Freedom, through thick and thin


The superior freedom of the capitalist system, its superior justice, and its superior productivity are not three superiorities, but one. The justice follows from the freedom, and the productivity follows from the freedom and the justice.

- Henry Hazlitt, 1962


The concept of freedom, in its socially relevant sense, means the condition of individuals being free from aggression by others… It rests on the recognition of every individual’s equal moral nature as a self-determined and self-responsible agent, regardless of admittedly enormous circumstantial difference.

- Tibor Machan, 1998


As some of my blog readers will be aware, I have been engaged in a debate with a philosophy student who’s been enjoying bashing what he thinks to be libertarianism. In his view, libertarians advocate ‘thin freedom’ because we advocate only that human beings should be free from the initiation of force; he maintains that we should instead advocate a ‘thicker’ form of ‘freedom’ – namely the forcible appropriation of wealth and the enslavement of other human beings for our own ends. He calls this ‘substantive freedom,’ but perhaps ‘thick’ might be the correct term.

Naturally, I’ve argued against his views here, and then replied at some length here in a piece entitled ‘Why libertarians don’t’ own their bodies.’ He has not however been persuaded.


My opponent has conveniently summarised for me his ‘claims’ which he says, complement, his five criticisms of my exposition of the libertarian position on rights and freedom.

I) Even negative (or what you call "political") freedom gives rise to conflicts between rival liberties.

II) Property rights cannot be justified by negative liberty alone.

III) Substantive liberty is of fundamental importance. Negative liberty without substantive liberty is worthless.

IV) Our political philosophy should concern itself with what really matters.

V) Our political philosophy ought to concern itself with the promotion of substantive liberty.

VI) Sometimes this will involve sacrificing a less important liberty for the sake of a more important one. (But even libertarians are committed to this -- see I)


I’ll respond to his claims and criticisms directly in due course, but first I have three main points in response to his substantive criticism of my lengthy piece:

1) His fundamental error (one he shares with Karl Marx, oddly enough) lies in collapsing the distinction between existential freedom and political freedom.

2) He refuses to understand where wealth comes from, and why it is necessary; and

3) he’s simply ignored my arguments where they depart from his own flawed account, so what he’s essentially criticising me for is that my argument doesn’t fit his own rationalistic model.


But this just won’t do, and in my view there’s no point in even discussing such utterly flawed claims as “Money is not like natural abilities - it is a social rather than natural artefact” until the fundamental arguments are engaged.


He’s criticised my points then because, in my view, he’s either missed my arguments or he’s misunderstood them. He’s read the conclusions and ignored all the arguments for them. I suspect he expected from me an arid linear argument in the form of the philosophical shell-game that he’s familiar with at school, whereas what I offered instead was a hierarchical argument that assumes a real-world context.


He’s skipped past my arguments for individual rights, for example, as just so much ‘flyover country’ to be dismissed as irrelevant.


He’s ignored my point that rights actually set up ‘boundaries’ between people, within which we each have ‘moral space’ to plan ahead and pursue our values in confidence, and that these boundaries are set by the mutual co-existence of all such rights. Far from rights ‘clashing’ or setting up ‘rival liberties’ the boundaries cohere along the points where one person’s rights meet those of another. As the saying goes, my freedom ends where your nose begins – there is no ‘conflict’ over such a boundary. The `border' analogy is useful, even if it runs the risk of giving a physical image of a person's sphere of moral authority, explains Tibor Machan, because we ‘moral agents’ – ie., human beings --  require ‘borders’ around them so as to know what our responsibilities are and where others must ultimately leave decisions up to us.


He’s totally ignored my point that without property rights no other rights are possible, including the right to life. It is property rights that give us a ‘place to stand,’ and it is our nature as human beings that requires and vindicates the concept.


He’s completely ignored the importance of not owning your body, but being your body. First, if you ground your argument for ownership on owning your body, you’re begging the question you’re trying to prove; second, when you recognise that you are your body and that you’re not immortal, then you may realise you must take the actions necessary to maintain your body and your life. And you must be free from outside coercion to do so.


He’s ignored my point that in the context of politics, freedom is not freedom from the laws of nature but – crucially -- freedom from physical coercion. See on this point Tibor Machan’s article Two Senses of Human Freedom, and his book ‘Classical Individualism’ (reviewed here by Irfan Khawaja) which also covers all the territory we’re covering here.


He’s ignored my point that you don’t expand freedom by taking it away from someone else. You can’t free one person by enslaving another, which is precisely what his so-called ‘positive rights’ serve to do, as I explain here. ‘Positive rights’ are not rights at all but benefits, and these need to be produced. How? Somehow. Further, your choice of what is a basic ‘positive right’ is not necessarily mine, so we naturally devolve into subjectivity. Is tertiary education a ‘positive right’? Cosmetic surgery? Wide-screen TV? The arguments for ‘poistive rights’ just devolve into subjectivity, slavery and absurdity.


He’s ignored the distinction between coercion – in which one’s rights and one’s self are aggressed against -- and self-defence, in which one legitimately defends against such aggression or empowers the government to do so on one’s behalf. Calling self-defence a ‘negative right’ is really just a means of confusing the obvious point.


He’s ignored (as did Karl Marx) the truth that the values needed for living can’t just be picked off trees, or stolen from others --  they need to be chosen, they need to be produced, and we each must be free from outside coercion to do that.


