Liberty Is Liberty

I found the lead essay for this discussion provocative, but not enlightening.  I should disclose at the outset that I respect, admire, and like David Schmidtz, whom I have known and from whom I have learned for years, and I just lectured last Saturday at McGill University with Jason Brennan, whom I met for the first time and whose presentation demonstrated that he is a serious thinker.  I write that because, although I am grateful for the chance to discuss their contribution, I will be primarily negative in my comments, and I want to emphasize that being “negative” need not entail being hostile.  Aristotle was on to something when he admonished us that “while both are dear, piety requires us to honour truth above our friends”; nonetheless, I hope that I can be true to both.

Before offering my criticisms, I encourage those interested in the topic to read (even to buy) A Brief History of Liberty, from which their lead essay is excerpted.  It’s certainly worth a careful read.

1. I’ll start by focusing on the way in which Schmidtz and Brennan distinguish “negative” from “positive” liberty.  They attribute the distinction to Isaiah Berlin, whom they identify as “a principal exponent of the myth” that “negative liberty is the special concern of libertarians, while positive liberty is the special concern of Marxists, socialists, and modern liberals,” but they acknowledge that Berlin’s use of the terms and the distinction was “somewhat different” from theirs, and that “the terms have come to be used in ways slightly different from Berlin’s original meanings.”  It seems to me that they have not merely “slightly” modified Berlin’s terms and distinction; they have wrenched them out of context and conflated them with others that contain some of the same words but concern quite different matters.   In particular, they have conflated Berlin’s negative/positive liberty distinction with another, unrelated, distinction, that between “negative” and “positive” rights.  The result is not helpful.  (In addition, things were further muddled by mixing in Constant’s distinction between individual [“modern”] and collective [“ancient”] liberty, but more of that shortly.)

Berlin sought to distinguish freedom from interference or impediments imposed by other people, which he termed “negative” freedom, and freedom from impediments within ourselves, that is, from obstacles to the realization of the aims of the rational self, or the noumenal self, or the inner self, or the true self, or the higher self, which is oppressed, as it were, by an outer, phenomenal, empirical, false, deceived, erring, lower self.  That’s an interesting distinction and draws on a long tradition that goes back to Plato, in which freedom is seen as “rational self-direction.”[1]  Berlin does not have in mind by positive freedom having more income or a yacht.  Moreover, for Berlin, these are contrasting views of liberty, not merely different kinds that one might mix-and-match or the aggregate sum of which one might seek to maximize.  When Schmidtz and Brennan identify positive freedom with wealth and ability (to be sure, both generally quite good and desirable in themselves) they diminish both 1) analytical clarity and 2) their ability to draw meaningful causal linkages between institutions and outcomes, an enterprise that is clearly important to them.  With regard to 1, they might have listened more closely to Berlin, who offered sage advice in the essay they invoke: “nothing is gained by a confusion of terms”: “Everything is what it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet culture.” [2] We already have good words to describe all those things (see previous sentence) and calling them “liberty” generates confusion, rather than clarity.

2. In particular, calling wealth or possession of assets liberty introduces something quite different from liberty as a uniquely social concept.  Freedom is an inherently social concept, devoid of meaning outside of society, whereas the concept of assets (or wealth) is not an inherently social concept.  A man all alone on a planet, with no connections with other moral agents, can hardly be said to be either free or unfree.  He doesn’t live in a free society, just as he doesn’t live in a generous society.  For the same reason, he could not be said to be unfree.  He doesn’t live in a society, at all.  Liberty, like generosity and kindness, refers to a relationship among persons (or at least among moral beings of some sort).  (It may involve other terms, as well, but it is nonsensical to invoke the concept of liberty without invoking a multiplicity of persons.)  On the other hand, assets, like hunger and thirst, do not require any relationship with other moral beings.  An agent can enjoy assets or wealth without having a relationship to anyone else.  His planet may offer a dearth or a cornucopia of food.  A stone tool is a tool, even if there is only one set of hands to wield it.  Robinson Crusoe could have assets and wealth alone on his island, meager as they would be in the absence of social cooperation, but he could only be said to be free when Friday joins him, just as he could only be said to be generous or kind when interacting with Friday.

Berlin distinguished between “negative” freedom, understood as freedom from arbitrary interference on the part of other persons (a relationship that can be understood in a number of ways, not all of them compatible with the classical liberal tradition), and “positive” freedom, understood as the realization of the true or authentic aims of the higher, inner, true, or real self, freed from impediments imposed by the merely empirical self and its passions, sloth, irrational superstitions, and so forth. The former seems to conform reasonably well to the use of the term by Schmidtz and Brennan, but their use of the latter mixes up “the power to do as one pleases” (previously parsed in regard to “property” as a situation in which one “actually owns and controls some property”) and the power to “make autonomous decisions.”  The latter element conforms to Berlin’s use, but the former does not, and mixes in something else altogether.

