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Nick Clegg: more libertarian than he thinks


12:19 pm - February 20th 2009

by Stuart White    


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Having just listened to a very interesting IPPR podcast from their event last week featuring Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, it is clear that this thing called ‘liberalism’ matters enormously to him.

He is, perhaps, the Liberal Democrat leader who has given most emphasis to the ‘liberal’ dimension of Liberal Democrat thought. It is hugely refres
hing to see a politician willing to go out and make a case for ‘liberalism’ in this way. Clegg is a politician of genuine ideas, and, as one might expect, there is a lot in his speech which liberals in the Labour party (like me) would agree with.

But just what kind of liberal is Nick Clegg?

[Update: Evan Harris MP defends his party in the comments]

Right at the end of the Q&A at the ippr event Clegg was asked what differentiates liberalism from ‘libertarianism’. His answer was that liberals think personal freedom is limited by a duty not to harm others, while libertarians do not. This will be news to libertarians. I’m not aware of any libertarian philosopher who thinks we should be free to walk around assaulting others.

Consider, second, his response to another question, about bonuses and placing ceilings on high earnings. Clegg replied, with some passion, that it would be ‘illiberal’ to place such a ceiling on earnings, to try to limit them through what he referred to as ‘punitive taxation’.

In fact, high taxation of high earnings has a long pedigree of support within liberalism. New Liberals like J.A. Hobson and Leonard Hobhouse argued that the state should tax away high earnings because these almost certainly represented ‘economic rents’ which were undeserved by the person getting them.

More recently, liberals like John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin have argued that differences in earnings which reflect unequal talents are ‘morally arbitrary’, creating a presumption in favour of greater equality in the distribution of earned incomes by the means of taxation.

The phrase ‘punitive taxation’ – like the phrase ‘tax burden’ which Clegg used at his party’s Autumn conference – is a give-away as to the underlying philosophy here. That philosophy is one which sees market-generated earnings as ‘entitlements’. It’s because we are, supposedly, already entitled to the income we get in the market that tax deductions can be seen as ‘punitive’.

On the Rawls-Dworkin view, just, equality-promoting taxes do not invade pre-existing entitlements; they define what we are really, genuinely entitled to: they help ensure that resources end up with whomever is genuinely entitled to them rather than with whomever the market selects. On this view, taxing very high earners to help lower earners is not necessarily any more ‘punitive’ than requiring a thief to return stolen goods to their rightful owner.

Now, what political philosophy maintains that market rewards are entitlements? The answer: libertarianism, as brilliantly set out in Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia.

Of course, Clegg is no advocate of the minimal state which Nozick defends. But his effort to reposition the Liberal Democrats on tax sees him drawing on what are essentially libertarian assumptions about the market, tax and justice.

His use of a rhetoric based on these assumptions helps to reinforce the grip which these assumptions have in day-to-day public discourse. And this adds to the obstacles facing progressive liberals who want to use the tax system, rightly, in an equality-promoting way.

So, Nick Clegg: more of a libertarian than he thinks.

Cross-posted from Next Left

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About the author
This is a guest article. Stuart White is lecturer in Politics at Oxford University, based at Jesus College. He blogs at the Fabian society's Next Left
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Civil liberties ,Libdems ,Libertarians ,Westminster

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Reader comments


Just read this on Next Left, where it sits rather oddly alongside the rather odd paean to the virtues of Allen Stanford.

It’s a difficult balancing act. Liberals are generally opposed to the idea of abitrariness – rules should be good enough to suit all situations, and making up new rules to target certain people because we don’t like them is generally a bad idea. So, sometimes some people get overpaid because we can’t make a general rule that says that anyone earning over X amount must be gaining that income illegitimately. Defending the principle of equality before the law is more important than making sure stockbrokers pay a bit more.

However, it’s also Lib Dem policy to close the massive loophole around pensions for top-rate taxpayers. I’m no tax expert (though I know some people who are, it sadly hasn’t rubbed off on me), but I would guess that the massive pension sums being pocketed by the James Crosbys (he of the £10m pension pot) of this world would be affected by this. In a nutshell, the problem is that the government will give you back some of your taxes when you pay into a pension; higher rate taxpayers get far more tax back than lower-rate taxpayers (both proportionately and absolutely). I think this shows that the Lib Dems are perfectly willing to tax ‘the rich’, but don’t think that hikes in income tax are necessarily the way to do it.

On a personal level, I think that income tax is about as high as it can go. Any higher and people will simply find other ways to be rewarded which incur less tax. A better tax policy would be to broaden the tax base by taxing other things (e.g. environmental taxes would certainly hit those flying everywhere on private jets). A lot of Lib Dems are pushing an internal debate around Land Value Tax, which would offer an alternative to income tax as a source of revenue. If anything, I’d like to see income tax make up a smaller amount of the total tax take, since it’s basically a tax on work and employment and there are better ways of targetting the genuinely wealthy if that’s your aim.

Interesting, although it is worth bearing in mind that self-ascribed libertarians seems to be more interested in civil rather than economic liberties: http://www.willwilkinson.net/flybottle/2009/02/13/magic-buttons-the-breakdown/

A majority of libertarians (in the US, and so more often found in the Republican camp), would put up with Canadian style healthcare reform if that were combined with an end to the war on drugs. And I can say, as a libertarian, I find Chris Huhne’s weaseling attitude about the Geert Wilders affair much more troublesome than high taxes in high income brackets. High taxes aren’t ideal, of course, but if they were combined with deregulation in other areas, then you would still see people being able to pursue their own ends in a relatively free society.

I agree with Nick. When it comes to defending civil liberties, the Liberal Democrats rhetoric has been somewhat restricted to such fashionable causes as ID cards and 28 detention. The people whose liberties really do need defending are those whose behaviours and lifestyle choices are unfascionable, and percieved to be at odds with the ethics of society at large. Take the legislation that came into force a few weeks ago banning ‘violent’ pornography – effectively criminalising a sexual minority regardless of whether they are harming others. Or proposals to ban cheap booze to cut the scourge of binge drinking. Or the punitive taxation upon people who choose to smoke. The labour party’s obsession with legislation was faced us with a pretty stark choice: should criminal be used to prevent people from harming others, or should be used to enforce the ethics and lifestyle preferences of the majority. We could really do with a propper liberal party to speak up for the former.

Agree with Reuben. The LibDems are just as bad as the rest and they should have defended the ‘violent’ pornsters. Home educators are another group who are close to being criminalised without a peep from any of the main parties.

Actually, worth noting that the most vocal opposition to the “extreme porn” laws was from a LibDem Baroness and for that, I am thankful.

And you are right, home education is a big silent problem. In fact, I found myself in basically in an argument of assertion with a state school teacher a few weeks ago. She was quite adamant that it was already illegal to home educate without consenting to local authority inspection. I am pretty sure it still is legal but I wasn’t able to offer the best source on it. Needless to say, once all elements of the establishment realise that is still legal more or less outside state control and that it is a growing phenomenon, they will be wanting to change it.

There was an interesting point made on one of the HE blogs a couple of days back that once it becomes acceptable to inspect the homes of HE families on the off-chance they are child-abusers, then it will be hard to maintain an argument that all homes with children should not be succeptible to state inspections.

And you are right, home education is a big silent problem

Coincidentally enough, I have an article written for us in the pipeline, to go up on Sunday most likely.

Exellent, I’ll keep an eye out for it on the RSS feed.

But just what kind of liberal is Nick Clegg?

Apparently the kind who thinks that liberty within a society is more important than equality. I wonder where he got such a heretical idea from…

A lot of us assume, and I guess Nick Clegg thinks similarly, that market rewards are entitlements. But when people try and claim rewards that they have not earned – e.g.,inflated MPs’ expenses or bankers’ bonuses for failure – Liberals get cross (I guess Libertarians do too). Proper market rewards are earned by fair dealing.

From our entitlements, we pay our dues to the community. The only way to settle what shares of these dues each of us should pay is the political process. That process has to balance different notiions of equity, fairness and economic incentives. No-one has produced a magic formula.

Some of those dues go to basic government functions ; some to running public services for which there is general agreement on public funding – the education and health services for example; some goes towards other efforts to enable people to live thier lives more fully. Libertarians tend to see the latter two objects as unjustified and improper. Liberals see them as worthwhile and get worked up at the way they are mishandled. Liberals however see the role of the community ending before it gets in the way of people running their own lives as they want to.

In summary, the difference is Liberals are sure everyman is not an island. Libertarians rather regret it. Clegg is an unrepentant and self-evident Liberal.

