Murphy\’s Bye-Laws

Law #4: Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it. –H.D. Thoreau

Freedom’s Negative Means and Positive Ends

Posted by PintofStout on August 23, 2006

In a blog post a few weeks back, I wrote about how maximizing your freedom required a categorization of freedom into positive and negative and how coercion was broken into voluntary and involuntary to avoid complete isolation (Me, Bobbie McGee, and the Slippy Slope of Freedom N’at). In that post I linked to an article in the Stanford Philosophy Library by Ian Carter, Positive and Negative Liberty, in which the two liberties, or freedoms, are discussed. The first time around the article nearly derailed the original point of the post. Now I wish to focus on the article, the concept of positive and negative freedom, and how it closely resembles – damn near mirrors – the argument of means and ends.

The simple definitions are summarily described by Carter as follows:

Negative liberty is the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints. One has negative liberty to the extent that actions are available to one in this negative sense. Positive liberty is the possibility of acting – or the fact of acting – in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realize one’s fundamental purposes. While negative liberty is usually attributed to individual agents, positive liberty is sometimes attributed to collectivities, or to individuals considered primarily as members of given collectivities.

There are basically two parts of the definition of positive liberty; the first being psychological, perhaps, and the other being as successful as possible in maximizing the value of one’s life.

The first half of the definition is illustrated in Carter’s example of a man driving and making turns to purchase cigarettes rather than making the turns required to make an important meeting on time. This passage illustrates the psychological side:

It is useful to think of the difference between the two concepts in terms of the difference between factors that are external and factors that are internal to the agent. While theorists of negative freedom are primarily interested in the degree to which individuals or groups suffer interference from external bodies, theorists of positive freedom are more attentive to the internal factors affecting the degree to which individuals or groups act autonomously.

Can a person not act autonomously internally? For an individual to not act autonomously, he would have to be two or more people, which is contrary to “individual.” After this little problem is sorted out, we can slide into the second aspect which reveals itself in this passage:

This story gives us two contrasting ways of thinking of liberty. On the one hand, one can think of liberty as the absence of obstacles external to the agent. You are free if no one is stopping you from doing whatever you might want to do. In the above story you appear, in this sense, to be free. On the other hand, one can think of liberty as the presence of control on the part of the agent. To be free, you must be self-determined, which is to say that you must be able to control your own destiny in your own interests. In the above story you appear, in this sense, to be unfree: you are not in control of your own destiny, as you are failing to control a passion that you yourself would rather be rid of and which is preventing you from realizing what you recognize to be your true interests. One might say that while on the first view liberty is simply about how many doors are open to the agent, on the second view it is more about going through the right doors for the right reasons.

As potential cannot be measured on a linear scale since humans are multi-dimensional in their interests and talents, so maximum potential, like “the right doors for the right reasons,” is a subjective value. Ludwig Von Mises, of the Austrian School of Economics, would argue that the rational, or “right,” thing is illustrated by the choice that the individual makes. When the driver of Carter’s illustration chose to purchase tobacco rather than be on time for an important meeting it was illustrated that, though both were important to him, he valued tobacco more; he made a value judgment based on his preferences. How can his judgment of his own subjective values be wrong or irrational?

The most important part of the definition of positive liberty and where most of the political/philosophical contention lies is in the phrase “…realize one’s fundamental purpose.” This is interpreted by some to mean that liberty is realizing one’s maximum potential – also Socrates’ definition of justice, if I recall correctly – which was previously shown to be a subjective value based on an individuals ranking of values. But this concept of positive freedom is also the avenue and rationale for government paternalism.

Roderick Long explains, through passages out of Murray Rothbard’s Left and Right and Herbert Spencer’s The New Toryism, how the classic liberals, or the left, as Rothbard refers to them, made a transition from negative freedom to positive freedom. The classification and ideology of the left once represented an opposition to the establishment and was essentially anti-state. Their achievements succeeded in removing restraints which resulted in a popular good and an increase to the general welfare. Through the means of removing obstacles the end of an improvement in general welfare was achieved, though not strived for specifically. The liberals sought the means and achieved the ends, or increased negative freedom and in turn increased people’s level of attainment of whatever maximum potential they chose. Eventually, the good results that came from the removing of restraints was seen as the goal and focus shifted instead to positive freedom or achieving the desired ends by any means, including state paternalism and exploitation.

Of course, the main problem with focusing on ends is the subjectivity of values. Instead of removing obstacles and allowing one to achieve their preferred results (negative freedom), statism creates obstacles for those whose ends don’t agree with the collective goals decided on by someone other than the individual. Collective ideologies are manifestations of positive freedom, focusing on achieving, in theory, the greatest good for the greatest number of people. By setting the greatest good for multiple individuals to a single standard is the idea of making everyone’s ends the same regardless of individual potential. While this would help some to achieve beyond their natural potential, it also adds (hence positive) obstacles to the individuals with higher potential. Those with greater potential may achieve to the maximum potential of the collective, but as individuals they have underachieved (if the schemes ever worked or were ever intended to work, which is debatable). So on an individual basis, the concept of positive freedom fails in a collective as the upper half of achievers have been restricted from maximizing their potential contrary to the goals of positive freedom.

The term “positive freedom” is actually quite Orwellian, especially if freedom is viewed as individual self-awareness and autonomy. For the concept of positive freedom to differ from negative freedom it must necessarily be associated with a collective because it is implied that resources must be taken from one person to help another achieve what the collective thinks they should. While the recipient is being boosted and assisted to achieve, someone else must have obstacles placed rather than removed. If obstacles were removed for as many as possible while adding none, then this would be negative freedom helping all to achieve to whatever level they can – the purported goal of positive freedom theorists. If the best way to achieve the goals of “positive freedom” is, in fact, negative freedom and removing restrictions allowing individuals to be autonomous, what is the bologna the positive theorists are peddling?

People are not equal. Some are endowed physically with greater potential and others mentally. Were positive liberty to be successful, all the great thinkers and achievers (and proud we are of all of them) would not have invented calculus, the x-ray, or thought up of the idea of positive and negative liberty (unfortunately) as soon as they did. These things may have happened eventually, but it is by the exceptional people that civilization advances at the rate it does. When the world around us is improved by these high achievers, consequently, everyone’s world is improved a little bit.

If a political spectrum were to be drawn by affiliation to positive or negative concepts of freedom, it could be said that the entire spectrum believes in “freedom”, but the sides are not the same and are incompatible. The one side would endorse the concept of negative freedom and focus on the means of removing the obstacles and clearing the lane of advancement towards no specific end and emphasizing the route rather than the destination. The opposite side would endorse positive freedom and focus on the ends only, taking shortcuts (and we all know how shortcuts usually work out) in order to reach the destination and getting hopelessly lost essentially adding obstacles between their position and the destination.

<Edited August 25, 2006 to add third-to last paragraph>


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