Tag Archives: Liberty

Free Stuff for Free People

It’s an election year! And you know what that means: public displays of wackadoo as American politics sinks to new lows. But there has been some interesting philosophical wrangling, as Bernie Sanders entered the presidential race as the first successful avowed socialist to enter a presidential race since Eugene V. Debs. He introduced what for the United States are radical ideas: universal health care, tuition-less college, and a living wage. These are ideas that have been taken for granted elsewhere. Yet it has led to an avalanche of memes about “freeloading” and “free stuff”. That’s too bad, because “free stuff” is necessary for a free society.

The reason for this is pretty simple. Property is power granted by the state that gives the owner of a thing the legal right to constrain the actions of non-owners regarding that thing. Every property right is state coercion against non-owners.

This is made worse by two additional factors about property. First, it is endlessly accumulative. There is no end to the wealth that people are able to acquire. The result is that the state is primarily at the service of those with the most property. And I don’t mean that wealthy people have more political influence. Because ownership means being able to call upon the state to control others, the state is literally at the service of property owners. In fact, the accumulation of wealth could not occur without the modern state there to protect it.

Second, property is not restricted to a limited domain of objects. In the United States, it took a horrific war to end the practice of owning people. At the same time, exceptions to property rights have steadily eroded. Feudal societies recognized various common property rights, mostly revolving around subsistent use. For example, the commoners of medieval England had the right of “estovers”, the right to take wood from any woodlands, regardless of ownership, or piscary, the right to subsistence fishing. Yet now property rights are conceived as being without such exceptions, regardless of people’s needs.

A maximally free society would have no property rights. People would take whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. However, we cannot will such a world into existence. But if we care about the freedom of the individual, then we must ease the restrictions of existing property rights. This is achieved by one of two ways.

First, we give people money. In a world of private property rights, the lack of money is a lack of freedom. If I don’t have money, I can’t get on the bus and ride across town, I can’t take food from the store, I can’t rent or buy shelter – no matter how much I want to or need to. Money is the primary means in a commercial society of accessing objects locked behind the invisible bars of property.

This is true regardless of why I don’t have money. I may be destitute from illness or I may be a gentleman grifter. It doesn’t matter. If we care about the freedom of human beings among modern property rights, then we have a political, coercible obligation to give them money.

Second, we can modify the means of distribution. We could give everyone the money they need to buy necessities. Then they could go and buy their own health insurance. The problem there is economic – the nature of the commodity causes most people to be priced out of their markets. This has been shown to be true for free markets in private pensions, for-profit insurances, and other forms of finance, as well as natural monopolies in transportation, communications, and utilities. That’s why so many of these goods and services are decommodified (taken off the market) in most countries. Access to them is not based on a price determined by supply and demand.

This is the actual nature of most of our “free stuff”, both the free stuff we already have, and the free stuff that we want. We are shifting the means of access from rationing by price to rationing by other means. Private, for-profit health insurance means that access to health care is rationed by how much you can pay, which is driving more and more people out of the market as costs increase. Universal health insurance means that health care is distributed by the medical necessity of the care, as determined by the doctor and patient. Private college means you go to college if you can afford it, and you have the academic qualifications. “Free” public college means that you only need the academic qualifications.

Between the two scenarios above, one private and rationed by price, and the other public and rationed by need, which gives more freedom to the individual? Because public goods are distributed by means other than price, they deliver more freedom to the individual. I have more freedom when I can see any doctor that I like because health care is guaranteed regardless, then when a private insurer tells me I can only see doctors in my ‘network’. I have more freedom when I can attend college when I have only to demonstrate my competence rather than both competence and payment.

Property itself is state coercion. If we care about freedom, then we must adopt means of reducing the restrictions of property against its non-owners. A system of taxation and transfers expand the freedom of those without by providing them with public money. And, as citizens, we have the fundamental obligation to defend the freedom of one another. Thus we owe our tax money to others. Also, an expansion of public goods expands freedom by distributing goods in a manner besides price – for example, universal health insurance distributes care according to medical necessity. All of this assumes that we genuinely care about freedom, and that we don’t just use it as a buzzword or shibboleth. That seems to be in short supply these days.

Liberty is Security, and Security is Liberty

A brief article over at Reason summarizes a couple of recent political studies that show that creating restrictions to combat terrorism actually increases the risk of terrorism*. In one case, religious restrictions foment religious violence. In the other case, restrictions on the freedom of expression in the name of security provokes violence. These studies provide evidence that security is better served by maintaining liberty, rather than curtailing it. While this is useful empirical evidence, we can make a stronger case for maintaining liberty for the purpose of security.

Let’s start with a real-world example.

On November 15th, sheriff’s deputies knocked on the door of John Livingston, a 33 year old father, looking for a suspect in an assault investigation. The deputies asked to enter and search the premises, and Livingston told them to get a search warrant, as is his right, and closed the door. Instead, the deputies broke down the door and began beating Livingston. The deputies tased, maced, and finally shot him four times. Livingston was unarmed, and was called a “very kind man and an incredible carpenter”.

It would seem to me that John Livingston was not very secure.

