LESSONS IN LIBERTY (Part 2)

Merrill Ring

As human beings, as natural and social creatures, complete freedom to pursue our own desires is impossible and undesirable anyway.  Given that freedom functions as the norm, what limits on freedom are justifiable?


While we Americans – especially those on the right - loudly, proudly and often - declare our dedication to freedom, we aren’t much given in our public conversations to talking about what it is we are so dedicated to.  The aim in this series of essays is to raise the philosophical question ‘What is freedom?’ and then to talk about some of the chief issues connected to freedom, especially as it pertains to our political lives.

Political philosophers and other theorists begin to address that question with a distinction between negative and positive liberty and treat those two conceptions as opposed.  

Negative freedom is freedom from another’s power over oneself and so from laws, rules and regulations devised by authorities to regulate our behavior.  To be fully free in this way is for an individual to be completely self-determining.  If you threaten to shoot me if I walk down your street, I am not free to walk down your street no matter what I want to do.  What I can do is not determined by myself.  If there is a law - and of course to be a law is to have a punishment attached for violation of the law - that I may not use a certain street, I am equally not free to pursue my own desires. In such cases, a person has not their full allotment of (negative) freedom.

Positive freedom is usually characterized as freedom to:  there may be no kind of law or rule or blind power preventing someone from going to the movies tonight, but that person would not have the positive freedom to do so if they have no money to buy a ticket or if there is no movie theater in town.

In these essays I will not be treating those matters as two kinds of freedom standing in opposition to each other.  There is some reason to draw the distinction that way. However, it is best, and I’m not being idiosyncratic in this, to think of positive freedom as having the means of exercising one’s freedom, having the wherewithal to make use of the opportunities created by (negative) freedom.  

In American political discourse, these issues about freedom separate the various groups.  What might be called left-wing libertarians, an increasingly small group, the remnants of the pure libertarian position, are defenders of (what is called) negative freedom, urging the most extensive amount of freedom from the power of others over the individual, freedom from laws and rules, and disliking any hint of positive freedom, any attempt to provide people with what is needed to make use of all that freedom.  The right-wing libertarians, who are the majority part of the old libertarian position today, have joined the conservatives in being advocates of (negative) freedom in the economic sphere only. For the contemporary conservative, adherence to (negative) freedom in the economic sphere is married to a willingness to restrict freedom in the non-economic, the broadly social, areas of life (no freedom to marry someone of the same sex, denial of the freedom to have abortions, etc.) – right-wing libertarians silently go along with those attempts as economic life is taken to be central and crucial to human freedom.

The left, the liberals and social democrats, on the other hand, insist that we as a nation must not only aim at as much freedom as possible, especially in people’s non-economic lives, but also that we must act to enable people to make full use of their freedom. Enabling people to exercise their freedom typically involves the imposition of taxes and regulations on other people, thereby limiting their freedom to act as they and they alone see fit economically.

Those differences between the left and the right will have to be considered again later.  However, the first task in talking about the nature of freedom is thinking about what is traditionally called negative freedom.

No one believes that we are totally free.  The world around us limits our options: for example we human beings cannot survive, even if we would want to, without water.  We are social animals and finding our natural place to be in a society of fellow humans, we are confronted from day one with rules, laws, customs and such.  We may get rid of some of them – we grow up and the rules set up by our parents are left behind; bad laws are often eliminated - but what doesn’t vanish is the existence of sets of laws and regulations by which a society is organized.  

And that is a good thing:  my freedom to do as I please is rightly limited.  I am not free to hit you over the head without consequences and you are not free in the same way.  Some laws are there to protect us from harms caused by others – the law against assault is a limitation of freedom, one that we (almost) all welcome.

Given that no thoughtful person wants laws and rules to vanish completely so that everyone has freedom without any (social) limits, the questions are:  how extensive freedom should we have and what kinds of reasons may be used to justify limiting it.   Look at a non-political case:  soccer rules require players to have their jerseys tucked into their shorts.  Is that limitation on a player’s freedom desirable?  What kind of justification can be given for it?  Those same questions arise in politically relevant cases – it will turn out that the debate between the left and the right on the matter of freedom is a debate over, especially, what kinds of justification are to be offered for limiting freedom, e.g. can any form and degree of income redistribution (taking money from the better off to assist the worse off) be justified as a limitation on liberty?

The assumption of our political thought and talk is that freedom is the norm and that what must be justified (or, in the case of limits set by physical nature, simply accepted) are restrictions on an individual’s liberty.  We are not living in a totalitarian world in which unfreedom is the norm and what must be defended is giving people liberties.  

Moreover, what is assumed in this country is that people should share equally in freedom – that you have an entitlement to hit me over the head with a baseball bat while I’m not free to do that to you is assumed to be unfair.  But of course we sometimes act to justify unequal treatment: you can be locked up and deprived of your freedom and I can’t be but that is because you have committed a crime and I haven’t. Or you can be required to have your factory stop polluting the air and I not have any such requirement imposed on me - but that is because you own a factory and I don’t.   Again, what is required in such cases is that unequal treatment in depriving people of specific freedoms must be justified.  

It is obvious that in practice the kinds of case to which these principles of freedom are applied are enormous.  As this is intended to be an essay in philosophy, the aim here is not to examine freedom on a case by cases basis.  Rather what needs to be discussed next are the kinds of justification that we, in a political context, might use to limit freedom.  That is the topic for the succeeding essay in the next issue of Progressive Democracy.