Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Third Concept of Liberty

Isaiah Berlin famously distinguished between two concepts of liberty. Negative liberty is constituted by the limits protecting an individual, inside of which no other individual or entity may interfere. As long as the person is not harming others, she may, within those limits, do as she pleases. Let the couch potato be. Friedrich von Hayek or, much more simple-mindedly, Ayn Rand are advocates of negative liberty. Positive liberty is harder to define. It basically means the freedom to do, not just anything, but what is right or correct, which itself must be determined by some criteria other than merely what the individual “wants.” For many advocates of positive liberty – for example, Rousseau or Marx – letting the couch potato remain a couch potato is not to defend his liberty, but to leave him in servitude. The threats to positive liberty can come, then, not just from outside individuals, but also from within, from one’s own weak character or temptations, from false consciousness. Indeed, defenders of positive liberty often see outside interference in what they believe is only ostensibly free choice as a prerequisite for true, positive freedom. One can be “forced to be free,” in Rousseau’s memorable and chilling phrase.
I believe it’s worthwhile considering what two other thinkers said, or at least implied, about the best kind of liberty. Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, both advocates of the emerging market-based societies and liberal politics, but also both (especially Mill) wary of an overly exuberant individual liberty, suggested a third concept of liberty, I believe. Crucial to this alternative, as we’ll see, was something else Smith and Mill shared: a methodological individualist approach to society (avant la lettre). Namely, society emerged, unintended, out of the independent actions and interactions of all its millions of constituent individuals. In turn, these could be shaped, at least partly, by the interactions with their fellows.
Smith was, of course, one of the earliest and most influential advocates of dismantling mercantilist interference in the economy and unshackling individuals to pursue their own interests. Out of their strivings, unanticipated by anyone, would emerge the greatest wealth possible as well as a fair distribution of what Smith called “the real happiness of human life.” So far, he sounds like an advocate of negative liberty. However, his warnings about the unforeseen consequences of overweening ambition and his most forceful arguments for the free market raise the strong suspicion that Smith will not be categorized so easily. Time and again, but most memorably in the story of the “poor man’s son,” Smith suggests that great ambition rarely, if ever, leads to happiness (He warns, for example, “Never enter the place from whence so few have been able to return; never come within the circle of ambition.”) Instead, real happiness comes from “tranquility,” the society of one’s fellows, and knowing not only that one is loved, but that one is lovable. And how can one achieve these things? For the bulk of society, for the “middling and inferior stations,” it is only through a market-based order. The market demands qualities – honesty, thrift, reliability – that happen to be virtues, and that also earn one tranquility and the love of one’s peers. Furthermore, it is only the market which overcomes the abject poverty that would, Smith thinks, result from Rousseau’s autarkic state. Poverty is not just painful in and of itself, but for Smith of even greater concern is how poverty undermines the possibility of living ethically. This is the upshot of his observation that in poor societies people feel compelled to commit infanticide: their poverty preempts their morality. Smith’s greatest concern is with the “improvement in the circumstances of the lower ranks of society” – and by circumstances he has not only their material well-being, but also their internal dispositions - their happiness, tranquility and even virtue - in mind.
Smith believes, then, that the market, and only the market, can help achieve what appear to be elements of positive liberty: tranquility, approval of one’s fellow man, a kind of virtue, etc. These, I believe, were what he ultimately wanted for society. While he saw the freedom of the market as good in and of itself, he makes his strongest case in terms of the market’s consequences. The market is primarily an instrument. Smith thus advocates negative liberty, especially the ultimately misguided liberty of such overly ambitious people as the poor man’s son, in order to achieve positive liberty for the bulk of society.
In a very similar way, Mill combines an instrumental view of negative liberty with the goal of – gently - achieving a kind of positive liberty. Mill is of course famous for his “harm principle”: each should be able to do as he will, as long as he doesn’t harm others. But this streak of pure negative liberty is subordinated to a particular kind of utilitarianism, one much closer to positive liberty. Unlike Bentham, Mill doesn’t believe that Pushkin and push-pin (a simple game) are equal pleasures. He wants people to love Pushkin, to learn to appreciate more noble joys. Thus, he says that he regards “utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.” Writing in the middle of the 19th century, when the democratic impulse was fast spreading through society and culture, Mill was most concerned about how liberty and “utility in the largest sense” could be preserved at the same time, how free people could be led to appreciate higher over lower pleasures. His solution was to trust in the powers of education and the guidance and, indeed, the political privileging of the better-educated. Even more important, people needed to be exposed to a variety of circumstances and ways of living; only then would their freedom to choose lead them, more or less on their own, to the higher pleasure. “Freedom and a variety of situations,” Mill quotes Wilhelm von Humboldt, are the two preconditions necessary for the achievement of “the end of man” - namely, “the highest and most harmonious development of his powers to a complete and consistent whole.”
Thus, like Smith, Mill advocates liberty – negative liberty – primarily for its utilitarian effects of a particular kind, that is, for something very akin to positive liberty. Neither of these liberals, however, would ever sanction the compulsions that Rousseau and Marx condone or advocate; they wouldn’t speak of forcing people to be free. Rather, Smith and Mill, guided by their overriding awareness of unintended consequences and the complex, almost organic emergence of social patterns, look to the salutary effects of myriad free social interactions to lead people on their own to positive liberty (Mill, it is true, writing in a different, and as he perceived it, more fraught era, did come closer to abandoning a consistent advocacy of negative liberty when he endorsed greater political influence for the better-educated.) These thinkers, it seems to me, thus suggest a third concept of liberty, one which uses negative freedom as a means to achieve – gently – the end of positive liberty. This positive liberty might even appear to be a kind of emergent property of interacting individuals endowed with negative freedoms.
How prescient and realistic were Smith and Mill? Has our free-market society led to forms of positive liberty, to “better” pleasures and behaviors. This must remain the topic for another post (but see my entry In Praise of Rousseau and Marx, along with the reader comments). Also a topic for the future will be the recent work by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein on what they call “libertarian authoritarianism” or “authoritarian libertarianism.” I think this represents a very promising new stage in thinking about a topic at the center of both Smith’s and Mill’s work: preserving liberty while achieving the good.

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