On Liberalism, Equality and Positive Freedom

Listening to this week’s EconTalk interview with Alan Wolfe, author of the recently released The Future of Liberalism, I was struck by the following quote from the book, “Modern liberalism promises equality through what [Isaiah] Berlin calls a positive conception of liberty. It is not sufficient for me merely to be left alone [which is negative liberty]. I must also have the capacity to realize the goals that I choose for myself. If this requires an active role for government, then modern liberals are prepared to accept state intervention into the economy in order to give large numbers of people the sense of mastery that free market capitalism gives only to the few.”

In discussion with host Russell Roberts, himself quite libertarian, Wolfe says that liberals do and should concede that at times empirical evidence will show that such government intervention actually reduces personal autonomy, in which case he advocates changing one’s position. He cites school choice and welfare reform as to examples of traditionally conservative positions he has adopted because he considers that these were both cases of alleviating dependence created by government programs.

But the examples that Wolfe provided of intervention to assure positive freedom struck me as interesting, and provided me with some insight into how thoughtful liberals view the world.

For instance, he argues that the government should assure a certain minimal standard of living for all citizens, on the theory that there is not advantage to having legal rights (freedom from oppression: negative liberty) if one is so poor that one cannot actually exercise much positive freedom (roughly put: doing what you want to do). Or on campaign finance reform, he argues that one’s freedom of expression is not much of a right if one’s own free speech is drowned out by vast quantities of campaigning paid for by the rich. Thus, he supports limited the amount that people are able to contribute to political causes in order to level the playing field.

As a conservative, this strikes me as overly rosy thinking. Not only are playing fields not so easily levelled as it sounds he imagines, but I’m suspicious of what exactly the leveling buys for the elites in society.  I’m not sure that government actually can do very much to assure positive freedom, and even to the extent that it can, I’m not sure that it should.  If assuring positive freedom means providing things which might better be earned at no cost, it may well devalue in our eyes precisely those things that it seeks to protect.

It’s often pointed out that the US has fairly high inequality for a developed nation. The GINI index (on the 0 to 1 scale with 0 being total equality and 1 being total inequality) for the US is .41 while heavily socially democratic Sweden is .25. Yet as Blackadder pointed out in a recent post, although Sweden is often considered a paradise of equality and social democracy, nearly a third of its GDP is controlled by one insanely wealthy family. By comparison, Bill Gates controls, even if one imagines him to “control” all of Microsoft’s gross revenues, 0.4% of the US GDP. (US GDP is 13,840 Billion, MSFT 2008 gross revenues were 60.5 Billion.)

With all of the urgency coming from elites to make the US more like countries like Sweden as a response to the current recession, I can’t help wondering if part of the appeal of social democracy to elites is that it keeps everyone else complacent enough for them to go off and do their wealth and power thing without anyone noticing.

As many urge us to pursue the path of social democracy, we must ask ourselves if we are accept greater stratification in return for less inequality.  My own fear, hearing thinking such as Wolfe’s, is that the effect of having the government be too eager to provide us with things in order to assure our positive freedom will be our increasing lack of interest in things other than our own personal consumption and pleasures.


29 Responses to On Liberalism, Equality and Positive Freedom

  1. Joe Hargrave says:

    There is modern positive liberty like Wolfe’s, which is materialistic, and there is classical positive liberty – classical republicanism, and of course, Catholicism.

    The Catholic conception of liberty has always been positive. Freedom is the freedom to do good, freedom from sin. True liberty is not found in license but in virtue.

    It was the point of my last entry here. And according to the social teaching of the Church, there is much that can be done to promote positive liberty.

  2. I would agree that the Catholic understanding of freedom has always been a positive one in that freedom is ordered towards the end of doing good, and it only good to the extent it is thus used.

    However, I’d question whether anything other than negative liberty is necessarily implementable politically. The law can leave me free to do the good, but if it forces me to do the good, then I am no longer free to do the good but rather acting under compulsion.

