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June 03, 2005

So You Want to Live in a Free Society (2): Two Concepts of Liberty

Anderson on Political Economy, Elizabeth Anderson: June 3, 2005

In my previous post, I proposed that we undertake the following inquiry:  suppose we accepted, as our primary and foundational value, the freedom of everyone as the basis for assessing institutions of government and property.  What institutions and rules would we find compelling?  Well, that would depend a lot on how we understand freedom.  In this post, I'm going to lay out two conceptions of freedom that I think are indispensable for answering our question.

No, these are not quite Isaiah Berlin's famous "Two Concepts of Liberty," (see here) in which Berlin distinguished "negative liberty," understood as the absence of external constraints, from "positive liberty," understood as . . . well, that's the problem with the dichotomy.  "Positive liberty" has been taken to mean so many things that it's an incoherent jumble.  To some, it means the actual ability to achieve one's goals; to others, self-mastery (autonomy, control over irrational impulses in the self); to others, participation in collective decisionmaking (direct democracy); to others, union with fellow members of one's "nation" into an autonomous state (whether or not this takes a democratic form), and on and on in no logical unfolding of any unified concept.

So I'm going to set aside the hoary negative/positive liberty dichotomy and offer two other notions:

1. Freedom as opportunity.
2. Freedom as non-domination.

By freedom as opportunity, I mean the economist's notion of one's opportunity set:  all of the options available to one, which are inside one's budget constraint and whatever other constraints--legal, customary, technological, natural, etc.--apply in one's situation.  Options include not just opportunities for consumption of commodities but for all kinds of action--travel, association, speech, worship, sports, sex, whatever.  These are the options one is free to choose from, the options that are effectively accessible to oneself, by deploying the skills and resources that are at one's disposal.

By freedom as non-domination, I mean not being subject to another's arbitrary will, not living at another's mercy, as a servile dependent.  Philip Pettit, one of the leading contemporary advocates of this notion of freedom, calls this the "republican" (small r) conception of freedom, going back to Cicero, Machiavelli, Harrington, and the American revolutionaries.  He contrasts it with what he calls the "liberal" conception of freedom, which is Berlin's notion of negative liberty as the absence of external interference.  But freedom as non-domination was a central value for Locke, Smith, and Mill, who are all canonical liberals.  Locke said, "freedom of men . . . is . . . not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man" (Second Treatise, Bk. IV, par. 22).  Smith argued that the leading virtue of the emerging commercial economy of his day was to liberate people from "servile dependency on their superiors" (Wealth of Nations, Bk. III, ch. 4).  Mill attacked the common law institution of marriage, which dissolved the legal personhood of a married woman into that of her husband's, precisely for putting women under men's arbitrary power, thereby reducing them to a condition of abject servitude little different from slavery (The Subjection of Women). We even find the classic formulation of liberty as non-domination echoed by Hayek:  freedom is "the state in which a man is not subject to coercion by the arbitrary will of another" (The Constitution of Liberty, p. 11).

These two conceptions of freedom overlap at the point where the exercise of one person's arbitrary will over another causes the other's opportunity set to shrink.  But they are nevertheless distinct notions, as Pettit has rightly stressed in his book, Republicanism.  A person could be undominated, and yet have poor opportunities.  Consider, for example, a group of peasants who have acquired title to their land and thereby liberated themselves from their landlord, who previously was free to barge into their homes, rape their brides, command them to work for free on his fields, and make them grovel before him.  The peasants would have cast off lordly domination, but still, as measly hardscrabble farmers, have few opportunities in their low-tech rural economy.

A person could also be dominated, and yet have rich opportunities.  Consider a courtier who enjoys the King's favor.  The King, just because he likes his toady, has granted him a sinecure; he has an open invitation to eat and sleep grandly in the King's palace, a summer estate, and access to the royal hairdresser (a very important perk: all those powdered wigs need tending!).  His opportunities are wide, but there's a catch:  the King could swipe them all away in a fit of distemper and even send him to the dungeon without a trial, for any or no reason.  Now, so long as the King doesn't do this, the courtier enjoys a high degree of opportunity freedom.  Yet he is still dominated, still subject to the King's arbitrary will.  Knowing this, the courtier adopts a slavish manner:  he fawns and flatters the King, bowing and scraping before him, in order to stay in the King's favor.  He is very careful with his words.  Dependent on the King's arbitrary will, he is servile and hence unfree in an important sense, even if the King is unlikely to take away his privileges.  He lives at the King's mercy.  A free person, by contrast, would enjoy personal independence, in the sense that his opportunities are not held hostage to another's arbitrary will.

