Liberty May Make Us Wealthy, but Liberty Is Not Wealth

I’ll start where my colleagues have ended, and congratulate Brian for his accomplishment in writing such a fine work and encourage everyone to go out and buy a copy. I’ve expressed my reservations about the book, but they’re quite minor. Radicals for Capitalism is a serious accomplishment and a genuinely good book.

I want to return to the issue of “negative liberty” and “positive liberty” that Tyler raised. I’m skeptical of the value of the distinction, for a variety of reasons. (Gerald MacCallum has questioned the value of the distinction and I share some of his reasons.) But I was more than a little surprised that Tyler referenced Isaiah Berlin as having “straightened out the confusion some time ago.” I hadn’t read Berlin’s essays on liberty in some time, but my recollection was that, like Benjamin Constant in his famous essay on “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared to that of the Moderns,” whom Berlin cites, Berlin was warning us of the dangers lurking in the concept of “positive liberty.” I have since re-read the essay and, indeed, Berlin seems primarily to be sounding the alarm about the concept, not simply setting it next to “negative liberty” as just another valuable conception of liberty.

Berlin’s conception doesn’t strike me as quite the same as Tyler’s, in any case, which Tyler glosses as “what can I do with my life,” in contrast to the “negative” concern about “how many regulations are imposed on me.” So understood, an increase in wealth increases liberty, so that wealth = liberty. I think that’s a mistake, as I explained. (We already have a good word to denote wealth: “wealth.”) Anthony de Jasay warns us of the dangers of considering “Justice as Something Else” [.pdf] and I would repeat some of those concerns in considering “liberty as something else,” viz. wealth.

Berlin’s conception of “positive liberty,” shared by other thinkers such as Charles Taylor refers not to “what I can do with my life,” but to whether I am “my own master,” such that I am not governed by forces external to myself or – and this is where it gets really interesting (and especially dangerous to what Tyler in his second post calls “libertarian freedom”) – by those elements of my own self that are not truly or really me, that are not “authentic.” The “real” or “authentic” self has generally been, as Berlin notes in “Two Concepts of Liberty,” identified with

some super-personal entity – a State, a class, a nation, or the march of history itself, regarded as a more “real” subject of attributes than the empirical self. But the “positive” conception of freedom as self-mastery, with its suggestion of a man divided against himself, has in fact, and as a matter of history, of doctrine and of practice, lent itself more easily to this splitting of personality into two: the transcendent, dominant controller, and the empirical bundle of desires and passions to be disciplined and brought to heel. It is this historical fact that has been influential.

Taylor, who endorses positive liberty in his various writings, refers in his essay on “Atomism” to the requirement that, to be truly capable of freedom of choice, “we rise to the level of self-consciousness and autonomy where we can exercise choice, that we not remain enmired through fear, sloth, ignorance, or superstition in some code imposed by tradition, society, or fate which tells us how we should dispose of what belongs to us.” Such a conception of “positive liberty” is intimately associated with the “ancient liberty” described by Constant, in which the citizens are engaged in public deliberation about the public good as the realization of their freedom, which is an inherently collective freedom. Only those with the self-mastery of positive liberty, and freedom from drudgery, can engage in such acts of self-governance. In Taylor’s words, “A society in which such deliberation was public and involved everyone would realize a freedom not available anywhere else or in any other mode.”

(Even then, of course, such deliberation is not an act of freedom if it is based on “fear, sloth, ignorance, or superstition,” that is, if those deliberating are not already in agreement with the truth, and if they all already agree about the right course of action, what’s the point of deliberating? How can it be an act of freedom to express a view that is wrong, warped by fear or sloth, or falling short of truth because of ignorance or superstition? Positive liberty as collective liberty is self-defeating. Why would those who already conform to their true selves, that is, to the truth itself, bother to deliberate?)

Berlin is clearly worried – and rightly so – that the conception of “positive liberty” leads to the opposite of liberty as understood in the mainstream of classical liberalism/libertarianism:

Pluralism, with the measure of “negative” liberty that it entails, seems to me a truer and more humane ideal than the goals of those who seek in the great disciplined, authoritarian structures the ideal of “positive” self-mastery by classes, or peoples, or the whole of mankind.

