About this Issue

What is liberty, exactly? Are there different kinds of liberty — negative and positive, for example? If so, how do these kinds of liberty relate to one another? Or are such distinctions founded on a mistake? Is there one true conception of liberty or freedom? Or do the meanings of these terms proliferate and evolve over time?  What’s at stake in the way we talk about liberty and freedom? Could confusion about the correct analysis of the concept of liberty threaten our freedom in the real world? Could a better appreciation of the complexity of the conceptual landscape help us better understand what it means to be free?

This month in Cato Unbound we take on these big questions. Philosophers David Schmidtz and Jason Brennan, authors of the recently released book A Brief History of Liberty, will try to show us the way through the thicket. And we’ve got a stellar line-up of philosophers at hand to tell us if they’ve lead us into the clear. They are: Tom G. Palmer of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation and the Cato Institute, Penn State’s John Christman, and Philip Pettit of Princeton. Each, we shall see, is an articulate proponent of slightly different conceptions of liberty.

Lead Essay

Conceptions of Freedom

The Big Myth about Liberty

There is a widespread myth about the word ‘liberty,’ a myth propagated by philosophers from the “left” and “right,” by conservatives, radicals, modern liberals, and classical liberals.

The myth begins with a distinction:  Liberty takes two basic forms: negative and positive.  Negative liberty concerns the absence of constraints, impediments, or interference.  For instance, a person has freedom of property—understood as a negative liberty—if others may not take her property or interfere with her use of it.  In contrast, positive liberty concerns the power or capacity to do as one chooses, or the power to act autonomously.  A person has freedom of property—understood as a positive liberty—if she actually owns and controls some property. Bill Gates and I both have the negative liberty to own a yacht, but only Gates can afford a yacht.  He has the power to do something I cannot, and in that respect, he is more free.

Now for the myth about liberty.  The myth holds 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.  Many classical liberals reject positive liberty, saying that the power to do as one pleases or to make autonomous decisions, however valuable, are not really forms of liberty.  If it were, this would automatically license government to do whatever it wants in an attempt to force us to be free.  In contrast, many Marxists complain that if liberty is just about the absence of interference, then liberty will not be valuable or meaningful.  Negative freedom, they say, is the freedom to be poor, to be unemployed, and to sleep on public sidewalks.  Marxists might say, no one interferes with the homeless person, but he is not free in any meaningful sense.  On these issues, the classical liberals in question are wrong, as are the Marxists.

Isaiah Berlin is a principal exponent of the myth.  He might even be its originator.  After distinguishing between negative and positive liberty, Berlin argued that the two concepts of liberty are not merely different conceptual categories, but rival political ideals, with conflicting implications about the proper role and scope of government.  The assumption that different conceptions of liberty entail different political regimes recasts the semantic issue (“What is liberty?”) as a political one, where the debate is not merely about how to use the language but about how to use the police.

The myth is perpetuated because both sides to this debate make a common assumption: Liberty—whatever that is—is to be promoted by government in a direct way.  Both sides agree that government has the job of promoting liberty (whatever liberty turns out to be), and both sides agree that the government should promote it in a direct manner.

When we say government should promote some value, it could do so directly or indirectly.  The distinction is best illustrated by an analogy.  Suppose you think government’s job is to promote commerce.  A government might attempt to promote commerce directly, by creating new corporations, offering subsidies and grants to businesses, providing tariff protections, and buying products, or indirectly, by providing a basic institutional framework (such as the rule of law, constitutional representative democracy, courts, and a well-functioning property rights regime).

On the assumption that government should promote liberty directly, it’s vital to decide which kind of liberty is the real one, or the more important one.  On this assumption, determining that ‘liberty’ is best analyzed as “the capacity to choose autonomously for oneself” really would license government to force us to be free.

Yet, this assumption is a bad one.  Identifying a role for government—or any other institution—as a protector or promoter of liberty requires a real argument.  It requires that we examine historical, economic, legal, and sociological evidence to determine how well (and it what way) government can do the job.  Government gets the job of promoting a particular kind of liberty a particular way only if government is best qualified for that job.  We discuss this point further below.

Positive and Negative Liberty

Berlin coined the positive/negative liberty distinction.  (In fact, his use of the terms was somewhat different from the way we characterized them above.  However, the terms have come to be used in ways slightly different from Berlin’s original meanings.)  The negative/positive distinction naturally suggests that the categories of negative and positive liberty are supposed, jointly, to exhaust the possibilities. Not so. Berlin says historians documented two hundred ways of using the term, and he is writing only about two central ones.  Below, we list some of the ways we have seen people use the term ‘liberty.’

Negative Liberty

(a) Hobbes describes liberty as an “absence of external impediments.”[1] On Hobbes’s view, any obstacle whatever is an impediment to liberty.

(b) More specifically, we can define ‘liberty’ as an absence of impediments imposed by other people.

(c) Even more specifically, we can define ‘liberty’ as an absence of obstacles deliberately imposed by other people.

(d) Or we can define ‘liberty’ as an absence of obstacles wrongfully imposed by other people.

On a negative conception of liberty, it will be a matter of historical contingency whether a given liberty makes for happier or healthier or wealthier lives. Negative liberties are not guaranteed to make us better off, but neither is vitamin C, or exercise — so guarantees can be beside the point. The point of negative liberty has less to do with what liberty guarantees and more to do with what liberty gives people the chance to do for themselves.

Despite the lack of guarantees, 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.  In any case, we can’t settle a debate about what negative liberty does for people by conceptual analysis alone.[2] We need to investigate what happens to people when negative liberties are reasonably secure, and what happens when they are not.  That is, if you want to know how valuable negative liberty is, you need to get off the armchair and go check.

Positive Freedom

(e) In a more positive vein, we can define freedom as a power to do what we want. Berlin would reject this as an analysis of political freedom (whether positive or negative), except in cases where one’s inabilities were caused by other people. [3] Still, even if such inabilities have no bearing on political freedom, they remain a part of the conceptual landscape of positive freedom.

Even on this positive, capacity-oriented, view of freedom, though, it remains a contingent matter whether increasing freedom makes for better lives. As children, and even as adults, some of our wants are self-destructive, and the power to satisfy our wants needn’t be good for us. Whether it is good for us will depend on the nature of our wants and on our level of maturity.  (Note: We should avoid the heroic leap of inferring that if the power of satisfying certain of my wants is bad for me, then it would be better for me if bureaucrats and police had the power to stop me from satisfying these wants.)

We can’t settle any debate about what positive liberty does for people by conceptual analysis alone.  We need to investigate what happens to people when positive liberties are present, and what happens when they are not.  In other words, if you want to know how valuable positive liberty is, you need to get off the armchair and go check.  We can easily imagine a world in which people have lots of positive liberty but remain miserable.  However, as a matter of fact, it may be that when people have positive liberty, they tend to be happy.  At any rate, philosophy cannot settle this debate.

(f) Moralizing the previous definition, we can think of freedom as a power to do what is right.

(g) Or we can define ‘freedom’ as a power to do what is right, free from all temptation to do otherwise.

