally accept this broader account of constraints. On their narrower understanding, it is possible to be free of all "constraints" (i.e. human interference), and yet not be able to perform an action (due to some other constraint they do not recognize, e.g. natural circumstances).

    Now, you suggest that the well example is "a two-edged sword". I think that objection misguided. I am merely suggesting that we must recognize that the man down the well is lacking something of great importance (namely, substantive freedom) -- something that is clearly more important than the libertarian's "political freedom" that he still has.

    This value has political relevance, but need not force us to remedy the situation. We may judge (as you suggest) that state interference in such matters would tend to backfire, leading to less substantive freedom. If that's true, then fine, the state ought not to intervene in such a case. Simple. But that's a practical/empirical question, and has no bearing on my theoretical arguments here.

    (Cf. Indirect utilitarianism: the mere fact that continually attempting to interfere for the sake of utility would actually tend to thwart utility, is no objection to utilitarianism as a critical theory. It merely shows that what the critical theory recommends on a practical level is something rather different!)

    Finally, you write:
    "On the libertarian view, you have the right to do anything you please, provided that it does not involve fraud or violence against another; that doesn't seem very negative."

    It is purely negative because you do not have a right to other people's help. All you have a right to is their non-interference. If everybody ignores the man down the well, then none of his (libertarian) "rights" have been violated at all. They must say he has no grounds to complain, and that the situation is perfectly just. I say this shows the inadequacy of such "rights", because it is patently obvious that the man down the well is lacking something very important (namely, substantive freedom).

    What use is "the right to do anything you please", if in fact you cannot do anything at all?

    Similarly, to repeat a point from my self-ownership post, suppose that the material world is jointly owned by all, such that none may make use of it without the consent of others. (This seems consistent with a libertarian understanding of property rights, though it presents an alternative conception of the 'initial condition' which most have not considered.) In what sense can you be said to own yourself if you cannot do anything without the permission of others? What sort of "freedom" is this? It's hopelessly inadequate, and yet the libertarian must condone this situation as perfectly unobjectionable. It does not violate any rights or freedoms that their theory recognizes. Surely that constitutes a reductio of their theory.

  15. It is purely negative because you do not have a right to other people's help. All you have a right to is their non-interference. If everybody ignores the man down the well, then none of his (libertarian) "rights" have been violated at all. They must say he has no grounds to complain, and that the situation is perfectly just. I say this shows the inadequacy of such "rights", because it is patently obvious that the man down the well is lacking something very important (namely, substantive freedom).

    This doesn't seem right to me at all; first of all, it is not, as far as I can see, part of libertarianism to say that "you do not have a right to other people's help" but only to their non-interference. The libertarian position is not this but that some of your rights require non-interference. On a libertarian view there can be plenty of situations where you could have a right to another person's help, namely, in cases where other people are interfering with your rights through fraud or violence. Indeed, one of the things a government is supposed to do on a libertarian conception is establish laws to prevent such fraud or violence, and this can include punishing people who enable fraud or violence against the rights of others by not stepping in when they could have done so.

    Further, libertarians usually allow for types of government action they think are consistent with the structure of rights (including their non-interference requirements), even when they go beyond strict policing of non-interference. Thus, you will be hard pressed, I think, to find libertarians arguing that firemen should not put out accidental fires, engaging in emergency paramedics, or saving cats out of trees. The reason is that there is a libertarian justification for firemen; the nature of fires (for instance) implies that it's not possible to distinguish out malicious from accidental fires beforehand, and so they need to be taken together if at all; and firemen putting out accidental fires is not inconsistent with the rights requiring non-interference (preservation of life, preservation of property, etc.). Likewise, in cases where people fairly regularly, by violence or fraud, push each other down wells, there would be a libertarian justification for a general Department for Rescue from Wells. But the case would have to be made that people's rights are genuinely in danger from fraud and violence here (which, I suppose, they are not, ex hypothesi).

