The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (7): Negative and Positive Freedom

It think it’s fair to say that both the libertarian and egalitarian conceptions of freedom are wrong. Libertarians traditionally adopt a negative kind of freedom. More precisely, they believe that individuals should be free from interference, especially interference by the government, and with their property. They don’t accept that it makes sense to view freedom more positively as the possession of resources and capabilities that are necessary to make a really free choice between alternatives and opportunities. The freedom of those without certain resources and capabilities (such as education, health and a basic income) is futile because they can’t exercise their freedom, not because they are actively interfered with but because they can’t choose between opportunities.

Such a positive freedom is preferred by egalitarians (also called social-democrats, progressives, or even liberals). These, however, often make the mistake of denying the importance of negative freedom. In their effort to equalize freedom they often show disdain for non-interference and property rights.

There is a relatively easy way to bring these two points of view a bit closer together. The main worry of libertarians is that egalitarians will use the power of the state to redistribute property. (Remember the uproar over the claim by Obama that he wants to “spread the wealth around”). As I stated here, there are good reasons to encourage voluntary redistribution by citizens, without enforcement by the state (enforcement should only be necessary when citizens fail to engage in charity). If the resources and capabilities necessary for an equal positive freedom are redistributed voluntarily by citizens, then there is no interference and negative freedom and property rights are safeguarded.

This may sound naive, but I don’t think it is. There’s already an enormous amount of private charity and remittances are also a very important source of financial aid.

9 thoughts on “The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (7): Negative and Positive Freedom”

  1. Some people might think you ideal of volunteerism is too optimistic. Not enough people are willing to give up wealth (etc.) on their own. These people might be correct. But the reason is because people’s wealth is already being taken from them, namely by the state through coercion. One way it does this is through taxes. Taxing has the effect of reducing the incentive to donate. So the cynics who say volunteerism is unrealistic are correct insofar as the state continues to coerce citizens by mandating they give up their wealth to the state.


  2. I find this topic very interesting. In fact, we are having a discussion about social, economic, and cultural rights on our blog, in the context of housing as a human right:

    In response to the previous comment, I am curious what rates of charity were (and their efficacy in ameliorating poverty) during the US’ “Guided Age” when the level taxes and regulation was low or nonexistent. Sure, Carnegie had his “Gospel of Wealth,” but that era of quasi-laissez faire economics was a time of social unrest, massive inequality, and suffering.

    In addition, I also wanted to point out that other ways of making positive and negative liberty are compatible. Gerald MacCallum’s conceptualization of freedom as a “Triadic Relationship” is one example:

    “MacCallum defines the basic concept of freedom — the concept on which everyone agrees — as follows: a subject, or agent, is free from certain constraints, or preventing conditions, to do or become certain things. Freedom is therefore a triadic relation — that is, a relation between three things: an agent, certain preventing conditions, and certain doings or becomings of the agent. Any statement about freedom or unfreedom can be translated into a statement of the above form by specifying what is free or unfree, from what it is free or unfree, and what it is free or unfree to do or become. Any claim about the presence or absence of freedom in a given situation will therefore make certain assumptions about what counts as an agent, what counts as a constraint or limitation on freedom, and what counts as a purpose that the agent can be described as either free or unfree to carry out.”



  3. The initial post argued that volunteerism was one way of making positive and negative liberty compatible.

    Comment #1 seemed to argue that volunteerism would be hampered as long as “people’s wealth is already being taken from them, namely by the state through coercion,” or taxes.

    My response only pointed out that if you look at the historical record, the Gilded Age was a period of very low regulation and taxation. Given the previous reasoning, if volunteerism works, then it should have contributed substantially to the positive liberty enjoyed by the people during the Gilded Age. Now, volunteerism undoubtedly did contribute to social welfare (Carnegie build a lot of libraries, for example). However, it appears to be grossly insufficient. My previous post questioned how truly efficacious voluntary giving was in providing for the capacities and opportunities consistent with positive liberty. The effects and causes of the “social unrest, massive inequality, and suffering,” I mentioned earlier would, I imagine, support the idea that people did not enjoy such capacities and opportunities. Therefore, action beyond “volunteerism,” would be necessary if people’s capacities and opportunities are to be taken seriously.

