Reflections on the History and Language of Liberty

We want to thank the Cato Institute in general and Will Wilkinson in particular for hosting this forum.  We are honored to be part of it.

This forum began with a synopsis of the introduction to our Brief History of Liberty, published last month by Blackwell.  That book was a departure for both of us.  We aimed to write a genuine history, albeit brief and compressed. It was not a history of ideas about liberty, but of historical events that were actually experienced as liberating (or in some cases as the opposite of liberating).  We discussed how Locke and Smith and Marx changed history, of course, but our main focus was on the emergence of iron, the printing press, coinage, vaccines, and so on.  We wrote about advances in the rule of law. We also wrote about slavery, segregation, religious persecution, and so on.

We might have been forgiven for writing a history of liberation without pausing to write about the history of attempts to define the term.  That term has never been a philosophical battleground.  Given that we were philosophers, though, writing about liberty, we felt that if we did not weigh in on the issue of how best to define the term, our silence would have been proverbially deafening.

Since our discussion of the term is a preface to a discussion of history, we decided to work with a conception of liberty that was as normatively “unloaded” as we could make it, so that there can be a more or less verifiable truth of the matter about when a society is moving toward liberty or away from it, and so that we can proceed to ask a straightforward question: “Was that move a good one?” We were not trying to be ecumenical per se, but we certainly were aiming to avoid being exclusive by linguistic legislation.

People have thought about and talked about liberty for eons.  But circumstances change, the exact nature of the concerns change, and language evolves in response to those evolving pressures.  What matters historically is what was at stake in a particular time and place, how people responded, and what that tells us about the issues we face here and now.

Tom Palmer has just published an important book, Realizing Freedom (Cato Institute, 2009) that future work in this area needs to address. We regret that the timing precluded our taking it into account ourselves. Palmer stresses distinctions between freedom and wealth, and likewise the distinction between freedom and rights.  The distinctions are obvious on the surface, and yet we acknowledge that it pays to be reasonably careful here.  Several of the conceptions of liberty we discuss are indeed explicitly linked to rights and/or to the concept of “rightful.”  Eight are not. Similarly, several of the conceptions we entertain are explicitly linked to capabilities if not wealth per se, and three of the book’s substantive chapters (those on freedom’s pre-history, on commerce, and on psychological freedom) focus on the burgeoning of capability that has come with our history of rising wealth.  Were we rewriting the book’s introductory essay today, in light of feedback from our three fellow contributors to this forum, we would have said explicitly that we had no intention of following in Berlin’s footsteps. As we do note in the book, Berlin never intended to be filling up logical space with his notorious distinction, and his choice of names was in that respect unfortunate and misleading. Still, we believe we understand what Berlin was getting at, and we believe that what he was getting at was important.  We also believe that Palmer’s reading of Berlin is accurate and wish we had been as clear about that as we were about Berlin’s motivation for drawing the distinction.  (We would not have described our departure from Berlin as slight in this forum and we are glad we did not do so in the book.)  Still, an exhaustive interpretive discussion of Berlin would have been a book of its own, and we felt worried enough already about inserting that much philosophical-linguistic analysis into a book written for an audience whose main interest in the book would be historical.

Philip Pettit observes that, “While we need empirical research to give us information on what is feasible, we need a normative criterion of assessment in order to determine the more specific issue of which among the feasible policies are desirable.” We say that finding a role for government (or any other institution) as a protector and promoter of liberty requires that government (or any other institution) be best suited for the job, and also that having it do the job is worth the cost.  Pettit worries that saying this suggests too pragmatic a view of politics.  Some pragmatists think government should just do what “works.” But we agree with Pettit, and with Palmer, that unprincipled and unconstrained government is the paradigm of what does not work. We do not mean to be putting forward a theory of what kinds of reasons should be offered in public deliberation, or of how government officials ought to decide policy, or even of how constitutions should be written.  Instead, we simply meant to say that if some value is worth promoting (which in practice will mean, if it is a high priority for people like, say, George Bush or Nancy Pelosi), then an institution gets the job of promoting that value only if it can do the job.  This is a necessary condition, not a sufficient condition, and we do not try to spell out all the sufficient conditions.

Pluralism about liberty, John Christman observes, makes it difficult to say whether a given policy will be liberty-promoting or liberty-demoting, since so many things count as liberties on our view.  Palmer makes this point, too.  Christman goes on to say, “The most contentious aspect of this issue, I imagine, will be property rights.  Will the passage of a new tax policy aimed at raising money for schools count as an increase in liberty or a decrease?  Those taxed by the new provision will no longer be able to use that income, but if the policy is justified (somehow) it is not clear that should count as a loss of liberty.  Is it any more a loss of liberty than my inability to walk in a line that courses through the place you are now standing (without asking your permission) to get by?” We did not address this in the book or in our lead essay for this forum, but since the question has been raised by more than one of our fellow participants, it obviously does warrant some discussion.  Our surmise is that both Christman and Palmer have in mind G. A. Cohen’s influential argument against anyone who, like Nozick, believes that (private) property rights embody a commitment to liberty. Cohen’s view is that enforcing property rights is as coercive as robbery. Property rights require us not to initiate force.  Governments back that requirement with a threat of force, but that very threat is itself an initiation of force. Cohen says,

