Arnold Kling  

Positive Freedom, Negative Freedom, and Wealth

My Kind of Democrat... The Context and the Leader...

Julian Sanchez writes

Is the freedom and individualism Lindsey sees the freedom from interference we find in Kansas or the plenitude and diversity of options we find in Manhattan? Or more generally, which of Isaiah Berlin’s “two concepts of liberty” are implicated by growing mass affluence? With this question front and center, we may begin to see the hint of a tautology in a rhetorical question Lindsey poses in his book:

The new abundance, meanwhile, opened up a mad proliferation of choices—and what, in the end, is freedom but the ability to choose?

Yet the conception of freedom that has always centrally concerned libertarians has been the freedom from restraints on choice, not the variety of available options...

That is not to say that libertarian negative freedom is the only good. Clearly I don’t think so, or I’d be living on a deserted island somewhere, rather than in coastal cities.

To put Julian's essay in the form of a series of questions.

1. If we look narrowly at negative freedom (freedom from government restraint), has freedom increased or decreased over the past 50 years? Offhand, I would say "decreased," in spite of less regulation of transportation and telecommunications as well as lower marginal tax rates. The sheer proliferation of laws and regulations seems overwhelming.

2. Why would not a wealthier society want more negative freedom? Shouldn't negative freedom be a normal good, not an inferior good?

3. Has positive freedom increased? I would say so, along two dimensions. One is consumer freedom--we have lots more wealth and choice. Another is that there seems to be less cultural pressure to conform--although that one is more debatable.

4. If you agree with my answers to (1) and (3), does the increase in positive freedom outweigh the decrease in negative freedom? Or is it impossible to combine them in that way?

You might want to read Julian's entire essay before answering.

Comments and Sharing

CATEGORIES: Political Economy

COMMENTS (9 to date)
Craig writes:

I do agree with you (barely) but why is freedom from government intervention termed "negative" freedom? I can't think of anything much more positive.

Neel Krishnaswami writes:

re #1: I suspect that if you are black, 2007 offers an awful lot more negative liberty than 1957.

blink writes:

I agree with you on (1) and (3) and, given that I would refuse an opportunity to turn the clock back 50 years, I must answer (4) affirmatively. I am not so sure about (2). While many libertarians see negative freedom as a matter of justice – surely a normal good –too few others see it that way.

For example, most people would rather “donate” half of their lunch money to a bully than go hungry. When there is more lunch money around, there may be opportunities for “deputy bullies” as well – individuals who both give and take – and a typical person (I fear) would gleefully choose the “deputy” role over a situation with no bullies at all. The problem: too many wanna-be bullies. With more wealth, we sacrifice negative freedom to add a layer to the pyramid scheme.

Stephanie writes:

I agree with you about 1 and 3.

Regarding 4... I lean towards no (with perhaps a dash of "this question doesn't work"). Would I go back to 1957 if given the chance? Almost certainly not. But my personal preference for shiny technology and the status quo is just that. My own individual choices about what I prefer and am willing to tolerate are not an excuse for outright coercion of other people.

Regarding 2, I'm not sure how much most people view negative liberty as a good in the first place. I think a lot of people see the government as a tool for stamping out evil and promoting good, and don't give any weight to the loss of liberty involved in doing so. (I believe that to a large number of people, for instance, laws prohibiting discrimination are not a tradeoff, they're an unalloyed good. Racism bad, banning racism good, end of story.) Negative liberty only becomes something these people value when the government has -- in their opinion -- misjudged what's good and what's evil. This is just drawn from my own observations, though, and I could be totally off base.

8 writes:

How come there are very few places with both kinds of liberty, to the point that people created the Free State Project to try to solve the problem?

TGGP writes:

8, here is my hypothesis: Coastal cities are in a great position for a thriving economy, which offers lots of neat stuff. So they can dump a lot of crap on their denizens without making things bad enough that they want to leave. Flyover country doesn't have all that, so it has to offer less regulation and whatnot to attract anyone. This is reminiscent of the "curse of oil".

Bruce G Charlton writes:

AK said: "The sheer proliferation of laws and regulations seems overwhelming." &"we have lots more wealth and choice"

This set me thinking. What we are seeing is probably the usual situation in modernizing societies - all social systems growing in complexity. This means both more laws, and more choices; less legal freedom, more lifestyle freedom.

This argument shows why - although I call myself libertarian as a shorthand - I can only go 90 percent of the distance with professional libertarians.

Getting fixated on the liberty question at this level of analysis is pretty irrelevant, since we are not in a zero-sum game; the whole social system is growing in complexity, differentiating and specializing...

In other words, we can't make a precise comparison of past and present except in holistic terms such as 'when would it be better to be alive'.

As Kevin Kelly has said, we can choose to live in the future (big cities) or in the past (rural areas, and countries at various stages of development) - and we can see which choices people actually make.

Overwhelmingly they migrate to the most developed countries (not the other way) and to the most modern urban-style environments (not rural districts). Kelly puts this down to the drive for more freedom, in the sense of more choices - I think he is right.

Douglass Holmes writes:

Certainly the trend is for people who are mobile to move to the most developed countries. But I don't think that they overwhelmingly move to the most modern urban-style environment. People who first come to this country might stick around the large port cities that they arrived in, or cluster with other groups of their own ethnicity in larger cities, but when they really have a choice, they move to the suburbs. At least that's what Joel Kotkin's figures say ( And that is because that is where you find the right balance between negative freedom (fewer restrictions) and positive freedom (more choices). I find all the choice I want in midwest suburbia - a house I can afford, a job marked with sufficient opportunities, a low enough crime rate, but a downtown area less than half an hour away. I can even get away from the silly fairness amendment (a law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation) if I just move a few more miles out to another county.

liberty writes:

I do not think we have less negative freedom. 50 years ago government could still set prices in industry, force firms to agree to union demands, manage the economy in ways that we would be shocked by today.

I do agree that we have some more "positive freedoms" such as more choices in the supermarket. I believe that this is due to both growth *despite* regulation (which might exist even if we had reduced negative freedom) and growth due to reduced regulation.

We also have lost some "positive freedoms" such as the right to a "fair wage" and a "fair price" and a "union job" that came with the corporatism which we no longer have.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top