So why does it matter whether they do or do not follow Berlin’s usage?  It matters because Berlin was drawing on a deep intellectual tradition, going back to Plato and describing a very real conflict among ideologies that was manifested through most of the twentieth century.  The great twentieth-century contest between liberal democracy, on the one hand, and totalitarianism, on the other, was framed by people on both sides as a contest between two “kinds” of freedom: the freedom of the individual to manage his or her own life and to make choices free from the arbitrary interference of others, and the freedom to realize one’s own true essence, to tear away the bonds of “false consciousness,” whether the false consciousness identified by the Marxists or by their Fascist and National Socialist offshoots, and to become self-conscious masters of our own destinies.  When thinking about Berlin’s distinction, it is worth keeping in mind the context.  In 1919 the founder of the murder-state of the USSR defended his crimes in terms of freedom, “real freedom,” rather than merely bourgeois freedom:

You are violators of freedom, equality, and democracy – they shout at us on all sides, pointing to the inequality of the worker and the peasant under our Constitution, to the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, to the forcible confiscation of surplus grain, and so forth.  We reply – never in the world has there been a state which has done so much to remove the actual inequality, the actual lack of freedom from which the working peasant has been suffering for centuries.[3]

Invoking such “real freedom” turned out, as Berlin notes, to be an occasion to “bully, oppress, torture them in the name, and on behalf, of their ‘real’ selves, in the secure knowledge that whatever is the true goal of man (happiness, performance of duty, wisdom, a just society, self-fulfilment) must be identical with his freedom — the free choice of his ‘true,’ albeit often submerged and inarticulate, self.”[4]

3. Classical liberals generally do not disparage wealth (which Schmidtz and Brennan call an instance of “positive liberty”), but the interesting issue is how wealth is related to liberty, not as species to genus, but as effect to cause. Their interest in the causal relationship is clear when they write “Some theorists think a minimal set of protected negative liberties is all we need in order to launch a society that, over generations, produces explosive gains in positive liberty.”  It’s clear from the context that by “positive liberty” they are, in fact, referring to wealth.  No one writes about “explosive gains” in autonomy or self-realization.  It’s wealth that they are identifying with positive liberty, as they make clear when they make prosperity and “positive liberation” interchangeable.  According to Schmidtz and Brennan, “the social sciences and history may well reveal that respecting negative liberties has a long, successful, non-accidental track record of making for better lives.  It may turn out that the most effective way to promote positive liberty is to protect negative liberty.”  What additional understanding was added by the substitution of “positive liberty” for “better lives”?  No serious person would consider stipulating that “negative liberty leads by definition to prosperity,” but by stipulating that both “negative liberty” and prosperity are kinds of liberty, they are committing almost as grave a sin against conceptual clarity.  As F. A. Hayek insisted when he rejected precisely the approach taken by Schmidtz and Brennan, “If there is to be any clarity in the discussion of liberty, its definition must not depend on whether or not everybody regards this kind of liberty as a good thing.”[5]

Treating “better lives” and “positive liberty” as interchangeable terms diminishes, rather than enhances, clarity.  Indeed, conflating the two makes it harder to do just what Schmidtz and Brennan encourage us to do, viz. to engage in the scientific search for causal relations between freedom and wealth.  What if, instead of calling “wealth” “freedom,” we were to call “freedom” “wealth”?  We would then, when studying economic history, be asking whether more wealth led to more wealth.  When everything good or desirable is freedom, nothing good or desirable is distinguishable from anything else good or desirable.  (The fact that someone may say “When I drive a car, I feel free,” or “When I am healthy, I feel free,” or “When I am skydiving, I feel free,” provides but weak license to say that money and health and plummeting out of the sky are “kinds of freedom.”)

4. Moreover, their formulation confuses, in my opinion, the relationship between government and freedom.  They reject what they call a “common assumption,” that “Liberty — whatever that is — is to be promoted by government in a direct way.”  The choice of “promotion,” rather than the more traditional term “protection,” suggests one source of what I consider their confusion.  Wealth may be increased indefinitely, but freedom, once it is enjoyed equally by all, cannot be continuously increased. The traditional liberal mission of protecting or “securing” freedom is intimately connected to its distinctly social character, as a quality that should be shared equally by all.  “Equal freedom” was the watchword of classical liberalism.  Equality is something you have or you don’t have. Once we’re equal, we can’t all become more equal; we can more closely approach equality or we can recede from it, but it is not a quantity like heat that can be increased beyond measure.  Wealth can be increased indefinitely, but legal equality cannot; once you’ve got it, you’ve got it.  Thus, while it can be protected or secured, it isn’t suitable to being “promoted.”  I don’t consider it the business of government to “promote” my freedom, but I do consider it the proper business of government to protect it and to secure the freedom of each and every individual under its jurisdiction.  If it isn’t the primary business of government to protect our freedom, what is its business?

