For the most part, my columns so far have focused on economic issues, notably the forces that encourage or discourage growth in per capita income in the United States. I must confess that the wealth of a nation has always been a secondary consideration (albeit an important secondary consideration) in the focus of my own writings and thoughts. Far more important, for me, is the promotion and protection of individual liberty. So I am devoting this column to a brief discussion on liberty.
What is liberty? This is a very important question because, in my judgment, many individuals (I would say perhaps a majority of economists) allow themselves to be confused between two competing notions, only one of which is correct.
The correct definition of ‘liberty’ or ‘freedom’ (I use the terms synonymously) is ‘the condition of men in which coercion of some by others is reduced as much as possible in society’ or ‘ independence of the arbitrary will of another’ (Friedrich von Hayek, The Constituion of Liberty 1960). This oldest meaning of liberty, is sometimes described as its ‘vulgar’ meaning. However, given the confusion that clever philosophers have caused by their attempts to improve upon it, I prefer to stand by this description. In this definition, liberty is sometimes criticized as an entirely negative concept; but this criticism is misplaced:
“It is often objected that our concept of liberty is merely negative. This is true in the sense that peace is also a negative concept or that security or quiet or the absence of any particular impediment or evil is negative. It is to this class of concepts that liberty belongs: it describes the absence of a particular obstacle – coercion by other men. It becomes positive only through what we make of it. It does not assure us of any particular opportunities, but leaves it to us to decide what use we shall make of the circumstances in which we find ourselves” (Hayek, 1960).
Negative freedom, so defined, is entirely distinct from the concept of positive freedom which commonly, but erroneously is placed beside it in unsophisticated discussions of freedom. The positive sense of the word freedom derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master, to be independent of external forces of whatever kind. As Isaiah Berlin, concluded, positive freedom is the greatest enemy of negative freedom:
“The freedom which consists in being one’s own master, and the freedom which consists in not being prevented from choosing as I do by other men, may, on the face of it, seem concepts at no great logical distance from each other – no more than negative and positive ways of saying the same thing. Yet the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ notions of freedom historically developed in divergent directions, not always by logically reputable steps, until, in the end, they came into direct conflict with each other” (Berlin Four Essays on Liberty 1969).
In essence, negative freedom is the concept that defines classical liberal thinking. Positive freedom is the concept that defines the bastard philosophy of ‘liberalism’ as currently practised in the United States, a philosophy that has become a favored weapon of liberal fascism or even of despotism.
Why would one pursue the objective of liberty or freedom, correctly defined? There are several possible answers to that question, but let me focus on just two. The first reason, the one that primarily motivates my thoughts, is that liberty requires no justification at all:
“For the man devoted to liberty, there is nothing which makes liberty important. And he has no reason for his devotion.” (R. Rhees, Without Answers)
Most economists (including Charles Rowley to some secondary degree) however, if they do have positive feelings for liberty, are motivated by utilitarian or Aristotelean notions that liberty leads to human flourishing:
“He who lets the world, or his portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation. He who chooses to plan for himself employs all his faculties. He must use observation to see, reasoning and judgment to foresee, activity to gain materials for decision, discrimination to decide and, when he has decided, firmness and self-control to hold to his deliberate decision…. It is possible that he might be guided on some good path, and kept out of harm’s way, without any of these things. But what will be his comparative worth as a human being? It really is of importance, not only what men do, but also what manner of men they are that do it” (John Stuart Mill, On Liberty 1859)
On that splendid note, I draw this column to a close. Because, from time to time, I shall write about liberty in these columns, I think that it is essential to let my readers know just how I define the term.