    Moreover, I object to the conceptualization of taxation offered earlier. The idea that taxes are merely the state coercing wealth away from its citizens is only one of many views on taxation (one which I do not hold). In the context of negative and positive liberty, for example, taxation is one way of providing for the public goods (that facilitate the capacities and opportunities of individuals) that are not provided for otherwise due to either market failures or insufficient volunteerism. I want to live in a society that provides for the capacities and opportunities of its citizens, that is why I am happy to pay taxes (not that the government doesn’t waste a ton of money–military spending, etc.)

    Taxation can also be seen as one way of investing in the future. Today, we enjoy many things (such as highways, the internet, scientific advancements etc.) that we did not pay for, but inherited from earlier generations. Such things were often paid for through taxation. If we want to maintain these investments (that often contribute to positive liberty) and make further investments, then taxation is one available means (not that it is ALWAYS the best means for investment, to be sure).

    Finally, taxation can be seen as paying our dues in order to live in a country that does provide such wonderful negative liberties. It seems unreasonable to think that all the negative liberties we enjoy should come absolutely free. After all, such liberties have been institutionally created and maintained over time. Don’t all those courts and judges cost money? As Rousseau discussed, we gave up a substantial amount of our negative liberty when we joined society. However, we did that to secure other liberties.


  4. I’m not intimately familiar with the Gilded Age, unfortunately, but it still holds that no taxes does not result in no social unrest. I’ve never made that argument. The argument I did make is that taxes are a disincentive to donate, give charity, and so on. It’s a virtual truism that people respond to incentives. So when the state takes money from you, you’ll be less inclined to give up what money you have left.

    And how does the state collect your money? Through coercion. Let’s say I decide I don’t want to give up my money to the state (but rather to charity, investments for future generations, etc.). The state says I can’t do that. If I refuse, they will throw me in jail, and if I resist that, they will do so violently. That’s coercion.

    To be sure, I don’t pretend that the absence of taxes would lead to a perfect society or even an adequate level of voluntarism (but surely higher). I’m not an Austrian economist who thinks everything will work perfectly (Pareto) efficiently if only government got out of the way.

    So I do agree with you. If this were a functioning democracy, everyone on April 15 would say to themselves, “Great, today is the day I get contribute common decision of society that I got to participate in.” That doesn’t happen though, namely because we we’re not a functioning democracy. I’m not against taxes, per se. There are cases where I support taxes. But we have to make them work, and work properly.

    But what about the notion of “positive liberty”? From another post on this blog: “Liberals will tell you they are all for freedom, except economic freedom that is. It is as if how one spends, saves, or receives money has no bearing on freedom. It’s taken out of the equation. We have to take your money to, say, subsidize the big corporate farmer in Iowa. Because that’s fair and that’s freedom. At least it is in the liberal imagination. That’s precisely what ‘positive freedom’ entails. It means ignoring the freedom of some for the ‘freedom’ of others. And what exactly is this ‘freedom’ they’re supposedly bestowing upon their benefactors? It’s a very perverse kind of ‘freedom’ that entails reliance upon the state and other power structures, a handed-out ‘freedom’ that comes from above. When one looks at it closely, one realizes it has nothing at all to do with liberty.”

    And the idea that we have to give up liberty to ensure liberty is equally ludicrous. I owe nothing for the negative liberties I ought to have (but, in reality, don’t). What I owe is to not interfere and disrespect the liberty of others. That’s the meaning of negative liberty, and that’s precisely how it’s provided.


  5. My point wasn’t that volunteerism or charity would solve all resource and capability problems of the poor, and magically create positive liberty for all. Perhaps one day it will, but not any time soon. The point was rather that it can be encouraged, and, if so, will do much to undo some of the legitimate worries of libertarians regarding the power of the state (because absent voluntary redistribution the state will step in, and should step in).

    I also agree that not all taxation can be viewed as strictly redistributive. Much of it goes to common goods such as transport, education etc. from which also the wealthy benefit (and which would be much more expensive for the rich if they had to pay for them themselves).


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