The Meanings of “Liberty”

I do agree with Daniel Klein that “semantics” is worth arguing about, but only in the sense that it’s good to know what people mean and it’s good to be on the lookout for conceptual sleights of hand.

There are at least three important notions of liberty (and it is liberty, I think, not coercion, that is at the heart of this discussion). The classical liberal notion is simply the negative liberty of being able to do what you want to do without interference. This is by no means the notion of liberty required by libertarians in their attempt to construct a political theory around the idea of liberty. What is needed for that is a moralized conception of liberty according to which my liberty is not infringed when I am prevented from violating your rights. This account of liberty, however, moves us directly to the controversial issue of which rights we have. Nozick saw this clearly and, as I have already indicated, I agree with him about the true location of the debate.

The third notion of liberty is one usually reviled by libertarians as the root of all evil. So it is pleasing, in this place, to see Edward Glaeser invoking it whole-heartedly. Glaeser’s discussion is built around the idea that social policy should be guided not by the utilitarian aim of promoting welfare, but by the aim of promoting positive liberty. On this notion of liberty, people are freer the more options they have available to them. The reason this is anathema to libertarians is that it implies that transfers in wealth increase the liberty of the recipient. When we add in the diminishing marginal contribution money make to positive freedom, the implications of Glaeser’s view are clearly egalitarian.

These are three fundamentally different ideas associated with the same word. So, again, it is obviously important to be clear about meaning. But where I disagree with Klein is that he appears to believe that we can establish that one of these senses of the word is the semantically correct one. My own view is that “liberty” is simply an ambiguous word. But even if this is wrong, it is obvious that nothing of significance for political theory turns on the correct meanings of words. Once we know what we mean, we can turn to the substantive issues. In this sense, the complaint, “that’s just a semantic issue” is entirely reasonable.

The obvious substantive issue in dispute between libertarians and the rest of us (including Glaeser?) is the little matter of whether there are pre-institutional property rights and whether, if there were, actual legal holdings would bear any relation to them. This is obviously not the right time to enter into this debate. But let me just respond to Klein’s suggestion that those of us who believe that property rights are entirely conventional must therefore think that the government owns everything and doles out little bits of stuff to citizens as a kind of charity. This absurdity misunderstands the rejection of pre-institutional property rights. On the view first laid out by that great conservative philosopher, David Hume, there are no natural property rights, so the government can’t have them any more than individuals can. To find out who owns what, we have to look at what the law is.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • George Mason University’s Daniel Klein begins this month’s lead essay by presenting evidence from a poll of economists showing that more than half of those who are in favor of a minimum wage generally don’t think it is coercive, suggesting that judgments about what is coercive or voluntary underpin professional opinion about economic policy. If so, Klein asks, shouldn’t economists address the question of coercion more directly? Klein argues that we should treat non-coercion as a maxim to be followed “ninety-something percent of the time,” which allows for the legitimacy of coercion under certain conditions. Economists may then ask: “When should we endorse the liberty maxim and when not?” in a principled way. Klein draws on ideas from F.A. Hayek and Adam Smith to argue for the centrality of the distinction between voluntary and coercive action in the ordinary practice of economic inquiry, and to urge a renewed emphasis on the role of liberty in economic theory.

Response Essays

  • NYU philosopher and legal theorist Liam Murphy responds to Daniel Klein’s lead essay by questioning the relevance of the general concept of coercion to the defense of market institutions and disputing Klein’s particular characterization of coercion. Murphy observes that arguments in defense of markets generally appeal to pre-institutional rights or a conception of good consequences. In neither case does the idea of coercion play a key role. Further, Murphy suggests that Klein’s particular account of coercion is loaded with contestable moral baggage. But, Murphy writes, “The concept of coercion … is deeply indeterminate, with disagreement about correct usage tracking exactly the fault lines that have political significance; so there is simply no right answer to such questions as whether a labor contract for below a minimum wage, or its prohibition, is coercive.”

  • Harvard economist Edward Glaeser agrees with Dan Klein that economic regulations, such as minimum wage laws, are coercive, and that this ought to give us pause. “For millenia, governments have abused their control over the tools of violence,” Glaeser writes. “The historical track record insists that we treat any governmental intervention warily.” However, that does not rule out coercion. “The ultimate job of the state is to increase the range of options available to its citizens,” Glaeser maintains, and well-targeted coercion can increase total freedom in this sense. “Certainly, redistribution reduces the freedom of the taxpayer but it increases the options of the recipient of governmental largesse,” Glaeser says. He goes on to argue that laws that restrict the liberty to contract, such as the minimum wage, generally are not freedom-enhancing overall and tempt government abuse.

  • In his reply, University of Chicago law and economics guru Richard A. Epstein attempts to lay out an account of “justified coercion.” Taking the minimum wage as an example, Epstein sets forth and then rejects several grounds on which the minimum wage may be seen as non-coercive. He then sets forth and rejects several arguments that might justify the coercion in economic regulations such as the minimum wage. According to Espstein, state coercion in support of market institutions “is justified because it expands the envelope for gains from trade through voluntary exchange.” In general, coercion may be justified when “it is to the long-term advantage of all,” but detailed and systematic analysis of particular institutions — such as the one Epstein provides for the minimum wage — is required to establish when this is, and is not, the case.