What is Freedom? (8): Generic and Specific Freedom

People from both sides of the political divide are in favor of more freedom, it’s just that they often talk about different kinds of freedom: those on the left usually want to promote generic freedom, while those on the right favor specific freedom. Of course, they don’t use these terms, since I just made them up. What I mean by them is this:

  • Generic freedom: I lack generic freedom if I never have the freedom to do certain things, for example because I don’t have the capabilities, resources, education or whatever that is necessary for me to normally be able to do these things.
  • Specific freedom: I lack specific freedom if I normally have the freedom – i.e. the generic freedom, which is the ability or the resources – to do certain things but if in certain specific circumstances or on certain specific occasions someone or something prevents me from doing these things.

In the case of specific freedom, I both can and cannot do certain things (in the words of von Wright): I cannot do them now or here, but I could have done those things had it not been for some obstacle or interference. The “can do” is given and the problem of freedom only arises afterwards, namely when I can’t do, in some specific circumstances, what I normally can do.

In the generic type of freedom, on the other hand, the “can do” is problematic, and problematic in a generic rather than a specific sense: I can’t do certain things, not because I normally can but I now and here face some impediment, but because I normally can’t.

Promoting someone’s generic freedom means increasing the range of different things that person can do, generically. For example, it means teaching people to do things, allowing them to learn to do things, giving them the resources and opportunities to do things etc. Promoting someone’s specific freedom means reducing the range of impediments that force this person to omit certain actions. For example, it means reducing legal prohibitions, social pressure etc.

It’s tempting to conclude that generic freedom is in a sense prior to specific freedom: you won’t encounter impediments while trying to do what you already can do if what you are trying to do is not something you already can do. If you can’t do something, whether or not there are impediments, you don’t care about possible impediments. However, maybe specific and generic freedom are not so different after all: lack of capabilities or resources can also be viewed as an impediment.

Still, if we maintain the distinction between these two types of freedom – or these two understandings of freedom – then it seems to me that it can help to explain many of the differences between right and left wing politics. If you’re worried about generic freedom, you’ll want to help people pay for their healthcare and education; you’ll favor generous social security benefits etc. If, on the other hand, your main worry is specific freedom, you’ll favor less regulation and legislation, free markets and other policies that may or may not promote equal generic freedom for everyone.

More on the similar distinction between positive and negative freedom is here. More posts in this series are here.


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