positive liberty

Cato, the Kochs, and a Fluke

If you follow the libertarian sector of the blogosphere, as I do, you will have noted the recent dominance of two controversies: the future of Cato Institute and the subsidization of contraceptives. In the matter of Cato, it seems that the Koch brothers want to take control of Cato for the purpose of making it more “relevant” to current political issues, much to the universal dismay of the libertarians commentators whose opinions I have read. In the matter of contraceptives, it seems that the testimony of Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown University law student, has fostered libertarian-conservative agreement in opposition to Ms. Fluke’s whining plea for mandated insurance coverage of contraception (e.g., here and here).

I will not bother to recite the history of the controversies, nor will I try to summarize what various writers have said about them. If you are unfamiliar with either or both of them, start here and here, then follow the links therein. My modest aim is to show how the controversies reveal a link between left-libertarianism and the subsidization of contraceptives.

I therefore turn to Will Wilkinson, a former denizen of Cato who has described himself as a “liberaltarian.” What is a “liberaltarian”? I refer to myself:

In “More Pseudo-Libertarianism,” I say that I must come up with a new name for left-libertarians, inasmuch as they are not really libertarians. Some of them have tried “liberaltarian,” an amalgam of (modern) “liberal” and “libertarian.” To be a “liberaltarian” (with a straight face), one must believe that leftists are willing to abandon their pursuit of all-encompassing government and join left-libertarians in their pursuit of absolute fairness (by whose standards?) in economic and social outcomes. Leftists seek the latter objective, but will never be persuaded to drop the former one.

All of which suggests that  a left-libertarian is really a (witting or unwitting) collaborationist: an intellectual Vichyite or, in the parlance of the 1950s, a fellow traveler or comsymp (communist sympathizer).

Comsymp has a certain ring. Perhaps “libsymp” is what I’m looking for. I’ll give it a try.

Anyhow, the libsymp named Will Wilkinson seems to have a (libsymp-related) grievance against Cato, which is evident in his commentary about the Cato-Koch affair; for example:

Suppose Cato, without changing anything at all about its ideological orientation, were to focus more energy on some issues currently of interest to both groups like AFP [Americans for Prosperity] and groups like, say, the ACLU or Amnesty International? I think there’s a plausible argument that this would lead Cato to deliver greater libertarian bang for its donors’ bucks, while possibly even improving its non-partisan reputation.

Now, I’m not sure I buy this argument. I tend to think that a greater focus on practical political relevance would tend to exert a subtle pressure on Cato’s analysts to take it relatively easy on perceived allies when they do and say things harmful to liberty. Indeed, this pressure already exists, and it wouldn’t be a good idea to increase it, since it’s already biased toward the right. The legacy of right-fusionism has been to desensitize many libertarians to the inherently liberty-limiting aspects of social conservativism, and to reduce many self-described libertarians to acting primarily as cheerleaders for the economic agenda of “free-market” reactionaries….

For folks outside the Beltway, for whom the Cato staff are complete strangers, Cato looks like part of the right, if an odd one. There’s a reason David Boaz [Cato’s executive VP] is always complaining about newspapers identifying Cato as a “conservative” think tank, and it’s not just that David Boaz likes to complain. Just ask yourself how Cato’s work could have been more congenial to the GOP during George W. Bush’s failed attempt to reform Social Security, or during the failed attempt to block Obamacare? Cato obviously already is in the politically-relevant intellectual ammo business. And in actual large-stakes political fights in Washington, Cato is generally on the Republican side. It would not be strange to spot a Catoite at Grover Norquist’s infamous Wednesday morning meetings. Because Cato functions as part of the right.