In the classical liberal (“negative”) understanding of freedom, neither a dictator nor a slave owner is free, for they do not live in free societies; they are both wielders of, and subject to, arbitrary power.  That is evidently true of people living under centralized despotic states; however, aristocrats may exercise local tyranny over others, their serfs or slaves, but enjoy their own freedom if they live under otherwise law-governed regimes.  Inequality of freedom was a central target of classical liberal campaigns, which sought equal freedom for all; classical liberal campaigners against serfdom and slavery stressed the injustice of denying equal freedom, and sometimes the psychological coarsening of both slave and master caused by the lack of freedom.  As the Brazilian liberal abolitionist Joaquim Nabuco noted of slavery, “What this regime represents we already know. Morally it is the destruction of every basis and principle of religious or positive decency – the family, property, social harmony, humanitarian aspirations. Politically it is slavishness, the degradation of the people, the disease of bureaucratism, the languishing of patriotism, the division of the countryside into feudal domains, each with its own penal system, its own seat of judgment, beyond the reach of police and courts.”  He exhorted Brazilians to “Educate your children, educate yourselves, in the love for the freedom of others, for only in this way will your own freedom not be a gratuitous gift from fate.  You will be aware of its worth and will have the courage to defend it.”[6]

5. The conflation of wealth with freedom turns on its head the traditional liberal “presumption of liberty.”[7] The presumption of liberty, according to which the burden of proof is on the one who wishes to restrict the action of another, and not on the one who wishes to act, only makes sense in terms of “negative” liberty.  The presumption of innocence equally puts the burden of proof on the one who wishes to restrict the freedom of another; it is an impossible task to falsify all possible charges against an accused, but the accused can demand verification of the charges lodged against him.  Similarly, all possible reasons to interfere with one’s freedom cannot be refuted, but reasons advanced by others to interfere can be verified, e.g., that one’s burning of wood will cause smoke damage to one’s neighbor. There can be a presumption that I should not interfere with another, to be overcome only by a compelling reason to interfere, but how can there be a presumption that that other should have an ability or an asset?  This suggests a radical difference between freedom and wealth, such that to call them both freedom generates confusion, rather than clarity.  Freedom is what you enjoy when you stop people from coercing other people; but coercion is not what you enjoy (or get) when you stop people from freeing other people.  Freedom is an absence of constraints from other people, not a presence of something else.  Coercing people requires the coercer to act, whereas leaving them free does not.[8]

6. We can try a simple thought experiment.  It will test intuitions, but I cannot imagine any serious person taking the test and not agreeing that there is something very queer about conflating wealth and freedom.  Consider the life of the average German in 1927 and in 1939.  (Or, to make it even clearer, consider Germans in 1878 and 1939.)  The later Germans had Volkswagens and Autobahns; they had telephones and could even travel through the air; indeed, they had access to the looted wealth of the Jews.  They had more “positive freedom,” one could say, if one were still inclined to call wealth “freedom.”  But did they have more freedom?  There was a one-party dictatorship; the press was censored; movement was restricted; and people lived in fear, fear of the exercise of arbitrary power. The use of the same term (“freedom”) for both wealth and, well, freedom, suggests some kind of common substrate that can be maximized, or according to which gains or losses of one can be reckoned in terms of the other.  To call the greater wealth enjoyed by Germans under the terror-dictatorship of 1939 a greater degree of freedom offends reason; no increase in wealth could be said to create “more freedom” under such a lawless, arbitrary, and despotic regime.  (One might argue that the loss of freedom by the Jews and by Hitler’s opponents offsets that; but I wish to press harder, and argue that the non-Jews and even the enthusiastic National Socialists were less free, as well, for what they enjoyed depended on the arbitrary power of their Führer.)[9]

7. The main stream of classical liberal thinking closely identifies freedom with institutions, specifically with the set of habits, expectations, and organizations that are referred to generally as “the rule of law.”  Locke identifies Liberty, not with the mere power to follow one’s inclination or desires (“A Liberty for every Man to do what he lists”), but as

a Liberty to dispose, and order, as he lists, his Person, Actions, Possessions, and his whole Property, within the Allowance of those Laws under which he is; and therein not to be subject to the arbitrary Will of another, but freely follow his own.[10]

