This year is the fortieth anniversary of Murray Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty, and although many topics in it have attracted attention, several of them have been neglected. I’m going to discuss one of these in this week’s article. Isaiah Berlin was one of the most influential and important political philosophers in the years after World War II, and in his famous essay “Two Concepts of Liberty,” he distinguishes between negative and positive freedom in a way that leads some people to think that his “negative freedom” is roughly equivalent to Rothbard’s nonaggression principle, which states that “we may define anyone who aggresses against the person or other produced property of another as a criminal. A criminal is anyone who initiates violence against another man and his property: anyone who uses the coercive ‘political means’ for the acquisition of goods and services” (Ethics of Liberty, p. 51). Rothbard argues that they aren’t equivalent.
Berlin’s basic distinction is between freedom in the sense of doing what you want to do, unobstructed by the interference of other people, and freedom in the sense of self-mastery. In the latter sense, you count as free only if you are acting autonomously. It’s difficult to characterize exactly what this means, but in essence it involves a distinction between what you in your flesh-and-blood existence say you want and what your “real self” wants. “And what is the real self?” you will of course ask, and answering this is not simple, but this example may help. Suppose you are a heavy smoker. You know that smoking damages your lungs, but you continue to smoke anyway. Because it would be irrational to want to damage your lungs, your real self doesn’t want to smoke, and your smoking violates your positive freedom, even though you are doing what you want to do. To be clear, this claim doesn’t rest on the assumption that when you smoke, you feel a desire not to do so and struggle without success to overcome your desire. Even if, thinking about your desires as carefully as you can, you are perfectly happy with your desire to smoke, you still are not acting in accord with the requirements of autonomous reason.
In a way that helps us to understand “positive freedom” better, Berlin makes another distinction. If we say that your acting on a desire to smoke violates your positive freedom, this isn’t the same as saying that someone else, more rational than you, knows what is “really” best for you. No—the claim is that you know this; your rational self exists and has rational desires. As you can imagine, this notion leads to all sorts of tangles that you’ll be glad to know I’m going to bypass.
As you can also imagine, positive freedom is in practice an excuse for dictatorship. You may think you don’t want to obey the state when it tells you, for example, that you are required to sacrifice your life for the common good, but your real self wants this, so you obey the command voluntarily. One of the main themes of Berlin’s essay is to stress to the dangers of positive freedom, although he doesn’t repudiate the notion entirely.
Rothbard’s main criticism of Berlin is that “negative freedom” allows in an unacceptable way for interference with people’s self-ownership and property rights. Suppose you would like to travel to Europe but don’t have the money to buy a ticket. If you try to board a plane bound for Europe, you are violating the plane owner’s property rights, and you can be forcibly prevented from doing this. Even though the plane owner is justifiably exercising his rights, he is obstructing the area in which you are free to act and thus restricting your negative freedom. As Rothbard notes, following the philosopher William Parent,
This comes close, as Professor Parent observes, to confusing “freedom” with “opportunity,” … Thus, as Parent indicates, suppose that X refuses to hire Y because Y is a redhead and X dislikes redheads; X is surely reducing Y’s range of opportunity, but he can scarcely be said to be invading Y’s “freedom.” Indeed, Parent goes on to point out a repeated confusion in the later Berlin of freedom with opportunity; thus Berlin writes that “the freedom of which I speak is opportunity for action”, and identifies increases in liberty with the “maximization of opportunities” As Parent points out, “The terms ‘liberty’ and ‘opportunity’ have distinct meanings”; someone, for example, may lack the opportunity to buy a ticket to a concert for numerous reasons (e.g., he is too busy) and yet he was still in any meaningful sense “free” to buy such a ticket. (Ethics of Liberty, p. 216)
“Furthermore,” Rothbard says, “if one were to prohibit X from refusing to hire Y because the latter is a redhead, then X has had an obstacle imposed upon his action by an alterable human practice. On Berlin’s revised definition of liberty, therefore, the removing of obstacles cannot increase liberty, for it can only benefit some people’s liberty at the expense of others.”
One way out of this problem is to drop the notion of opportunity and instead to stick with coercion. You are free if you aren’t coerced by others, as the nonaggression principle characterizes freedom, and if the would-be traveler to Europe, or the redhead, doesn’t have the opportunities he wants, his liberty isn’t restricted. If this is what negative freedom means, Berlin rejects it as a criterion for political action.
But, if I curtail or lose my freedom, in order to lessen … inequality, and do not thereby materially increase the individual liberty of others, an absolute loss of liberty occurs. This may be compensated for by a gain in justice or in happiness or in peace, but the loss remains, and it is a confusion of values to say that although my “liberal”, individual freedom may go by the board, some other kind of freedom—“social” or “economic”—is increased. Yet it remains true that the freedom of some must at times be curtailed to secure the freedom of others. Upon what principle should this be done? If freedom is a sacred; untouchable value, there can be no such principle. One or other, of these conflicting rules or principles must, at any rate in practice, yield: not always for reasons which can be clearly stated, let alone generalized into rules or universal maxims. Still, a practical compromise has to be found. (“Two Concepts of Liberty,” p. 5)
Berlin strongly supports the New Deal and the British welfare state and claims that the unrestricted free market is oppressive; but, as Rothbard says, this claim is confused:
Berlin reaches the height (or depth) of this approach when he attacks negative liberty directly for having been “used to … arm the strong, the brutal, and the unscrupulous against the humane and the weak…. Freedom for the wolves has often meant death to the sheep. The bloodstained story of economic individualism and unrestrained capitalist competition does not … today need stressing.” The crucial fallacy of Berlin here is insistently to identify freedom and the free market economy with its opposite—with coercive aggression. Note his repeated use of such terms as “arm,” “brutal,” “wolves and sheep,” and “bloodstained,” all of which are applicable only to coercive aggression such as has been universally employed by the State. Also, he then identifies such aggression with its opposite—the peaceful and voluntary processes of free exchange in the market economy. Unrestrained economic individualism led, on the contrary, to peaceful and harmonious exchange, which benefitted most precisely the “weak” and the “sheep”; it is the latter who could not survive in the statist rule of the jungle, who reap the largest share of the benefits from the freely competitive economy. Even a slight acquaintance with economic science, and particularly with the Ricardian Law of Comparative Advantage, would have set Sir Isaiah straight on this vital point” (Ethics of Liberty, pp. 217–18)
Whenever you read The Ethics of Liberty, as I have done many times since I first saw the manuscript, you will always encounter insights you hadn’t noticed before.