(h) We note the possibility of a whole family of related conceptions according to which liberty is a power to do what we want, without self-imposed baggage (in other words being free of commitments or, more generally, free of plans, promises, hang-ups, and self-conceptions that no longer fit the person one has become).

An awkward, and by no means merely theoretical, puzzle is highlighted by this conception of positive freedom. Namely, we could have real choices and still be thwarted by factors like insufficient motivation, insufficiently independent judgment or insufficient information about our options, about our capacities, or – for that matter – about the authenticity of our goals. We might want too much, or too little, to be able to deal with our world of options as it is. In sum, not all the impediments to freedom are external. Psychological freedom, and how it relates to other forms of freedom, is the subject of the final chapter of our new book, A Brief History of Liberty.

We continue to speak of positive and negative liberty, but we remain aware that, as Berlin and as his critics stressed, positive versus negative liberty is a false dichotomy. Negative and positive liberty can themselves be viewed as clusters of related concepts, and there are conceptions of freedom such as Philip Pettit’s conception of freedom as non-domination that straddle the categories. [4]


Picking a Conception

 People use the term ‘liberty’ to refer to a range of different things.  Time-honored conceptions of liberty tend to be time-honored for a reason. They play different, often complementary roles in common-sense thinking. There is value in identifying the essence that these various conceptions all share, but there is also much to gain from being aware of the differences.  Each of these freedoms is something people have for good reason struggled to secure.  One is concerned with liberty in all such contexts, but the concerns one aims to mark by using the word are only related, not identical.

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. Other theorists seek guarantees and do not find them in a system of mere negative liberty. I might be free from government interference, free from oppression by a rigid caste system, and so on, yet I might remain unable to do much because I am poor.

Such issues are real, so it would be a shame to let debate about negative freedom’s real effects degenerate into a terminological dispute. Perhaps, as a matter of fact, negative freedom often leads to poverty.  How would we know?  Manipulating definitions would not tell us much. The point of defining terms is not to cut off but rather to facilitate debate: not to stipulate that negative liberty leads by definition to prosperity, but to be precise enough to make a question answerable. For example, where there are fewer obstacles to seeking employment of one’s choice (fewer migration restrictions, fewer licensing or union membership requirements), are there fewer unemployed people? If so, then we can infer (not in the way a logician deduces but rather in the way a scientist guardedly infers causal connections from empirical regularities) that negative freedom is in that respect positively liberating. We can ask well-defined questions about the consequences of specific forms of negative freedom, such as the freedom from trade restrictions or from state-mandated religion. If we can document trends, making the debate less about whether a trend is real and more about why the world sometimes departs from it, we have made progress in lowering barriers to understanding — which is what we realistically hope for from philosophy.


The Role of Government

Simply acknowledging positive liberty as a valuable species of the genus liberty does not commit us to any particular view about what regime promotes it best. We share Berlin’s concern about giving governments a license to do whatever it takes in order to promote positive liberty. (In the real world, to give government officials the power to do x is to hope that officials will use it to do x, knowing that, no matter who actually ends up holding such office, the person in question will duly pay lip service to doing x, then will use the power for purposes of his or her own.) None of the conceptions of freedom discussed earlier entails that it is a government’s job to secure that kind of freedom. Defining terms cannot settle a government’s proper role as protector or promoter of particular liberties.

Whatever Constant and Berlin meant to be doing by warning that different conceptions of liberty are also different political ideals, the takeaway value is not that different conceptions of liberty automatically translate into different government mandates, but rather that naïve conceptions of what is possible or what is at stake can leave people vastly overconfident about the likelihood of achieving a result by creating the political power to obtain that result by force.

Many people think that government’s job is to guarantee that we achieve a satisfactory level of liberty.  However, there is a difference between ‘guaranteeing’ as rendering inevitable (as when an economist says doubling the minimum wage would guarantee rising unemployment) versus ‘guaranteeing’ as when the government expresses a firm intention.  Clearly, guaranteeing something in the latter sense is no guarantee in the first sense.  Imagine a world where every time a government guarantees that people will achieve a given level of welfare, an evil demon makes sure (guarantees in the other sense) that people do not.  In that world, if you wanted people to be well off, you wouldn’t want to issue guarantees.  You’d permit people to be badly off, because that would be their only chance to prosper in that demon-plagued world.

Of course, we don’t live in a world of evil demons, so perhaps that is irrelevant.  Yet many real factors can and do disrupt, corrupt, or pervert our best-laid plans and guarantees. Therefore, imagining a world devoid of corruption and of unintended consequences—as some theorists like to do— is no more interesting than imagining a world of evil demons. We have to check how well legal guarantees work in our world.  We want governments to issue guarantees only to the extent that such guarantees work.

Only so much of practical consequence hangs on how we define our terms. By contrast, a lot depends on what we want from our lives and from our communities — whether we want to be free to stand or fall by our own merit, or whether we want to be free from the risks and costs that go with personal responsibility. A lot depends on how powerful and unconstrained we want our government to be, which in part turns on how confident we are that it will be used by, rather than against, our children.

We think both negative and positive liberty matter.  Negative liberty matters in part because it is a highly effective, if imperfect, way of promoting positive liberty.The result of freedom of thought, of freedom of association, of the division of labor within firms and of the specialization of roles that evolves between firms is that society becomes an unimaginably complex web of cooperation, moving ever further away from individual self-sufficiency. Although it may sound somewhat paradoxical, this is actually a contribution to positive freedom, because, as particular roles within society become redundant, a given individual grows less dependent on particular providers of a given service. Freedom in the positive sense can and sometimes does burgeon along with the increasing complexity of this web of interdependence. A Brief History of Liberty is a story of those preconditions of real choice slowly coming together.



[1]  Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan.  Indianapolis: Hackett  (1994): 79. The context is that Hobbes is describing the impediments to the Right of Nature as the liberty of people to do whatever they judge to be most conducive to self-preservation.

[2] We acknowledge the possibility that conceptual analysis alone might establish a given liberty’s intrinsic value.

[3] Berlin says this in a discussion of negative liberty, but he never suggests he would categorize such inability as a lack of liberty of any kind.

[4] Pettit, Philip  (1997) Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Response Essays

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, http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1919/oct/30.htm 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, http://www.independent.org/publications/tir/article.asp?a=505

[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 http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/223/22227/904233 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.

On the Promotion of Liberty

Using terms that Isaiah Berlin made famous — but acknowledging a break with his usage — Jason Brennan and David Schmidtz begin from a distinction between negative and positive liberty. You have the negative liberty to do X just when no one opposes your doing it, whatever opposition consists in; you have the positive (or effective) liberty to do X when, in addition, you have the capacity to do X, whatever capacity is thought to require.  They denounce the myth, as they see it, that these two conceptions of liberty pair off with two conceptions of the job of government, respectively right-wing and left-wing. The conceptions do not pair off in this way, so they say, because it is false — a “bad” assumption — that the job of government is to promote either form of liberty “in a direct way.”[1]

This assumption is false, allegedly, because in order to know “how valuable negative liberty is” or “how valuable positive liberty is,” we need to do some empirical investigation: we “need to get off the armchair and go check.” The authors assume that the success of government or society is to be measured by how far people enjoy “happier or healthier or wealthier lives” — in short, “better lives.” They argue, as I read them, that it would therefore be philosophical hubris to ascribe to government the job of promoting either form of liberty directly; that ascription could only be based on the empirically vulnerable claim that the promotion of such liberty will give people better lives.

