The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (11): Freedom as Capability

Freedom as independence or the absence of interference (especially government interference) is an important concept but it doesn’t cover all useful meanings of the word. Freedom is more than just the (relatively) unhindered ability to do as you like; it’s also the availability of significant and wide ranging choices and of the capabilities to do the things you choose to do. Choices and capabilities may be enhanced by the absence of interference, but also by interference. Someone who’s doesn’t suffer interference by her government, and who isn’t pressured by her family, tradition or society, may still lack freedom because her choices and capabilities are limited: maybe she doesn’t have a basic income necessary to make choices and act on these choices. Or maybe she didn’t receive the education necessary to have the capabilities to make informed choices. In those cases, government interference in society by way of poverty reduction and the provision of education may enhance freedom. Take an example that’s less controversial than education or poverty: traffic rules. These rules interfere with what we can do, and yet they vastly increase our choices and opportunities and they allow us to do what we choose (getting somewhere), because they prevent chaos and accidents.

Normally, the point of driving is to get somewhere. The traffic laws enable us to get where we are going much more quickly and safely than we would if each of us had to decide for him- or herself which side of the street to drive on. The traffic laws do not tell us where to go. They leave the choice of destination, and for that matter the decision whether to drive at all, entirely up to us. They simply tell us which side of the road to drive on, that we should stop at various points, and so forth. By taking away our freedom to drive on the left, or to blast through busy intersections, they grant us much more freedom in the form of a greatly enhanced ability to get wherever we want to go quickly and safely.

Anyone who thinks that the traffic laws enhance our freedom should acknowledge that in some cases, including this one, government action can enhance our freedom, even if that action takes the form of restrictions on what we can and cannot do. An enormous number of questions about which (other) forms of government action might enhance our freedom would remain to be answered, but the fact that some government policy involves either a more active government or new restrictions on our action would not, by itself, imply that it diminishes our freedom. Hilary Bok (source)

Traffic rules are a form of government interference that enhances our capabilities. And while they may not be representative of all government rules, we can safely conclude that some constraining rules can also be enabling rules. By limiting certain kinds of behavior, government actions and laws can greatly expand the range of possible behavior. Paradoxically, limiting freedom can mean expanding freedom.

Government can enhance our freedom by helping us to expand our choices and foster our capabilities, and by giving us the opportunity to exercise our capabilities as often – or as little – as we want. It does so especially for those of us who would struggle to foster and use our capabilities by ourselves. Hence, government enhancement of capabilities often means equalization of capabilities. Not in the case of traffic rules because in that case everyone equally depends on government intervention; in the case of education and poverty reduction, however, some will benefit much more than others.

The important thing, according to Martha Nussbaum (who, together with Amartya Sen, has written a lot about the capabilities approach), is not that we exercise all our capabilities all of the time, but that we all have an equal opportunity to exercise our capabilities as much or as little as we choose. People who starve cannot exercise their capabilities, but people who fast could exercise their capabilities but choose not to. Only in the former case is there a task for government. Likewise, something must be done when people in a totalitarian state can’t read the books they want, not when people in a free country decide to be coach potatoes. The power of choice is the central concern, not what is actually chosen. Capabilities are important, not actual functionings.

Read the other posts in this series here.

6 thoughts on “The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (11): Freedom as Capability”

  1. You might be interested to know (if you don’t already) that the Equality and Human Rights Commission in Britain (specifically Britain, not the UK: it does not have a remit in Northern Ireland) is seeking to apply a capabilities approach in its statutory triennial measurement of the ‘equality state of GB’. The detailed work on this is being undertaken by the London School of Economics for the ECHR:


  2. As a matter of fact, there are some libertarians who say traffic laws created by government are subversive to liberty. I hear this mostly from right-libertarians, and some of the arguments are interesting, but I don’t care to necessarily entertain them here.

    A very principled left-libertarian (i.e. anarchist) might ask the question why it has to be the state that has to come up with the rules and norms regulating how traffic operates. They might argue that how traffic is regulated in society can be, in fact, a very organic thing that does not require the existence of a state or other coercive institutions. To the anarchist, the argument that anarchy necessarily entails chaos, disorganization, lawlessness, violence, and a lack of modernity is a completely bunk argument but, again, I won’t necessarily entertain those arguments here. (Although, for an interesting discussion on laws, freedom, and anarchy, see here.)

    The question at hand is whether freedom entails “positive law” or “positive rights.” In your positive conception of freedom, you state freedom is having the “capabilities to do the things you choose to do.” So, if you want to go to school but lack the money to go to school, you are not free. But why stop at schools, so long as we define freedom as having the “capabilities to do the things you choose to do”? Why not my right to go to Harvard? What if I choose to fly to England, but lack the capabilities? Am I unfree? Should someone be forced to pay for my flight to England? And if we want to take your position to the absurd albeit logical extreme, what if I choose to be invisible, but lack such capabilities? Am I unfree?


    1. The so-called capabilities approach tries to list a number of basic capabilities that should be part of human life (e.g.). Such lists, however, seem to be difficult to agree on, but what people within this approach agree on is that frivolous capabilities such as the ones you mention shouldn’t receive a lot of theoretical or political attention. Schooling of course wouldn’t be one of those. Which doesn’t mean everyone should be able to go to Harvard or an equivalent. It does mean that large discrepancies in the quality of educational institutions are a problem.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s