He’s ignored – in fact he’s completely misunderstood -- my point that resources are not resources at all until they are identified as such by a human mind, and that it is in part from that identification that ownership then proceeds.


In short, in my view, he’s totally ignored my arguments and he’s completely ignored the real world. He’s ignored where wealth comes from and that people do have a right to the values they themselves have produced, and he’s argued against this only by reality-free semantic wriggling. The collapse of the Berlin Wall and the myth of Marxist redistribution should have put paid to any idea that people can be made free by coercion, or made wealthy by theft. That idea just doesn’t fly, and semantic wriggling doesn’t change that.


My opponent has argued for example that being stuck down a well is the starting point to understand freedom; the ‘well problem’ shows us, he argues, that so-called ‘substantive freedom’ – by which he means the freedom to do anything you please – is the aim of good government. Political freedom, he says, is ‘thin’ and insubstantial, and doesn’t get us out of wells we might fall into. But life is not a process of falling down wells and asking someone to get you out, or having the government force them to do so on your behalf. I doubt whether anyone has ever been in that position, and it sure tells us nothing about how we survive, produce and flourish in the real world.


Which is why you don’t use ‘well problems’ or ‘lifeboat situations’ -- real or imagined -- to tell you about normal life, nor should you draw principles from them for use in the real world. We do not live down a well, and nor should we draw principles for living from such arid examples. Life is a process of self-sustaining, self-generating action, in which we must plan ahead and produce for ourselves the values by which we live. Without freedom from physical coercion, we can’t do that successfully. That is in essence why freedom is necessary, and history shows the need of it.


But has my opponent ever considered why freedom from coercion is necessary and the link between freedom and wealth? I don’t believe he has – wealth in this view is just there – it just appeared somehow – and the job of the mind is only to redistribute in some form of grand utilitarian calculus what somehow sprang into existence fully-formed.


We need freedom in order to be moral agents, and we need to be moral agents in order to further our own ends. Forcing someone to be moral is a contradiction in terms – to be moral agents we must be free to make decisions, to act on them and to take responsibility for them. To do that our ‘moral space’ must be protected, which is precisely what our basic rights spell out.


Has he ever considered, I wonder, how things are produced, and by whom? Or the link between property rights and production? On both counts, I think not, and this lack of consideration leads him to his dismissal of real-world concerns with arid, rationalist arguments.


My opponent’s hero, G.A. Cohen, has argued for example that property rights are problematic because, for example, if we buy a car that turns out to be stolen then there is an ‘initial acquisition’ problem. And if the car is not stolen?  Blank out. Cohen considers my owning a sweater that he wants to be a ‘clash of liberties’ and a sign of his ‘unfreedom  -- as if we all have a claim to the same sweater, regardless of who produced it. For Cohen, the burglar and the shop-keeper are morally equal. (The Marxist philosophy professor is no doubt on a moral plane above.) In short, he assumes a problem with property and he sets out from there. He assumes production, and simply sets out from there.


But has he ever wondered where wealth comes from? Has he ever wondered how the world would got rich? It didn’t happen by theft: – there are more people alive now than have ever previously existed with more total wealth than has ever before been seen. Where did it come from? It wasn’t stolen from somebody else, it was produced. It was produced by use of the ultimate resource: man’s mind, and the freedom for us each to exercise our minds in pursuit of our well-being. Wealth is not stolen; it is produced. By use of our minds, we make ourselves rich by producing the values we need in order to flourish. The ‘miracle of breakfast’ helps us understand how. Our grumbling stomachs help us understand why. The answer to the ‘problem’ of initial acquisition explains that it is right.


My opponent doesn’t want the shopkeeper’s property rights protected, but he does want to be protected from harm himself. He wants the freedom to be protected from physical coercion, but calls this ‘insubstantive.’ He wants government to protect him, and he wants a guaranteed income to boot!  There’s a name for that, which most mothers of teenage boys would know … He wants to be a consumer, sir, and help himself to jam, but he wants to remain unaware of where production comes from, who produces it, and how.


In short, what he wants is freedom from the laws of nature. He can’t have it. And he’s not having my freedom, nor my right to my life, nor to the pursuit of my own happiness. What he and Mr Cohen need to realise is that human beings are not the means to the ends of other human beings – each individual life is its own end. To quote from Ayn Rand’s 1938 novel ‘Anthem

I know not if this earth on which I stand is the core of the universe or if it is but a speck of dust lost in eternity. I know not and I care not. For I know what happiness is possible to me on earth. And my happiness needs no higher aim to vindicate it. My happiness is not the means to any end. It is the end. It is its own goal. It is its own purpose.

Neither am I the means to any end others may wish to accomplish. I am not a tool for their use. I am not a servant of their needs. I am not a bandage for their wounds. I am not a sacrifice on their altars.

I am a man. This miracle of me is mine to own and keep, and mine to guard, and mine to use, and mine to kneel before!

I do not surrender my treasures, nor do I share them. The fortune of my spirit is not to be blown into coins of brass and flung to the winds as alms for the poor of the spirit. I guard my treasures: my thought, my will, my freedom. And the greatest of these is freedom.

What does freedom actually mean? What is it actually worth? For each individual it is worth the most sacred thing in the universe: your life!