    Indeed, isn’t law generally much better at negatives than positives? For example: It’s fairly straight forward to punish child abuse, but next to impossible to successfully force all parents to be good parents.

  3. Matt McDonald says:


    you nailed it there.

  4. Joe Hargrave says:


    Why does the word “force” have to make an appearance?

    There seems to be a knee-jerk assumption, sometimes, that positive liberty necessarily entails the use of force.

    I’ve always seen positive incentives as a way to promote positive liberty. And a measure of social equality is necessary for the survival of political democracy and republican institutions.

    I wrote more about this at VN today, in fact. Pius XI wrote, for instance,

    “First and foremost, the State and every good citizen ought to look to and strive toward this end: that the conflict between the hostile classes be abolished and harmonious cooperation of the Industries and Professions be encouraged and promoted.”

  5. Why does the word “force” have to make an appearance?

    Heh. Well, what can I say, Joe. You are talking to an fairly old fashioned conservative, and as such I’d tend to say that one of the distinguishing marks of a state is that it has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.

    I would agree with you that positive incentives are a way to promote positive liberty. (And I’d also agree that a measure of social equality is necessary to maintain political democracy — though I think it’s once again getting hard to maintain, as if it were ever easy.) But even so, that can only “promote” positive liberty, not assure it.

    I do think that we can promote positive liberty, but the only liberty we can assure is negative liberty. And if we’re to have liberty at all, we invariably end up leaving some room for it to be misused rather than used rightly.

    (I saw the VN piece, but I didn’t have the chance to read it yet because I was in the middle of writing this one. I’ll finish tomorrow, I promise.)

  6. j. christian says:

    All of politics is the use of “force” in a sense. The state exists to get people to do what they otherwise might not.

    On the topic of the role of government: I haven’t listened to Wolfe’s interview, but I’d say that there isn’t a simple “algorithm” for determining which activities are best left free and which need to be done by the state. One place to start — at least with economic policy — is to look at technical questions of market failure and public goods. That’s the easy stuff. Of course there are moral considerations and considerations of incentives. There’s also the law of unintended consequences and the reality that even the best-intentioned policies have a way of creating perverse outcomes. Sometimes doing nothing is better than all the alternatives.

  7. j. christian says:

    I want to add that the libertarians who argue for nearly total negative liberty on moral grounds are obviously misguided from the Catholic point of view. We are social animals, not autonomous consumer-individualists, and there is such a thing as the common good if you’re intellectually honest about it.

    But the conservative in me is wary of “overdefining” that common good, developing it too broadly, so that the compulsion of the state is behind every good deed. There is truly something damaging to charity when that happens. This is what the give and take of politics is about: the community defining what is acceptable to relinquish to state power. Right now, Americans seem to be demanding ever more goods and services from government, all the while cursing high taxes. It will be interesting, to say the least, when the unstoppable force and unmoveable object collide.

  8. Joe Hargrave says:

    Given the way things have been going in this country, with the Patriot Act and all, I don’t believe negative liberty can be ensured either.

    America has just been lucky. Two oceans separated it from both the wars and the ideologies that started them that devastated so much of the world in the 20th century. And yet, even then, we had COINTELPRO in the 1960s. I won’t even include things like Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus or the internment of the Japanese.

    On civil liberties – leaving out economic theory – I am a libertarian, though I am quite disappointed with the ACLU’s secular bias against Christian communities. Anyway, it is hard for me to take conservatives seriously, unless they are consistent paleocons or libertarian-ish (i.e. Buchanan or Ron Paul), who go on about ‘the size of government’.

    So many of them supported the Bush administration’s erosion of civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism, trading liberty for security in a war without any clear objectives, a war against a concept, a war against a particular military strategy (which is what ‘terrorism’ is) a war that by definition cannot be won.

    So many of them cheered as riot police employed violence against anti-war protesters and other left-wing dissident movements.