Do the authors think that the job of government, then, is to promote better lives for people directly: this, rather than promoting either form of liberty? It appears not, for at one point they give expression to a deep skepticism about government that would be inconsistent with assigning any such grand goal. “In the real world, to give government officials the power to do x is to hope that officials will use it to do x, knowing that, no matter who actually ends up holding such office, the person in question will duly pay lip service to doing x, then will use the power for purposes of his or her own.”

What goals might we assign to government, then, assuming that we do not embrace anarchism and despair of government altogether? The answer comes after a discussion of how often governments promise something — “guarantee” something — without actually delivering it, for at that point their skepticism moderates. “We want government to issue guarantees only to the extent that the guarantees work.” And how can we know which guarantees work? By recourse to empirical research. “We have to check how well legal guarantees work in our world.”[2]

It transpires, then, that the main claim made by Brennan and Schmidtz is that in assigning a job or role to government — a set of guarantees that it should underwrite, a set of policies that it should pursue — we have to rely on empirical research. And with that claim I am wholly in agreement. On the very first page of the book on republican freedom that they are kind enough to cite, I make the point that the issue of which are the best policies and institutions inevitably depends on “empirical questions” as well as on “ideas as to how things ought ideally to be” (Pettit 1997, p. 1). It is for this reason that in a recent review article on the neo-republican approach to freedom Frank Lovett and I used the subtitle: “A Normative and Institutional Research Program” (Lovett and Pettit 2009).

But while I agree strongly with Brennan and Schmidtz that the project of policy-making and institution-building — and by extension the project of normative political argument — ought to be informed by empirical research and modeling, I 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. I cannot see why there is supposed to be no worthwhile debate remaining about the political merits of negative or positive freedom, or indeed of the freedom as non-domination that I associate with the long republican tradition of thought.

Do they think that empirical knowledge alone is going to determine what policies or programs — in their terms, what guarantees — government should underwrite? Presumably not, since empirical knowledge is certainly necessary for telling us what policies are likely to be reliably implementable or feasible, but it’s not going to tell us what policies are desirable. The desirable is a subset of the feasible and, 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.

Perhaps what they mean to suggest, however, is that as we assess the policies of a government, or prescribe for the policies it should implement, we need only form views about the desirability of now this policy, now that, without any single abstract criterion of assessment. We can say that this or that policy is desirable, they may be implying, without providing an abstract basis or criterion by reference to which it is desirable: without arguing that it is desirable insofar as it promises to do well by the cause of negative or positive liberty, or even more abstractly, promises to do well by the cause of making people’s lives better. They may be more or less particularistic about political evaluation, in order words, denying that when we say a particular policy is desirable we have to cite a salient property, or a salient set of properties, in virtue of which it is desirable.[3]

Their claim may just be that there are a myriad features that matter in policy-making and that in recommending a particular policy we may draw, case by case, on whichever of that legion of properties seem relevant, refusing to be tied to invoking anything so general as freedom. They may think of political evaluation on a model that certainly seems to apply to aesthetic valuation, where we pick the artworks we like, and can usually manage to find some features to explain our likes, but may have no general sense of the aesthetic features that matter to us.

This pragmatic point of view will have attractions for many people but I think there is good reason to resist it, or at least to think that it does not provide an adequate view of what political assessment and argument require. When we engage in political evaluation, we do so in the course of deliberating with our fellow citizens — in actuality or imagination — about the respective merits of the institutions and policies we are recommending. But that means that we are required to find a basis of evaluation that will make sense to them generally, assuming that we are not just addressing a particular coterie of interest or opinion. And, more strongly again, it means that we are required to find a basis of evaluation that will make general sense, as a matter of general acceptance; no one will think that it is irrelevant or think that others will think it is irrelevant, and so on. To aspire to address the full membership of the society in the political recommendations presented is implicitly to claim that there are reasons that no one can dismiss which argue in support of those recommendations; people may vary in the weight assigned to those reasons, but no one can regard them as irrelevant. This is what the publicity of political assessment and argument requires.

So why shouldn’t the reasons invoked in assessments be legion and why shouldn’t they figure, now with this feature to the fore, now with that other one? The reason is simple. The more numerous the reasons invoked in public debate, the less manifest it is going to be that they are reasons that truly count as relevant across different sectors of society. That is why there is such pressure to find common starting points for public discussions in a few relatively abstract, and presumptively irresistible considerations or values. The formation of a society as a community of deliberation — a community where it is not just the numbers that matter — depends on there being values of this kind that people can put forward, however unsuccessfully, as matters that are of universal concern.

What values are going to available for deployment in this role? One value that may sometimes be available is the higher-order consideration that a policy is a good compromise, suiting this group for one set of reasons, that other group for other reasons, and so on. But such values can only be relevant under circumstances of fortuitous convergence. The values that will make a stronger claim for consideration are routine, purportedly irresistible values like welfare or prosperity or equality or justice — or, of course, freedom. The debate about how best to understand one or another value of this kind, then, will inevitably connect with the question of how important that value is in the assessment of policies and how important it ought to be as a criterion of policy-making.  The segregation of issues for which Brennan and Schmidtz argue is a will-o-the-wisp.

Let me conclude with some observations on why I am attracted to the idea of freedom as non-domination; this may be the best way of explaining my point of view. I think that any value that is put forward as an important criterion in evaluating political institutions and programs ought to satisfy a number of constraints. Ideally, it ought to have historical resonance in the culture of the society; it ought to be something that no one is likely to dismiss in the abstract as irrelevant; and it ought to be a value with palatable implications — palatable, at least on reflection — for the constitution and direction of the state.

Freedom as non-domination is the sort of freedom you enjoy when you are not subject to the will of another agent or agency. You are your own man or woman; you live on your own terms — you are sui juris, in the old Latin phrase. This ideal has deep roots in our culture and, on the face of it, no one is likely to deny its political relevance. A good formulation appears in the eighteenth century tract series Cato’s Letters: “Liberty is, to live upon one’s own terms; slavery is, to live at the mere mercy of another” (Trenchard and Gordon 1971, Vol 2, 249-50).

I think that the idea of freedom in this sense is very interesting and that it has been lost to contemporary consciousness, partly because of the suggestion that negative and positive freedom exhaust the field. It is not equivalent to positive freedom, since it requires the absence of domination, as negative freedom demands the absence of interference. And it is not equivalent to negative freedom, for two reasons. You may be subject to someone’s will and yet not suffer interference, as when the person stands over you, able to interfere should they wish. And you may be interfered with without being subject to the interferer’s will, as when that agent — like Ulysses’s sailors — interferes on your terms: that is, by your own will.

