Freedom Is Not an Absolute: A Response to Daniel Klein

It is my pleasure to respond to Daniel Klein’s questions, many of which go to the core of our disagreement. But before I answer his questions directly and one-by-one, I first want to make four observations that will provide the analytical framework through which libertarians can better understand the social democratic argument.

Firstly, I did not want to play Klein’s “own” counting game because I question his fundamental premise of ownership of self in the first place. “Ownership” is a convention which can take many forms — public or private — and is not given by God. While social democrats and American liberals would certainly agree that we “own” ourselves, what sets them apart from libertarians is what that is taken to mean. Social democrats believe that we live together in one society and that how we treat ourselves often has ramifications for others; something economists refer to as externalities. What makes it possible to be truly free is the fact that there are certain public goods provided which no individual would see the benefit to provide on his own. Societies, however, are not “naturally” endowed with those public goods. So, if I own property, I still have to pay taxes on it. But taxation is not the same thing as slavery, and while it may be an imposition to be forced to pay property taxes, it does not mean that the government “owns” you. It simply means that as a member of a society — a society in which you have a voice if it is a liberal democracy — you have to take part in the provision of these public goods which allow societies to function.

Secondly, libertarian thinking has to be attractive to those who are “naturally” better endowed in our society by birth — the strong and the rich — and of course to those who have an instinctive abhorrence of paying taxes (something which social democrats at least recognize to be a necessary evil, even though no social democrat loves to pay them either). But the largest part of the population, which is not naturally endowed by birth with great fortune or strength, probably finds less appeal in libertarian thinking, and is much more (and often all too painfully) aware that we are all born unequal. And the danger is that the more unequal a society becomes, the more there will be a need for the government to protect the richer few from the poorer masses, for the obvious reason that the poor might start burning the rich their houses down. The paradox of this is that such a state could quickly become the most intrusive and oppressive state possible. I would imagine libertarians to worry about this even more than social democrats. The issue of inequality goes to the heart of our debate, because once you take inequality as a starting point, the libertarian logic starts to crumble.

Thirdly, a fundamental problem remains with the libertarian use of concepts such as freedom and liberty in absolute terms. The French Revolution, and the classical “liberal” Enlightenment ideas it was based on, did not single out just one basic value but three: it was about liberty, equality and fraternity. Singling out liberty as the only idea that matters — and defining it in very narrow terms focusing on negative liberty — of course leads one to see everything the government does as an attack on liberty. As great liberal thinkers like John Gray, John Rawls and Michael Oakeshott have argued, liberty cannot be understood as an absolute on its own terms: it gains its content and function in relation to the limits which are placed upon it. In other words, it is wrong to privilege one-third of the ideas of the French Revolution — liberty — if this cannot be understood divorced from the two others — equality and fraternity.

Fourthly, I want to emphasize one more time the difference between positive and negative liberty. Along with a few other basic things such as public education, social democrats do not believe that you can be truly free – that is, capable of making rational and truly independent choices — without basic health considerations taken out of the picture. Social democrats are the true believers in liberty, real liberty, not the rather thin or limited kind most libertarians advocate. The social democratic concept of liberty is not encumbered by things we cannot control, like pre-existing health conditions or the financial resources of our parents.

Now, let me now respond directly to Daniel Klein’s questions.

1. Does Obamacare force individuals to buy healthcare?

Yes, I would not even contest that point. However, I will admit to this only if you admit that the fifty federal states of the United States of America “force” their adult citizens to buy car insurance. And to your immediate response that “nobody forces you to buy a car or drive one” I can only ask how anyone in this country could be truly free without a car, given the decrepit state of public transportation everywhere. As a good libertarian, you will surely appreciate that the only way you can exercise your liberty to move around the country is by car, and you do not even have to live in Los Angeles or Texas to understand this. Now, it is not a leap of faith to make the same point about health care. If you choose not to buy health insurance, and have the misfortune of being hurt in a car accident, you will be rushed to the emergency room and the cost of your care will be borne by society. Surely there is an externality from not buying health insurance in this case, which costs society dearly.

John Stuart Mill would not disagree. Not buying health insurance violates the Millian “no harm” principle, or the idea that the right to swing your fist ends where the other man’s nose begins. Mill defines the harm principle in chapter one of his On Liberty as follows: “that the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”[1] It surely cannot be an optimal solution or the best use of your tax money if you as a “responsible” person who paid for your own insurance were forced to pay — through general taxation — the hospital bill of an uninsured person.

