“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.” Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty, 1969
It is always difficult to respond to a column that is permeated with confusion and incoherence, the product of a mind that lacks analytical precision and clarity. Such is the case with Bruce Bartlett’s April 9, 2010 Forbes.com stream of consciousness entitled: Has America Really Become Economically Unfree? Because Bartlett’s confusion is dangerous for liberty, correctly defined, I return to a topic that I have already addressed in my column dated December 29, 2009.
Bartlett’s confusion stems from his inability to distinguish between negative and positive freedom as defined by Isaiah Berlin in his famous 1969 statement reproduced above.
The correct definition of liberty or freedom is negative freedom, the condition of men in which coercion of some by others is reduced as much as possible. Liberty, or freedom, describes the absence of a particular obstacle – coercion by other men. The presence of liberty, or freedom, does not guarantee man wealth, good health, good looks, happiness, or indeed any circumstance in life except freedom from coercion. Liberty, or freedom is not universally valued by men, but for the man devoted to liberty or freedom, there is nothing that makes it important. And he has no reason for his devotion. The reality that complete liberty, or freedom, is unattainable, because it is the nature of man that the strong will always attempt to dominate the weak, whether through government or through private associations, does not imply that it should not be prized above all else.
The direct enemy of negative freedom is positive freedom, which derives from the desire by man to be his own master, to be independent of external forces of whatever kind, to be rich where he is poor, to be handsome where he is ugly, to be healthy where he is sick, to be happy where he is miserable, all by invading the negative freedom of others, by coercing them to his will, by divesting them of their properties for his own advancement and the supposed advancement of others in society.
In essence, the difference between negative and positive freedom is encapsulated in the difference between the classical liberal doctrine of limited government, private property, individual liberty and the rule of law, on the one side and the progressive socialist doctrine of unlimited government, communal property, the regulatory state, and rule by any vote majority, on the other side. Because the United States teeters on the dividing line between these two doctrines at this time, Bartlett’s attempt to fuse the two into a single murky philosophy must be confronted in the clearest possible way.
Bartlett acknowledges in his column that Government intervention is taking some toll of liberty in the United States. Concern about such losses, however, is exaggerated by libertarians and conservatives:
“we tend to underappreciate the ways in which technology frees us. The blessings of things like cellphones, PDAs and the Internet compensate for an enormous amount of waste and inefficiency elsewhere in society and the economy. To the extent that technology boosts productivity, it makes the burden of government more bearable.” (Bartlett, Forbes.com)
Translated: “Give me digital television and a DVD recorder in my prison cell, and I am free.”
“Another thing we tend to forget is the great benefit of the wealth that almost all Americans have today. Not many years ago, people had to spend an enormous percentage of their waking hours simply acquiring and preparing food. Now, even among poor households, obtaining adequate food is a minor concern.” (Bartlett, Forbes.com)
Translation: “Just push my three squares a day through the slit in my prison door and I am free.”
“At the same time, advanced health care and nutrition, not to mention Social Security and Medicare, have vastly increased freedom in old age.” (Bartlett, Forbes.com)
Translation: “Nurse me from the cradle to the grave in my warm prison cell, and I am free.”
In a lengthy column, Bartlett cites example after example of positive freedoms, provided by an ever-expanding, coercive state, as counter-balances to the curtailment of negative freedom. He never remotely recognizes the fundamental difference between the two concepts. Mr. Bartlett, positive freedoms are not freedoms at all in the true sense of the term. They are redistributive transfers that require the coercive power of the state, and that significantly diminish the liberty, or freedom, of mankind.