Reuben and Bishop Hill wrong when he claims that the Lib Dems have not been prepared to defend difficulkt liberties. As a party in Commons in Lords we opposed the restrictions on extreme pormography because there was no evidence that it evidence that it harmed anyone. We are the only party calling for decrim of consensual prostitution and opposing the criminalisation of buying sex. We are the only party to argue against the criminalisation or over-classification of cannabis or ecstasy. We led the – successful – fight to oppose the broad incitement to religious hatred law. We are the only ones to oppose the deportation of alleged terrorists to torture states. We successfully giot rid of blasphemy laws. We were the only party to oppose section 28 and the first to call for civil partnerships. We are the only politicians calling for civil rights for asylum seekers. I could go on. None of these – none – is a sure vote winner and taking the other side usually is. So a bit of credit would not go amiss. The Tories -even libertarian ones – are nowhere on most of these. Fox-hunting…er ..that’s it.

Btw few lib dems agreed with Chris Huhne’s call on wilders. anyone’s allowed to have get one snap judgement wrong and to be fair to him he got it right on the extradition of Toben the holocaust denier.

‘No man is an island. Except when he’s in the bath.’

– Norman Lovett.

I’m not a LibDem, but I’m watching Clegg with interest as I think he (and the local branch) may yet convince me – he’s got my vote next time round, barring any severe lapses, but they’ve still got a bit of work to do to get me to join.

15. Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon

Reuben and Bishop Hill, to follow up Evan Harris’s point, and for a longer term defence of civil liberties see the speeches of the Baroness Joan Walmsley and Lord Thomas Gresford during the then Sexual Offences Bill in 2003 understand that the Lib Dems have defended civil liberties on the grounds of principle and on the basis of true scientific evidence. None of the issues fought by the LIb Dems were popular at the time – indeed many were distinctly unpopular. Last year during the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill the LDs were hugely influential in getting illiberal, dangerous clauses on prostitution removed too. Unfortunately these populist dangerous measures returned in the Policing and Crime Bill (and despite private ministerial admissions that they know the clauses have proved dangerous elsewhere).

Nick however is right re the Lib Dem Baroness, Sue Miller. Who, incidentally was later presented with an Erotic Award for her stalwart defence of civil liberties against the extreme porn clauses and the prostitution clauses in last year’s Bill.

Thanks for the info. I am willing to accept that I have been told on this one.

Ditto me. I think the broader criticism remains though. There was a resounding silence on Geert Wilders, half the LibDem MPs voted for the hunting ban. I don’t remember any great criticisms of the ban on smoking in pubs.

“a resounding silence on Geert Wilders”

Hm. Ish. Jo Swinson went on Any Questions next day and said she thought Huhne had called it wrong. And LDV was in full indignant cry, of course – first time I’ve seen everyone there agree on something. But it’s hard to match the publicity around the initial announcement.

AFAIR you’re right on the smoking ban though.

19. Stuart White

Some comments in response to people’s responses to this post – focusing on specifically on the issue of tax:

(1) Ad: your presentation of this as an issue of ‘liberty versus equality’ simply won’t do. A person’s liberty – ability to act as they might wish without interference by others (‘negative liberty’) – is directly affected by their income and wealth. Without income/wealth one cannot buy resources to perform actions without being subject to interference by others (backed by the state). A distribution of income and wealth is, therefore, a distribution of liberty. The question then is: Should we have more or less equality in the distribution of liberty? The issue is not ‘Equality or liberty?’ but ‘How much equality of liberty?’

Clegg seems to stand for quite a lot of inequality in liberty. Other liberals, like Hobson, Hobhouse, Rawls and Dworkin, stand for greater equality.

(2) Diversity: a lot of people do indeed ‘assume’ that market rewards are entitlements. But this assumption has been called into question – compellingly so – by a long line of liberal philosophers such as those I just mentioned.

You yourself move back in the direction of the entitlement-critical tradition when you say that from our ‘entitlements’ we must ‘pay our dues to the community’. If we really do have these ‘dues’, then what you’ve said is our ‘entitlement’ isn’t, strictly speaking, an ‘entitlement’ at al because part of it rightfully belongs elsewhere.

Of course these ‘dues’ should be determined by a democratic political process. But as citizens what principles should guide us in making decisions within this process? This is where we need a theory of social justice – of justice in the distribution of liberty – which we find in the work of Rawls et al.

Re the smoking ban, IIRC (and I can’t be arsed to look it up on publicwhip) the parliamentary party was split as there is a liberal case for the ban if you accept the evidence on passive smoking. I personally don’t think it’s a strong one and don’t trust the evidence, thus oppose the ban on the other liberal principles, including freedom of association.

I do know that my MP at the time, a Lib Dem, opposed the ban, and got my thanks for doing so; it was at a meeting with him soon after the vote that I was persuaded to consider joining.

Essentially, the doubts over the passive smoking problem aren’t widely publicised, thus if you believe they’re relevant then I can see a liberal favouring the ban. I am personally very aware of the studies casting doubts on them, and thus would prefer a middle ground solution involving licensees having decent ventilation and similar (which was I believe either a Lid Dem or LDYS policy at the time). Re the extreme porn stuff, the award Evan mentions was for a time (and may still be) in the office that the party president shares with the home affairs speaker in the Lords:
http://liberalbureaucracy.blogspot.com/2009/01/there-is-eight-inch-long-golden-penis.html

The way many on the liberal left are tying themselves in knots in an attempt to justify their continued rejection of the Lib Dems after it’s very apparent that Labour has abandoned the liberalism that New Labour adopted in the run up to ’97 continues to amuse me.

They’re the only party worth supporting given our electoral system. Are they perfect? No, but I’d rather have a single Evan Harris than umpteen Labour apparatchiks. I’d much rather have a hundred Evan’s though, which is why I’m increasingly involved in campaigning for them. It helps that my PPC is probably even more left wing than me, and the local Labour party has completely collapsed.

On the other hand, it is nice to see discussions of the different strands of liberal thought on this site, it’s probably about time I got around to finishing reading Political Liberalism, and probably rereading A Theory of Justice, I just find his writing style a little too dry.

re MatGB at 20/21

I think Stuart’s initial post was an interesting genuine engagement with Clegg, and is a generous appreciation of Clegg’s own engagement with liberalism.

The liberal-libertarianism point does capture something very interesting. By having a straw man caricature of libertarianism (and I appreciate he was answering a question, and so this is probably his instinctive response rather than his final word on the issue), Clegg does not have to think through where and why he does and where he does not accept libertarian arguments.

Like Stuart, I find Clegg’s (genuine) engagement with liberalism as an ideology and political tradition appealing in a political leader. At the same time, it seems clear to me that Clegg is not emotionally engaged or particularly interested in the LibDems’ social democratic tradition. That is less attractive to me but a perfectly legitimate approach, and I am a member of a different party from his, though. That Vince Cable rather more engages openly with social democratic as well as liberal traditions (social and economic) is naturally something that liberal-minded Labour social democrats like me would find attractive, though in fairness I also find that Clegg is good particularly on home affairs, democratic engagement, immigration and asylum where I think he can often provide a distinctively liberal voice.

He isn’t going to rebalance his liberalism with social democracy. That isn’t where he is. But I think this comes back to Stuart’s broader points about the liberal political tradition. Clegg does have (and this is partly the politics of being post-Thatcher and post-New Labour) some libertarian instincts and rhetorical flourishes and a deep scepticism about the state, which might be attractive on some issues to a good part of the liberal-left but also risks leaving him a bit short on issues of structural inequality and class-based disadvantage.

Saying that those who face entrenched, inherited disadvantages have been failed by the post-1945 state is one thing. What it does not sort out is whether the state should then do more, less or do things differently, and where.

But in my view he doesn’t need to become a social democrat to try to dig into this and sort it out. Within his own liberal framework, he could engage with egalitarian liberalism more, both in its modern forms and perhaps particularly the New Liberalism of the early 20th century. Clegg at times makes some rhetorical thrusts in this direction too. But I think he could do with a rather stronger focus on ‘freedom to’ and positive freedom as ‘autonomy and the fair opportunity to flourish and write our own life stories’ and that this might help him to sort through the (genuinely difficult) issue about the scope and limits of the state.

He could then arrive through the liberal tradition with a stronger sense of how a liberal state might seek to break down entrenched disadvantage and pay attention to the distribution of wealth, assets and economic power.

My instinct is that Clegg is considerably more sincere than Cameron in wanting to sort these issues out, but both get into some intellectual and political difficulties there. Cameron’s are more profound: his language is so blanketly state allergic as to become meaningless, though it may be combined with a practical conservative pragmatism about not getting rid of things which exist, but without having the intellectual resources to back this up other than as an acquiescence to political reality). I am sure Clegg does and will do better than that, but how much better remains to be seen.

Working out why he isn’t a libertarian could provide part of the answer.