It’s tempting to think that Cato almost never does anything to help the Democrats largely because it’s just too far to the left of the Democratic Party on foreign policy and civil liberties. Yet Cato is equally far to the “right” of the Republican Party on economic policy, welfare policy, education policy, and lots more. Social Security privatization is a forced savings program. School vouchers and/or education tax credits are taxpayer-funded education. Lower income-tax rates concede the income tax. Again and again Cato finds a way to settle on non-ideal, “second-best” economic, welfare, and education policies, and argue for them in away that provides “ammo” to the right. But it very rarely develops compromising second-best policies on foreign policy or civil liberties that would be of any practical use to dovish or civil-libertarian Democrats. Why not? Why was coming out in favor of gay marriage more controversial at Cato (the state shouldn’t be involved in marriage at all!) than coming out in favor of school vouchers (the state shouldn’t be involved in education at all!)? Why not a bigger institutional push for medical marijuana as a second-best, nose-under-the-tent alternative to outright legalization? The fact is that Cato has so deeply internalized the ethos of the venerable right-fusionist alliance that there is almost no hope of it functioning on the whole in a truly non-partisan way. I think its status-quo reputation reflects that.

I reproduced that much of Wilkinson’s post just to give you an idea of the depth of his animus toward the Cato of Ed Crane‘s making. A particular aspect of Wilkinson’s “indictment” bears on the thesis of this post. It does not take much reading between the lines to detect Wilkinson’s embrace of “positive liberty,” which is the antithesis of liberty. He spells it out more explicitly here:

[F]reedom has a number of meanings, and one of them is “ability to do stuff.”… Persons, natural or legal, are either coerced or they aren’t. Mugged people with fat wallets aren’t coerced or wrongly interfered with more than mugged people with thin wallets. They just lose more money. That conservatives and libertarians always ultimately do treat tax increases as losses of freedom suggests to me that they’re really proponents of positive liberty after all, but haven’t thought the implications through. In that case, they’re right to see growth as a matter of freedom. But then they’re also are quite wrong to think that a well-functioning welfare state isn’t a matter of freedom.

There you have it. Wilkinson — like other left-libertarians — hews to a key tenet of modern “liberalism,” which is that people are not really free unless they have a certain measure of economic wherewithal. The taking of income by taxation, in Wilkinson’s view, is morally equivalent to a lack of income.

This left-libertarian (and “liberal”) view of the world depends on the slippery use of the term “coercion.” The taking of something from a person by force or the threat of force is coercion. Taxation is coercion, and resistance to taxation is not a plea for “positive liberty.” On the other hand, there is no coercion when a person is “forced” to accept a standard of living that is arbitrarily deemed sub-standard simply because that person does not earn enough “to do stuff,” according to the arbiter’s standards of what “stuff” a person needs “to do.”

There is, in sum, no moral distance between the left-libertarian and “liberal” worldviews, both of which favor “positive liberty.” What kind of and how much “positive liberty” should be doled out are merely matters of taste. The likeness of left-libertarianism and “liberalism” reminds me of this famous anecdote:

A man asks a woman if she would be willing to sleep with him if he pays her an exorbitant sum. She replies affirmatively. He then names a paltry amount and asks if she would still be willing to sleep with him for the revised fee. The woman is greatly offended and replies as follows:

She: What kind of woman do you think I am?

He: We’ve already established that. Now we’re just haggling over the price.

Which brings me, at last, to Sandra Fluke, who has established what kind of person she is, and is just haggling over the price.

Related posts:
The Causes of Economic Growth
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
A Short Course in Economics
Fascism with a “Friendly” Face
Democracy and Liberty
The Interest-Group Paradox
Addendum to a Short Course in Economics
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Fascism and the Future of America
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
The Constitution: Original Meaning, Corruption, and Restoration
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
The Devolution of American Politics from Wisdom to Opportunism
The Near-Victory of Communism
Tocqueville’s Prescience
Accountants of the Soul
Invoking Hitler
Rawls Meets Bentham
The Left
Enough of “Social Welfare”
A True Flat Tax
The Case of the Purblind Economist
Youthful Wisdom
The Divine Right of the Majority
Our Enemy, the State
Social Justice
Taxing the Rich
More about Taxing the Rich
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
More Social Justice
Luck-Egalitarianism and Moral Luck
Nature Is Unfair
Elizabeth Warren Is All Wet
“Occupy Wall Street” and Religion
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
More about Merit Goods
What Is Bleeding-Heart Libertarianism?
The Morality of Occupying Private Property
In Defense of the 1%