I want, let us say, to pitch a tent in your large back garden, perhaps just in order to annoy you, or perhaps for the more substantial reason that I have nowhere to live and no land of my own, but I have got hold of a tent, legitimately or otherwise.  If I now do this thing that I want to do, the chances are that the state will intervene on your behalf.  If it does, I shall suffer a constraint on my freedom. (Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality, p. 56)

To Cohen, “The banal truth is that, if the state prevents me from doing something that I want to do, then it places a restriction on my freedom.” (Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality, p. 55) His “general point is that incursions against private property which reduce owners’ freedom by transferring rights over resources to non-owners thereby increase the latter’s freedom.  In advance of further argument, the net effect on freedom of the resource transfer is indeterminate.” (Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality, p. 57)

There is no denying Cohen’s basic point: even when the state is trying to protect our freedom, its methods are coercive.  We would be wrong to infer from this, though, that the net amount of freedom does not change, or even that we will have a problem discerning a change.  Cohen’s example concerns your garden.  What if he were asking not about control of your garden but of your body—about me enslaving you?  Would my enslaving you make me more and you less free, with indeterminate net effect? (Notice that whatever indeterminacy there may be here is not an artifact of a term having multiple interpretations.)

Cohen might agree, the answer is no, but then remind us he was talking about your garden, not your body.  Moreover, he never said there is no net effect, only that we would need further argument to discern a net effect.  So, if we suppose Cohen’s point covers only external goods, such as your title to your garden, what further argument would make the net effect on freedom easier to discern?

Here is a suggestion.  What if we treat Cohen’s claim not as conceptual analysis but as a testable empirical hypothesis, then compare countries where property titles are stable to countries where they are not?  In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe and his army are pitching tents wherever they please, and anyone unlucky enough to find Mr. Mugabe in his back garden would rather be elsewhere.  No one who knows the unfolding catastrophe that is Zimbabwe could believe that as Zimbabwe’s property rights crumble, it merely trades one freedom for another, with indeterminate net effect.

Closer to home, my freedom to drive through a green light comes at a cost of your freedom to drive through a red.  Is anything indeterminate about the net effect?  Not at all.  And property rights manage traffic on our possessions roughly as traffic lights manage traffic on our roads.  Both systems help us to form expectations about other people’s behavior, and to plan accordingly.  A good system of traffic regulation makes everyone more free to go where they wish, even those who currently face red lights. Of course, the red light that some face must turn green from time to time.  Further, those who wait must be alert enough to notice when lights turn green.  If people are asked to wait forever, or even think they are, the system will break down.

Traffic laws help us to stay out of each other’s way.  Property laws let us do more; they also help us to engage in trade, with the result that our traffic (our trucking and bartering) leaves fellow travelers not only unimpeded but enriched.  The traffic of a healthy economy is a boon, not merely something to tolerate.

Cohen says lack of money is lack of freedom. (Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality, p. 58) Cohen also says having money is like having a ticket one can exchange for various things.  And, he adds, having such a ticket is a freedom. Let us be clear, though, that on Cohen’s analysis, freedom is access to real wealth, not merely to pieces of paper offered as a symbol of stored value.  A government cannot create more seats in a stadium just by printing more tickets, and likewise cannot create more wealth just by printing more currency.   Work creates wealth, and this is not merely a theoretical possibility but is instead our actual history, wherever property rights are stable.  If Cohen is right to equate wealth with freedom (and if Cohen is not entirely right about this, he is not entirely wrong either), then a world of stable property rights is not zero-sum. Where property rights are treated with respect, we find that nearly all are wealthier—which is to say, more free in Cohen’s sense—than their grandparents were. (We acknowledge the possibility that we are reading Cohen too literally here.  Perhaps he was not really talking about the indeterminate net effect of the police letting you seize my garden for purposes of your own.  Perhaps he was talking about arranging an alternative system of property that legalizes or even administers such seizures. Would Cohen have insisted that any system backed by the threat of force, including the communal system he favors, would be as coercive as robbery?  We do not know.)

The main concession we would want to make here to Cohen, and to Christman, is in the context of rectificatory justice, where the claim that protecting property is coercive has real bite.  When victims and victimizers are long dead, and nothing can be done short of transferring property from one innocent descendent to another, that is when enforcing rights by rectifying an ancient history of unjust transfers really does begin to look like an initiation of force. Cohen did not intend his point to apply most especially to this aspect of rights enforcement, and probably Christman doesn’t either, but this nonetheless is its most poignant and plausible application.  Should we enforce property rights of long dead victims at the expense of current residents who have not themselves initiated force, and who themselves turn out to descend from victims if we go back far enough? The question is historically as well as philosophically vexed, and anyone whose theory of justice has historical elements like Nozick’s needs to come to grips with it.

With thanks again to Cato and to Will Wilkinson, and with heartfelt thanks to Tom Palmer, Philip Pettit, and John Christman, for their constructive, civilized, and astute contributions to this forum.

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.”