If freedom as non-domination engages me, however, that is not just because of its interesting conceptual architecture. An even more important consideration is that there is promising work to be done on elaborating its political implications. What would it be for a constitution and state to promote freedom as non-domination? That is the central question in what I think of as the neo-republican research program and it is now at the center of a growing body of work.

This work, needless to say, has to be guided by empirical investigation and modeling and on that count Brennan and Schmidtz can have no objection. But would they still think the guiding question misguided, on the ground that it does not separate out analytical and policy-making issues? Would they say that I am moving illicitly from a debate “about how to use language,” as they nicely put it, to a debate about “how to use the police.” I look forward to hearing what they have to say.

Philip Pettit is the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Politics and Human Values at Princeton University.


[1] Brennan and Schmidtz contrast the direct with the indirect promotion of a value: say, its promotion by means of “a basic institutional framework.” I do not know what significance this may have for them (see footnote 2); it may be clear from their book, which I haven’t yet had the time to read. Since they are apparently better disposed towards the indirect promotion of a value like freedom, the divergence between us may not be so great as this response makes it seem.

[2] Since this point applies equally with the “direct” and “indirect” promotion of something, I do not see why that distinction is so important to them; see footnote 1.

[3] The most extreme form of particularism in any area of evaluation would say that there are no properties that figure always on the pro side of assessment, or always on the con side; in other words, there are no reliably good or reliably bad features (for a critique, see Jackson, Pettit and Smith 1999). But what Brennan and Schmidtz are supporting, given their absence of comment on this issue, is likely to be the less radical view.


Jackson, F., P. Pettit, et al. (1999). Ethical Particularism and Patterns. Particularism. B. Hooker and M. Little.

Lovett, F. and P. Pettit (2009). “Neo-Republicanism: A Normative and Institutional Research Program.” Annual Review of Political Science 12.

Pettit, P. (1997). Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Out of the Armchair, into Indeterminacy

Of the many insights in Jason Brennan and David Schmidtz’s very interesting essay is the idea that negative and positive liberty designates a collection of ideas rather than a dichotomy.[1] Similarly, they point out, correctly in my view, that questions about the proper degree and kind of liberty enjoyed by citizens cannot be determined by conceptual analysis, that (in terms they don’t use but might welcome) liberty is an essentially contested concept and so cannot be used to settle political disputes, since such disputes turn on conflicting views of those very concepts.

The authors’ main point, however, is that the question of the conceptual distinction between so-called negative and positive conceptions of liberty should be shelved in favor of the more empirical question of whether good effects can be expected when government attempts to promote either (or both).   They want to question the assumption that liberty, in any of its central senses, should be promoted by government at all, either directly or indirectly.  Philosophers and political theorists, they argue, have been waylaid by the discussion inaugurated (in its modern form) by Isaiah Berlin that public valorization of liberty in some of its senses is dangerous, and that we should therefore stick to promoting alternative (negative) conceptions.  That project, the authors think, is to replace the difficult task of examining the real effects of social policies — whether aimed at promoting positive or negative freedom (or some hybrid) — with the idle musings of armchair philosophy.  They propose to engage more directly in this empirical work of measuring the actual effects of liberty-related government policies rather than haggling about its true meaning.

This is an interesting project, and I applaud the call for interdisciplinary fieldwork on actual policies rather than simple philosophical reflection.  However, in order to formulate this research project coherently, we will not be able to escape the armchair, I’m afraid.  We will need, for example, a working specification of the concepts of liberty at issue (a sample taxonomy of which the authors provide).  More importantly, however, we will need a conception of “government” and of social activities/relations independent of government (so conceived) so that we can consider the effect of the former on the latter.  But, as I will argue, herein lies a fundamental difficulty.   For in order to consider the question of whether “government” policies aimed at the promotion of liberty actually have positive effects we must be able to specify what “liberty” means and when such policies have these aims.  Even more fundamentally, such a project assumes implicitly that the desirability of such policies are left undetermined until we find this out.  But what if these government policies count as justified, as meeting an independent standard of right (if there is one)?  Then whatever effect they have on (whatever we mean by) liberty will not count against them.  Rather, we will merely conclude that the actions, opportunities, or capacities that fall under the rubric of “liberty” and which these policies curtail are not worth promoting in the first place.

It is as if we are to imagine the workings of one institutionalized entity — the government — and another set of phenomena — individual capacities, activities and social relations — and then ask how the actions of the former affect the latter.   But how are we to understand social activities and relations apart from any determination of what is allowed or proscribed in a given social setting?  For example, imagine a law is passed by procedurally correct democratic means that prohibits me from taking objects in your possessions which have been properly designated as your “property”; then the fact that I am legally prevented from doing so should not count against that law.  At least it should not so count if we accept the legitimacy of that law.

Of course, one could question that legitimacy by saying that liberty is a prima facie good and that any restriction of it must be evaluated according to how it affects that good.  But if this is the line of argument pursued, then we really do have to argue about concepts (of liberty), for it will very much be a matter of dispute whether “liberty” in the sense in question should be taken as a good to be protected independent of the otherwise justified actions of (say) democratic majorities.[2]

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.[3] 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?  And what about the attempt to improve educational policy, presumably attempting to better enable students to develop capacities that will be central to any plausible conception of positive liberty?  Will that count as a net increase in liberty overall? a trade-off of one kind against another?

These questions are not simply indications of work left to be done.  Rather these are examples of the indeterminacy of the research program envisioned here, as I understand it.[4]

So the two questions I wish to raise about the approach taken here are these: 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, in the determination of the extent of liberty enjoyed by citizens and consequent effects on their well being, 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?  Indeed, how will the line be drawn between a “government” policy and the actions of (say) a publicly owned corporation whose legal status is determined by legal statutes?

Brennan and Schmidtz say at one point: “Identifying a role for government—or any other institution—as a protector or promoter of liberty requires a real argument.”   But in the rest of their discussion, reference to “any other institution” drops out in favor of a focus on “government”.  One wonders if institutions like corporations will also get attention in asking whether business decisions and corporate strategies have an effect on positive or negative liberty.  Clearly many such strategies (and the government policies that given them authority) have serious effects on the abilities of people to live self-directed lives free from unwanted interference.  For such decisions may make medical, educational, housing, or other badly needed resources too expensive for many people to afford, thus restricting their ability to develop their talents and lead a life that they value, or if they attempt to take such resources they will be prevented, thus limiting a certain species of their negative liberty.  How will such phenomena be understood, as the actions of private individuals (or individual-like entities) or the work of complex legal and social arrangements backed by the force of law (and presumably, in some jurisdictions at least, subject to revision and review by democratic means)?