More about Merit Goods

This is a follow-up to “Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice.” That post was inspired by a post at Austin Frakt’s blog, The Incidental Economist, about which John Goodman had this to say:

Austin, on first reading, I thought you were saying that I (as a taxpayer) should help pay for your daughter’s asthma medication — even though you agree that you can afford to pay for it yourself. Disbelief overcame me, so I read your post a second time. Then I read it a third. Each time, the message was as incomprehensible as on the previous reading.

Is there a persuasive reason why I owe the Frakt household something? If so, it’s not in this post.

Frakt’s response to Goodman:

You owe me nothing. Follow the link to value-based insurance design or find the V-BID center at U Mich. I think you’re looking for trouble where none should exist.

Well, I followed the link, and came away unconvinced that Frakt wants nothing from Goodman or anyone else. Accordingly, I posted this comment (paragraph breaks and emphasis added):

Your post about value-based insurance — to which you refer John Goodman — suggests that by reducing the co-pay on asthma drugs, trips to the ER would be averted, thus reducing the insurance company’s total costs and (possibly) the premiums it must charge its policy holders. If I have that right, it explains your reply to Goodman that “You owe me nothing.” I suspect that what he reacted to — and I would have reacted to similarly — is your assertion that “breathing [is] a merit good, something we all have a right to enjoy.” That assertion is unnecessary to the discussion of value-based insurance. And your use of the term “merit good” strongly suggests that your statement “Asthma medication is exactly the type of health product that should be free, or nearly so, especially for low-income families” is not just a statement about the presumed efficacy of value-based insurance, but advocacy for income redistribution.

In that case, a modified version of Goodman’s reaction is entirely in order, and I subscribe to it: “Is there a persuasive reason why I owe other households something, and what qualifies you (or anyone else) to make that judgment?” The excuse that I might otherwise end up paying for ER services through my taxes or insurance premiums relies on the assumption that ER services are a merit good that ought to be covered by tax subsidies and/or mandated insurance coverage. There is no end to the number of things that can be called merit goods, but calling them merit goods does not disguise the fact that doing so is an excuse for imposing one person’s or group’s preferences and burdens on others.

Those impositions have led to the present state of affairs, in which myriad interest groups pick each others’ pockets — and the pockets of the unfortunate who are not well-represented by an interest group. One truly unfortunate result of that state of affairs — aside from the gross diminution of liberty — is the diversion of resources from uses that would foster greater economic growth and alleviate much of the poverty that provides an excuse, in the first place, for special pleading about merit goods.

Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice

A merit good is said to be something that

an individual or society should have on the basis of some concept of need, rather than ability and willingness to pay…. [T]he concept … lies behind many economic actions by governments…. Examples include the provision of food stamps to support nutrition, the delivery of health services to improve quality of life and reduce morbidity, subsidized housing and arguably education….

Sometimes, merit … goods are simply seen as an extension of the idea of externalities. A merit good may be described as a good that has positive externalities associated with it. Thus, an inoculation against a contagious disease may be seen as a merit good. This is because others who may not now catch the disease from the inoculated person also benefit.

[M]erit … goods can be defined in a different way…. The essence of merit … goods is [has] do with … information failure…. This arises because consumer[s] do not perceive quite how good or bad the good is for them: either they do not have the right information or lack relevant information…. [A]merit good is [a] good that is better for a person than the person … realizes.

Other possible rationales for treating some commodities as merit … goods include public-goods aspects of a commodity…

A merit good, in short, is something that someone believes that the state should cause to be given to certain individuals, as a “positive right,” for various reasons: perceived need, externalities, and market failure among them.

But the “right” to something that is not earned or freely given is not a right, as the term is properly understood. It is an extortion by force or the threat of force, either directly (as in the case of outright theft) or though the coercive power of the state. Only a fool or a dishonest person can say that something obtained through extortion is obtained by right, unless that person believes that the victims of extortion are less deserving — less human — than the intended beneficiaries of extortion.

