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.