Freedoms, Postive and Negative

Welcome, sports fans...er, political theory fans, to an all new edition of Test Your Liberal Intuitions! Today's exciting question: The claim, "Joe is free to drink bourbon tonight," means which of the following?

A. There are no agents who are coercively preventing Joe from drinking bourbon tonight.
B. Joe has drinking bourbon as an available option tonight.

Now my guess is that the overwhelming majority of Catallarchy readers chose A. My additional guess is that if I were to pose this same question at CT, I would get an overwhelming majority who would choose B. The difference, I think, underscores a crucial distinction between liberals of the classical variety and liberals of the contemporary variety. Patri, as is his wont, puts this distinction nicely:

I think libertarians tend to obsess about theoretical freedom (what is the set of things that no one is preventing me from doing with guns?) and ignore practical freedom (what is the set of things I can actually do?).

At the risk of throwing bombs in my own (albeit temporary) residence, I'll second Patri's point. I am inclined to believe that what Patri calls practical freedom (and what philosophers sometimes call positive freedom) is far more important than libertarians often credit. Indeed, I might even go so far as to hold that positive freedom is more important than theoretical (or, in philosopher-speak, negative) freedom. This is not to say that I don't value negative freedom; rather, positive freedom entails negative freedom. After all, I can have X as a member of the set of things I can actually do if and only if no one is using a gun (whether figurative or literal) to prevent me from doing X.

Why positive freedom rather than negative? Or rather, why positive freedom rather than only negative? I'm not sure that I've anything more than a deep-seated intuition. It strikes me as somehow empty and hollow to walk up to someone wasting away from disease and say, "Hey, you know, you're free to do anything you'd like." To put the point in more academic-sounding language, it is to refrain from treating others as mere means to an end while refusing to respect them as ends-in-themselves. I'm not really sure how to put this point more convincingly. I rather suspect that, at the end of the day, this sort of intuition is about as deeply-set as our intuitions about deontology or consequentialism. (That is, when I pose the question, "Is a person who tries to do good and always screws it up a good person or a bad one," deontologists will say, "She's a good person" while consequentialists will say, "She's a bad person." People just seem to take one or the other as a primitive.)

As with any sort of fundamental disagreement over basic terms, this one has serious implications. One of those implications is that liberals and libertarians often talk past one another. In academic philosophy, for example, the term "autonomy" is used to refer to positive freedom. Libertarians, however, frequently use the term, "autonomy" as a synonym for negative freedom. Because we use the term in different ways, liberals and libertarians often end up with the frustrating feeling of having beaten their respective heads against the wall when they interact.

When I say, "Of course redistribution is consistent with autonomy," I mean that it's consistent with a notion of positive freedom. Forcing you to give your money to someone else is no different from forcing you to stop hitting the person. Failure to provide certain of his basic needs is exactly as wrong as clubbing him over the head. Both violate his autonomy.

To which the libertarian responds, "Redistribution is obviously a violation of autonomy. After all, you're using a gun to force someone to give up his money. How could that not be a violation of his autonomy."

The fact is, both claims are right. But they are both right only because the interlocuters are, in effect, equivocating on the word "autonomy". If the term means positive freedom, then the liberal is right. If autonomy means only negative freedom, then the libertarian is right.

Whether we can resolve this disagreement is an open question. I'm optimistic that it can; it's that optimism that keeps me coming back to Catallarchy despite my not being a libertarian. Or not completely a libertarian. Or something. I submit, however, that conversations that attempt to resolve our differences will be far more productive if we can all agree to use our terms in the same way. Or, if we're all going to claim "autonomy" for our own, then at the very least, we should be clear about the sense in which we're using it -- and strive to be clear on the sense in which others are using it, as well.

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