Positively Heretical?

Skepticlawyer reports on a Tyler Cowen talk in which he divulges several “libertarian heresies,” one of which Skepticlawyer records as follows:

Next, he argued for a form of positive liberty. This is not the positive liberty of Isaiah Berlin, with its totalitarian tendencies and desire to tell others how to live – something that has plagued the political left for many years and arguably persists to this day. Rather, Cowen’s positive liberty is closer to Amartya Sen’s account of ‘capabilities’ – people should be able to do certain things, and the most successful society is one where the most people can do the most things. Then – and this is where there was an audible gasp around the room – he argued that roughly 70% of the liberties worth having fall into this ‘ability’ version of positive liberty.

Once people had cleared up that he wasn’t riffing on a notion of ‘ve vill give u zees because vee think it vill be gooood for you’, some of the grounds for the audible gasp drained away. Cowen’s and Sen’s ‘positive liberty’ has a modesty absent from Berlin’s account, and lacks the obsession with inequality that – later in the address – Cowen dismissed using Hayek’s words: as a ‘category mistake’.

This is pretty much what I think, too. And the fact that some libertarians find it so annoying is one reason I am likely to classify myself simply as a liberal. Of course, most liberals don’t want me, because I’m such a libertarian, so what can you do?

Anyway, in the comments of Tyler’s post pointing to Skepticlawyer’s account of his talk, Dan Klein writes:

Two points on Tyler’s talk (as summarized by skepticlawyer blog):

1. It might be good for Tyler to speak of positive capabilities as “positive liberty,” but I think that, nonetheless, his doing so is bad for humankind (as compared to his just speaking of positive capabilities).

2. The expansion of positive capabilities enhances liberty ONLY by the channel that it reduces the coerciveness of restrictions. The coerciveness of a restriction ranges in magnitude, and a restriction is less coercive the less important to you it is. Expanding positive capabilities reduce the importance of any particular restriction. But it is only through this channel that the expansion of positive capabilities enhances liberty. Thus, “negative” liberty remains primary. Positive capabilities figure in only through the channel of negative liberty. Robinson Crusoe, alone on a desert island, is perfectly free, even though his positive capabilities are piss poor.

I don’t really follow Klein’s first point, since I find that it is perfectly good English to say things like “Now that Chad is making a bigger salary, he is at liberty (or, more naturally, free) to travel more often.” I’m all with Dan about the misuse of language when it comes to “libertarian paternalism,” but I think he’s acting in something like the revisionist spirit of Sunstein and Thaler on this one: he thinks we’ll be better off if we stop using “liberty” in one of its perfectly ordinary, widely accepted senses. I don’t mind prescriptive semantics, but revisionist prescriptive semantics seems a waster of energy.

I think I just straightforwardly disagree with Klein’s second point, though I’m not certain I understand it. An individual’s feasible set of options can be bigger or smaller. There is an obvious, conventional sense of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ in which people with more options have more freedom or greater liberty. Coercion is one way to limit the size of that set — it takes away the individual’s liberty to choose some elements of the set in an especially salient way. Coercion is such a salient and dangerous threat to the availability of our options (to our ability, our freedom, to choose) that there is a perfectly good sense of ‘liberty’ that focuses exclusively on its presence or absence. Norms against aggression and theft are very important, and so it very important that we always remain jealous of our liberty in this sense. But isn’t the point of reinforcing norms of non-coercion maintaining the openness of the alternatives that would otherwise be foreclosed by violence or the threat of violence? Robinson Crusoe strikes me as the perfect illustration of why it is that positive liberty — the size of the substantive opportunity set — is primary. He’s got total negative liberty and it’s good for bupkis.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center