Stuart @19 wrote:

A person’s liberty – ability to act as they might wish without interference by others (’negative liberty’) – is directly affected by their income and wealth. Without income/wealth one cannot buy resources to perform actions without being subject to interference by others (backed by the state). A distribution of income and wealth is, therefore, a distribution of liberty.

I’ve always understood it as being positive liberty that you’re describing there. Negative liberty is the freedom to be left alone to pursue one’s own objectives so long as these do not interfere with the rights of others to do so for themselves. Negative liberty can thus be characterised as “freedom from”. Positive liberty is the right (or entitlement) to have certain things, such as a basic level of income, food, sanitation, education and so forth. Of course, it’s very hard to achieve the latter without compromising a little on the former (taxation to pay for positive liberties is, technically, a violation of the negative liberty to be left alone).

I think bundling up income and liberty as a single indivisible package is overly simplistic. It’s possible to increase liberty without increasing income, and it’s possible to increase income whilst decreasing liberty. Authoritarians will always promise that the results of submitting to their authority will be greater prosperity, but they’re often wrong. In the worst cases, the preceding loss of liberty makes it difficult for anyone to speak up and point this out. Also, inequality in liberty is not linearly correlated with inequality in income. It is not meaningful to say that a person with an income of $100m a year has 100 times the liberty of a person with an income of $1m per year, whilst it would certainly make sense to say that a person with an income of $50,000 has 100 times the liberty of a person with an income of $500 per year. The effects are different at different scales and the differences cease to matter much beyond a certain level.

It’s certainly true that giving most people access to more money would increase their liberty in some sense – and this is a good thing. Speaking personally, I’m broadly in favour of ideas like ‘basic income’, so I’m well to the left as far as income redistribution goes, but I can still see the merit in having market systems for rewarding people once basic needs are taken care of. I think there is a moral sense in which people should work for those rewards. Yet if we accept your argument that “having money == liberty”, and liberty is something that everyone should have equal amounts of, then shouldn’t we be total egalitarians, favouring the same rewards for a person who never works as those for a person who works hard every day? Furthermore, there is the instrumental value to market rewards; if it wasn’t for people being paid to do them, lots of things simply wouldn’t get done. Not to worrying when the thing in question is an advertising campaign or a pop song, but it’s a bit worrying when it’s your kidney transplant or a safety inspection at a power station.

I think that it’s reasonable for people to pay into the system in proportion to the extent that they have benefited from its institutions and since ‘private property’ is one of those institutions, this covers areas such as inherited wealth. These are social constructs and society needs to be given reasons – such as wealth redistribution – to believe that they are constructs worth keeping. Whether or not people have the liberty to participate fully in society, to have access to healthcare and education and so forth are useful tests of whether or not society is happy with the bargain. I hate to sound like a party PR mouthpiece, but you could do worse than read the preamble to the Lib Dem constitution, which captures this pretty well.

Stuart

Why do you raise positive and negative liberty? The whole point of Berlin’s distinction was so show the dangers of so-called ‘positive liberty’ – namely people curtailing others’ negative liberties ‘for their own good’. Yet here you are arguing that we should be quite happy to do just that.

When normal people talk about liberty they only mean negative liberty – absence of coercion: that’s the definition in most dictionaries. Poor people don’t complain that they are not free, they complain that they are not rich. Trying to recategorise equality as a form of liberty looks to me like a feeble attempt to reheat socialism all over again and the results will be exactly as Berlin predicted.

More difficult liberties:
1. Liberty to bear arms (see Bill of Rights 1689 and US Second Amendment).
2. Liberty to discriminate on grounds of race, gender, sexual orientation etc (a.k.a. freedom of association. Note also how the ECHR applies to discrimination in a way which suggests to me that our race relations laws breach it).

Anyone from the LibDems want to defend these ones? Dr Harris perhaps?

I’d agree that liberty and inequality are linked but not necessarily the same, just as liberty and democracy are linked but not the same: it would be democratically possible for 51 percent of the population to vote in favour of denying liberty to the other 49 percent, for instance (and in a first past the post system like ours it could take even less).

Socialist defenders of illiberal states like Cuba often fall back on the argument that a good health service is a form of liberty – but they seldom choose to live there.

Democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding what’s for dinner.

[troll]
Sunder: blah blah blah, why doesn’t he engage with my favoured phrasing for my particular hobby horse? blah blah blah.

Er, why don’t you pull your head out of your arse – they are neither liberals nor social democrats, and haven’t been for 20 years now.

Why do you find it hard to accept that ideas are fluid and evolve?

Do you regret nailing your colours so firmly to the mast now that the people you helped get elected are abandoning every principle you claim to support and dragging the country into the abyss in the process?

The Fabian Society should apologise for the damage they’ve done to our democracy, except they want to retrench the vested interests of their cohorts still further – just a more respectable bunch of partisan reactionaries.

Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Harrison Bergeron’ is a classic tale of the conflict between liberty and inequality: those who grow above average height, for instance, would be ruthlessly cut down to size.

There’s a kind of Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle at work where liberty and equality are concerned: the more securely you fix one quality, the more uncertain the other becomes.

Rob Knight @ 23 and Bishop Hill @ 24,

It’s possible to argue that the poor are unfree, even if we believe only in negative liberty. G. A . Cohen has a characteristically excellent paper which argues just that called FREEDOM AND MONEY. You can find it here:
http://www.howardism.org/appendix/Cohen.pdf

So, it’s plausible that to think the poor are unfree, one does not have to postulate some (possibly) dangerous form of ‘positive’ liberty.

I think at least some of where this debate lies is whether you see the state embedded into the ‘basic structure’ of society or a large, powerful agent that acts upon an already existing society. Much of my disagreement with the Fabian line of reasoning on this is that I lean rather more towards the latter than the former.

If we accept the first characterisation (which I think is consistent with Rawls’ and Dworkin’s scheme) then there is nothing in principle that can be ruled out of state action and oversight. Private goods and the private sphere are carved out of whatever’s left after the various rights and principles required of the state have been established. I remember Sunder a few weeks ago seemed to be asserting that market institutions, for example, are entirely dependent on the state to operate (which would be news to drug dealers!). They are constituted by the state, and thus their form can be re-engineered to serve the ends of the state (specifically, a social democratic one), because after all, markets are just artificial constructs anyway. I suggested, in contrast, that markets actually emerge fairly spontaneously whether states exist or not.

How does this effect the debate? If the state is part of the “basic structure”, then everything that befalls an individual (be it poverty, depression, assault, murder, death by meteorite, disease) to some extent happens on the state’s watch. Something bad and “morally arbitrary” happened to somebody, and thus it is the state’s job to re-balance it using some metric (either the difference principle, or luck egalitarianism or whatever).

If, on the other hand, the state is an emergent institution in an already existing society, then there is the question of what it is comissioned to do and under what conditions. “Liberty”, considered as freedom from arbitrary constraint or punishment or penalty from the state, is simply one of those conditions as people are unlikely to feel obligated to obey an institution that claims a monopoly on legitimate violence otherwise. Nor are they justifiably required to. That is why I think that, whatever else people may decide that the state should do, liberty of this sort is prior to it. Without it, you are just dealing with a bunch of thugs in nice uniforms which is sadly how many (not all) socialist experiments have turned out.

Besides all this, it is worth noting the tremendous amont of this positive freedom (in terms of spending power) relatively liberal market institutions have been able to offer in recent years. You can now get to most major cities in the UK for a few pounds and you can get on planes to the rest of Europe (and beyond) for remarkably small fares too. You can speak to the rest of the world for a few pennies a minute (with the right sim card), and you can learn and publish on the internet for a few pounds a month (increasingly possible without even having a landline).

These sort of things were never dreamt up in Whitehall but they have transformed the lives of people on low incomes (for whom foreign holidays were once totally out of the question). So I think there is plenty of scope for more or less market liberals (I am not expecting Clegg to be doctrinal on this) to consider positive freedom to be important without considering equality in incomes to be important. It is not just an income ratio, it is what is available in the market for people with low incomes to spend their money on.

What happened to thomas’ comment at 28? It wasn’t missing all of the vowels last time I looked at it.

Nick: you’re right to point out that the state is not society and society is not the state. But, at the same time, it’s worth bearing in mind that concepts such as limited liability companies – the bedrock of modern capitalism – very much are state-backed concepts which would not exist without a state institution to create and support them. Laws and institutions do matter. It’s also worth pointing out that legislation allowing limited liability is an example of where ‘capitalists’ are very much in favour of the state. That’s not to say that we couldn’t have limited liability companies through voluntary agreement without a state there to support them, but in practice it’s hard to argue that these are ‘natural’ creations.

