Posts Tagged ‘freedom’

My latest Learn Liberty blog post is on the topic above and can be found here. Excerpt:

Kant’s moral philosophy justifies extremely strong individual rights against coercion. The only justification for coercion in his philosophy seems to be defense of self or others. His ideal government therefore seems to be extremely limited and to allow for the free play of citizens’ imaginations, enterprise, and experiments in living.

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I have just posted a couple of my working papers to SSRN for those who are interested. They are as follows:

  1. Public Policy and Quality of Life: An Empirical Analysis of Interstate Migration, 2000-2012
    Individuals and households choose their political jurisdiction of residence on the basis of expected income differentials and jurisdiction-specific characteristics covered by the general term “amenities.” In addition to fixed characteristics like climate and terrain, amenities may include public policies, as in the well-known Tiebout model of migration. Do Americans reveal preferences for certain public policies by tending to migrate toward jurisdictions that offer them? This article tests whether state government involvement in fiscal policy, business regulation, and civil and personal liberties more often reflects an amenity or a disamenity for Americans willing to move. As identification strategies, the article estimates spatial, matched-neighbors, and dyadic models of net interstate migration for all 50 states, covering the years 2000-2012. The evidence suggests that cost of living, which is in turn strongly correlated with land-use regulation, strongly deters in-migration, while both fiscal and regulatory components of “economic freedom” attract new residents. There is less robust evidence that “personal freedom” attracts residents.
  2. Civil Libertarianism-Communitarianism: A State Policy Ideology Dimension
    This paper investigates the existence of a second dimension of state policy ideology orthogonal to the traditional left-right dimension: civil libertarianism-communitarianism. It argues that voter attitudes toward nonviolent acts that are sometimes crimes, particularly weapons and drugs offenses, are in part distinct from their liberal or conservative ideologies, and cause systematic variation in states’ policies toward these acts. The hypotheses are tested with a structural equation model of state policies that combines “confirmatory factor analysis” with linear regression. The existence of a second dimension of state policy essentially uncorrelated with left-right ideology and loading onto gun control, marijuana, and other criminal justice policies is confirmed. Moreover, this dimension of policy ideology relates in the expected fashion to urbanization and the strength of ideological libertarianism in the state electorate. The results suggest that the libertarian-communitarian divide represents an enduring dimension of policy-making in the United States.

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Matt Zwolinski of Bleeding Heart Libertarians has written an excellent series of posts on the libertarian justification of property rights. Here‘s the latest.

The first and most important thing to note about both Locke and Nozick’s arguments is that, unlike utilitarian arguments, they are individualistic rather than collectivistic in nature. For the utilitarian, all that matters in justifying an action (or an institution like property rights) is its effect on overall well-being. On the utilitarian view, then, property rights are justified if the overall benefits they produce are greater than the overall harms they produce, regardless of how those benefits and harms are distributed among different individuals.

For Locke and Nozick, on the other hand, property rights are only justified if they benefit (or at least do not harm) each and every individual. Now, this probably seems like an extremely tough argumentative hurdle for the defender of property to clear. Could it really be the case that each and every individual is better off under a system of private property rights than he would have been without one?

The answer is, or can be, yes. Almost everyone today is vastly better off, and freer, because of the system of private property rights. In those rare, possibly pathological cases in which a person is worse off due to the system of property rights, the Lockean justification of property rights provides a rationale for some kind of “re”distribution as a matter of justice, a point that Matt notes at the end but defers to a future essay. In the event, this is one area where I tend to agree with BHL’ers: there should be a basic income of sort to replace the welfare state, which would probably have to be set at a few thousand dollars a year in the present-day United States in order to ensure that literally everyone is better off due to the private property system, despite its coercive nature.

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Over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, there have been some interesting posts recently on moralized and non-moralized conceptions of freedom. Jason Brennan says defining liberty to mean only negative liberty is “linguistic revisionism” without philosophic import. He then makes the case that bleeding-heart libertarianism (or Rawlsianism or various other non-traditionally-libertarian conceptions of property rights) does not necessarily violate the “non-aggression axiom.” Finally, he argues against moralized conceptions of freedom. I agree with the first two posts but not the last one.

It’s true that people use “freedom” to mean different things. Hobbes infamously defined it as the absence of physical constraint. Jason prefers something like “ability to realize one’s ends.” Both of these definitions are non-moralized. As Jason makes clear, positive liberty is not only not good by definition, it is not always good. My freedom to swing my fist into your nose unprovoked does not deserve respect — but it’s still freedom, in this non-moralized sense.

Now, Jason is absolutely right that nothing substantive turns on how we define our terms. He’s also right that simply defining freedom as justice (that which is, in the final analysis, right) abuses ordinary language and is tautological. On the other hand, I will note a tension between the claim that positive liberty is not always good and this claim:

The thing that Marxists and others mean by “positive liberty” is valuable and worth promoting. One of the best arguments for classical liberal institutions is that as a matter of fact they do a good job getting people positive liberty.