If a right is anything, it is something that all members of a polity can enjoy equally. If some members of a polity are placed above others through force or the threat of force, then the polity has no system of rights; it has a system of arbitrary privileges, dispensed by the state according to the whims of the faction then in power.

Given that a right must be something that all can enjoy equally, a right can only be negative:

  • the right not to have one’s life taken if one is peaceful toward others
  • the right not to be deprived of liberty if one is peaceful toward others
  • the right to the peaceful enjoyment and use of one’s property in the pursuit of one’s life and livelihood.

These negative rights come down to this: the right to be left alone as one leaves others alone.

If “obligations” accompany the right to be left alone, they do so only in the context of voluntary social (and economic) relationships, wherein acts of kindness and charity flow readily among persons who trust and care for each other and do so, in good part, because they observe the right of others to be left alone. These “obligations” are incurred and honored voluntarily, not because a person or group invested with the power of the state decrees them.

Merit goods (“positive rights”), by contrast, are the products of presumption — judgments about who is “needy” and “deserving” — and they are bestowed on some by coercing others. These coercions extend not only to the seizure of income and wealth but also to denials of employment (e.g., affirmative action), free speech (e.g., campaign-finance “reform”), freedom of contract (e.g., mandatory recognition of unions), freedom of association (e.g., forced admission of certain groups to private organizations), freedom of conscience (e.g., forced participation in abortions), and on and on.

The list of “merit goods” that forms the basis for the many and various forms of state-sponsored coercion may not be infinite, but it is exceedingly long. And its length is limited only by the perverse ingenuity of the seekers of “cosmic justice.” What is cosmic justice? I like this example from Thomas Sowell’s speech, “The Quest for Cosmic Justice“:

A fight in which both boxers observe the Marquis of Queensberry rules would be a fair fight, according to traditional standards of fairness, irrespective of whether the contestants were of equal skill, strength, experience or other factors likely to affect the outcome– and irrespective of whether that outcome was a hard-fought draw or a completely one-sided beating.

This would not, however, be a fair fight within the framework of those seeking “social justice,” if the competing fighters came into the ring with very different prospects of success — especially if these differences were due to factors beyond their control….

In a sense, proponents of “social justice” are unduly modest. What they are seeking to correct are not merely the deficiencies of society, but of the cosmos. What they call social justice encompasses far more than any given society is causally responsible for. Crusaders for social justice seek to correct not merely the sins of man but the oversights of God or the accidents of history. What they are really seeking is a universe tailor-made to their vision of equality. They are seeking cosmic justice.

To be a practitioner of cosmic justice, a person must set himself up as a judge of the merit of other persons, without really possessing more than superficial information about those other persons (e.g., that they are “rich” or “poor” by some standard). As I once said of two founders of modern “liberalism,” T.H. Green and L.T. Hobhouse, they are

accountants of the soul….

…(presumably) intelligent persons who believe that their intelligence enables them to peer into the souls of others, and to raise them up [or put them down] through the blunt instrument that is the state.

This is done on in the service of concepts that do not bear close examination, such as externalities, public goods, market failure, and social justice, social welfare, and positive rights. I will not repeat my asseessments of those concepts, but refer you to some of them instead:

Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
A Short Course in Economics
Social Justice
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
More Social Justice
On Self-Ownership and Desert
Luck-Egalitarianism and Moral Luck
Externalities and Statism

Positive Liberty vs. Liberty

There is a special kind of liberty known as “positive liberty,” which is inimical to “liberty,” as that term is properly understood. To show why, I begin by expanding on an earlier post, where I offer the following definition of liberty:

peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior

Liberty, thus defined, is liberty — full stop. It is neither negative nor positive. It is a modus vivendi that is accepted and practiced by a social group, in keeping with the group’s behavioral norms. There is no liberty if those norms do not include voice and exit, because willing coexistence then becomes problematic. (For a further elaboration, see “On Liberty” and scroll down to “What Liberty Is.”)