So I don’t think that Tyler is, in fact, relying on the conception of liberty that Berlin (and others) have labeled “positive liberty.” If I have understood him correctly, he is focused on “capabilities,” not in the sense of the capability to make authentic choices as an autonomous agent, but in the sense of having more things I can do because I have more options, in a word: wealth. If that is true, then being wealthier means having more liberty, and Tyler’s response to my challenge to compare the liberties of the Germans in 1888 and in 1938 falls flat. Those in 1938 would have to have been freer, because they had more wealth and hence more things they could do with their lives (make phone calls, listen to phonographs and radios, travel in cars and airplanes, etc.). His response that “1939 Germany was on an unsustainable path with regard to positive liberty, we all know what happened” doesn’t begin to address that uncomfortable outcome of his equation of wealth with liberty. What if it had not been unsustainable? What if they had not lost the war, or had not even started it? Moreover, so what if it was unsustainable? By Tyler’s definition, they had more “positive liberty” in 1938 than in 1888 and he wants us to consider “positive liberty (‘what can I do with my life?’) as more important than negative liberty.”

That’s a worrisome outcome. Obviously, Tyler’s not endorsing any horrible outcomes. I know and admire Tyler and I’m not implying anything of the sort. I’m just pointing out that there are good reasons to be very, very skeptical about invoking conceptions of “positive liberty,” if they lead to such strange outcomes. If we were to take Tyler’s recommendation and shift libertarianism’s focus from “negative liberty” to “positive liberty” (understood either as self-mastery or as more wealth), it would represent a transformation of libertarianism that, like the shift toward the end of the nineteenth century toward “social liberalism” represented by thinkers such as Green, Hobhouse, and Naumann, would undo classical liberalism.

Lastly, Tyler’s focus on outcomes per se, and not on rules, is, I think, mistaken. I don’t agree with him that “rule utilitarianism (or consequentialism) collapses into act utilitarianism.” As a categorical statement, that’s clearly false. People follow the rule of law frequently, even though the consequences in the case at hand are undesirable. Persons accused of crimes are let off due to procedural police or prosecutorial mistakes, even though the various parties “know” that they’re guilty. And invocation of abstract rules, such as the First Amendment, convinces people who would like to force others to shut up to back off. Libertarianism is focused on the rules of just conduct, not on their outcomes. Those rules may in the end be justified by the outcomes of following the rules, but the outcomes and the rules of just conduct (notably respect for the liberty of each and all) are not the same thing and should not be confused. A freer world is – or becomes over time – a richer one, but we should not confuse wealth with freedom.

I’m struck by Brink’s use in his concluding post of the term “post-apocalyptic” libertarians. Not all libertarians were so apocalyptic, but he has put his finger on a central problem of twentieth century libertarianism. That’s a nicer and more clean discussion of what I was trying to articulate in my first reaction essay, that the goal of libertarians is to promote liberty, not – except insofar as it promotes liberty – merely to promote libertarianism. Liberty may come in great leaps, or it may come in small steps. It need not be the only alternative to total social collapse. In any case, it’s the liberty that matters to libertarians qua libertarians, and promotion of the ideology or the movement is only significant to the extent that it advances liberty itself.

I found Virginia’s podcast [.mp3] a very helpful and useful discussion of the generation and the role of principles. It turns out that talking sometimes allows for more precision than writing.

I’d like to conclude, not by congratulating Brian (which I did at the outset), but by thanking him, Virginia, Tyler, and Brink (and Will, for managing it all) for such a rewarding discussion, which has helped me to try to think through some difficult issues.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Libertarianism: Past and Prospects by Brian Doherty

    Beginning with a riff on Brink Lindsey’s appeal to the “liberaltarian” left, and David Boaz and David Kirby’s analysis of the libertarian vote, Brian Doherty, author of Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, notes that “realistic talk of a “libertarian voting bloc” for major parties to fight over – the idea that a double-digit percentage of Americans can be assumed to be in line with libertarian ideas – is a major miracle in libertarian movement terms.” Back in the 1970s, Doherty reports, “the notion that an explicitly libertarian institution should even seriously think about effecting real-world political change was considered – well, it was not really considered at all…” What, then, does history tell us about the best strategy for creating a more libertarian future? “The very libertarian answer is: libertarian energies ought to go to wherever any given libertarian wants them to,” Doherty argues. “The division of labor, operating through free choice, is as valid here as in any other aspect of the economy.”

