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.