Friday, March 23, 2007

Negative Liberty

The Cato Daily Podcast has two interesting shows (March 20 and March 22) on negative v. positive liberty. One of the primary reasons that people reject the classical liberal ideals is that classical liberals tend to introduce their ideas on freedom in negatives. Libertarians are always talking about limits on government, etc.. People like to hear things stated in the positive. A negative liberty is a “freedom from”. A positive liberty is a “freedom to.”

Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution thinks Libertarians should spend more time discussing positive liberty. Tom G. Palmer says that it is because modern liberals started trying to create a positive spin on liberty that they ended up with such a convoluted oppressive ideology.

Personally, I think both speakers missed the point.

The reason that you would talk about the restrictions on liberty is because it is easier and cleaner to describe the limits of the negative space (what you can’t do) than to describe all of the possibilities of what you could do.

A Libertarian thinks the government should say (in the negative): “Don’t hurt other people. Don’t go around taking other people’s stuff. Have Fun.”

The above statement is negative. However, the statement is extemely enabling. Other than hurting other people and taking their stuff, you have a wide open world of possibilities.”

The converse of this is the progressive who states things positively. For example, they might look at your records and say: “Comrade, we’ve judged you academically, and we have judged you politically. The politburo has determined that you can have a two bedroom apartment that you will share with a family from Trinidad, and you can have a job as a janitor. Here is your mop. Have fun.”

The above statement is stated positively. I suspect that people from Trinidad make wonderful roommates, and janitorial work is kind of fun. You can mop with abandon.

From an intellectual or political standpoint, stating things positively is extremely pleasing, but life of the person who just got the dictate is probably going to be less pleasing than the person who was left to their own devices to figure out what to do.

Tyler Cowen is right that Libertarians should try to move away from negative speak to positive speak. Perhaps the wisest way of going about this task is to include statements of the positive things individuals can do with liberty after talking about the negative restrictions the Libertarian wants on government.

This leads into a very strange part of the two podcasts.

Much of the push for classical liberalism came from the school of Adam Smith. Smith discussed the counterintuitive notion that by giving people the freedom optimize their own resources, they end up optimizing the resources of the country in which they reside.

Economists of the classical liberal tradition have shown time and time again that freedom leads to greater wealth.

Since the wealth produce is demonstrable, classical liberals tend to spend a great deal of time prattling on about wealth production. The mantra of the classical liberal is that a government should allow the greatest amount of freedom possible (negative freedom) because allowing this freedom produces and astoundingly large amount of wealth.

This emphasis on wealth and power tweaks the interest of political leaders; however it falls flat on the individual who is often more interested in the well being of the people around them than simply in the number of baubles on the mantle place.

The overemphasis on the relation between freedom and wealth production is, in my opinion, the greatest short falling of most classical liberal pundits.

The central concept of the classical liberal ideal is freedom, not wealth production.

When people are allowed freedom (negative restrictions on government) they end up being in a position to better help the people around them.

When people are free, they invariably end up running around doing good things for the people around them.

Yes, Progressives have an extremely compelling argument when they state that they will jack up tax rates from 50% to 70% and spend the proceeds from the tax on social justice. The glorious progressive leader gets ego boost after ego boost as he buys popularity by being altruistic with other people’s money.

The Progressive ideology is so compelling because they state their totalitarian ideology in positive terms; however, when you go beyond the words into actions you find the positively stated ideology impoverishes a society by limiting the actions of the people that the progressives claim to support.

A very small number of people even start realize that the clowns shouting out slogans about social justice have traditionally been the leading source of social injustice.

Although positive speak is often more effective, It seems to me that classical liberals are best to continue their tradition of negative speak and hope that someday the masses someday realize that the process of defining a negative space in which one can act allows individuals the best opportunity to achieve their desires to all of their desires including material, altruistic and spiritual desires.


Charles D said...

What exactly is the basis for your stereotypical "progressive"? The notions you have here certainly are far from the ideas or speech of any progressives I've ever heard.

I agree with some of your points. Namely, that some individuals are more interested in the well being of others (or of their community or nation) than in their own self-aggrandizement. That's actually essential to a working democracy. If it is simply every man for himself (women too of course), then we devolve into anarchy rather rapidly.

However, being free to do whatever I want does not mean that I am able to actually achieve any progress toward helping others, or my community or my nation. Many problems in our world are beyond the ability of free individuals to address, and even beyond the ability of free associations of humans to address. What do we do about those problems? Ignore them?

The freedom to achieve one's personal, individual desires is certainly essential to a free society, but so is the ability to create the kind of society, community, nation that we desire to live in. Perhaps some people might have to give up the freedom to buy another vacation home or plasma television so that we can build a nation that will preserve and extend the freedom available to their children.

Scott Hinrichs said...

The reason we have government at all is that some problems are beyond the abilities of free individuals and free human associations to adequately address, as DL states. However, there is significant disagreement among people as to what those intransigent problems are. Even where agreement on this point exists, there is substantial disagreement about what solutions should be applied.

It is arguable that many 'problems' currently addressed by government are made worse by its handling and/or could be better addressed by free associations.

It seems that some people are chiefly concerned about inequality and view it as a moral failing. Libertarians, as I understand it, are not so much concerned about inequal outcomes as equality and maximization of freedoms. This philosophy suggests that a rising tide raises all boats: that more freedom inexorably leads to overall improvements in individual conditions for all members of society.

Under this philosophy, even the worst off in a society are better off than they would be if freedoms were suppressed to diminish inequality. The resultant inequality between the best off and the worst off is ultimately unimportant in this view.

But the path to this kind of freedom can be somewhat chaotic. In an attempt to impose more order, we put a damper on the freedoms.

Kevin has often suggested that today's Left and Right both espouse significant limitations on personal liberties. They simply disagree about which liberties should be squelched and which ones should be given free reign. Libertarians feel that any limitation on liberties (beyond the absolutely essential) ultimately produces a worse outcome than unrestrained liberties.

There are plenty of criticisms of the Libertarian view. Although it may be popular to occasionally give it lip service, few Americans actually demonstrate a commitment to such a view.

Charles D said...

You state that libertarianism believes that "...a rising tide raises all boats:" Since it is pretty clear from the record of the last 27 years that cutting taxes on the rich and the corporations does not actually help people in the middle or lower income levels, we should pitch this idea out and find one that works.

When increasing personal liberty works to solve a problem, that's fine. When it doesn't, we need to solve the problem instead of clinging to our political or economic ideology as though it were handed down from God. That goes for the Left, Right and Libertarian ideologies.

Scott Hinrichs said...

I'm not sure how you can say that cutting taxes has failed to raise all boats. Unemployment rates are extemely low. The poorest among us have personalized ring tones on their cell phones. Although real wages have not increased, total compensation has climbed dramatically in the past three decades in almost every category.

y-intercept said...

I think he is referring to a speach by Webb that noted that the percent of income distributed in the form of wages decreased. This has happened because the Internet seems to have introduced a very large number of other mechanisms for distributing income. For example, a person selling on ebay makes income that is not wage income. All of the little ads on blogs bring in cash. I know several starving musicians who made income by recording and selling CDS.

The bizarre argument here is that since people are making more money through means other than direct employment that the working class is being impoverished. The argument fits in Marxist theory. What I care about is the actual amount of wealth and the distribution of that wealth. If a musician increases his yearly income from $8000 to $10,000 a year by selling CDs, then I am grooving with the tunes and wish the musician the best in his career. DL says that we are supposed to look at the $2k in CD sales with wealth envy.