In the most recent discussion on CATO Unbound, Daniel Klien attempts to address the issue of property rights in a social democracy. While Daniel Klien’s essay is interesting, I felt that it is more important to address one of the topics that one of the response essays addressed. In response to Klien’s article, Matthais Matthijs wrote an essay titled “In Defense of Reason and a More Balanced Free Society.” While there are a lot of topics I would like to address in his essay, the one I would like to address now is the issue of positive versus negative liberty. In his essay he talks about unequal opportunities and how these lead some people to have less “freedom” than others, but what it basically breaks down into is the issue of positive and negative liberty.
Before proceeding, I think that it is important to address the question of that are positive and negative liberty. While some people would claim that there is no difference between the two, I would disagree. For example, a negative liberty entails restrictions on what other people can limit you to do. For example, a negative liberty would be our concept of freedom of speech and religion. While a positive liberty, defined by Matthijs, would include someone providing you with a resource that expands your consumptions possibilities. Examples of these would be the right to healthcare, or the right of someone providing you with a church to practice your freedom of religion.
Let me also say this, I would agree with Matthijs that our resource constrains, whether they are financial, biological or something else, do limit what we can do. For example, right now I could not purchase a Porsche for me to drive. This means that I lack the positive liberty to own a Porsche. However, with no one physically preventing me from purchasing a Porsche, or preventing me from saving money to purchase the car, I have the negative liberty to own a Porsche. However, I would disagree with him that this means that I am less free, or that something should be done to change this fact.
I think the best way to frame my objections to the notions of positive liberty would be to provide an example. So let me ask a question, am I free to quit my job? Right now, I could not quit my job and remain unemployed for any significant length of time. From a positive liberty point of view, I am not free to quit my job. However, there is no law, or other external restraint, preventing me from quitting my job, which means that I have a negative liberty to quit my job. From Matthijs’ point of view then, I am not genuinely free. To be genuinely free, I would need to have someone (who?) provide me with all the housing, food, clothing, heat and healthcare that I could want for as long as I want. But why stop at those items? In order to truly be free, I would also need all the internet I want, a two week vacation to anywhere in the world, and anything else I could want. I mean hey, the thought of being a professional video game player sounds like a job I would like. In order to be genuinely free, someone would have to provide for me everything I would need in order to pursue that goal, like a really good computer to handle the latest video games, etc.
In addition to the problems of determining all the physical items that would be needed for someone to genuinely free, we run into several other problems. First, if I have a right to healthcare, and a doctor has a right to quit his job, what happens when my rights and the doctors rights conflict? In fact, what about the provision of all the other goods I have a right to in order to be genuinely free. Those items don’t just appear out of nowhere. Some on has to provide them. In the sense that I have a right to the good that these people produce, I have a right to tell them what to do. There is a word for the process I just described, it is called slavery. Ultimately, it seems to me that if you follow the actual line of reasoning of what the notion of positive liberties entail and look beyond what is obscured by the notion of taxation and money, you come to a situation where we all become slaves to each other, the very Orwellian concept that freedom is slavery.
Secondly, I would also point out that Matthijs points out the fact that we are all born unequal, however he only talks about the one area where we are born unequal that he feels is important, income wealth. However, this forgets that there are other areas where people are born unequal as well. For example, some people are more attractive than others. In addition, some people are tall while others are short, some people have blonde hair while others have brown, some people have beautiful singing voices while others do not, and I can keep going on like this for a very long time. If the fact that some people have more monetary wealth than others, and equalizing this inequality makes people freer, than equalizing the other areas of inequality should have the same result. However, I seriously doubt that most proponents of positive liberty would support laws that require everyone to die their hair black, or require taller people to go through surgery to have the length of the legs shortened. After all, how is it fair for taller people to have an advantage in basketball, they only got that advantage because they were lucky and had parents that provided them will a genetic code that leads to long legs.
In addition, let me talk about another example that I was thinking about today. Under our current higher educational system, people have to pay to receive their education. I recently was reading about a woman who graduated from a private university with over $200,000 in debt and ended up with a fairly useless degree (I don’t remember what it was). Because of this debt, she cannot do some of the things she would like to do. She cannot take a low paying job that provides other non-monetary rewards. In addition, it makes it so she cannot live on her own, or she cannot take another trip to Europe. Because of these loans, Matthijs would say that her positive liberty is severely restricted. While I would point out that she took those loans voluntarily, I would agree that those loans do limit what actions she can now take. So let us suppose that upon hearing this, our country decides to provide post-secondary education for free. This way no one will come out of school with loans, and people’s positive liberty will increase. However, this is a similar problem to Bastiat’s broken window and fails to look at the unseen responses of such actions. For, the post-secondary schooling will not be free; the government will still have to pay for it somehow. It is most likely to do this through taxes. Let us suppose that it is done through a value added tax (what type of tax really does not matter). Now I, and everyone else, will have less money to spend on the goods and services we would like to purchase, because of the higher tax. Now, everyone that is taxed has had their positive liberty reduced. With the tax, I may now be unable to take a trip to Europe, or someone else may be unable to get a lower paying job that provides other non-monetary rewards. So has the total amount of positive liberty in society been increased? When we look at it, some people gained positive liberty, no student loans and more access to higher education, while others have less, lower disposable incomes.
I would say that I think Matthijs would have several counter arguments to this example. He may ask what if the tax for paying for free higher education was placed on “the rich?” Then the positive liberty of the “rich” are not reduced, or if they are it is by only a small amount, because what value does more income provide to the “rich?” So the positive liberty of society may increase significantly on net it the correct taxes are placed. However, I would argue that this line of reasoning is merely another fallacy that forgets to ask, what would that money have been spent on otherwise? Sure the rich may not get much value from that money, but they are not the ones likely to spend it. Most of the money was likely kept in investments, stocks, bonds, bank deposits. This means that most of the money would have been spent on lending to businesses to expand, or open. Perhaps the money was donated? The point is that it is unlikely that placing the tax burden on “the rich” will not change the point that providing some people with positive liberty also means depriving others of some positive liberty as well.
While I find the points I made previously to be quite compelling, proponents of positive liberty and the social democratic state would charge that I am wrong in my reasoning. For example, they are likely to point out that most of the developed countries in the world operate on the principal that healthcare is a right and yet they don’t have guns pointed to heads of their healthcare providers. While I would agree that we do not see the results I describe in other countries that state that healthcare is a right, I would argue that the reason we don’t see this is because those countries don’t actually act as if health care is a right. In those countries, people do not receive all the health care available to them that they want; it is rationed through the government. Not a single one of those countries provides any medical procedure to anyone who wants it. If you actually think that healthcare is a right, I don’t see how you could deny that care. In addition, when they do run up against the issue of doctors leaving their jobs and providing care for the sick, those governments tend to uphold the right for a person to quit their job over the right of someone to receive health care. So they do run into the problem I described, the only difference is, instead of prioritizing the right to healthcare over the right to quit a job, they do the reverse. However, this runs into the simple problem that if no one provides the service, no one can consume the service, thus they do not have a right to it.
Let me end this by saying a couple of things. I am not saying that the goal of making sure that everyone receives as much health care, heat, food, clothing, etc. that they want is not a desirable goal. I just don’t see how saying that people have a right to them gets us anywhere near that goal. In addition, if we would also agree that negative liberties are also important, then we face the impossible task of providing two separate goals that inherently conflict with each other. I agree with Matthijs that we should be working toward expanding the consumption possibilities frontiers for everyone. However, we should attempt to get there by finding ways of providing more of these goods, not by writing on pieces of paper that everyone has a right to these items and ignoring the actual process of how to provide these goods.