The same or very similar language about not being subject to the arbitrary will of others is found in Kant, Constant, Spencer, Hayek, and many other liberals, coupled with a corresponding unrestricted freedom of action within the limits of equal laws and equal justice.  For them, there is no liberty outside of institutions.  (In this sense, the distinction drawn by Quentin Skinner between “classical liberalism” and “neo-roman” republicanism lacks purchase; Skinner merely stipulates that classical liberals were concerned only with “force or the coercive threat of it” and not with “a condition of dependence” on power, but that claim is simply false, as numerous statements from canonical classical liberal thinkers demonstrate.)[10]  I raise this in anticipation of the discussion to come regarding “modern” and “ancient,” individual and collective, liberty.

8. My final objection to lumping together such disparate matters as freedom and wealth is that previous generations of liberals identified it as one of the sources of liberalism’s decline.  E. L. Godkin, writing in The Nation in 1900, identified the confusion of material abundance with freedom as a cause of liberalism’s eclipse:

To the principles and precepts of Liberalism the prodigious material progress of the age was largely due. Freed from the vexatious meddling of governments, men devoted themselves to their natural task, the bettering of their condition, with the wonderful results which surround us. But it now seems that its material comfort has blinded the eyes of the present generation to the cause which made it possible. In the politics of the world, Liberalism is a declining, almost a defunct force.[12]

The causal link, between freedom, on the one hand, and wealth, on the other, was occluded, and the goal became merely to promote good things, with no attention to the distinctive character of freedom.  Herbert Spencer, too, argued that promiscuous confusion of freedom with other good things led to “the kind of confusion in which Liberalism has lost itself.”

For what, in the popular apprehension and in the apprehension of those who effected them, were the changes made by Liberals in the past?  They were abolitions of grievances suffered by the people, or by portions of them: this was the common trait they had which most impressed itself on men’s minds.  They were mitigations of evils which had directly or indirectly been felt by large classes of citizens, as causes of misery or as hindrances to happiness.  And since, in the minds of most, a rectified evil is equivalent to an achieved good, these measures came to be thought of as so many positive benefits; and the welfare of the many came to be conceived alike by Liberal statesmen and Liberal voters as the aim of Liberalism.  Hence the confusion.  The gaining of a popular good, being the external conspicuous trait common to Liberal measures in earlier days (then in each case gained by a relaxation of restraints), it has happened that popular good has come to be sought by Liberals, not as an end to be indirectly gained by relaxations of restraints, but as the end to be directly gained.  And seeking to gain it directly, they have used methods intrinsically opposed to those originally used.[13]

I understand that Schmidtz and Brennan wish to avoid such consequences by stipulating that it is not obviously the business of the state to “promote” any kind of freedom, suggesting instead that perhaps government should promote “positive liberty” indirectly, by protecting directly “negative liberty,” for “Negative liberty matters in part because it is a highly effective, if imperfect, way of promoting positive liberty.”  But I fear that their conflation of freedom with prosperity will lead, again, to precisely what Spencer and Godkin warned of at the end of the 19th century.  The elimination of liberalism as a coherent intellectual and political force did not turn out well in the twentieth century.  I hope we don’t make the same mistake this time around.

Tom G. Palmer is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, vice president for international programs at the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, and the author of Realizing Freedom: Libertarian Theory, History, and Practice.


[1] “Two Concepts of Liberty,” in Isaiah Berlin: Liberty, ed. Henry Hardy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 191.

[2] “Two Concepts of Liberty,” p. 172.

[3] V. I. Lenin, “Economics and Politics in the Era of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat,” in Lenin’s Collected Works, 4th English Edition (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965), Vol. 30, pp. 107-117, The nature of Lenin’s conception of “real freedom” is described in Robert Gellately, Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe (London: Vintage Books, 2008), esp. chapter 2, “On the Way to Communist Dictatorship.”

[4] “Two Concepts of Liberty,” p. 180.

[5] F. A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), p. 18.

[6] Joaquim Nabuco, O Abolicionismo (London: Abraham Kingdon, 1883), pp. 241, 254.

[7] The presumption of liberty is formulated in logical and epistemological terms by Anthony de Jasay, “Liberalism, Loose or Strict,” The Independent Review, v. IX, no. 3, Winter 2005, pp. 427-432,

[8] As Adam Smith noted of justice, “Mere justice is, upon most occasions, but a negative virtue, and only hinders us from hurting our neighbor.  The man who barely abstains from violating either the person, or the estate, or the reputation of his neighbours, has surely very little positive merit.  He fulfills, however, all the rules of what is peculiarly called justice, and does every thing which his equals can with propriety force him to do, or which they can punish him for not doing.  We may often fulfil all the rules of justice by sitting still and doing nothing.” Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 82.