    So many of them are willing to see the boarder and entire states militarized to keep out future immigrants and deport or punish the ones that are already here – all 12-20 million of them. Such an operation will require nothing less than an Orwellian police state.

    In short, so many of them are willing to make a Faustian bargain with the powers that be, assuming that they will never be the targets of government repression. Get the Muslims, get the commie leftists, get the illegals – and then they’ll come for the home schooled kids, the outspoken priests and ministers, the gun owners. We all have a horse in this race on both sides of the spectrum.

  9. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Joe, it is necessary to win wars so that we bloggers can be left to bloviate in peace. I have absolutely no problem with the government taking stern measures against those who give aid and comfort to enemies pursuing the defeat of my nation. That Lincoln’s administration, for example, tossed quite a few people into jail during the Civil War I find infinitely preferable to having the nation split into two countries. I do have a great deal of a problem with the government taking any action against groups who are not giving aid and comfort to our enemies and who are not engaging in domestic terrorism.

    As for freedom, my views on that subject are nicely set forth in the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist papers, Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and Lincoln’s writings.

  10. Joe Hargrave says:


    The bottom line is, I don’t trust the government with the powers it has granted itself to fight ‘the war on terror’.

    The Civil War had a clear end in sight. The so called war on an emotion/military tactic has no end. Terrorism will always be possible, from now until the end of human civilization. To say that powers must be expanded and liberties curtailed to fight
    ‘terrorism’ is to say they ought to be so forever.

    It is absolutely tyrannical that the government can now imprison anyone without charges at any time, for virtually any reason. Our fourth and fifth amendment rights have been effectively nullified. Protest is still legal per the first amendment but the police are finding new ways to attack, intimidate, and arrest as many people as possible.

    Cop worship on the right, and gun control fanaticism on the left, are two currents that will rip the liberty right out of our hands if they aren’t checked.

  11. paul zummo says:

    So many of them supported the Bush administration’s erosion of civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism, trading liberty for security in a war without any clear objectives, a war against a concept, a war against a particular military strategy (which is what ‘terrorism’ is) a war that by definition cannot be won.

    So many of them cheered as riot police employed violence against anti-war protesters and other left-wing dissident movements.

    This diatribe would be better suited if it was based on fact. I keep hearing about this supposed erosion of civil liberties, but I have yet to see any evidence that there has been any such substantive erosion. As for this little fantasy about the police coming in and clobbering on all the ole peaceful protesters, can you document one incident in the past 8 years when the police came in and arrested protesters who were not, in fact, breaking the law. Considering I live in the DC area and have seen my fair share of protests, I have a hard time buying this exaggeration.

    Get the Muslims, get the commie leftists, get the illegals –

    If it feels better to caricature those you disagree with, knock yourself out Joe.

  12. paul zummo says:

    It is absolutely tyrannical that the government can now imprison anyone without charges at any time, for virtually any reason.

    Joe, this is not even remotely true. What alternate reality are you living in where you can be arrested without charge or habeas corpus? This is not 1862.

    Again, it would help your argument out tremendously if you were decrying things that were actually taking place.

    Protest is still legal per the first amendment but the police are finding new ways to attack, intimidate, and arrest as many people as possible.

    Again, do you have any actual evidence for this, or is this all just supposition?

  13. Joe Hargrave says:

    I’m not caricaturing everyone I disagree with, Paul.

    Maybe you’ve never met people who believe these things. I have.

    And as for fact, I mean, I don’t want to be rude but can you use a search engine? There are dozens of documented incidents, people rounded up by the hundreds at lawful protests after being charged by the police.

    I’ve seen video footage of riot cops paying off agent provocateurs, footage of them laughing and calling protesters ‘cockroaches’. You think they respect your first amendment rights? They’re only interested in preserving ‘order’.

    Finally, even if there wasn’t a single documented instance of power being abused, we have a duty to resist infringements on the Bill of Rights, which is precisely what the Patriot Act and related legislation are.