However, peaceful, willing coexistence is likely (and perhaps only) to be found where a close-knit social group lives by the Golden Rule:

One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself….

The Golden Rule can be expanded into two, complementary sub-rules:

  • Do no harm to others, lest they do harm to you.
  • Be kind and charitable to others, and they will be kind and charitable to you.

The first sub-rule — the negative one — is compatible with the idea of negative rights, but it doesn’t demand them. The second sub-rule — the positive one — doesn’t yield positive rights because it’s a counsel to kindness and charity, not a command.

I call the Golden Rule a natural law because it’s neither a logical construct … nor a state-imposed one. Its long history and widespread observance (if only vestigial) suggest that it embodies an understanding that arises from the similar experiences of human beings across time and place. The resulting behavioral convention, the ethic of reciprocity, arises from observations about the effects of one’s behavior on that of others and mutual agreement (tacit or otherwise) to reciprocate preferred behavior, in the service of self-interest and empathy. That is to say, the convention is a consequence of the observed and anticipated benefits of adhering to it.

I must qualify the term “convention,” to say that the Golden Rule will be widely observed within any group only if the members of that group are generally agreed about the definition of harm, value kindness and charity (in the main), and (perhaps most importantly) see that their acts have consequences. If those conditions are not met, the Golden Rule descends from convention to admonition.

However,

Self-governance by mutual consent and mutual restraint — by voluntary adherence to the Golden Rule — is possible only for a group of about 25 to 150 persons: the size of a hunter-gatherer band or Hutterite colony. It seems that self-governance breaks down when a group is larger than 150 persons. Why should that happen? Because mutual trust, mutual restraint, and mutual aid — the things implied in the Golden Rule — depend very much on personal connections. A person who is loathe to say a harsh word to an acquaintance, friend, or family member — even when provoked — often waxes abusive toward strangers, especially in this era of e-mail and comment threads, where face-to-face encounters aren’t involved.  More generally, it’s a human tendency to treat acquaintances differently than strangers; the former are accorded more trust, more cooperation, and more kindness than the latter. Why? Because there’s usually a difference between the consequences of behavior that’s directed toward strangers and the consequences of behavior that’s directed toward persons one knows, lives among, and depends upon for restraint, cooperation, and help. The allure of  doing harm without penalty (“getting away with something”) or receiving without giving (“getting something for nothing”)  becomes harder to resist as one’s social distance from others increases.

When self-governance breaks down, it becomes necessary to spin off a new group or to establish a central power (a state) to establish and enforce rules of behavior (negative and positive). The problem, of course, is that those vested with the power of the state quickly learn to use it to advance their own preferences and interests, and to perpetuate their power by granting favors to those who can keep them in office. It is a rare state that is created for the sole purpose of protecting its citizens from one another and from outsiders, and rarer still is the state that remains true to such purposes.

In sum, the Golden Rule — as a uniting way of life — is quite unlikely to survive the passage of a group from community to state. Nor does the Golden Rule as a uniting way of life have much chance of revival or survival where the state already dominates. The Golden Rule may have limited effect within well-defined groups (e.g., parishes, clubs, urban enclaves, rural communities), by regulating the interactions among the members of such groups. It may have a vestigial effect on face-to-face interactions between stranger and stranger, but that effect arises mainly from the fear that offense or harm will be met with the same, not from a communal bond.

In any event, the dominance of the state distorts behavior. For example, the state may enable and encourage acts (e.g., abortion, homosexuality) that had been discouraged as harmful by group norms; the ability of members of the group to bestow charity on one another may be diminished by the loss of income to taxes and discouraged by the establishment of state-run schemes that mimic the effects of charity (e.g., Social Security).

The attainment of something that all Americans would recognize as liberty is next to impossible. The United States does not comprise a single, close-knit social group, nor even a collection of close-knit social groups. It is a motley, shifting conglomeration of (mostly) loose-knit groups with widely varying social norms and conceptions of harm. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that America is a nation of strangers.