For example, when the Chinese government puts pressure on Google to censor its content and the company considers shutting down its Chinese operation, who should we say is responsible for robbing Chinese citizens of access to the site?  That question is complicated of course, but even if one places the blame on the doorstep of the government of China, the fact that Google is the only major search engine that can deliver what is needed by the Chinese users is also clearly relevant to the appraisal of the extent of their liberty.  The lack of freedom to gain crucial information is the result of complex public policy decisions that extend back beyond the current controversy, back at least to events that allowed Google to gain such an extensive market share.  Even if one thinks that the superiority of Google’s innovative search technology explains its market dominance, the fact that its own business decisions (whether pressured or not) can result in the limitation of the freedom of Chinese dissidents means that the lack of freedom that results cannot simply be laid on the doorstep of “government”.

Now one could say that because a corporation acts within its rights there is no loss of freedom on the part of those whose options are narrowed as a result of those actions.  But this is to rely on a conception of liberty that assumes the justification of the property rights scheme that rendered those decisions legally legitimate, and critiques of unrestrained markets question that very assumption.  So defining liberty in this way would beg the question at issue.

Of course, the particular project outlined here is not the question of whether government policies actually increase or decrease liberty, per se, but rather whether government attempts to increase liberty, directly or indirectly, actually succeed in making people better off (along some other dimension).  But which policies are we to examine, ones which have as their stated legislative aim the increase in “liberty”?  This, however, will not be a reliable guide since the stated aims of any bit of legislation will often be hard to determine.  Are we then left with the question of whether such policies have the effect of increasing or decreasing liberty of some sort?  If that is the plan, then, we return back to the difficulty I have been raising, namely how to define “liberty” apart from the question of whether such policies are independently justified.

However we answer these questions, Brennan and Schmidtz might reply that their proposal here is to look at examples of government policies that are defended on the grounds of increasing (positive or negative) liberty and see whether such policies actually improve the lives of citizens, leaving the actions of “private” firms to the side, assuming that if government policies systematically fail to actually improve people’s lives when they aim at promoting liberty, we should leave that task to non-governmental entities that form civil society more generally, as well as to individual initiative and collective effort.  But to repeat, it will be difficult if not impossible to draw a line around “government policies” in order to distinguish it from the actions of economic firms and corporate entities that government policies make legally possible (for example by specifying property systems that define the legal status of such entities).

Finally, for many of us, the track record of economic forces and the workings of competitive markets in effectively improving the lives of citizens in an equitable and morally acceptable manner, in a world where over one billion people still live on less than one dollar a day with no foreseeable prospect of meaningful improvement from market innovations, is already an obvious and dismal failure.  I applaud the call for all of us to leave our armchairs and evaluate the effects of actual policies, but for those of us who have done so and looked at a woefully under-served global population, we can say “thanks but we’ve seen quite enough.”



[1] Though they will acknowledge that there are some centers of gravity in this collection, perhaps one hovering toward what Charles Taylor called an “opportunity concept” and the other toward what he labeled an “exercise concept.”

[2] This is a point made by several writers; for example, cf. Ronald Dworkin’s claim that any contest between equality and liberty is one that liberty must lose (Sovereign Virtue, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000, chap. 3).

[3] For a similar point about taxation and ownership, see Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel, The Myth of Ownership: Taxes and Justice, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. My own version of this claim is defended in The Myth of Property, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

[4] It should be noted that I have not read the text of Brennan and Schmitz’s book A Brief History of Liberty, where this investigation is presumably pursued.  It may well be that many of these questions are adequately answered there.

The Conversation

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.

Is Liberty an Inherently Social Concept?

Palmer says that no matter what happens to a man on a desert island, the man is neither free nor unfree, because liberty is an inherently social concept. Palmer might want to limit his talk of ‘liberty’ this way. Ordinary people do not, and they are not obviously mistaken in having a range of concerns that are not so limited. Stipulating that they are mistaken will not do.

Before ever reading any philosophy, I would have found it obvious that if Robinson Crusoe were pinned under a log, he would thereby be unfree, and would want to be liberated from the burden of being thus pinned. I likewise would have considered it obvious that when a log pins Crusoe down, this is morally different than when a mugger pins him down, or when a policeman pins him down after Crusoe has robbed a bank. Some philosophers say that because these three cases are morally different, we shouldn’t use the same word. But the question of whether to use the same word is a question about how to be clear. In using the same word, we can obscure differences while emphasizing similarities. Using different terms can obscure similarities while emphasizing differences.

We can just as easily say that in all three cases, Crusoe becomes less free (in the same sense of ’free’), but that the moral significance of these cases is different. In the first case, the situation is regrettable, but no one has done anything wrong. In the second case, the mugging is wrong, not merely regrettable. In the third case, the policeman limits Crusoe’s freedom, but with justification.

Palmer asserts ‘liberty’ can only refer to a certain kind of relationship among people. He thinks other uses of the term are confused. Or, perhaps, when hears the Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Free Bird”, he thinks Collins and Van Zant are speaking metaphorically. Palmer does not show us why we must confine our use of the term ‘liberty’ to social situations. Like the average English-speaker, I feel comfortable saying that birds are free to fly in a way people are not. If somebody objects that the bird’s freedom to fly is different from the freedom in question when we discuss free speech, I agree. So, ordinary English uses of the term ‘liberty’ refer to many different things, and we philosophers should be more precise by saying what particular kind of freedom or liberty we have in mind.

Palmer asks: Were wealthier, more technologically advanced Germans living under Nazi rule freer than their less advanced, poorer counterparts living in the more liberal Germany of 1878? It’s a great question. Here’s my answer: Assuming we’re going to use term ‘liberty’ the way Palmer does, then no, Nazi Germans were not freer. Yet, if we then note that the term can be and often is used in other ways, this is not a way of tacitly praising Nazi Germany. Yes, building the Autobahn makes it so that people have increased capacity to get around, and in that respect, Nazi Germans were free to do things that their predecessors were not free to do. (Similarly, a child born to Soviet Russia in 1970 lacked many political and economic freedoms, but we can still say, and be glad, that modern medicine would make her free from the risk of polio.) Admitting that there were ways in which wealthier, more technologically advanced Germans under Nazi rule had options that their predecessors lacked (and were in that respect freer) is compatible with saying that the Nazi regime truly was evil and oppressive, that Nazi Germany was not a free country[1], and that the Nazis took away important freedoms.

There are three possible responses to the problem of multiple conceptions of liberty: nihilism, monism, and pluralism. The nihilist holds that the concept of liberty is ineradicably confused and thus no coherent account of liberty can be given. The monist holds that it is possible to identify a single, unitary, coherent notion of liberty. There are two types of monists. A unifying monist might look at our list of conceptions of liberty, and claim to be able to find a definition that unites all of these competing conceptions. (This is a strategy associated with Ian Carter and Gerald MacCullum.)[1] An eliminativist monist, on the other hand, looks at our list, and rejects all items on the list except one. (Perhaps this is Palmer’s strategy.) Finally, the pluralist holds the concept of liberty legitimately refers to a number of related but distinct things, much like the word ‘game’ does. In our essay and our book, we take a pluralist stance toward liberty, though we do not rule out the possibility that a unifying form of monism might be developed.


[1] See Ian Carter, “Liberty,” in Political Concepts, eds. R. P. Bellamy and A. Mason (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), p. 9.