Now I contend that if you want to live in a free society--one in which everyone is free to the extent possible--you ought to be deeply concerned with both opportunity freedom and with freedom as non-domination--what I shall subsequently call "personal independence."  You'll want to evaluate the institutions of government and property, as well as the culture of civil society, to see how well they secure and advance everyone's freedom in both senses.

So far, this is just set-up.  Subsequent posts will develop their implications.


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Posted by: Larry

Sadly, I think this is really just that "hoary" old positive/negative-liberty dichotomy with a new hairdo. And some loss of generality.

Let's concede that it's a good thing to have a society that maximizes opportunities and minimizes domination. No doubt it would also be nice if the society facilitated goal-achievement, self-mastery, participation in collective decision-making, and national solidarity, as well. No doubt, in fact, there are lots more good things that a society might, or might not, enable.

But why this tendency among contemporary liberals to want to lump such disparate things (whether or not they're collapsed into two) together, and then paste the label "freedom" on the pile? Because, with only rare exceptions, what they really want to do is find a way to excuse a reduction in political freedom -- that is, it's simply a rhetorical device, and it's only effective when wielded against those who value freedom as "a primary or foundational value", as EA so kindly puts it.

Posted by: Larry | Jun 3, 2005 9:08:02 AM

Posted by: Bret

Nice post! As always, waiting anxiously for the next installment which I'm hoping will get into some details - that's where the devil lives.

Posted by: Bret | Jun 3, 2005 11:43:26 AM

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti

I think your emphasis on the 'nondomination' nature of liberty rather than the 'modern' approach exemplifed by Berlin's notion of 'negative liberty' is helpful and much more accurately reflects the ideas of the classical liberals. The classical liberals were clear, I think, that liberty was not, and did not entail, libertinism. That was a charge against classical liberal ideas, but an inaccurate one for the most part. I think there was a hint of it in Rousseau.

What have come to be called liberals in the 20th century, such as Berlin, I think preferred the 'negative liberty' formulation because at that point they wanted liberty to have a more libertine cast before they became enamoured of 'positive liberty' via socialist and Marxist views.

EA's formulation of liberty as opportunity set, her notion that we ought to be concerned with the content of each individuals opportunity set, I think does rather represent just another form of the 'positive liberty' argument. Because, from the point of view of a classical liberal, as long as the choices within any given opportunity set are not constrained, the actor has liberty, I don't think most economists who are neither socialists nor some sort of Marxist would find the notion of liberty as opportunity set either helpful or meaningful.

It's really just back to the question of whether individuals have entitlements to specific goods/choices, and who will be coerced to provide them to those who don't otherwise have them. Couched in terms of 'opportunity', and process, it really displays more concern for a 'proper outcome'. Which tends to bring us back to some sort of arbitrary exercise of power over individuals. Hence, I think that to the extend teh notion of liberty as opportunity set has meaning, it is inconsistent with the notion of liberty as an absence of domination.

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti | Jun 3, 2005 12:46:08 PM

Posted by: lumen

Maximizing both non-domination and opportunity is, of course, a laudible goal. One wonders, however, if these are non-comparable goods. It seems to me, if we start with a position of unequal distribution of opportunities any equalization of opportunities will come at a cost of increased domination of others (i.e., you have to tax etc those with means to give opportunities to those without). The problem is that one is left with only intuition to determine which balancing of opportunities and non-domination is maximal. I guess we rely on GE Moore and merely intuit the answer here.

Given your last post, I suspect you might go another way. I suspect you take your starting point as one of equal opportunities for all. Then we work out the "rules of the game" so as to ensure adequate opportunities for all. This, I suspect you will reply, avoids an increase in domination because merely playing by the rules in a procedurally fair game cannot, in any meaningful sense, be considered domination. (E.G., when one lands on the luxury tax tile in Monopoly and pays the fine that is not an act of domination b/c all players operate under the same rules and the player who landed on that space as the result of a procedurally fair scheme).

Honestly, I apologize for putting words in your mouth. I am impatient, however, to see the whole scheme, so I am skipping ahead. Perhaps I have created a strawman.

