The Freedom to Sleep Under Bridges

Yglesias suggests that Gillespie's maligned piece about his history of home ownership and the excruciating boredom of Kansas may get his libertarian card yanked. I should say that, to my knowledge, there is no authority who issues libertarian cards, and thus there is no agency authorized to revoke them. Matt's statism apparently goes so deep that he conceives even libertarianism in terms of licensure.
Oh, but I wanted to say something about Matt's post! He writes:

if what matters freedomwise isn't simply the absence of coercive state action, but the practical ability to do things (i.e., the sense in which you're freer in New York City simply because there are more things you could do, even though you'd be less regulated in Kansas) then you start slipping toward all manner of statist leftwingery — the fair value of liberties, positive rights, etc. Marx, I think, referred to the equal freedom of rich and poor alike to spend the night sleeping under a bridge as a way of highlighting the putative bankruptcy of European classical liberalism.

If Matt is right I fear my card, too, may be in danger. I am happy to endorse a notion of positive freedom. I do think it is important not to confuse liberty with ability. I do not have the ability simply to flap my arms and fly, although I am perfectly at liberty to do so, in the sense that I am not threatened with violence or censure should I attempt to do so. But I agree that it is cold comfort to be assured that you are at liberty to buy a yacht, or a sandwich, when you lack the ability. We cannot eat, or sunbathe upon the decks of, our liberties. Ability really is what matters. And people no doubt often find that it's worth it to sacrifice some liberty to gain the unique abilities a city like New York affords.
However, I think that among the best argument for robust negative or liberty rights, i.e., for institutionalized constraints on coercion, is that a reliable system of negative rights over time creates more abilities, opens more paths of feasible possibility for individual lives, than most alternative systems of rights. Like Friedman and Hayek, I'm in favor of a modest and well-designed social safety net. However, political systems built around positive rights tend toward sclerosis, thereby reducing rates of economic growth, and a high rate of economic growth, along with (negative) liberty and stability, is part of the trinity of primary political goods (says me). Furthermore, a system of positive rights, conceived as a system of guarantees, is often self-defeating, because it cannot overcome systemic moral hazard problems that, independently of growth problems, turn out foreclose many of the possibilities for life that the system of guarantees was meant to open.
A system of robust negative liberty, together with a modest well-designed safety net, is in my opinion the one in which people are least likely to avail themseleves of their freedom to sleep under bridges.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center