Liberal Republicanism, Moving Pictures, and Why Freedom Isn’t the Same as Goodness

I encourage anyone, including the other discussants on this topic, who has not yet read A Brief History of Liberty to do so.  It’s an admirable book and full of interesting insights.  (Like all the books I find interesting, I also was not persuaded by all of it, but each chapter was stimulating and — dare I admit it? — fun to read.)

A lot of issues are on the table in this discussion, so let me start by making a bold assertion: Philip Pettit’s attempted distinction between “liberalism” and “republicanism,” based on his distinction between liberal “non-interference” and republican “non-domination,” simply ignores, or perhaps tries to define away, the tradition, or even the possibility, of “liberal republicanism,” [1] in which freedom from subjection to the arbitrary will of others is identified with liberty.  Of equal importance, his formulation of freedom seems to me merely a self-contradictory variant of the “positive liberty” limned by Berlin.

Pettit dismisses mere “non-interference” as a criterion of liberty on the grounds that one could be subject to, say, a monstrous tyrant who merely forbore from interfering (or in some way failed to interfere or refrained from interfering), and in such a circumstance one would not then be free, for one would be dominated by that tyrant’s arbitrary will.  Liberal republicans agree. Pettit asserts that one could be subject to a power that interfered, but without being dominated, if the interference is not arbitrary, but furthers my interests:

As I may suffer domination without interference, so I may undergo interference without being dominated: without relating to anyone in the fashion of slave or subject.  Suppose that another person or agency is allowed to interfere with me but only on condition that the interference promises to further my interests, and promises to do so according to opinions of a kind I share. [2]

One might ask “allowed by whom,” but Pettit assures us that we needn’t worry about that, for the interferee’s consent is irrelevant to the matter; all that matters is “the permanent possibility of effectively contesting it” and that the state’s “interference has to be guided by certain relevant interests and ideas and those interests and ideas are shared by those affected.” [3]  (Of course, once the interferee has been interfered with by being arrested and imprisoned, he’s not likely to be able to effectively contest the interference and, in any case, even pre-arrest, he has to have secure rights which the guardians of his virtue — or “interests” or “ideas” — cannot override, regardless of whether Professor Pettit thinks it’s in the interest of the interferee to suffer such interference.  Pettit’s theory undermines itself.)

Moreover, the fact that someone has to interfere with an agent, presumably by use of coercive force (and be in no doubt that that is what Pettit has in mind), suggests that at some level the agent does not share the interferer’s understanding of her interests, or that their opinions are not in fact shared.  Otherwise, interference would not be necessary.  I read Pettit’s book with some care and I fail to see how his theory is anything other than an example of Berlin’s  “positive liberty,” for despite the agent’s ardent profession of her desire, Pettit’s “non-mastering interferer” is acting to advance (or his actions “promise” to advance) her real interests, or her real opinions, or the interests or opinions of some occult true self, that is, what the agent really needs or wants.  We end up back in sixteenth century Geneva, but with the role of John Calvin played by Nancy Pelosi.  No thanks.

Pettit asserts in his contribution to this debate that his view “is not equivalent to positive freedom, since it requires the absence of domination,” but “positive freedom” (in Berlin’s use of the term, not the sense of “wealth” also deployed by Schmidtz and Brennan) also requires that the interferer not dominate, in Pettit’s sense of being arbitrary, for the interference of Plato’s guardian class is guided by your real interests, by what you really want, but are too ignorant or deluded to know that you want it, or too weak to act to secure it.  Berlinian positive freedom also requires absence of domination, as defined by Pettit, for the “non-mastering interferer” in such cases is merely “forcing you to be free” by forcing you to do what you really want to do.  As Pettit puts it in his contribution to this debate, “you may be interfered with without being subject to the interferer’s will, as when that agent – like Ulysses’s sailors – interferes on your terms: that is, by your own will.”  Note, however, that Ulysses consented to being tied to the pole, and asked the sailors to put wax in their ears.  Pettit and his Genevan republicans aren’t interested in that kind of very robust consent when it comes to determining “your own will.”  They have their own ideas of what’s good for you, and you’re going to get it good and hard. [4]

Pettit takes issue with Schmidtz and Brennan on the role of normative judgment in providing guidance to empirical research on the feasible and I think he’s right on that point.  Where I find fault with his approach is in his failure to consider “liberal republicanism” as an option and his disguising of the “positive” (i.e., real, authentic, noumenal, etc., etc.) freedom as somehow a third kind of freedom.  It doesn’t work.

John Christman in his contribution to this discussion strikes a concordant note with Pettit and me when he notes, in response to the call by Schmidtz and Brennan to get out of our armchairs, that “we must be able to specify what ‘liberty’ means and when such policies have these aims.”

Interestingly, we find him subjecting not only the state to such questions of efficacy, but also all institutions, including business corporations, and, one might assume, families, labor unions, churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, chess clubs and soccer leagues, but it seems clear that in all cases it is the state that will decide whether the soccer leagues and companies and mosques measure up, and not the other way around. [5]  The truly odd passage was his puzzlement about whether Google or the Chinese state is responsible for censorship:

For example, when the Chinese government puts pressure on Google to censor its content and the company considers shutting down its Chinese operation, who should we say is responsible for robbing Chinese citizens of access to the site?  That question is complicated of course, but even if one places the blame on the doorstep of the government of China, the fact that Google is the only major search engine that can deliver what is needed by the Chinese users is also clearly relevant to the appraisal of the extent of their liberty.

Professor Christman could have roused himself from his armchair for a minute to access, say, Yahoo.com (which can’t be that far from his armchair), where he could have typed in (as I just did) “Google China market share” and found that Google had less than 30% of “the market” in China, with state-supported Baidu coming in at about 60%.  But after Christman settles back in his armchair, he should wonder why people such as I find it truly bizarre, and even odious, that he thinks that an organization that makes knowledge available, merely by existing, might be as responsible as the Chinese government censors, armed with the power to arrest and kill, for “the limitation of the freedom of Chinese dissidents.”  I could give similar examples of blaming the victims for their victimization, but I would rather leave them to the thoughtfulness of the readers to imagine all the ways in which the existence of targets for rights-violations are as responsible for their loss of freedom as the criminals who assault them.

Finally, and consistently with the thesis of his book The Myth of Property: Toward an Egalitarian Theory of Ownership, he blames those who create wealth for the lack of wealth.  In that book, he argues for taxing away all profits and (without leaving his armchair) concludes that it would have no negative economic impact, for “liberal ownership is neither necessary nor sufficient for competitive markets.” [6]  (“Liberal ownership” includes the various rights to control what is owned, and – Christman’s target – the right to “gain income” from it. [7])  Entrepreneurial profits, or economic residuals, “occur only in imperfect markets and hence result from artificial scarcities.” [8] You see, under conditions of “perfect competition” (and Christman clearly is misled by the term “perfect” to consider it normative, and not merely an unfortunate term for an abstract model designed to isolate features of economic interaction), all residuals would be zero, so….(cue the drum roll, please…) when you tax them all away, you are merely approximating perfectly competitive markets, and what could be more perfect than that? [9]  In Christman’s world, allowing the state to confiscate 100% of “economic rent” (i.e., income above opportunity costs, or what a factor of production could earn in its next best productive use, or the excess above what would be necessary to induce its owner to deploy it in that way) or entrepreneurial profits, would have no negative impact on economic performance.  The positive effect of market exchange “is not diluted if all of the surplus goods due to artificial scarcities that produce rent were confiscated, say, by the state.” [10]  Very bracing stuff.  And no doubt the result of many trips out of Professor Christman’s armchair to examine regimes where economic rents are all seized by the state.