It follows that the only kind of state-sponsored liberty which is possible in America is so-called negative liberty, that is, a regime of negative rights:

  • freedom from force and fraud (including the right of self-defense against force)
  • property ownership (including the right of first possession)
  • freedom of contract (including contracting to employ/be employed)
  • freedom of association and movement.

But we are far from such a regime:

[M]ost government enactments deny negative rights; for example, they

  • compel the surrender of income to government agencies for non-protective purposes (violating freedom from force and property ownership)
  • compel the transfer of income to persons who did not earn the income (violating freedom from force and property ownership)
  • direct how business property may be used, through restrictions on the specifications to which goods must be manufactured (violating property ownership)
  • force the owners of businesses (in non-right-to-work-States) to recognize and bargain with labor unions (violating property rights and freedom of contract)
  • require private businesses to hire certain classes of persons (“protected groups”) and undertake additional expenses for the “accommodation” of handicapped persons (violating property rights and freedom of contract)
  • require private businesses to restrict or ban smoking (violating property rights and freedom of association)
  • mandate attendance at tax-funded schools and the subjects taught in those schools, even where those teachings run counter to the moral values that parents are trying to inculcate (violating freedom from force and freedom of association)
  • limit political speech through restrictions on political contributions and the publication of political advertisements (violating freedom from force and freedom of association).

On top of that,

[s]uch enactments also trample social norms. First, and fundamentally, they convey the message that government, not private social institutions, is the proper locus of moral instruction and interpersonal mediation. Persons who seek special treatment (privileges, a.k.a. positive rights) learn that they can resort to government for “solutions” to their “problems,” which encourages other persons to do the same thing, and so on. In the end — which we have not quite reached — social institutions lose their power to instruct and mediate, and become merely sources of solace and entertainment.

There is much more in the pages of this blog (e.g., here and here). The sum and substance of it all is that liberty is a dead letter in America. It has succumbed to a series of legislative, executive, and judicial acts that have, on the one hand, suppressed and distorted voluntary social and economic relationships and, on the other hand, bestowed positive rights on selected groups to the general detriment of liberty. Positive rights are grants of privilege that can come only at the expense of others, and which are therefore incompatible with the “willing” aspect of liberty.

The clamor for positive liberty ought to set off alarm bells in the minds of libertarians because positive liberty, wrongly understood, justifies positive rights. The last thing this nation needs is what passes for a philosophical justification of positive rights. The first thing this nation needs is a lot fewer positive rights.

Positive liberty is nevertheless on the agenda of the philosophers who blog at Bleeding Heart Libertarians. What is it? According to Wikipedia:

Positive liberty is defined as the power and resources to act to fulfill one’s own potential (this may include freedom from internal constraints); as opposed to negative liberty, which is freedom from external restraint….

…Specifically, … in order to be free, a person should be free from inhibitions of the social structure in carrying out their free will. Structurally speaking classism, sexism or racism can inhibit a person’s freedom….

In other words, it is not enough to have “peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior.” That kind of liberty — liberty in the fullest sense — encompasses the acts of love, affection, friendship, neighborliness, and voluntary obligation that help individuals acquire the “power and resources” with which they may strive to attain the fruits of liberty, insofar as they are willing and able to do so.

That should be enough to satisfy the proponents of positive liberty at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, but I suspect otherwise. I would be more sanguine were they proponents of a proper definition of liberty, but they are not. Thus, armed with an inchoate definition of liberty, they are prepared to do battle for positive liberty and, I fear, the positive rights that are easily claimed as necessary to it; to wit:

  • A lack of “power” entitles certain groups to be represented, as groups, in the councils of government (a right that is not extended to other groups).
  • A lack of “resources” becomes the welfare entitlements of various kinds — for personal characteristics ranging from low intelligence to old age — which threaten to suck ever more resources out the productive, growth-producing sectors of the economy.
  • The exercise of “free will” becomes the attainment of certain “willed” outcomes, regardless of one’s ability or effort, which then justifies such things as an affirmative-action job, admission to a university, a tax-subsidized house, etc.
  • “Classism,” “sexism,” “racism,” and now “beauty-ism” become excuses for discriminating against vast swaths of the populace who practice none of those things.