[9] As Algernon Sidney insisted, “For as liberty solely consists in an independency upon the will of another, and by the name of slave we understand a man, who can neither dispose of his person nor goods, but enjoys all at the will of his master; there is no such thing in nature as a slave, if those men or nations are not slaves, who have no other title to what they enjoy, than the grace of the prince, which he may revoke whensoever he pleaseth.” Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government, ed. Thomas G. West (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1996). Chapter: SECTION 5: To depend upon the Will of a Man is Slavery.Accessed from on 2010-03-09

[10] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. By Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), II, vi., § 58, p. 306.

[11] Quentin Skinner, Liberty Before Liberalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 84.

[12] E. L. Godkin, “The Eclipse of Liberalism,” The Nation, August 9, 1900; reprinted in The Libertarian Reader, ed. David Boaz (New York: Free Press, 1998), pp. 324-26.

[13] “The New Toryism,” in Herbert Spencer, Political Writings, ed. by John Offer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 69.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, David Schmidtz and Jason Brennan, drawing on their new book A Brief History of Liberty, expose an alleged myth about liberty: that “negative liberty” is the special concern of classical liberals and libertarians, while “positive liberty” is the special concern of Marxists, socialists, and modern liberals. “The myth is perpetuated,” they argue, “because both sides to this debate make a common assumption: Liberty — whatever that is — is to be promoted by government in a direct way.” Schmidtz and Brennan challenge this assumption, arguing that whether or not government ought to promote liberty of any stripe depends on evidence about how well suited government is to the job. Arguing that disputes over the role of government cannot be settled by an analysis of the meaning of the concept of liberty, Schmidtz and Brennan maintain that “both negative and positive liberty matter. Negative liberty matters in part because it is a highly effective, if imperfect, way of promoting positive liberty.”

Response Essays

  • In his bracing retort to the lead essay, Cato Senior Fellow Tom G. Palmer says he finds Schmidtz and Brennan’s discussion of liberty “provocative, but not enlightening.” Palmer contends that they misconstrue Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction between positive and negative liberty, and that to use ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty’ as synonyms for ‘wealth’ or ‘ability’ “generates confusion, rather than clarity.” Freedom, Palmer argues, “is an inherently social concept,” but the having of assets or abilities is not. Wealth is valuable, Palmer says, “but the interesting issue is how wealth is related to liberty, not as species to genus, but as effect to cause.” According to Palmer, Schmidtz and Brennan’s endorsement of a notion of positive liberty “confuses … the relationship between government and freedom” and invites “[t]he elimination of liberalism as a coherent intellectual and political force.”

  • Princeton philosopher Philip Pettit agrees with Schmidtz and Brennan that “policy-making and institution-building … ought to be informed by empirical research and modeling.” However, Pettit “cannot see why they think this undermines philosophical argument about the merits of adopting one or another conception of freedom as a primary concern of government.” Empirical research can tell us what is feasible, Pettit points out, but it cannot tell us what is desirable. Public political deliberation, Pettit urges, requires a “basis of evaluation that will make sense” to our fellow citizens. A proliferation of different considerations applying in different kinds of cases cuts against “the formation of a society as a community of deliberation,” which Pettit argues depends on their being values of universal concern. Pettit goes on to defend his conception of freedom as “non-domination,” which is “the sort of freedom you enjoy when you are not subject to the will of another agent or agency,” which he contrasts from freedom from interference.

  • Penn State philosopher John Christman agrees with Schmidtz and Brennan’s claim that disputes over the nature of liberty cannot be settled by conceptual analysis alone, and he applauds their call for historical and empirical work to reveal the likely results of government’s attempts to promote this or that kind of liberty. But Christman warns that “in order to formulate this research project coherently, we will not be able to escape the armchair,” and raises two challenging questions for Schmidtz and Brennan’s approach. First, he asks “how can a determination be made whether a government policy succeeds in increasing liberty without a prior and independent evaluation of the justification of that policy? Second, … why and how is the focus to be solely on the actions of the ‘government’ rather than, say, on other powerful social actors such as economic firms and corporate agents,” which government policy helps define? Christman concludes by suggesting that investigation beyond the armchair will reveal the track record of competitive markets in “in effectively improving the lives of citizens in an equitable and morally acceptable manner” to be one of “obvious and dismal failure.”