  14. Joe Hargrave says:

    And NY got lucky with this one:

    “The New York State Court of Appeals yesterday disagreed with Wisconsin’s second-highest court in ruling that police may not use Global Position System (GPS) tracking devices without a warrant.”


    I’m relieved that the police were put in their place, at least in NY – poor Wisconsin. I’m unnerved in the certainty that they will continue to push the limits of the law until they get what they want, nation wide.

  15. Joe Hargrave says:

    I could post these all day.


    It’s a whole world of information out there. For now.

  16. paul zummo says:


    “Use a search engine” is not a particularly compelling form of documentation. The onus is on you, the person making the argument, to prove your point. I’m not your r.a. That said, I will follow your links.

  17. paul zummo says:


    First of all, I will give you credit for actually attempting to prove your arguments through documentation. That’s more than can be said for some people.

    That said, I don’t believe what you’ve offered is compelling proof for the widespread accusations that you’ve made. They point to either single abuses, or are concerned with at best debatable uses of technology. For example, I am not necessarily comfortable with the use of cameras, but I’m not going to make a leap here that it indicates we are living in a police state. I would probably oppose the use of technology described in the last article linked to, and as someone who just received a fairly bogus camera ticket, I’m inclined to oppose all traffic cameras on general principle (I keed, I keed).

    You made a couple of very specific allegations which you haven’t come close to backing up. First of all, you indicated widespread abuse of first amendment rights with cops arresting people without cause. I’m willing to concede that cops can get carried away, and that they have certainly made improper arrests. I am not an apologist for the police, nor do I think they are incapable of abusing the system. At the same time, I’m not exactly just going to accept your say-so that the police regularly have unjustly arrested scores of protesters. It is possible to have a lawful protest, but for someone to engage in unlawful conduct during the protest. The first amendment is not a license to do whatever one wants. So, yes, the burden of proof is on you as the one making the allegation.

    Second, you made the far flung claim that all of us can pretty much be arrested for anything at any time, something for which you did not back up save with what looks to be a pretty bad case in a local community, and even that doesn’t follow from the example. So again, you’re going to have to do better.

  18. Mike Petrik says:

    Joe’s links are lame. While I disfavor the use of photo ticket cameras, this is a prudential judgement call. Just not a big deal, unless you are a criminal I suppose. The passion with which people worry about such things is akin to the 1950s and flouridization and the 1990s and black helocopters. And the story about the boy is also less than disturbing. http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,519570,00.html

  19. paul zummo says:

    Thanks, Mike. As usual, I assumed there was another side to that story.

  20. Tito Edwards says:

    I do agree with Joe on the Patriot Act. Even though the Bush administration used it benignly to root out terrorists in our midst, President Obama is now using it as a club against alleged death threats as Joe pointed out in the Patriot Act abuse.

    That brought a chill down my spine. That is not what the Patriot Act was made for.

  21. Tito Edwards says:

    OK, I just did some quick research and it seems that the story of the kid being arrested because of the Patriot Act is unsubstantiated.

    I retract part of my previous statement, but the potential for abuse is out there.

  22. Joe Hargrave says:


    There are literally hundreds of links to follow, though. You say you aren’t my “ra” – as if I need to do the research myself, lol. All you have to do is google something like “abuse of patriot act”, you’ll get dozens of links to mainstream news stories. Am I supposed to do all that, here?

    Also, there is the matter of looking for relevant information. For instance, in that camera article, the real point is that they want to do here what they have in Britain – the modern surveillance state. Not only are there cameras everywhere – there are people behind the cameras who speak to you through mounted speakers. If you litter, for instance, a polite British chap will tell you through the speaker, identifying you by your clothes or other characteristics, to please pick up the trash.

    And the GPS tracking – that doesn’t bother you either? It doesn’t bother you that they want to know where you are, 24/7, without a warrant, if they just suspect you of something?

    If you guys don’t see it as a portent of something far more dangerous, that’s your prerogative, I guess. Some people say, “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to worry about”.

