What is Freedom? (10): The Ability to Do Things

Sooner rather than later you’ll stumble across the following view when you read about definitions of freedom: people lack freedom when they can’t do what they want to do because governments – or also, in a relaxed version of the idea, fellow citizens – intervene in order to stop people from doing what they want to do (“stop” can mean different things here: literally stop someone, forbid something, coerce someone, prevent someone from doing something etc.).

When people can’t do what they want to do because of some other reasons – lack of resources, lack of money, lack of capabilities, handicaps, natural impediments, natural disasters etc. – then they don’t lack freedom. They merely lack ability.

My view is different: I accept the first part of the argument above – interference does indeed limit freedom in one sense of the word – but I reject the second part. And I have some illustrious company. G.A. Cohen, for instance, has argued that

while the poor are formally free to do all kinds of things that the state does not forbid anyone to do, their parlous situation means that they are not really free to do very many of them, since they cannot afford to do them, and they are, therefore, in the end, prevented from doing them. (source)

Hence, it’s wrong to claim that there is a fundamental difference between a lack of freedom and a lack of the means or ability to use freedom. Cohen again:

lack of money, poverty, carries with it lack of freedom. I regard that as an overwhelmingly obvious truth, one that is worth defending only because it has been so influentially denied. Lack of money, poverty, is not, of course, the only circumstance that restricts a person’s freedom, but it is, in my view, one of them, and one of the most important of them. To put the point more precisely – there are lots of things that, because they are poor, poor people are not free to do, things that non-poor people are, by contrast, indeed free to do. (source)

A lack of freedom and a lack of the means or ability to use freedom are fundamentally the same thing.

A similar post about the link between money and freedom is here, and one about poverty as a denial of freedom is here. More posts in this series are here.


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