With respect to the final point, a certain degree of unpleasantness inevitably accompanies liberty. Legal attempts to stifle that unpleasantness simply spread injustice by fomenting resentment and covert resistance, while creating new, innocent victims who are deemed guilty until they can prove their innocence.

In sum, the line between positive liberty and positive rights is so fine that the advocacy of positive liberty, however well meant, easily becomes the basis for preserving and extending the burden of positive rights that Americans now carry.

The Meaning of Liberty

If you were a physicist who was writing about Einstein’s special theory of relativity, would you bother to list the ways in which non-physicists define the concept? I doubt it.

But at least one of the bloggers at Bleeding Heart Libertarians — a new group blog whose eight contributors (thus far) are professors of law and/or philosophy — advances the proposition that “liberty” means whatever non-philosophers think it means. The contributor in question, Jason Brennan, justifies his preference by saying  that liberty “is a concept philosophers are interested in, but it’s a not a philosopher’s technical term.”

That may be so, but I would think that philosophers who are going to use a term that is central to the theme of their blog — the connection of libertarianism to social justice — would begin by searching for a relevant and logically consistent definition of liberty. Brennan, instead, casts a wide net and hauls in a list of seven popular definitions, one of which (negative liberty) has three sub-definitions. That may be a useful starting point, but Brennan leaves it there, thus implying that liberty is whatever anyone thinks it is.

His evident purpose in doing so is to leave the door open to a positive definition of liberty, while dismissing those who maintain that logic demands a negative definition of liberty. Consider Brennan’s list, which he calls partial and in which he uses “freedom” for “liberty”:

  1. Freedom as Absence of Obstacles: Someone is free to the extent that no obstacles impede her ability to do as she pleases.

    [a.] Freedom as Absence of Deliberate Interference: Someone is free to the extent that no one deliberately interferes with her ability to do as she pleases.
    [b.] Freedom as Absence of Interference: Someone is free to the extent that no one interferes with her ability to do as she pleases.
    [c.] Freedom as Absence of Wrongful Interference: Someone is free to the extent that no one wrongfully interferes with her ability to do as she pleases.

  2. Freedom as Capacity: Someone is free to the extent that she has the power, ability, capacity, or means to do as she pleases.
  3. Freedom as Autonomous Self-Control: Someone is free to the extent that she exhibits sufficient deliberative self-control, such that she is authentically the author of her actions.
  4. Freedom as Non-Domination: A person is free to the extent she is not subject to another person’s or group’s arbitrary will.
  5. Freedom as Moral Virtue: A person is free to the extent she has the power to recognize and act upon her moral obligations.
  6. Freedom as Absence of Pressure: A person is free to the extent she feels no social pressure to do anything.
  7. Freedom as Absence of Reasons: A person is free to the extent she has no grounds or reasons for making decisions.

And so on. Notice that 1a­–1c are just more specific version[s] of 1.

[A person who insists on using the politically correct “she” in place of the traditional and, in truth, gender-neutral “he” is likely to be a person who is driving toward an acceptable answer instead of the right answer.]

I am struck by the fact that none of the definitions offered by Brennan is a good definition of liberty (about which, more below). This suggests to me that Brennan and (possibly) the other contributors to Bleeding Heart Libertarianism will offer views about the connection of libertarianism and social justice that have nothing to do with liberty, but which merely reflect their various visions of preferred socioeconomic arrangements* and the uses (or non-uses) of state power in the attainment thereof. I therefore humbly suggest that the next order of business at Bleeding Heart Libertarianism ought to be a concerted effort to define the concept that is part of the blog’s raison d’etre.