That digression is necessary to give some context to Christman’s concluding remarks about the world.

Finally, for many of us, the track record of economic forces and the workings of competitive markets in effectively improving the lives of citizens in an equitable and morally acceptable manner, in a world where over one billion people still live on less than one dollar a day with no foreseeable prospect of meaningful improvement from market innovations, is already an obvious and dismal failure.  I applaud the call for all of us to leave our armchairs and evaluate the effects of actual policies, but for those of us who have done so and looked at a woefully under-served global population, we can say “thanks but we’ve seen quite enough.”

Evidently what Christman sees are snapshots, and not motion pictures.  He should go to the movies sometime.  If he went to the world economic development movies, he’d see rising incomes coinciding with better-defined property rights and freer trade.  He’d see the incomes of the poor rising and not only the percentage of world population living under severe poverty declining, but the absolute number, as well, even in the face of population increase.  He could even use the wonder of the internet to access from his armchair the detailed statistical studies of Angus Maddison, Deirdre McCloskey, David Dollar, and many others, who document the astonishing rise in per capita incomes around the world.  He could even see moving charts that the amazing Angus Maddison has created to illustrate the changes.  And he could wonder whether economic processes of trying to create or find, and then claim, economic residuals (i.e., the entrepreneurial profits that Christman would confiscate) under conditions of the 3-Ds (property rights that are Definable, Defendable, Divestible) might account for the declining percentage and number of people living in abject poverty.

Finally, to turn to Schmidtz and Brennan’s defense of their approach to liberty, I think that they are on to something important when they argue, contra G. A. Cohen, that the net amount of freedom is not a constant, but does change from setting to setting.  There is certainly more freedom when all can drive according to known rules, so that we do not crash into each other willy nilly.  Traffic laws and property laws both allow us “to stay out of each other’s way,” and property laws also enable us to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.  That raises the question of whether law is always “coercive,” which seems to be a theme of both Pettit and Christman.  Clearly not.  If we understand law in Lon Fuller’s sophisticated understanding as “the enterprise of subjecting human conduct to the governance of rules” [11] law can be coordinative without being commanding or coercive.  And better laws, with less reliance on arbitrary power, can enhance liberty.  Much of Schmidtz’s and Brennan’s fine book is on precisely the history of the rule of law.

I robustly disagree, nonetheless, with Jason Brennan’s defense of what I would consider a promiscuous use of the term “liberty.”  Not only does it lead to the issues of “tradeoffs” of liberty (e.g., “more education” vs. less freedom to control one’s income, or to move, but note that the latter must be called “freedom,” and the former can easily be called “education”) that Pettit, Christman, and even Schmidtz and Brennan acknowledge (but in the latter case wish to avoid), but I think it drains clarity from the discussion.  If I have understood him correctly, Brennan wants to listen to how people use a word (e.g., the adjective “free” or the adverb “freely”) and then call all of the cases to which they refer, in which one can be free or act freely, cases of “freedom.”  So if I tip freely or drink freely, I am free, and if a benefit is free (“free of charge”), then it is a case of freedom, etc., etc.

I will concede freely, as it were, that it is meaningful and not confused to say that I can be freed from being pinned under a tree trunk and that I can be said to be “cancer free,” but when using the term in discussions of political philosophy, we should speak clearly, meaning that we should exclude certain uses of terms.  A field of corn may be “free of pests,” but it would be odd to call the field or the corn “free” or, more importantly, to say that it enjoys freedom.  Similarly, the child born in the USSR in 1970 invoked by Brennan is free of polio, and thus a healthier person, but not a freer person, than a child born in Britain in 1935, twenty years before the polio vaccine was announced.  When discussing human history, rather than natural history (in which we might say that a tectonic plate was freed from another and shifted) we ought to talk about human behavior, meaning about those restraints on humans for which other humans can be held accountable.  We need language that allows us in a discussion of the history of freedom to distinguish between trees falling on us and lynch mobs falling on us, or our discussion will be incoherent, just as a discussion of “games” will be more focused and coherent if we distinguish what game we are discussing and even what aspect of that game (strategic interaction, fun, rough-housing, etc.).

Let’s take another important term — happiness — and see whether Brennan’s approach helps us to clarify our meanings.  I sometimes hear people say things such as “ice cream makes me happy,” “I am happy to see you,” “I don’t feel happy,” “she finally knew happiness,” and “happiness is an activity in accordance with human virtue.”  It refers now to a state of gratification, later to a state of joy, yet later to a state of contentment, and finally to a life well lived.  I sometimes shock younger people out of their equivocal uses of terms by pointing out that “sadness is a part of a happy life,” and that a sad person can be a happy person, if that person is sad for the right reasons and on the right occasion, etc., etc.  When parents die, most normal children are sad, and being sad on those occasions is a part of a happy life.  How horrible if they were to be as perky on the day of their parents’ funerals as when their parents were hale and hearty and were to fail to mourn properly.  How odd it would be if we were to count all of the states above as “happiness” (in contrast to the happiness of a life well lived) and were to count the ever-perky person who is oblivious to occasions for sadness as “happier” than the person who has endured sadness for the right reasons and incorporated that sadness into a happy life.  It’s important to distinguish happiness, in the sense of a life well lived, from gratification, joy, contentment, and other states of being, even if we sometimes use the term “happiness” promiscuously to refer to all of them.  Similarly with terms such as justice, goodness, and the like.

When we define freedom as the attainment of all the good things we may want (for when we get them, we are free from their lack) and the avoidance of all the bad things we may wish to avoid (for when we avoid them, we are free of them), we drain the word freedom of meaning.  If “freedom” simply means “goodness,” it no longer serves any useful role in discourse.

