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.


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 SelfControl: 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.


* 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.