To help Brennan & Co. in their quest, I offer the following definition of liberty, which is from the first post at this blog, “On Liberty“:

peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior

The problem with the definitions listed by Brennan should now be obvious. Those definitions focus on the individual, whereas the relevant definition of liberty is a social one. That is to say, one cannot address social justice and its connection to liberty unless liberty is viewed as a modus vivendi for a group of individuals. There is no such thing as the ability to do as one pleases — the dominant motif of Brennan’s list — unless

  • one lives in complete isolation from others, or
  • one lives in the company of others who are of identical minds, or
  • one rules others.

The first condition is irrelevant to the matter of social justice. The second is implausible. The third takes the point of view of a dictator, and omits the point of view of his subjects.

The implausibility of the second condition is critical to a proper understanding of liberty. Brennan says (in “Positive Liberty and Legal Guarantees“) that “[w]e often equate freedom with an absence of constraints, impediments, or interference.” In a political context (i.e., where two or more persons coexist), there are always constraints on the behavior of at least one person, even in the absence of coercion or force. Coexistence requires compromise because (I daresay) no two humans are alike in their abilities, tastes, and preferences. And compromise necessitates constraints on behavior; that is, compromise means that the parties involved do not do what they would do if they were isolated from each other or of like minds about everything.

In sum, “peaceful, willing coexistence” does not imply “an absence of constraints, impediments, or interference.” Rather, it implies that there is necessarily a degree of compromise (voluntary constraint) for the sake of “beneficially cooperative behavior.” Even happy marriages are replete with voluntary constraints on behavior, constraints that enable the partners to enjoy the blessings of union.

The specific landscape of liberty — the rights and obligations of individuals with respect to one another — depends on the size and composition of the social group in question. It is there that the question of positive vs. negative liberty (really positive vs. negative rights) takes on importance. I will tackle that question in a future post.

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* Sure enough, only a few hours after I posted this, we hear from the newest recruit to Bleeding Heart Libertarianism, Roderick Long (a left-libertarian whom I have addressed before). Long’s is a left-libertarian because he is against state power but, at the same time, against outcomes that can occur in the absence of state power:

On the one hand, I’m committed to libertarianism in a fairly standard sense: self-ownership, the non-aggression principle, Lockean homesteading, private property, and free markets. On the other hand, I’m committed to a fairly standard set of traditionally leftist concerns, including opposition to such social evils as worker exploitation, plutocratic privilege, racism, homophobia, gender inequality, militarism, environmental degradation, and the prison-industrial complex. (Call them all “oppression” for short.)

“Worker exploitation” is what happens when workers and employers are free to agree about the terms and conditions of employment, which is good for competent, productive workers and bad for incompetent, unproductive ones (the ones that unions protect). “Plutocratic privilege” is bad only if it is the result of crony capitalism; otherwise, it is merely a case of well-to-do individuals enjoying the fruits of what they have earned. “Racism” is a inescapable aspect of human nature, and it cuts in all directions; typical efforts to compensate for it result in the theft of property rights and the hiring and promotion of less-qualified persons. “Homophobia” is a personal choice, and efforts by the state to squelch it will surely result in the theft of property rights and denial of freedom of speech. “Gender inequality” is mostly a figment of the imagination of leftists who always fail to take into account differences in age, experience, and aptitude when lamenting the fact that women generally earn less than men and are “underrepresented” in certain occupations. “Militarism” is what has kept many a Roderick Long from going to the concentration camps of Nazi Germany and the gulags of Soviet Russia. “Environmental degradation” is vastly overrated, to the point where Americans pay more for a lot of things than they should (oil among them), and is becoming an excuse for prohibitively costly and needless regulations aimed at fighting a myth and scientific fraud: anthropogenic global warming. The “prison-industrial complex” has, in fact, kept violent criminals off the streets and led to a reduction in the rate of violent crimes.

I am surprised that Long doesn’t have “universal health care” and “living wage” on his list.

Roderick Long is to libertarianism as Adolf Hitler was to capitalism. Long wants a stateless world, but only if the “free” people in it have “correct” attitudes and beliefs.