But if positive liberty is not only not good-by-definition but is also not good-by-inference, then the mere fact that a system tends to promote positive liberty is not a point in that system’s favor. The fact that system X makes it easy for people to swing their fists into other people’s faces whenever they want, thus helping them achieve their ends, is not a point in favor of the justice of system X. Now, the claim might be that swinging fists into people’s faces hurts the positive liberty of those victims, and I agree — but I don’t agree that we can simply sum up positive liberties across people and truthfully say that everyone ought to try to maximize that sum. That’s a controversial moral claim. Indeed, Matt Zwolinski refutes the view strongly here, and even says, “No serious libertarian intellectuals think about libertarianism in terms of maximizing liberty.” I don’t know how this statement squares with what Jason says he and David Schmidtz are arguing about how we ought to evaluate the regime of negative liberty.

Furthermore, I don’t think we can rule out all moralized conceptions of freedom as tautological. People in ordinary language use freedom in a moralized but non-tautological sense all the time. When someone says, “I can say what I want, it’s a free country,” she’s not saying, “It’s a country where I can realize my ends.” She’s saying something like, “In this country, we are not supposed to be subject to the arbitrary domination of others’ wills.” Freedom as non-domination means a great deal to people, arguably more than the mere ability to realize one’s own ends. The reason slavery is so repugnant is not really that it makes the slave unhappy, but that it enshrines an extreme form of inequality and domination. (I’m making a substantive, controversial moral claim here.)

But freedom as non-domination is also not the whole of justice. Marxists like G.A. Cohen arguably accept non-domination just as much as libertarian anarchists like Murray Rothbard. They just disagree about the proper conception of property rights, which also belongs to the domain of justice. Now, if you are persuaded about the libertarian account of property rights, then a Marxist regime imposed without consent looks like unjust domination, un-freedom. Still, even if we read back into “freedom” claims about justice, freedom-as-non-domination is not tautological: it doesn’t simply define freedom as justice. Yet it is a moralized conception of freedom common in everyday discourse.


Jason Brennan responds by e-mail:

Thanks for posting that. Does this clear up things?

1. I don’t literally mean that positive liberty is always good, but rather that it tends to be good and tends to be worth promoting. Schmidtz and I talk at some length in BHOL about how there’s not clear measure of positive liberty, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make good estimates. If people are living longer, have more options, have more money, have more technology, etc, they will usually have more positive liberty.

2. I prefer to use non-moralized definitions of liberty: Neg lib = absence of obstacles, pos lib = power or capacity. But Schmidtz and I note that in common language, we often mean much more specific ideas when we use the terms “liberty” or “freedom”. If someone says, “X is a free country,” we assume she means they protect a wide range of negative liberties. My raise gave me the freedom to enjoy life, we assume she means positive liberty as capacity/power. And so on.

Schmidtz and I would agree with Matt Z and Nozick that negative rights are side constraints–we shouldn’t have a utilitarianism of rights. But negative and positive liberty are different. Negative liberty first and foremost should be respected, and then promoted. Positive liberty is to be promoted (when it’s good, and if doing so is consistent with our rights).

My response to Jason:

Thanks for the response. It clarifies a great deal. I clearly misread your position on positive freedom. I can’t quarrel with your description of the conceptual landscape below. Substantively, too, we’re not far apart, though I don’t think it’s generally morally impermissible to refrain from promoting the positive liberty of humanity in general (for instance, in order to focus on one’s own life projects).

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From “A Thought Experiment on Freedom,” I thought these comments were worth highlighting.


Freedom is more than marginal tax rates and the monetary value of different policies. Is there a way to calculate it though? I don’t know. I think of something like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we need a hierarchy of liberty/freedom that focuses on the fundamentals. I’ve never read an argument suggesting this, but why not prioritize in the order of life, liberty, and then property. So it’s not just a list, it’s a list of goals in order of importance.


Would you feel differently if the country with the lower tax rate destroyed not human beings, but something truly commodifiable? Say, $70 million a year in randomly selected houses or automobiles. Otherwise your reluctance to embrace the “greater freedom” in the lower-tax country is nothing more than your recognition that a human life is not truly commodifiable, regardless of how it is statistically valued.


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Imagine two countries, each the size of the U.S. In one of them, the average tax rate is 1% (of income) lower than the other, but unlike the other it randomly selects ten innocent individuals for execution each year (perhaps ritual human sacrifice!). Assuming personal income of $12 trillion like the United States, the lower tax rate in this country allows for more freedom worth $120 billion a year, by our method. If the statistical value of a life is $7 million, however, the execution policy only costs $70 million a year in freedom. Thus, not only is the human-sacrifice state with a slightly lower tax rate “freer” by this crude metric, but it is not even close.

Which is truly the freer country, assuming they are exactly alike in all other respects? And by how much?

The first paragraph above comes from the forthcoming third edition of Freedom in the 50 States: Index of Personal and Economic Freedom.

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Libertarians have generally opposed government mandates to participate in commerce on moral, economic, and constitutional grounds. Certainly, a federal government mandate to buy private health insurance contradicts standard libertarian understandings of the right to property and self-determination and the ability of individuals to decide for themselves their need for insurance (and concomitant skepticism of paternalist justifications for government involvement in health insurance), and runs afoul of textualist interpretations of the U.S. Constitution. A state government mandate would not violate the Constitution, but libertarians would nevertheless still tend to oppose it on the moral and economic grounds already cited.

However, there is one type of insurance mandate to which standard libertarian objections fall short. This is not to say, by any means, that all libertarians would support it, merely that opposition would have to find grounding in contingent, disputable facts. The mandate to which I refer is a requirement that (more…)

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