Wednesday, March 21, 2007

positive and negative freedom

A while back Tracy and I "discussed" the difference between positive and negative freedom. Negative freedom is the freedom from coercion and positive freedom focuses on the opportunity to fulfil ones potential. Poor people may have negative freedom but not much positive freedom. Tracy’s position is that you’re not really free without positive freedom. My feeling is that while it may not be possible to lead a decent life without a fair whack of positive freedom I’d prefer not to call it freedom.

The more I think about it though the more it makes my head hurt. Will Wilkinson has a long, thoughtful post on how muddled positive and negative freedom are in reality.

If we're interested in maximising positive freedom we (society) do things like sending poor kids to school and giving them violin lessons. In fact to maximise positive freedom, we need to do a lot of this kind of thing and we need taxes to pay for it all, a lot of taxes. If this tax rate slows economic growth slightly (by 1% say) the society will be a lot poorer than it would have been in 100 years with correspondingly less positive freedom. As global warming hawks tell us, future generations are important too. How do we trade off positive freedom of today with that of tomorrow? Even today, surely positive freedom would be better served by free immigration into rich countries than enormous government programs?


Tracy Leigh said...

I tried to read Will Wilkonson posts but it required too much concentration!

There is a strong case to be made that lacking opportunities is not the same as not being able to make choices.

Some thoughts...

If a poor person is in a job that they hate, that kills them slowly but surely through cruelty, inhumane treatment, etc., but they cannot leave it because they know that they will find no other work (leaving would mean homelessness & possibly starvation for them & their children) then I'm sure that the person would feel trapped and totally unfree. Yes there is the fact that the person lacks opportunities of other jobs (because of education, economic situation), AND there is the lack of freedom for that person to change their course/make their life better.

stuart said...

Say two people have the exact same economic background (say they're twins) but the one is supremely intelligent and otherwise talented while the other one isn't. The former has far greater opportunities in life, is he more free?

Libertarians are not the only people who like the word "freedom", in fact who doesn't. It doesn't have some meaning written by god on some tablet. Agreement on its meaning is not possible. We can try to understand how others use it I guess.

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