    When it comes to the defense of civil liberties, history, common sense, and morality tell me to be vigilant. Nothing bothers me more than the flippant skeptic unwilling to take historical patterns seriously. Bringing up previous examples as if they are invalid because they didn’t lead directly to a police state is hardly convincing.

    By what logic are they excluded as links in a chain? Or if they really are absurd claims, by what logic are they associated with valid, documented claims? It’s guilt by association.

    As for the arrest of anti-war protesters, you have to read the stories. There are too many to count.

  23. paul zummo says:

    As for the arrest of anti-war protesters, you have to read the stories. There are too many to count.

    Yes, you’ve said that multiple times, as though repeating something simply makes it true. Sorry Joe, you still have not produced evidence. If there are so many stories, then you will kindly produce them. You see, I have a life and a job and I don’t feel like hunting around google all day looking for the stories that are supposed to convince me that, hey, Joe was right all along.

  24. paul zummo says:

    Oh, and Joe, you still haven’t even come close to justifying this whopper:

    It is absolutely tyrannical that the government can now imprison anyone without charges at any time, for virtually any reason.

  25. Joe Hargrave says:

    Well, when you have time, check it out. You think I don’t have a life?

    I may not be around to do it anyway – my computer has viruses and I think it’s finally time to get a new one. Might be a few days. Surely you’ve got 2 minutes to do a google search and just look at the headlines… if you had time to write that last post, you have time to do that.

  26. On a side note, I’d submit that the reason for the Orwellianly named “Global War on Terror” is that no one wanted the very un-PC but more accurate title, “Global war against a rag tag network of Islamic extremests who want to destroy US assets and kill US citizens”. There were a number of conservatives who pointed this out at the time — though sometimes because they wanted to use a term with more “fight” such as “Global War on Islamic Fascism”. (Itself a poor term, I think, since the terrorists aren’t really fascists and if some Islamic countries are fascist, that’s not necessarily our problem.)

    I’m somewhat split on issues such as the Partiot Act. On the one hand, so far as I can tell it’s not nearly as nefarious as many people think. On the other hand, I think that we often kid ourselves as to how much ability we have to protect our citizens. All this foolishness in the airports with taking our shoes off and confiscating eyedrops is not keeping anyone any safer, it’s just an extended kubuki show so that if there is another massive attack on US soil we can all tell ourselves we did everything we could. I’m in favor of giving law enforcement legitimate tools to combat terrorist organizations — that’s what our leaders have a responsibility to do — but we do want to make sure we don’t give them too much power in the process. Europe is already far more spied upon and locked down than we, and we can see from their example that it’s still quite possible for people to carry our terrorist attacks in the UK and on the continent.

    Going back to the general point, it sounds like we probably have a fair amount of agreement on how the state should give negative liberty — and probably a good deal more than it currently does. I would imagine that we might differ a fair amount on how successfully the state can encourage the positive use of freedom, and how successfully it can shape equality, which allows greater positive freedom.

  27. j. christian says:

    Bah. The idea that the War on Terror (such as it’s named) is taking away our civil liberties is in my mind a slippery slope argument akin to the cry that Obama is going to take away our guns. Lots of smoke, but very little fire. Nations can take reasonable steps to protect their citizens, just as they can take reasonable steps to ensure economic justice.

    If I were to worry about a slippery slope erosion of liberty, I’d be much more concerned about “rightthink” when it comes to gay marriage, abortion, and religion in general. People losing jobs and being threatened for their opinions on these matters is already happening… *cough*MissCalifornia*cough*

    And you can Google *that* stuff, too. : )

  28. RR says:

    The US is geographically larger than Sweden. Using the same math, Bill Gates controls 20% of the GDP of Washington state. These are meaningless shock stats. Well, maybe not. I find it a great indictment of US economic policy that despite a single family controlling 1/3 of the GDP of Sweden, the US still has greater income inequality!

%d bloggers like this: