The Means to Choose

Isaiah Berlin marked a distinction between two conflicting concepts of liberty, “negative” and “positive.” Answers to “What is the area within which the subject—a person or group of persons—is or should be left to do or be what he [or she] is able to do or be, without interference by other persons?” express liberty in the negative sense. Answers to “What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?” express liberty in the positive sense. Negative liberty refers to the absence of restraints by others; positive liberty refers to the possession of control or mastery.

Writing in the Cold War in 1958, Berlin’s animating concern was how the contortions of positive liberty could destroy negative liberty. By using bifurcated selves and warped metaphors of self-mastery, communists invoked liberty to impose tyranny. But this contradiction was about more than a fraudulent ideal. It was also due to ineradicable discord between the ends of life. For Berlin, our values cannot be fully harmonized. As we pursue some, we must compromise and even sacrifice others.

Even with negative liberties, there are tradeoffs. The wider the scope of negative liberty, the greater the potential entanglements between individuals, whose actions are interdependent. Some liberties must be restrained for the sake of others. Otherwise, individuals would “boundlessly interfere” with each another. In a state of chaos, an individual’s minimum needs could go unmet, and “the liberties of the weak” could be lost to domination by the strong.

In a 1969 essay responding to his critics (the introduction to Four Essays on Liberty), Berlin went even further:

It is doubtless well to remember that belief in negative freedom is compatible with, and (so far as ideas influence conduct) has played its part in, generating great and lasting social evils. My point is that it was much less often defended or disguised by the kind of specious arguments and sleights-of-hand habitually used by the champions of ‘positive’ freedom in its more sinister forms. Advocacy of non-interference (like ‘social Darwinism’) was, of course, used to support politically and socially destructive policies which armed the strong, the brutal, and the unscrupulous against the humane and the weak, the able and ruthless against the less gifted and the less fortunate. Freedom for the wolves has often meant death to the sheep. The bloodstained story of economic individualism and unrestrained capitalist competition does not, I should have thought, today need stressing. Nevertheless, in view of the astonishing opinions which some of my critics have imputed to me, I should, perhaps, have been wise to underline certain parts of my argument. I should have made even clearer that the evils of unrestrained laissez-faire, and of the social and legal systems that permitted and encouraged it, led to brutal violations of ‘negative’ liberty—of basic human rights (always a ‘negative’ notion: a wall against oppressors), including that of free expression or association without which there may exist justice and fraternity and even happiness of a kind, but not democracy. And I should perhaps have stressed (save that I thought this too obvious to need saying) the failure of such systems to provide the minimum conditions in which alone any degree of significant ‘negative’ liberty can be exercised by individuals or groups, and without which it is of little or no value to those who may theoretically possess it. For what are rights without the power to implement them? I had supposed that enough had been said by almost every serious modern writer concerned with this subject about the fate of personal liberty during the reign of unfettered economic individualism—about the condition of the injured majority, principally in the towns, whose children were destroyed in mines or mills, while their parents lived in poverty, disease, and ignorance, a situation in which the enjoyment by the poor and the weak of legal rights to spend their money as they pleased or to choose the education they wanted (which Cobden and Herbert Spencer and their disciples offered them with every appearance of sincerity) became an odious mockery. All this is notoriously true. Legal liberties are compatible with extremes of exploitation, brutality, and injustice. The case for intervention, by the state or other effective agencies, to secure conditions for both positive, and at least a minimum degree of negative, liberty for individuals, is overwhelmingly strong. Liberals like Tocqueville and J. S. Mill, and even Benjamin Constant (who prized negative liberty beyond any modern writer), were not unaware of this. The case for social legislation or planning, for the welfare state and socialism, can be constructed with as much validity from considerations of the claims of negative liberty as from those of its positive brother; and if, historically, it was not made so frequently, that was because the kind of evil against which the concept of negative liberty was directed as a weapon was not laissez-faire, but despotism. The rise and fall of the two concepts can largely be traced to the specific dangers which, at a given moment, threatened a group or society most: on the one hand excessive control and interference, or, on the other, an uncontrolled ‘market’ economy. Each concept seems liable to perversion into the very vice which it was created to resist.

Some minimum of public provision, enabling individuals to act freely, is necessary for a free society—as opposed to an archipelago of Robinson Crusoes. The question is not whether but how to make such provisions.

For example, the Cato Institute publishes the Economic Freedom of the World. In this annual report, they quantify and rank the economic freedom of countries all over the globe. In their own words:

The index published in Economic Freedom of the World measures the degree to which the policies and institutions of countries are supportive of economic freedom. The cornerstones of economic freedom are personal choice, voluntary exchange, freedom to compete, and security of privately owned property. Forty-two data points are used to construct a summary index and to measure the degree of economic freedom in five broad areas:

  1. Size of Government: Expenditures, Taxes, and Enterprises;
  2. Legal Structure and Security of Property Rights;
  3. Access to Sound Money;
  4. Freedom to Trade Internationally;
  5. Regulation of Credit, Labor, and Business.

These criteria, as Daniel Davies said, are not limited to “the absence of forcible restrictions on you doing something,” but include “the provision of the means for you to actually do something.” For “a sound and stable medium of exchange (including a stable financial system), and an honest and impartial judiciary and legal system are things that the government provides for you, so that you can make decent use of your economic freedom.” Including these conditions in their index “is equivalent to the admission that economic freedom is not really worth anything unless you have the ability to make use of it.”

Freedom, as Corey Robin argued, could be reclaimed for the center left. Security and equality would be means to this end. We should value security to the extent that “it enables us to act freely, without fear.” We should value equality where “inequality is the throughway of domination: someone with vastly more resources than I—an employer, for example—can coerce and control me, abridge my freedom.” (Crucial to Robin’s argument is the demystification of markets, which have been exalted as ends in themselves.)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his 1936 speech before the Democratic National Convention, inveighed against the “economic royalists” who take “into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor—other people’s lives.” Walter Reuther and Martin Luther King Jr., among others, understood how government could serve as “the individual’s instrument,” as a countervailing power to “rulers in the private sphere,” thus breaking “private autocracy.”

The two concepts of freedom, Berlin said, “cannot be kept wholly distinct,” because they “start at no great logical distance from each other.”

I wish to determine myself, and not be directed by others, no matter how wise and benevolent; my conduct derives an irreplaceable value from the sole fact that it is my own, and not imposed upon me. But I am not, and cannot expect to be, wholly self-sufficient and socially omnipotent.

A country committed to individual freedom, to some minimum ability for people to direct their own life, must provide for the means to choose.

update (December 31, 2011): Looking back on the Spanish Civil War, in which he fought, George Orwell said:

The damned impertinence of these politicians, priests, literary men, and what-not who lecture the working-class socialist for his ‘materialism’! All that the working man demands is what these others would consider the indispensable minimum without which human life cannot be lived at all. Enough to eat, freedom from the haunting terror of unemployment, the knowledge that your children will get a fair chance, a bath once a day, clean linen reasonably often, a roof that doesn’t leak, and short enough working hours to leave you with a little energy when the day is done. Not one of those who preach against ‘materialism’ would consider life livable without these things.