Assuming all this to be your ultimate argument, then I am concerned. It seems that a lot is packed into the rules of the game. There has to be a reason for picking Rawls' rules over Novick's/Hayek's? I suspect that the reason for picking Rawls is the desire to maximize opportunities for all while the choice of the radical libertarian set of rules is supported by a desire to maximize non-domination. But then we are just back to where we started: How does one balance these two competing goods?

Posted by: lumen | Jun 3, 2005 3:31:26 PM

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti

Another point one of the reasons modern liberal writers prefer the 'negative liberty' formulation to the classical liberal 'nondomination' formulation might be that given a strong preference for class analysis and the general influence of Marxist thought, the nondomination model simply makes no sense to them. To such thinkers, only in a classless society can an individual be free of domination and exploitation. Of course, that's what led them down the road to totalitarianism, utter domination in the name of nondomination.

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti | Jun 3, 2005 4:28:04 PM

Posted by: Larry

lumen:This, I suspect you will reply, avoids an increase in domination because merely playing by the rules in a procedurally fair game cannot, in any meaningful sense, be considered domination.

No, because games you can walk away from. Not so life.

Further, "domination" is defined here as "being subject to another's arbitrary will", or living "as a servile dependent", as opposed to "personal independence", and EA is right to call this a "set-up" -- by focusing on a personalized sort of domination, the door is left wide open for any amount of state command and control (all with the object of maximizing "overall freedom", natch).

Of course, we'll see, won't we? It'd be nice, in this instance, to be surprised.

Posted by: Larry | Jun 3, 2005 4:49:39 PM

Posted by: le sequoit


What's so nice about "national solidarity"? Shouldn't we strive to get past all this gang stuff?

Posted by: le sequoit | Jun 3, 2005 11:02:10 PM

Posted by: Larry

le sequoit: Shouldn't we strive to get past all this gang stuff?

Sure. I was just picking up on EA's collection of alternative interpretations of "positive liberty" in her original post: "...to others, union with fellow members of one's "nation" into an autonomous state (whether or not this takes a democratic form)", and neither you nor I may be among those "others".

Posted by: Larry | Jun 3, 2005 11:31:22 PM

Posted by: Larry

(apologies for the italics)

Posted by: Larry | Jun 4, 2005 12:13:14 AM

Posted by: Javier

Nice post. One comment: freedom as opportunity only seems to be valuable insofar as the opportunities are themselves valuable. We wouldn't have much reason to value freedom as opportunity if we had very many opportunities and all of them were bad ones. So we need a notion of what counts as a good opportunity.

How do you intend to specify that notion?

Posted by: Javier | Jun 4, 2005 12:57:09 PM

Posted by: murky

"Opportunity" is vague and seemingly refutable by anecdote, as people do all the time in arguing against a need for affirmative action. "Opportunity" also seems to deny that our lives, economic and otherwise, unfold seemingly with about as much dependence on chance as on our personal planning. It seems to me you're not talking about a philosophic principle so much as something that will have to be defined operationally with percentages and tolerances and "optimization." But what's the optimum and who gets to decide?

Posted by: murky | Jun 6, 2005 9:32:04 AM

Posted by: arbitrary aardvark

In orwellian newspeak, freedom = slavery. Arguments are won by redefining terms in ways that assume the conclusion. EA's method is more subtle. Break the freedom = slavery equation into 10 small steps, so that's it's hard to spot the error in any one step. We've only been shown the first two, and maybe my paranoia is at work, but let's see where we've gone from post 1 to post 2.
We were hooked with the headline "so you want to live in a free society?"
Already it's no longer clear that she will be using "free" in the ways that interest us. In this post, there's no more Nozick or Hayek or that sort of thinking.
Opportunity and non-domination are important concepts, and it would be useful if we had better labels for those concepts.
The Nozick/Hayek world view, that is, the "right" that this blog seeks to speak to, holds that positive liberty arises out of negative liberty.
Without domination by the state or other sets of gangsters, people will cooperate, spontaneous order emerges,
standard of living rises, and the result is a higher level of opportunity and non-domination than in leftist schemes that try to more directly manage opportunity/positive liberty/worker's paradise.
So I am suspicious that EA is trying to undercut negative liberty, in some as yet unrevealed way. No logical fallacy in her arguments yet - it's just that I think we may be being set up.

Posted by: arbitrary aardvark | Jun 11, 2005 10:07:16 AM

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