Just because people often use terms without regard to relevant distinctions is no justification for failing to make those distinctions when we wish to think clearly about hard problems.  It’s an especially serious problem when one wants to ask whether one society is freer than another, or whether the society is freer earlier or later. It seems to me that Brennan concedes my point with regard to the thought experiment I posed.  He quite reasonably admits that “Nazi Germany was not a free country.”  Why wasn’t it?  They did, after all, have more “freedoms” (Autobahns, vaccines, etc.) in his “positive” sense (not to be confused with Berlin’s sense) of the term.  He admits that the regime “truly was evil and oppressive” (although one might ask what “oppressive” means, other than denying freedom).  But to point out that it was evil is evading the issue.  Brennan concedes that it was “not a free country,” despite there being more of one of his categories of “freedom.”  Why don’t they balance out?  Brennan wants to reserve only one (“negative”) sense of the term to describe the country, but “the country” is an aggregate of people and their relations and he has conceded that the people and their relations are, with regard to Autobahns and vaccines, in his terms, more “free.”  So why isn’t Nazi Germany a “free country,” freer than the Germany of fifty years earlier?  How many Autobahns (more freedom) might balance out how many arbitrary arrests (less freedom)?  He could have avoided the problem by simply admitting that the term freedom should be reserved (“monistically”) for social relations (as he implicitly does when he affirms that Germany in 1939 was “not a free country”) and using terms such as “wealth,” “ability,” and health for telephones, Autobahns, and vaccines.  I am sure that no one would understand him any less well, and at least some would understand him better.  That would clearly be a Pareto improvement, even if it wouldn’t make anyone freer.


[1] See the complex interaction of classical republican ideas and modern liberal ideas in the work of Joyce Appleby,  e.g., Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), which is nowhere cited in Philip Pettit’s own Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

[2] Pettit, Republicanism, p. 23.

[3] Pettit, Republicanism, pp. 62-63.

[4] Thomas Hill Green sought to “free” his fellow Englishmen by prohibiting them the enjoyment of alcohol: “The citizens of England now make its law. We ask them by law to put a restraint on themselves in the matter of strong drink. We ask them further to limit, or even altogether to give up, the not very precious liberty of buying and selling alcohol, in order that they may become more free to exercise the faculties and improve the talents which God has given them.” ‘‘Lecture on Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract,’’ in Works of Thomas Hill Green, ed. R. L. Nettleship (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1906), p. 386.

[5] That is a point he makes abundantly clear in his book The Myth of Property: Toward an Egalitarian Theory of Ownership (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 26: “The exact structure of control and income rights will be determined by the distributive principles of the state and hence justified according to normative argument.”  “State” in this sense may mean the social order, but Christman also focuses our attention on the apparatus of the state as such, which is privileged above all other forms of human interaction, as he makes even clearer later: “the state is authoritative no matter what property rights structure it enforces….” (p. 34)

[6] Christman, The Myth of Property, p. 28.

[7] Christman, The Myth of Property, p. 29.

[8] Christman, The Myth of Property, p. 131.

[9] It would have helped Christman to have read Harold Demsetz’s monograph Economic, Legal and Political Dimensions of Competition (Amsterdam: Elsevier Scientific Books, 1982), which clarifies the model and eliminates any confusion about how “perfect” such conditions are.

[10] Christman, The Myth of Property, p. 170.

[11] Lon Fuller, The Morality of Law (second revised edition; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969), p. 122.

Palmer on Republicanism

Let me be somewhat narcissistic and respond to Tom Palmer’s comments on my own position, without giving attention to the many other interesting points raised in this discussion.

Palmer chides me for ignoring the possibility of liberal republicanism, which he associates with Joyce Appleby’s historical study. I am not exactly sure what he has in mind with this tag but his remarks suggest that I would be happy to embrace it. He says that in this tradition “freedom from subjection to the arbitrary will of others is identified with freedom.”  While I might quibble about the employment of the word ‘freedom’ within a definition of freedom, and while I would want to say something more on the definition of ‘arbitrary’, I am happy to endorse this account. The definition is faithful to the classical republican account of freedom, as I understand it, and it is freedom in that sense that I would want to cast as the central value in political life.  Republicanism may be sharply opposed to the sort of position endorsed by those influenced by William Paley and his ilk — classical liberals, as they are sometimes called — but it is in contemporary terms a broadly liberal style of doctrine.

Palmer casts my republicanism as illiberal because he pays scant attention to what I have written. He misreads my 1997 book in his suggestion that by my lights I suffer only non-arbitrary interference when the interference “furthers my interests.” He misrepresents me on a grand scale in the remark that interests are to be understood here as “real interests” or the interests of “some occult true self.” And he gives the misrepresentation a truly operatic character when he groups me with “Genevan republicans” and declares about me and my new-found ilk: “they have their own ideas about what’s good for you, and you’re going to get it good and hard.” Wow.

In my 1997 book I explicitly said that what makes interference with others non-arbitrary is that it is “forced to track what the interests of those others require according to their own judgments” (p. 55). Could I have been clearer? There is no question of the interference being non-arbitrary just because it tracks people’s “real” but unacknowledged interests; and no question of my tolerating Rousseauvian paternalism of the kind that Palmer rightly mocks. And so neither, to address the main charge against me, is there is any room for claiming that republican theory, in the way I interpret it, defends a variant of Berlin’s positive freedom. For the record, my writings since the 1997 book have stressed even more clearly the hostility of the position to Rousseauvian paternalism. Thus I have written of non-arbitrary interference that it must be forced to track the avowed or ready-to-be-avowed interests of the interferee and, in yet another formulation, that it must be subject to the control of the interferee.

In a related charge Palmer says that according to me “the interferee’s consent is irrelevant” to whether interference is non-arbitrary. Again, this is highly misleading. I think that if you are in a position to control some source of interference in your life, then it is non-arbitrary on that count alone. Thus, while it is true that you need not have consented to the interference in the first place, that is only because the continuing possibility of stopping the interference means that your acceptance of it consensual. Here as in so many other cases, what is important is that you can exit the arrangement, not that you gave your consent to enter it in the first place.

Let me make a concession, however. In these remarks I am focusing on the freedom of a single subject, or of a set of subjects considered singly, in relation to an interfering agent or agency. And that is the easy case for republican theory. The problematic case, which I do not discuss satisfactorily in my 1997 book, arises in the political case, when people are subject in common to the interference of a government. Their collective control of government interference, even if they have this, won’t give any individual the sort of control that would make that interference non-arbitrary. So what is there to be said? Lots, as I happen to believe, but too much to include in this posting. Some of Palmer’s comments bear on the problematic case and so my response here will not satisfy him fully.

One final observation. I associate the long republican tradition with three broad ideas: one, a commitment to freedom as non-domination; two, a belief that the mixed constitution is the form that government ought to take if it is to protect people against domination and yet not dominate them itself; and three, a belief that if such a constitution is to be sustained then people must adopt an active, contestatory role in relation to government: apart from collective, electoral contestation, they must remain individually vigilant and, if necessary, adversarial. Under the influence of Bodin and Hobbes and the champions of undivided sovereignty, Rousseau dropped the mixed constitution in favor of a centralized, assembly government and gave citizens a legislative rather than a contestatory role. In doing this he paved the way for a new Franco-Prussian form of republicanism that was very different from the Italian-Atlantic republicanism that I find attractive. Within this new tradition even the ideal of freedom as non-domination, still embraced by Rousseau, morphed into an ideal under which freedom consists in participatory access to the legislative body of a self-governing community: that is, morphed into one form of what Berlin calls positive liberty. It may be that Tom Palmer is mistaking the sort of republican theory I embrace for this very different, essentially communitarian way of thinking.