    Further, a libertarian is not committed to saying that the well situation is "perfectly just"; the libertarian is only committed to saying that, if there is no libertarian justification for government involvement (clear danger of fraud or violence against someone's rights), it is not just for the government to get involved.

    From a libertarian point of view, the well case will simply be part of a spectrum in which there are no sharp lines, because the constrains are circumstantial. The man in the well lacks (e.g.) mobility, in virtue of being in a well; I also lack mobility, in virtue of have a student's budget rather than a private Lear jet. Clearly one case is worse than another; but the libertarian will regard the liberal as mired in a vagueness problem : the liberal has no principled reason for fixing one without fixing the other (and if it isn't convincing in this example, it could be made more convincing by starting with points closer to the well case). This is why the libertarian will incline to think that the liberal has started down a slippery slope to tyranny; on the same basis one advocates government involvement in the well case, independent of any strictly libertarian justification, on that same basis one can advocate government involvement on the level of North Korea. The trade-off response doesn't really work unless you already have a principle in hand that tells you when the trade-off is a good one.

    I'm not sure why your reductio is supposed to be a reductio of libertarianism rather than a reductio of the supposition that everything in the world can be jointly owned by all.

  16. One can absolutly locate oneself on the slipery slope to anywhere. And that this is the smart thing to do because hell resides at both the top and the bottom of the hill.

  17. Genius: Of course the real question is always whether one has actually located oneself on the slippery slope or begun to slide down it.

  18. Oops, I kept forgetting to reply to this:

    "I'm not sure why your reductio is supposed to be a reductio of libertarianism rather than a reductio of the supposition that everything in the world can be jointly owned by all."

    Well, the libertarian has no independent grounds for denying this as a possible account of the initial position. But, further, the specifics of being "jointly owned by all" are inessential to the problem. The exact same thing, if on a lesser scale, happens in capitalist societies, where mostly everything is owned by a few. The proletariat are utterly dependent on capitalists for access to basic resources.

    If I lived in a purely capitalist state, and everyone else decided overnight to refuse to do business with me, then I would starve to death. They own all the food, and refuse to let me access any. Libertarians take this to be the epitomy of freedom. Clearly there's something seriously wrong with their theory.

  19. Well, as far as I can tell, it isn't anyone else's fault that a person may happen to be at the bottom of the well, so sucks to be that person. Sure, someone is free to help that person who is trapped, but no one is obligated to... nor should they be.

    I'd say an individual's right to be not interfered with trumps another person's life (assuming that life was not put into danger by the person who doesn't want to be interfered with). 'Freedom-to' is limited by another's 'freedom-from'.

  20. "If everyoen else decided overnight to refuse to do business with you".. . That's just a silly argument since it is incredibly improbable. Even in an egalitarian wonderland, where everyone had government protections, one could use the same argument as "if every bureaucrat decided they didn't want to distribute income/food/whatever, then I would starve to death".

    There are no guarantees in this life, and it becomes an academic pissing contest to try to formulate a philosophy that covers situations that are so improbable as to be essentially impossible.

  21. Silly Mantispid, the point of the thought experiment is to show that the (purported) principle of justice gives false results in some situations. How "probable" they are is utterly irrelevant. A true theory will give the right results for every scenario, not just the everyday ones. And if you think that inquiring after the true theory of justice is a mere "academic pissing contest", then feel free to piss off.

    Nobody believes that the demands of justice are reducible to the arbitrary decisions of bureaucrats, so your attempted "argument" is similarly irrelevant here. (Though it would successfully refute the claim that justice is reducible to bureaucratic choices, in exactly the same way that my example refutes the claim that justice is reducible to market choices.)

    Your first comment betrays a thorough misunderstanding of the point of my 'well' example. See here for a full explanation. Note especially (1) "It is not about morality, or politics, or justified coercion. It is simply about the concept of freedom. It makes no assumptions about whether freedom ought to be promoted. That's a separate question." and (2) "If you think the man stuck down the well lacks freedom, then you are forced to go beyond negative freedom, for he has no lack of that."


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