But let us consider the alternative of not forcing people to buy healthcare and of refusing the uninsured any medical care. Are we as a society — morally or practically — prepared to let people without insurance die? I imagine libertarians would say “yes” and argue that it was that person’s “choice” not to buy health insurance. That person was fully well aware of the consequences, and hence “chose” to die. Social democrats prefer not to live in such a society. And insofar as people agree that letting people die if they do not have insurance is either morally wrong or impractical, social democrats would reason that some sort of government force is necessary.

2. Do you understand why I see Obamacare as forcing individuals to buy healthcare?

Yes, of course I understand why you see Obamacare as government force, but as I have argued above, in certain situations social democrats see such government force as justified and even necessary for people to be truly free in a society. Even Friedrich von Hayek — that celebrated hero of libertarian thinking — did not only accept a limited welfare state, but singled out health care as an area where the state should intervene. I quote Hayek in The Road to Serfdom: “There is no reason why, in a society which has reached the general level of wealth as ours has, the first kind of security should not be guaranteed to all without endangering general freedom; that is: some minimum of food, shelter and clothing, sufficient to preserve health. Nor is there any reason why the state should not help to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance in providing for those common hazards of life against which few can make adequate provision.”[2]

3. Does marijuana prohibition initiate force? Is the law (and concomitant enforcement) an initiation of coercion? Does it tread on liberty? And, do you understand how I see it?

I suppose it does tread on liberty. If you define liberty as freedom from all control (especially government control), then paying any kind of taxes for any kind of public good means that you are treading on liberty. But do we really want to live in an ungovernable society, with no care for those born less equal?

And on this point of legalization of soft drugs, many European social democrats would actually agree with libertarians. Cases in point are Belgium and the Netherlands, where social democrats argued in favor of personal use of marijuana.

4. What place does the Hume–Smith idea of liberty have in social democracy?

The Hume–Smith idea of liberty as you define it has its rightful place in social democracy, just like it does in a libertarian world view. Social democrats just do not give it god-like status, but place it next to many other values, such as justice and equality. As I mentioned earlier in my response, the distinction between positive and negative freedom is at the heart of social democratic thinking. If one refuses to make this distinction, as most libertarians do, then it will be very hard to find any common ground between American liberals and libertarians.


[1] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, chapter 1.

[2] Bruce Caldwell (ed.), F.A. Hayek: The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents (The University of Chicago Press), p. 148.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In his lead essay, Daniel B. Klein introduces us to the idea of overlordship – the premise, implicit in modern social democracy, that the state is the ultimate owner of all property rights in society. Under this theory, the state provisionally delegates any rights that individuals may have, and it is free to revoke them as well. The social contract, to which we have all allegedly subscribed, gives warrant for these acts, or so we are told.

    Though his formulation may seem quite harsh – “overlordship” is a term we more often associate with feudalism – Klein traces its development in the late nineteenth century, citing authors who were quite explicit about their intentions. He also cites recent figures, up to and including President Barack Obama, who subscribe to substantially the same views. Klein calls for a return to individualist modes of ownership, as championed by David Hume and Adam Smith, both of whom were also skeptical of the social contract in general, owing in part to the dangerous consequences implicit in that mode of thinking.

Response Essays

  • Matthias Matthijs charges that libertarian thinking caused the biggest economic disaster since the Great Depression, and that our current political climate is nonetheless still dominated by an ideology highly congruent to Daniel Klein’s. Reasonable people, however, now doubt even market capitalism itself. Libertarians and social democrats disagree on three fundamentals: the empirical evaluation of government efficacy, the positive/negative liberty distinction, and the absolutism of private property rights. On each disagreement, Matthijs argues, the social democrats have the upper hand. In particular, property rights would not exist without the state to regulate them, and these rights are in no sense “natural.” A natural right, Matthijs argues, would never have any need of defense by the state.

  • David Friedman suggests a threefold classification of rights. In his scheme, normative rights are moral claims whose violation results in a moral judgment: I may think, with reason, that you are a bad person. A legal right is one that has been duly written into the law. Finally, a positive right is one for which violators face meaningful consequences, such that they will be substantially deterred. These definitions differ somewhat from those found in traditional legal theory, but Friedman defends the analytical power of his schema. In practice the three types overlap, but we may still analyze rights according to their normative, legal, and positive dimensions. Friedman offers historical and contemporary examples of the three types of rights and speculates on their origins using game theory.

  • Ilya Somin examines three arguments for government control over property rights: the claims that property rights are created by the government, that residence and/or citizenship imply consent, and that government control can produce superior outcomes to private control, regardless of theoretical justification. He dismisses the former two and concedes that the latter, consequentialist argument for government control is the strongest of the three. Still, he argues that this approach has serious weaknesses, in that people across the political spectrum tend to overestimate the good that governments can do.