Response Essays

  • Libertarians in an Unlibertarian World by Brink Lindsey

    Things may look bleak for libertarians these days, but there are grounds for hope, says Cato’s vice president for research (and Cato Unbound editor) Brink Lindsey. Though few Americans self-identify as “libertarian,” there is nevertheless a deep libertarian streak in American culture and a large group of voters who say they are “fiscally conservative and socially liberal.” In the long term, Lindsey argues, the goal for libertarians is to multiply the number of libertarians, and he concurs with Doherty in saying “let a thousand flowers bloom.” However, Lindsey argues that in the short term “what needs to be developed is a set of ideas that can serve as the basis for a new political identity. Not a strictly libertarian identity – there simply aren’t enough strictly defined libertarians to base a mass political movement on. Rather, a genuinely liberal identity – one that brings together ‘fiscally conservative, socially liberal’ voters from across the current left-right spectrum.”

  • The Paradox of Libertarianism by Tyler Cowen

    According to Marginal Revolution blogger and New York Times “Economic Scene” columnist Tyler Cowen, there have been a few truly great libertarian developments since the 1970s. However, he argues, they “also brought much bigger government. The more wealth we have, the more government we can afford. Furthermore, the better government operates, the more government people will demand. That is the fundamental paradox of libertarianism. Many initial victories bring later defeats.” Cowen argues libertarians accept this paradox, reconcile themselves to the welfare state, recognize positive liberty as more important than negative liberty, and restructure libertarianism around new threats to liberty such as global warming, pandemics, and nuclear proliferation. Such a libertarianism, Cowen admits, would “run the risk of losing its intellectual and moral center. … Many people fear such a development, and I can understand why.”

  • Libertarianism or Liberty? by Tom G. Palmer

    In his reply, Cato senior fellow Tom G. Palmer maintains that Brian Doherty is guilty of “a confusion of two related projects: the promotion of liberty and the promotion of libertarianism, i.e., the theory that liberty should be the primary (or overriding) goal of a political order.” It is possible to promote liberty without promoting libertarian philosophy. This distinction motivates Palmer to dissent from Doherty’s emphasis on education. No amount of libertarian education will make a difference, Palmer argues, unless someone acts to make change for liberty. “If I were to put it as a slogan, it might be: ‘Education doesn’t eliminate trade barriers, legislators do.’” Palmer also quibbles with Doherty’s focus in his book on zany libertarian characters and with his laissez faire approach to promoting liberty.

  • An 18th-Century Brain in a 21st-Century Head by Virginia Postrel

    Atlantic columnist and former Reason editor-in-chief Virgina Postrel argues: “Rather than defining ‘libertarian’ by appealing to deductive logic and so-called first principles, we can better understand the American libertarian movement as a sometimes uneasy amalgam of four distinctive yet complementary traditions, two cultural and two intellectual.” Intellectually, she points to “two seemingly incompatible intellectual traditions”: the modernist Rand-Rothbard quest for certainty “as rational and precise as a skyscraper, as ahistorical as Le Corbusier’s plans to remake Paris” and the empiricist Hayek-Friedman/Hume-Smith tradition, which “looks for understanding, for facts, and for solutions to specific problems.” Drawing on her book The Future and Its Enemies, Postrel warns against fighting the old fights between capitalism and socialism when the real battles is between “stasism” and “dynamism.” She plumps for the possibility of an alliance of libertarian and left dynamists against stasists of all stripes, but concludes with a challenge to the left: “We know we’re liberals. The question is, Are they?”

The Conversation