I think you hit the nail on the head with the question of justice. If we believe that the state has an all-encompassing role in ensuring that nobody ever suffers the consequences of bad luck or bad judgment, then there’s no limit to what the state might be empowered to do. I personally think that the interventionist state is a doomed enterprise and that people are generally better off when allowed to solve their own problems. For this reason, I’d quite happily support redistribution of wealth to ensure that people can meet their own needs and participate fully in society, but that’s where I’d draw the line. I don’t see the need for the government to appoint overseers who then interfere with what we do with the liberties and resources at our disposal. The example from Will Wilkinson’s blog (worth reading on this subject, imo) is a good fit with how I think: I’ve no problem with spending the money, I just don’t want that money to be managed by the state, I want it to be managed by the recipients of redistribution in their own interests.

I believe that many of the remaining goals of social democracy can be achieved without the need for coercion by the state, once a basic settlement is agreed. I wonder if anyone else would agree with that?

Rob, it’s Sunny disemvowelling. As for me, I suspect that Sndr Ktwl, bng rsnbl chp, wld prfr t hv th chnc t rspnd t thms’ chrgs. Bt wht ds Mrtmr knw?

34. Stuart White

Peter @ 30 has already made the point, but its worth reiterating in reply to Rob Knight @ 23 and Bishop Hill @ 24.

The point that income and wealth affect liberty does not require that we introduce some notion of ‘positive liberty’. Income and wealth affect one’s liberty in the negative sense – the freedom to act as one might wish without encountering interference by others. If I wish to perform an action, X, which requires resources, R, and I lack the cash to buy R, then if I try to access R to perform X I will face interference, backed by the state, by those who hold R. If I get on the train at London to go to Liverpool and I can’t buy a ticket, due to lack of funds, then an efficient train operator will force me to leave the train at Slough. That’s interference with negative liberty.

This, it should be said, is a simple analytic proposition. Its not in itself a normative one. Its not necessarily, in itself, a bad thing that private property rights affect negative liberty in this way. I’m sure that to some extent its a very good thing. But it does mean that when we look at a distribution of income and wealth, we have to accept that it affects the distribution of negative liberty. (Of course other things affect negative liberty: even if I can afford to buy the train tricket from London to Liverpool, my negative liberty to make the journey is removed if the state puts me under some other kind of legally-backed restriction from going there.) Thus, when we confront questions about income distribution and the like we can’t say: ‘Oh, that’s all about equality – what we care about is liberty’, because what’s at stake is the distribution of liberty.

The question, then, is what principle of distribution we think should govern the distribution of liberty. Rob asks if we are driven to accept equality of rewards. I think that equality has to be the right presumption. Income and wealth should be distributed to achieve equal liberty, implying a roughly equal distribution of income and wealth, unless there are strong enough reasons to depart from this baseline. Now I think there probably are some strong enough reasons, such as those that Ronald Dworkin discusses under the heading of ‘ambition-sensitivity’: if you and I have the same marketable endowments and you end up with more resources because you choose to work harder, or take risks that pay off, then (at least some) of the higher income you have is justified. But if you have more income because you have better endowments (e.g., you are gifted by nature with skills I couldn’t hope to develop), then the presumption in favour of equality isn’t rebutted.

Does this Rawls-Dworkin perspective give the state unlimited power to intervene to promote equality (a worry expressed by Rob @ 32)? No. A liberal theory of justice, like that of Rawls and Dworkin, will point to all kinds of considerations which properly limit what the state can do. Imagine, say, that the cause of distributive equality could be advanced if everyone shared the same religion. Does this mean the state should repeal freedom of conscience? Rawls and Dworkin would both say ‘No’, and I’d agree.

But this doesn’t touch the point that the right presumption to start from is equality in the distribution of income and wealth IF you think negative liberty is the prime value and IF you think the negative liberty of one person matters as much as that of anyone else. Commmentators on this thread who reject the presumption of equality are, I think, implicitly rejecting one of these ideas – probably, I suspect, the idea that the negative liberty of one person matters as much as that of anyone else.

The point that income and wealth affect liberty does not require that we introduce some notion of ‘positive liberty’. Income and wealth affect one’s liberty in the negative sense – the freedom to act as one might wish without encountering interference by others. If I wish to perform an action, X, which requires resources, R, and I lack the cash to buy R, then if I try to access R to perform X I will face interference, backed by the state, by those who hold R. If I get on the train at London to go to Liverpool and I can’t buy a ticket, due to lack of funds, then an efficient train operator will force me to leave the train at Slough. That’s interference with negative liberty.

I’m not disagreeing with you in the broader sense, but “negative liberty” doesn’t give you any rights to get on that train. I suspected that semantics was the reason we seemed to be disagreeing earlier, and I tried to clarify negative liberty, as I’ve always understood it, as this:

Negative liberty is the freedom to be left alone to pursue one’s own objectives so long as these do not interfere with the rights of others to do so for themselves.

The problem is that you would be interfering with the private property rights of whoever owns the train. You violated their negative liberty by not leaving them alone. It’s not a violation of your negative liberty if you are then removed from the private property of the person/entity whose rights you violated by being there in the first place. You have no natural, legal or other right to be on the train.

What you may have is an entitlement to be on the train, normally in the form of a ticket. This creates the ‘positive liberty’ (the term ‘entitlement’ is sometimes used here) for you to be on the train. As I said, positive liberty is “freedom to”, in this case “freedom to be on someone else’s private property” (viz. the train in question). Positive liberty involves giving people entitlements. An entitlement to education is one. Entitlement to healthcare is another. Entitlement to a share of other people’s wealth via redistribution may be another.

Hard-line libertarians are normally very strict in this distinction, because they want to make it absolutely clear that these entitlements have to be funded, and this can only be done by taking those funds, by force if necessary, from other people. This is, as I said earlier, an infraction on their negative liberty. What this proves is that some such violations of negative liberty are inevitable, to some extent desirable, and what remains to be settled is the rules about how and when this can be done, and to what extent. I’m not sure why you’re so keen to deny that this would involve creating “positive liberty”.

But if you have more income because you have better endowments (e.g., you are gifted by nature with skills I couldn’t hope to develop), then the presumption in favour of equality isn’t rebutted.

But how do we judge this? It’s all very well in the abstract, but how can we prove that these ‘natural skills’ are not the result of work? There are certainly obvious examples such as that being taller may be an advantage if one wishes to play basketball, and in fact there have been various studies suggesting that physical characteristics can be linked to success in a number of fields. But what about being good at maths? Or physics or music or computer programming? I don’t know anyone who is good at those things who didn’t spend a hell of a long time reading about them and practising. What do they deserve in return for that time, given that what they create with their knowledge can be very valuable to the rest of society?

Imagine we lived in a society where there was little or no financial incentive to master difficult things. Would we even bother teaching our children maths if we didn’t think it would benefit them? We might think that this is a fairer society if we assume that some kids were always able to do better at maths than others, but that is a severe levelling down. And I’m not quite ready to accept the assumption that some kids are just born significantly smarter than others.

Hayek (caveat: please don’t hate me for invoking him) addressed this issue in The Constitution of Liberty, arguing that whilst egalitarianism or a strictly ‘effort-based’ meritocracy were both tempting, both would perform poorly compared to a market economy on the grounds that markets reward people for the value they create for others. Would inventors have bothered inventing, manufacturing and marketing computers, global telecoms, all manner of medical advances and god-knows what else if they thought that there was nothing in it for them? In a market, people who create things that lots of other people want to buy get the most rewards, in proportion to the number of people multiplied by how much they want it (as measured by how much they’ll pay). This creates powerful incentives to do things that other people will find useful. Like, as I mentioned earlier, performing life-saving medical procedures on them, or ensuring that the power planet on the edge of their town doesn’t blow up.

I’m not sure that you have proposed an alternative means of organising all of the work that needs to be done to maintain a functioning society in your example.

My alternative is that we worry a lot less about income and a lot more about wealth. Land value tax, as an example, would tax unearned income and would fall most heavily on those with the greatest wealth. A person with very few assets (i.e. a non-houseowner) who has managed to get themselves a high-ish paying job should pay less tax than someone who has tens of millions of pounds in assets but no visible (and visibility to the inland revenue is often contentious) income. A basic income could provide people with all of the resources they need to participate in society. Beyond that point, if someone earns more – even considerably more – than the minimum then I’m really not sure that we have any reasons to care about this.

Stuart

“If I get on the train at London to go to Liverpool and I can’t buy a ticket, due to lack of funds, then an efficient train operator will force me to leave the train at Slough. That’s interference with negative liberty.”

