What kind of liberal are you?

06 Feb 2014

The term “liberal” is a confusing one. Is a liberal someone who believes in social freedoms - marriage equality for example - someone who believes in the primacy of markets over the means of production, or someone who views universal education and healthcare key requirements of personal liberty? In Australia, conservatives tend to vote Liberal, while in the US liberals would vote for anything but.

At the risk of stating the obvious, a liberal is by definition anyone who believes in liberty. All liberals, whether left or right, classical or modern, agree that liberty and freedom are primary human values - that there is a presumption in favour of liberty, and any restrictions to our freedoms by the state or others must somehow be justified - something Gerry Gaus calls the Fundamental Liberal Principle. All of us (presumably) believe in this fundamental principle, so how can we as a society have such different ideas about how to best secure that freedom?

These differences are partly a result of what we mean by freedom, but also how we believe equality affects that freedom. To have any meaning these days, the word “liberal” requires a qualifying adjective - social, classical, welfare state, economic - because different aspects of freedom are in deep conflict with each other.

One way of understanding freedom made famous by Isaiah Berlin is the concept of negative liberty 1. The central idea here is that we are free so long as no one else stops you from doing what you want. I’m free to say what I want as long as there is no one physically or legally coercing me to not speak. This conception has an external perspective and is concerned primarily with what other people do or do not do to me.

But what if I am doing what I want and nobody is stopping me from doing it, can I still lack freedom? Nobody may be stopping me from drinking but if I’m am addict, driven by some neuro-biological compulsion, then can my choice to drink ever be considered free? What if I’m perfectly rational, but only have access to faulty informational about the world, due to say being fed false information or my selective acceptance of evidence? These questions hint at another conception of freedom, autonomous liberty, an idea that says I am only free if the choices I make are my own. This concept of freedom is inward looking and is concerned with the authenticity of my choices.

The challenge for the autonomous conception of liberty though, is articulating some clear criteria of autonomy. How can I know that the decisions I make are my own and not the result of deceptive advertising or a manipulative media? I may believe my convictions are authentic but there’s a great deal of psychological research that suggests those who are wrong are the surest they are right.

But even if we are sure that we are autonomous, is the idea of negative liberty sufficient for freedom? It might be the case that there is no explicit discrimination, or anyone physically stopping me from, say, applying to university, but if I lack the means to fund my studies, or was not provided with sufficient educational opportunities in primary & secondary school, then I am most certainly not free to attend. My ability to realise the ends of my own choosing becomes dependent of social circumstance and the genetic lottery - criteria that we typically view as morally irrelevant - and leads us to our third conception of freedom: positive liberty, the idea that we are free only when we have the opportunity to realise our ends we choose.

More recently however, political theory has seen a revival of old roman idea. That the libre in liberty is the opposite of servus or slavery. This republican conception of liberty says that we are free only when not subject to the threat of arbitrary interference from others. This may sound a lot like negative liberty but its implications are much stronger. Its focus is on the power that others hold and can wield relative to us, and says that we can only be truly free once we are equal.

There is deep and intractable conflict between these conceptions of liberty. Positive liberty requires that we are provided with appropriate opportunities to realise our goals in order to be free. These requirements typically include sufficient public education and access to affordable health care, which in turn require a welfare state with redistributive taxation. But the greater the scope of government, the greater the imposition on individuals who neither need nor want redistribution. Positive freedoms for some are typically gained at the expense of negative freedoms for others.

Accepting a negative conception of liberty leads us towards a society of minimal government interference - just enough to protect us and our property for the coercion of others because taxation the minimalist claims, is an unjust imposition on those who don’t wish to contribute to society. A minimal government that fails to redistributed wealth will result over time, in a society of gross inequalities. This is after all, the fundamental nature of a competitive economy - small initial advantages multiple into larger ones with the winners better equipped to invest in their offspring and protect their relative advantage.

But social and economic inequalities threaten the freedoms of those less powerful. Those with means are better equiped to influence policy and bargain from positions of strength. Those without means will lack the freedom of those with, a situation that cannot be rectified without significants curtailments to the freedoms of the powerful.

Sadly, we can’t have our cake and eat it too. Absolute freedom for all is impossible. We may aim for the maximum set of individual freedoms possible that is compatible with the same for everyone else, or what JS Mill described as the freedom of me swinging my fist ending where you nose begins. But our views on equality will strongly influence our views on freedom, and thus what types of freedoms we should maximise. So what kind of a liberal are you and why?

This was a note I pitched to The Conversation recently. Sadly, they weren’t interested :(

  1. Berlin, I., 1969, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, in I. Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty, London: Oxford University Press