No it isn’t. It’s quite patently nothing to do with negative liberty at all. You simply can’t afford to do what you want to do. That’s positive liberty (or the lack thereof). You seem to imply that either someone should be relieved of funds to pay for you to go as far as Liverpool or that the train operator should take you regardless of the fact you can’t pay. In other words, it is the usual sweeping aside of negative liberties in the vain attempt to acheive equality (dressed up as “positive liberty”).

Stuart – I just don’t think the example of the train is a very good one. It disguises a positive freedom as a constraint. The train is a means to getting you somewhere much much faster than you otherwise could, but it requires labour, technology and energy to operate. As a consequence, I think making a claim to use it has to be making a positive claim on some of those things. The only form of constraint that is actually inherent in the example is the fact that you can’t walk on the track or in the actual physio-temporal space that the train happens to be inhabiting at one moment, which I don’t view as especially onerous.

The better example is that of being unable to walk through a private estate. There you really are given quite large constraints on freedom of movement.

Peter @#30

I started to read the Cohen piece you linked to and gave up pretty quickly because it’s so obviously guff. When people can’t afford to go to granny’s they say “I can’t afford it”, not “I’m not free to go to”.

It’s an Orwellian abuse of the language.

Rob Knight @ 35,

Negative liberty is nothing to do with what you’ve got a right to do. I am negatively unfree to murder, despite the fact that it’s right that I’m unfree to murder. You’re working with a moralised conception of freedom, which is pretty ironically a POSITIVE view of liberty!

For a good introduction to these issues, read the chapter on liberty in Adam Swift’s POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.

Bishop Hill @ 38,

Well, I guess you do know better than the former Chichele Professor of Political Theory. After all, you are a libertarian on the internet so it must be guff if you say so, I guess.

Peter

I’m not impressed by titles.

What about my substantive point: it’s an abuse of language.

Peter at 39 wrote:

Negative liberty is nothing to do with what you’ve got a right to do. I am negatively unfree to murder, despite the fact that it’s right that I’m unfree to murder. You’re working with a moralised conception of freedom, which is pretty ironically a POSITIVE view of liberty!

For a good introduction to these issues, read the chapter on liberty in Adam Swift’s POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.

Yikes, there’s no need to shout.

I’m afraid that I don’t understand your first paragraph. This is quite possibly because I haven’t read the same books as you, so perhaps you could explain further. I’m not aware of having a moralised view of liberties and rights; so far as I can, I’m taking my cue from Isaiah Berlin, who popularised the concepts of negative and positive liberty as distinct principles. I’m not sure if citing Wikipedia is good enough, but there’s a decent summary here:

Under the theory of positive and negative rights, a negative right is a right not to be subjected to an action of another human being, or group of people, such as a state, usually in the form of abuse or coercion. A positive right is a right to be provided with something through the action of another person or the state.

I think you’re drawing a connection between having a ‘right’ to do something and it being morally ‘right’ to do so. The word has different meanings; a ‘right’ is synonymous with a ‘liberty’ in this context and nobody is talking about whether or not anything is morally ‘right’ in the sense of being ‘just’ or ‘fair’.

Bishop Hill @ 40,

“What about my substantive point: it’s an abuse of language.”

– I don’t agree that it’s an abuse of language. Berlin defines ‘negative’ liberty as non-interference. So, I am negatively free to do X just in case no agent will interfere, should I try to do X. Agreed?

Now, consider what happens when the person who cannot afford a train ticket tries to board a train. What will happen? They will be interfered with. The conductor will try to throw them off the train. If the poor person continues to try and get on the train, the police (ie. the agent’s of the State) will turn up and arrest the person. So, that’s a violation of negative liberty (maybe it’s a *justified* violation, but that’s a different question).

If you don’t agree with that reasoning, why? I suspect it’s due to you holding a moralised conception of freedom (like say, Nozick), but that’s a red herring and conflates distinct issues (ie. whether a particular policy is a restriction on negative liberty, and whether it’s a *justified* restriction of negative liberty).

Rob Knight @ 41,

I did not mean to “shout”. When I write in caps on the internet, I mean them as you’d normally use italics, but I don’t know how to use italics on here. I shall do *this* when I mean italics from now on. Apologies if you thought I was shouting or being aggressive or whatever.

Anyway, onto the substantive points:

—–

A moralised conception of freedom is (roughly) one which is connected to a theory of morality. So, Kant thinks (roughly) that one acts freely only when one acts in accordance with the moral law. Libertarians tend to think that one acts freely only when one does what one *has a right to do* (and so, if the State prevents you from doing something that you don’t have a right to do, it does not restrict your freedom).

So, on this moralised libertarian analysis, because nobody has a right to murder, the State’s prohibiting murder is not a restriction on freedom. I think that’s barmy, personally – the person who wants to commit murder has their freedom restricted – but it’s a *justified* restriction.

If we have a non-moralised conception of freedom (this is what Cohen tries for in that paper I linked to earlier, I think), we talk of freedom independently of our theory of morality. So, we can say that X is a restriction of freedom, but that it’s a justified restriction on freedom. Our judgement of whether X is a restriction on freedom is conceptually independent of our judgement as to whether it’s justified or not. That’s what makes it non-moralised.

Back to the poor and freedom. Berlin’s “negative” liberty is best understood as freedom as non-interference. So, I am negatively free to do X only if no agent will intervene to prevent me doing X (the agent in question does not have to be the State – it could be anyone). It follows from this that the poor are negatively unfree to do things that cost money.

The libertarian replies to this, and says something along the lines of “the poor person hasn’t got a right to get on the train (or the train owner has a right to kick the poor person off), therefore the poor person being interfered with does not count as a restriction on that poor person’s freedom”. It’s clear that that’s a moralised conception of freedom.

The problem with moralised conceptions of freedom is that it’s far from obvious that the libertarian moralised conception of freedom is the correct one. Suppose we want to work with a moralised conception of freedom (this is a mistake in my view, but nevermind). Well, there are egalitarian moralised conceptions of freedom. Dworkin thinks that taxing the rich does not count as a restriction on their freedom, because the rich person’s entitlements to their pre-tax property cannot be established in the first place! And, it’s far from obvious that a libertarian moralised conception of freedom is superior to an egalitarian one (eg. Dworkin’s).

Is that clear? I really do recommend Adam Swift’s introductory book though, and it’s not expensive.

Peter

” I don’t agree that it’s an abuse of language. Berlin defines ‘negative’ liberty as non-interference. So, I am negatively free to do X just in case no agent will interfere, should I try to do X. Agreed?

I understand up to the word “non-interference”. After that I can’t parse the grammar of what you have written in any way that makes sense. I may be being dim here, so could you spell it out for me?

The point about the railway is that if I, as the railway operator, throw you off the train, it is because you have tried to interfere with my negative liberties by taking a ride on my train without paying. You are no more justified in doing this than I am to wander into your kitchen and help myself to the contents of your fridge because I’m a bit peckish. I am entirely within my rights to chuck you off.

You say in your answer to Rob that
I am negatively free to do X only if no agent will intervene to prevent me doing X (the agent in question does not have to be the State – it could be anyone). It follows from this that the poor are negatively unfree to do things that cost money.

This doesn’t follow at all. If the poor cannot afford to do something it does not mean they are negatively unfree to do it. Nobody is stopping them. They just don’t have the financial means. The word liberty is entirely tied up with coercion and the absence thereof. Its meaning comes from the latin word for the removal of restraint when a slave was freed. His liberty arrived at that point, although no doubt a slave was very poor indeed at the time.

If someone says to you “I’m not free to go to your party” you don’t assume they can’t afford to get there, do you? You assume they are prevented by some prior engagement. If someone says “I’m not free on Friday”, do you think they are going to be poor for the day?

Nobody speaks in the way you and Mr Cohen claim they do. This is why I describe what the two of you are doing as an abuse of the language. The words simply don’t have the meaning you ascribe to them, in normal discourse at least.

(P.S For italic go to a “post a comment” link on Samizdata. There’s a brief description there, which is where I learned how to do it.)

Peter @ 43

So, on this moralised libertarian analysis, because nobody has a right to murder, the State’s prohibiting murder is not a restriction on freedom. I think that’s barmy, personally – the person who wants to commit murder has their freedom restricted – but it’s a *justified* restriction.

OK – I am familiar with this concept, just didn’t recognise it. I’m not sure that the inclusion of morality into a framework of rights is entirely “barmy” though; Locke used the concept of “natural law” to suggest that individuals have rights even if there is no state (or any other agency) there to enforce them. But, short of God turning up in person to spell the details out to us, I agree that the choice of ‘natural’ rights may be arbitrary. So, to proceed with your analysis we need to discard any preconceptions about what rights are or should be (right about here is where you lose the conservative audience!). In fact, I said something similar earlier myself, noting that private property is a social construct. It is possible to abolish it, though the consequences are not always as pleasant as may be imagined.

So, rights only exist because everyone recognises them, either because they choose to or because they’re forced to. As such, ‘rights’ are just whatever happen to be the rules at the time. It’s perfectly possible to imagine a situation in which certain people have fewer rights than others, or in which rights can be revoked. Say what you like about the moralised conception of liberty, but in locating the principles of liberty outside of a temporary consensus (which may be a coerced consensus), it does at least ensure that the oppressed can appeal to the universality of these liberties. Furthermore, as a set of rights goes, “life, liberty and property” are pretty good. We might even imagine that a social-Darwinistic process has selected that particular bundle of rights as the most popular because all of the other possibilities failed, although I doubt that I’ll win many people over to that idea.

The problem with moralised conceptions of freedom is that it’s far from obvious that the libertarian moralised conception of freedom is the correct one. Suppose we want to work with a moralised conception of freedom (this is a mistake in my view, but nevermind). Well, there are egalitarian moralised conceptions of freedom. Dworkin thinks that taxing the rich does not count as a restriction on their freedom, because the rich person’s entitlements to their pre-tax property cannot be established in the first place! And, it’s far from obvious that a libertarian moralised conception of freedom is superior to an egalitarian one (eg. Dworkin’s).

OK, I can just about go along with that on a rational level. I’m not convinced, but hey, it’s a coherent argument.

You seem to suggest that instead of choosing between moralised conceptions of liberty, we have the option of a non-moralised conception? How would that work?

Hmm, returning from the pub after a belly-full probably isn’t the best time to start attacking the vested interests of the blog publishers on their own platform.

So let me rephrase.

Why does Sunder Katwala attack the leader of an opposing party for not accepting his personal definition? Would it be that Mr Katwala makes an assumption about the objectivity and applicability of his own terms of reference? Why does not disclaim his conflict of partisan interests more clearly?

Why is it that certain political arguments present symbolism and definitions as more important than actions?

How does he square attacking potential allies with building pragmatic alliances?

As far as I understand the Liberal Democrats represent the liberal democratic strand of thought, not liberal or the social democratic strands from which this has evolved.

My impression is that the Fabian Society’s intellectual analysis has been superceded under his watch by their continual development and ongoing renewal. So perhaps Mr Katwala could address the charge that his approach promotes a form of political discourse where philosophies reached a zenith of evolution (presumably dating to 1983) – one which is inherently opposed to dynamism, fluidity and progress.

In other words, if he maintains that the dead duck of ‘social democracy’ still has anything to offer, isn’t he really just a conservative with a less-than-posh accent?

NB Has anyone noticed how there are as many former SDP members on the tory front bench as are spread across the rest of the HoC?

What if the passenger without a ticket runs on the train, and the driver switches off the engine and refuses to move unless the passenger gets off, but doesn’t call any agent in to actually pull the individual off the train. Has the passenger’s freedom been limited? Certainly, not from a constraint perspective.

Say that we bite the bullet and take a hard Cohenist line on freedom (the non-moral version as you call it) and state that any form of constraint from any agent is “unfreedom”, unless (just to head the compliance issue off at first) it is a response to an attempt to impose constraint. Well an awful lot of stuff won’t happen, at least at first. But quite soon agreements of the sort “I will run a train if everybody agrees to buy a ticket” would emerge. And lacking coercion, many of the same ideas present in a free market society would develop (as it is, for now, the most efficient means of improving everybody else’s situation).

Of course, such a situation would look quite different from what we have today. Who in their right mind would consent to the current tranche of limited liability laws that Rob Knight pointed out, for example? But it is not exactly crazy, and it certainly isn’t a reductio ad absurdum that I think Cohen tries to introduce. In fact, it strikes me as entirely consistent with Robert Wolff’s idea of unanimous direct democracy as a response to the problem of political obligation: http://www.ditext.com/wolff/anarchy.html

Rob Knight @ 45,

I still don’t think you fully get my meaning. I’ll hopefully have time to clarify tomorrow (am rather busy at the moment).

49. Stuart White

Peter is doing a sterling job on this thread clarifying the point that poverty affects negative liberty, not (just) some mysterious notion of positive liberty. It is not, as Bishop Hill asserts, an abuse of language to say this – it is a clear implication of paying close attention to what words mean. Another way of making the point is simply to say that private property rights work to give me negative liberty do things, with the resources I own, precisely by taking away other people’s negative liberty to use these things.

Imagine a world where all resources – everything, every object, every space – is owned by someone. Now imagine someone – call him Jim – who is inserted into this world without any private property rights (so he is poor). What is he free to do without being subject to legally-sanctioned interference by others?

Answer: nothing. Every time Jim tries to perform an action, he must lay claim to someone’s resources; and their rights over these resources mean that they can interfere, with the state behind them, to make him stop. Now, pretty clearly, someone who can’t do anything without being subject to interference by others is unfree.

Or look at this way. As things stand, all of us are subject to a huge number of restrictions on what we are free to do in virtue of other people’s private property rights. There are a huge range of actions I could, in principle, perform with all those CDs currently lodged in the HMV shop in Cornmarket Street, Oxford. But there is, as things stand, a prohibition on me doing any of these things because someone else currently has the property right in the CDs. If I have some money I can walk into HMV and, by giving them some money, I can lift one or two prohibitions on my using the CDs in the shop. I am now free – in the negative sense – to perform previously prohibited actions using these CDs. Money is a great thing – it lifts prohibitions against doing things! The more money I have, the more prohibitions on actions I can lift. The less I have, the fewer I can lift – and so, the less free, in the negative sense, I am.

Rob is right that if you define negative liberty as freedom from interference to do what one has a right to do, if one ‘moralises’ the definition of freedom, then everything I’ve just said no longer follows. In the case of Jim, for example, we can’t say that all those prohibitions he faces deny him freedom because the interferences implied by all of those prohibitions are not interferences with what he has a right to do. However, I think the Jim case shows just how counter-intuitive the ‘moralised’ definition of freedom is: surely Jim is unfree precisely because he can’t do anything without violating others’ rights.

One way round this problem might be to say that what matters is not actual legal rights, but moral rights. So my freedom is denied when I suffer interference in doing what I have a moral right to do, or when I trespass on others’ moral rights.

But this is a dangerous move for the libertarian to make. For now everything depends on one’s background theory of justice. If the egalitarian says that people have moral rights to equal shares of resources, say, then s/he can add that the state does not interfere with the liberty of the rich when it taxes them to make resource shares equal: the state is not limiting something the rich have a right to do (enjoy above average income).

Some libertarians try to have it both ways. Confronted with a case like JIm, they’ll invoke a moralised definition of negative liberty to avoid the implication that his liberty is reduced by all the prohibitions he faces. But then confronted with a simple egalitarian argument for taxation they’ll appeal to an ‘ordinary’ notion of negative liberty as interference in doing what one might wish to do. In other words, they use a non-moralised account of liberty to motivate their case against egalitarian theories of justice (‘look, you’re scarificing someone’s liberty to get more equality’) and then use a moralised conception to defend their own theory of justice against the objection that it leaves some people without freedom (or without very much freedom). One minute, liberty is a thing in itself, prior to justice, and a value we can use to object to certain conceptions of justice; the next minute, liberty is dependent on justice, and so not something we can treat as an independent value to be used to assess how desirable a theory of justice is.

What shall we call this? Perhaps its what Bishop Hill calls an ‘abuse of language’?

Am I alone in finding the term ‘negative freedom’ itself a problem?

I can follow the fascinating discussion above but I have to struggle as each time I run into the term ‘negative freedom’ I instinctly interpret it as a LACK of freedom, and have to consciously translate it back into what it actually means.

No, Shatterface, you are not alone in that.

Don’t want to get in the way of the v.interesting discussion of liberalism, freedom and libertarianism.

Thomas – I think you entirely miss what I was trying to say, so I must have put it pretty badly, but it was intended to acknowledge that given that Clegg is the leader of a different party to my own, of course it isn’t his job to keep Labour party members happy. It is for the LibDems to work out how much weight they want social democratic ideas or traditions to have in their party. However, I do (as an external voice) I think his liberalism could be deepened by linking up with more egalitarian strands of liberalism. and it is perfectly legitimate to attempt scrutiny and debate of different attempts to claim or define progressive politics across the range of parties.

(If you are going on to imply that 1983 was the high-point of either social democracy or fabianism in the Labour party then that is a bad misreading, in my view. I would argue the opposite: it was much more of a breach with post-war Labour traditions and arguments than it was an extension of these. That reflects that my personal views and values lie in the social democratic tradition of labour’s Old Right (which was where the Fabian mainstream was for the entire post-war period, often/usually thought of as “right-wing” in Labour terms – eg Crosland, Hattersley – but which has probably translated into an “inside left” critical/constructive engagement from or on new labour’s left).

Sunder, agreed on the discussion being interesting, but I think you’re wrong in the belief that Clegg isn’t in tune with egalitarian liberalism. On both occasions I’ve met him (and I never did write up the interview with him for this place, oops) I’ve been struck by his absolute commitment to helping those in the worst position in society.

If that doesn’t always come across in the media portrayal, then I suspect that’s a lot more to do with how the media want to paint him than anything else; it’s worth observing (again) that it’s to the Mail’s advantage to persuade people that Clegg is something they can support—they want Labour out, and in a lot of areas that they sell papers (like Sheffield), the Conservatives have no chance. So this means a lot of media sources will emphasis what they like (the “tax cuts” bit) and not what they don’t like (the “paid for by closing loopholes the rich abuse and taxing environmental damage” bit).

I personally have always viewed libertarianism as being neither left nor right wing, there are right wing Libertarians, but there are also those such as John Mortimer, Noam Chomsky, Chris Dillow etc who are distinctly on the left. I tend to just view it as an extreme form of liberalism, which again is neither left nor right but can be either or both.

The Lib Dems do have a significant social democrat tradition, Chris Huhne and Vince Cable being the most obvious, but the liberalism is always there—my form of socialism isn’t social democratic but is liberal, for example—it would be wrong to assume that all those that left Labour to join the Alliance were social democrats, many would have been liberal socialists instead.

I do look forward to the day when, post electoral reform, we can have that genuine realignment, and maybe the Cooperative party could demerge from Labour and I could feel free to join it.

Oh Shatterface/UKLib, the problem is that both forms of freedom are useful to talk about, and both have an impact on the way we live. Academia and more abstract discussions need to define precise terms, and negative liberty has a strong tradition within the discourse. Thus you sometimes get problematic use of language (such as libertarian/Libertarian, socialist/Socialist), the freedom-from/freedom-to debate is a very old one and it’s difficult to draw the line.

That’s what makes it a problem.

“Answer: nothing. Every time Jim tries to perform an action, he must lay claim to someone’s resources; and their rights over these resources mean that they can interfere, with the state behind them, to make him stop. Now, pretty clearly, someone who can’t do anything without being subject to interference by others is unfree.”

But no one, not even Robert Nozick’s Anarchy State and Utopia holds that situation to be just, so it is a strawman. Hence the Lockean proviso. People either have to leave some unowned resources for Jim or compensate him for him not having access to them. This proviso follows all transfers of property like a shadow such that it is unjust for a situation to arise whereby Jim can pop into the world uncompensated for not being able to take possession of a share of unowned resources.

But we can tentatively take a much stricter line than that, and even endorse common ownership of natural resources as the initial situation, and still derive free market/private property outcomes (though of a type quite different to what Western capitalism looks like, we can acknowledge). Tom Palmer has quite a good response to Cohen on this: http://tomgpalmer.com/wp-content/uploads/papers/palmer-cohen-cr-v12n3.pdf

57. Stuart White

Nick:

you’re not getting the point of the Jim example. The point of the Jim example – the person who owns nothing in a world where all resources are owned – is not a normative one. Its not meant to show that the world it describes, or any world Nozick would endorse, is unjust. The point is purely analytic – to show that a lack of property rights in a private ownership economy implies a lack of freedom (to do as one might like without interference by others). The fact that Nozick might or might not find such a situation unjust in no way affects the anlaytic point.

Of course, once the analytic point has been made, one might think it has normative relevance. But I made and make no claim that the Jim example, by itself, shows Nozick’s libertarianism (or anyone else’s) to be normatively deficient. One would have to add some specifically normative claims to the example to get such a result.

I don’t understand all the hate for moralized definitions of freedom. It seems to me that both a) natural language is very much in favour of admitting at least *some* kind of moral constraint on freedom (or else we would not have the linguistic distinction between licence and liberty, nor the seeming misuse of language when we talk about ‘the freedom to rape’ or ‘the freedom to murder’) and that b) it would be very odd indeed if all those throughout the course of history who were fighting under the banner of freedom did so in defence of what is really an unmoralized concept.

I think the “abuse of language” relates to what the ordinary person understands to be the meaning of words such as ‘freedom’, ‘right’, and so on. The meaning of words is where consensus defines correctness and going against the consensus may make discussion more difficult, as the above discussion suggests.

May we not start from first principles? I think we are all entitled to freedom from unlawful and unreasonable interference. Our other freedoms (of speech, expression, assembly) can be extrapolated from that, as can our rights to a writ of habeas corpus, a fair trial, and so on. And from there we can get to things like the rule of law.

In this sense does my lack of funds for a train ticket, a CD, or a yacht mean I am ‘unfree’? Well, it seems lawful and reasonable for the train operator, the CD retailer and the yacht salesman to demand I give them something in exchange for the what they are selling. So have they interfered with my freedom? Not in this sense.

surely Jim is unfree precisely because he can’t do anything without violating others’ rights.

Well, sure, in the sense of being ‘unfree’ because Jim’s freedom to extend his fist ends at the tip of my nose. Our freedoms are bounded by the freedoms of others. Jim is not free to occupy the same space as me. Jim is probably not free to fly to the moon. I’m not sure this is what normal people understand by freedom.

What was the question again?

The problem with going with what the ordinary person understands a word to mean is it restrict precise usage. Obvious example is that of a “Theory”. “It’s only a theory” when applied to science is just bollocks, a scientist uses the word theory in a very precise way, and the ordinary usage is much closer to what a scientist would call a hypothesis.

Hence defining your terms is good, but once defined, using them correctly is perfectly acceptable, and essential for any abstract discussion such as this, where there are a lot of very similar concepts being discussed and precision is necessary.

Regarding the freedom to buy a train ticket thing, I think while that’s a good hypothetical, it’s not as useful within outcome based discussion.

For me, I favour a fully effective market economy with strong competition. Thing is, in order for there to be strong competition, you need to ensure there are no barriers to entry.

Essentially, if my employer is running a crappy business, and I know I can do it better, the economy needs a way of letting me set up in competition fairly easily. Currently, our economic structure, while nominally ‘market’, doesn’t allow this, as access to property and similar normally requires excess wealth—one of the reasons the US has a more dynamic economy is that land prices are negligible, for a US business, the biggest cost is staff, for a UK business, the biggest cost is premises.

In addition, setting up a business requires capitol and savings, something not many of us have, and if the banks cut off a supply of investment funding then the economy, and thus competition, falters.

That’s, incidentally, why I favour LVT, a CBI and reforming the inheritance laws to stop it being a death tax &c. It should, hopefully, reduce the barrier to entry and make the economy more competetive and less oligopolistic.

Gah, sorry, that’s less coherent than I want it to be, busy day today and I’m being shouted at to go back downstairs.

MatGB, that’s a fair point about the meaning of words. Now, finish the washing up.

MatGB (54): yes, I agree that precise terms are essential and that you didn’t invent the terms ‘negative’ and ‘positive liberty’, its just that the words used are unfortunate.

If you marched on parliament calling for ‘negative liberty’ bystanders would assume you were calling for someone to be locked up.

Anyway, I digress: hurry back when you finish your chores 😉

In addition, setting up a business requires capitol and savings, something not many of us have, and if the banks cut off a supply of investment funding then the economy, and thus competition, falters.

You are surely not suggesting that we design a system based on the exceptional circumstances we face today. Throughout 99% of historic times people wanting to start a business have been able to go to the banks and get a loan.

The essence of good system design is to try to deal with the pareto 70% first and then deal with the other 30% as exceptions. This is why Jim, in the example above should not guide decision-making. It’s also why systems designed by politicians never work.

its just that the words used are unfortunate.

Yes, that is what I was attempting to say and I miserably failed.

Bishop, sorry, that comment wasn’t as coherent as I meant it to be. Biggest barrier to entry into any market is essentially financial insecurity on the part of the startup. You need a way to pay your personal bills &c.

That’s always been the case, and is a reason to support a citizen’s basic income as it assure that any startup operator can still eat while finding clients and similar.

Second barrier is access to land to set the business up. The restraints of green belt and other planning restrictions combined with the unequal access to property given by our current allocation of land ownership (what, for example, has the current Duke of Westminster or of Cornwall done to gain the rent of their massive landholdings?) mean that an innovative economy is, in many respects, stifled.

We both know that in a truly open market, profits are reduced down to virtually nothing, but is that really the case in a lot of sectors?

The banking crisis is a case in point, of course, how hard is it to get a banking licence these days? Clegg and Cable were making this point and saying easier market entry was needed a year ago, still no movement, despite massive failures by the old oligopoly.

Stuart – I am not sure what point your example makes as a purely analytic point of that kind. It seems to be a bit like saying “If a theory of liberty permitted humans to be enslaved, then it would prevent some people from being negatively free”. You want to make your point broader, to say “a lack of property rights in a private ownership economy implies a lack of freedom” but it doesn’t seem to show that, apart from in the highly attenuated example you offer.

If there is enough resources left in common for everyone who does not own property, then their negative liberty has not been infringed, because they are as well off or better than they would have been if everything had been left in common ownership. That is why the “private property is a constraint on negative liberty” thesis needs to be stretched into the Joe example. But as any theory of negative liberty includes a proviso of some sort on just acquisition, we will never reach that example. I don’t think we have produced a moralised conception of liberty by doing that. We have simply unpacked the analytic content of what “liberty as non-constraint” must mean, namely:

1. Individuals are not to be subject to violence or the threat of violence.

2. Private property acquisition and transfer doesn’t get in the way of individuals doing anything they could not otherwise have done if all resources were unowned.

67. Stuart White

ukliberty:

My point about how property rights constrain liberty is not based on a revision of what freedom means in ordinary language. It is based on logically following through the implications of what people do mean by freedom in ordinary language – if freedom is freedom to do as one might wish without being subject to interference by others, which is certainly central to what people mean by freedom in ordinary language, then property rights constrain freedom (with respect to non-owners).

To ignore this kind of logical implication in the meaning of a word – that, I fear, is to abuse language. Unless we take the meaning of words seriously in this way, then a concept like ‘liberty’ does no real work in our political philosophy. Lacking clear content, the term becomes a slippery term we can manipulate as we like to suit our immediate argumentative purpose. I think liberty deserves better than that.

My response yesterday appears to have been swallowed by the comment system. Essentially, it is possible to unpack the concept of liberty as non-constraint in ways that are consistent with property. You just need a Lockean proviso of a type:

– All property acquisition and transfer must not impede people from doing what they could have done had all property been unowned.

Now that might well have some tough consequences for some resources that are unique (perhaps those should be left in common ownership without specific agreement). But for many resources (things like arable land), that allows for quite widespread ownership without constraint on other individuals. The point is the Joe-example is already excluded by all seriously proposed definitions of negative liberty. This isn’t a moralised view, just an unpacking of what liberty as non-constraint must mean (it must include some restriction on property acquisition, in exactly the same way that it precludes the acquiring of non-consensual slaves).

69. Stuart White

Nick:

Jim-type situations aren’t excluded by the definition of liberty as non-constraint. They are excluded by combining that definition with the analytic insight that property rights constrain liberty, so defined, and with the normative premise that all people ought to have some liberty (as non-constraint). But the normative premise wouldn’t give you this result – excluding Jim-type situations – unless you accepted the analytic point about how property rights constrain liberty. That’s the point the Jim-type case is supposed to make.

As discussion of this post seems to be winding down (famous last words), I just want to take this opportunity to thank everyone who commented for their comments. Although I have stuck rather doggedly to my opening position(s), the comments have given me a lot of food for thought, and I’m very grateful for them.

Indeed, I think this has been one of the best discussions on Liberal Conspiracy so far.

Right, this’ll probably be my last reply on this topic. Like others have said though, it’s been interesting (it’s certainly been good exam revision for me!).

Bishop Hill @ 44,

I understand up to the word “non-interference”. After that I can’t parse the grammar of what you have written in any way that makes sense. I may be being dim here, so could you spell it out for me?”

– We want to lay out conditions which, if satisfied, mean that we are unfree. For example, Nozick would say something along the lines of “we are free if nobody violates our natural rights”. Berlin’s ‘negative’ freedom offers different conditions of freedom to Nozick. We are negatively free to do X if nobody interferes (forcefully, presumably) with my doing X. So, I am negatively free to give a speech on Speakers’ Corner if nobody (eg. the Police) forcibly prevents me.

Does that make sense? If not, you’d probably get a better explanation from an introductory book on the subject.

“The point about the railway is that if I, as the railway operator, throw you off the train, it is because you have tried to interfere with my negative liberties by taking a ride on my train without paying. You are no more justified in doing this than I am to wander into your kitchen and help myself to the contents of your fridge because I’m a bit peckish. I am entirely within my rights to chuck you off.

– This talk of “rights” is completely beside the point. I can be unfree to do X, even if I have no right to do X. For example, in the UK I am not free to rape people. I am negatively unfree with regard to rape. Yes, it’s good that I am unfree in that particular way. But that’s a different question. I’m only interested here in the conceptual point that private property rights limit the negative freedom of those who lack them. This is only a conceptual point. It does not follow from this (on its own) that we ought to redistribute wealth, or anything like that. Likewise, it (obviously) doesn’t follow from the fact that laws prohibiting rape limit negative freedom that we ought to legalise rape. I repeat – I’m only interested in the conceptual point here.

It’s clear by your talk of rights that you’re committed to a moralised conception of freedom. Fine. But you owe us the argument as to why your moralised conception of freedom is superior to an egalitarian moralised conception of freedom (eg. Dworkin’s). That’s pretty damn difficult.

This doesn’t follow at all. If the poor cannot afford to do something it does not mean they are negatively unfree to do it. Nobody is stopping them. They just don’t have the financial means. The word liberty is entirely tied up with coercion and the absence thereof. Its meaning comes from the latin word for the removal of restraint when a slave was freed. His liberty arrived at that point, although no doubt a slave was very poor indeed at the time.

– Someone IS stopping them. Suppose I am poor, and I try to pick a sweater off the shelf in Selfridges. What will happen when I try to leave the shop? I will be interfered with (by security guards, and eventually, the police). You are free to take the sweater only if you have the money for it. Therefore, those who lack the financial means are not free to take the sweater.

Rob Knight @ 45,

I think you’ve missed my point somewhat. I do not claim that moral rights are a social construct. Rather, I claim that talk of freedom is conceptually independent from whether we in fact have particular rights. We can be free to do things that we have no (moral) right to do. For example, we can imagine a society which allows men to own slaves. Here, they are free to do something (ie. own slaves) that they have no moral right to do. We can also be unfree to do things that we do have a moral right to do. Some unsavoury regimes restrict free speech, or trades union membership for example. The people who live under these regimes are not free to do something that they do have a moral right to do. The possibility of these examples shows that talk of freedom is conceptually independent from whether we have particular rights.

You mention Locke. Locke himself had a moralised conception of freedom. He said something along the lines of (I don’t have a text to hand) “that ill deserves the name of confinement which only serves to keep us safe from bogs and precipices”. So, because particular things (eg. fences around bogs) are clearly sensible and justified, Locke thinks that they do not restrict our freedom. I (and Cohen, presumably) disagree with Locke. We think that fences around bogs and precipices *do* restrict our freedom, but that they are *justified* restrictions.

You seem to suggest that instead of choosing between moralised conceptions of liberty, we have the option of a non-moralised conception? How would that work?

Cohen’s (and a properly understood Berlinian presentation of ‘negative’ liberty) is an example of a non-moralised conception of freedom. So, Bob is free to X only if nobody will interfere with his doing X. That analysis of freedom does not make any moral claims (ie. whether Bob ought to be able to do X) and hence is non-moralised. It does however, have the implication that the poor are negatively unfree to do all sorts of things that the rich are not negatively unfree to do (maybe that’s a good thing though. Cohen leaves that question unanswered, at least in FREEDOM AND MONEY).

Hope that helps to clear things up.

Again, this has been a fruitful and interesting discussion!

“It’s clear by your talk of rights that you’re committed to a moralised conception of freedom. Fine. But you owe us the argument as to why your moralised conception of freedom is superior to an egalitarian moralised conception of freedom (eg. Dworkin’s). That’s pretty damn difficult.”

Ok, how about an egalitarian moralised conception has led to decay and, sometimes, death and destruction on a massive scale, whereas the the classical liberal moralised conception has led to material prosperity on a scale unprecedented in human history.

Nick,

Nice soundbite, but when formalised that argument will likely come out as invalid.

All analytical arguments at some point break down to an appeal to normative intuitions. I am just giving you the grounds for mine.

I don’t have a problem with normative intuitions. “Believing in a moralised conception of freedom always leads to bad consequences” isn’t a normative intuition, it’s a false empirical premise. Show us the argument for why a libertarian moralised conception is preferable to a non-libertarian one.

No, my normative intuition is to oppose widespread state action and to believe in a view of liberty that means that if you are not imposing on others, then you are not violating their liberty.

My basis for that is a tentative, conditional and, no doubt, partial understanding of how people, society and state interact based on reflecting on history and empirical evidence, the shape of the comment I referred to above.


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