This is precisely the practical purpose of the administrative restrictions that are placed on state agents. Without courts and other limiting institutions on state action, which we might also call liberty, citizens do not have security against agents of the state. We can dismiss the people who say that state agents only go after people who have done something wrong. The way they figure out if you’ve done something wrong is by investigating you, which involves all sorts of potential violations of the citizen’s dignity. And then they’re wrong (or biased, or just plain malicious) all the time.

It is not only that liberty contributes towards security, as the Reason post suggests, but liberty is security. Thus, when people (well, fools) say that we must “give up some liberty for more security”, they are actually suggesting a logical contradiction. They would be suggesting that invasions of our homes and privacy, or threats to our lives or freedom, somehow make us safer.


*Note: “terrorism” is not a word with any useful or precise meaning.

The Ostrom Equation for Social Power

Kings, queens, supervisors, capitalists, priests: some have more power than others. This is not only political power; even dethroned monarchs have more purchasing power, more influence, and more capacity to alter people’s behavior than the rest of us. Let us call this power “social power”. The concept of “power” is central to any discussion of liberty, equality, and democracy, but the concept remains ill-defined and unmeasurable. If we could provide a precise definition of the power that one person has over another, we could begin to likewise precisely define liberty and equality. Let’s give it a try!

Elinor Ostrom, in Understanding Institutional Diversity, analyzed social institutions into several components, and in the process offhandedly gave an equation that calculates the “power” that any individual would have in an institutional context. First we need those components of social institutions.

Social institutions, according to Ostrom, are composed of their participants occupying certain positions in those institutions. Different positions have different sets of actions that are permitted for the people occupying those positions. We could think of this as like chess: there are many different pieces, and each of them can only move in certain ways. The bishop is one “position” that a piece can have, and the bishop’s permitted actions are making any diagonal move.

In the real world institution of law enforcement, a police officer is permitted to enter and search a person’s home if in possession of a search warrant. The rest of us are not in an institutional position to do the same.

The actions permitted by someone’s position lead to outcomes of varying likelihood. Actions are “linked” to outcomes. The choices that participants make are based on the information they have about how actions are linked to outcomes. To continue the example above, searching a suspect’s home is an action that has a variety of outcomes. If the officer calls in a SWAT team to search the house, the homeowners may respond with violence to the forceful entry of their home. That’s one “action-outcome linkage”. If the officer acquires and presents a search warrant, then the homeowner may peacefully allow the search. That’s a different linkage.

Some outcomes are better than others. Some, like calling in a SWAT team, may be dangerous to the police and the homeowner. Peacefully presenting the search warrant is more likely to produce a better outcome. Each outcome has a value attached to it for each participant, calculated by adding up its benefits and subtracting its costs.

The more values of outcomes (or the greater the range of outcome values) that are available to the participant, the more opportunity the participant has. A police officer is institutionally permitted to kill without punishment in a greater range of situations than the rest of us are. If I kill someone because I was afraid of them, I would probably be locked away. The range of costs and benefits to my action are very limited. But for a police officer, killing may receive a commendation, indifference from the community, or justifiable riots. Thus, the police officer has greater opportunity than most of us in this regard.

Finally, we have the control that the participant has over the outcomes from their actions. The control a participant has is equal to the conditional probability of a given outcome value given the action taken. In other words, the more control one has, the more one can chance one has to change the value of an outcome. Back to our police officer: he has more control over a situation, say a traffic stop, because he has more choices of action than the citizen to produce a beneficial or burdensome outcome.

Ostrom gives the equation this way:

The “power” of an individual in a situation is the value of the opportunity (the range in the outcomes afforded by the situation) times the extent of control.

So, how powerful someone is in a particular situation is a product of how much better or worse they can make the outcome in that situation. Having power means being able to produce a large number of outcomes, or producing outcomes with very different values, or having great control over the outcome, or all of the above.

The powerful person in our example situation is the police officer, obviously. But now we can say why he is more powerful, and just how much more powerful. The position of the police officer creates a set of actions permitted by law in any situation. Let’s say our situation is a traffic stop with a citizen. From that set of actions, the police officer can bring about an outcome that either:

  • has the same value as the status quo (police officer and citizen go their separate ways),
  • a radically bad outcome (the police officer freaks out and kills the citizen),
  • or something in between (a warning, a citation, or an arrest).

The police officer has the additional outcome of being rewarded for meeting an assigned quota for stops or citations. Thus, the citizen has limited opportunity compared to the police officer.

Also, the citizen can do little in that situation that could affect the quality of the outcome, while the police officer has significant discretion. Without police body cameras, it’s the word of the police against the word of a citizen. So the police officer has a great deal of opportunity and control, and thus power. The citizen has little of either, and thus little power.

Ostrom’s equation only provides us with a calculus of relative social power in particular situations, however. To determine the objective social status of individuals, and thus the groups that those individuals compose, we need to calculate the power of individuals across situations. A good start would be to take the value of the power of an individual in separate situations and average across situations and institutions. To find the power of groups of individuals, we can take the average of the power of the individuals in those groups. (Perhaps, as with income, we should take the median, to prevent powerful outliers from skewing the results.)

We can also determine how much power each individual should have. In a democratic republic, people should have equal liberty. If Ostrom’s equation is a good model of power, then we can define equal liberty.

A person is free if and only if the social institutions that person participates in grants as much power as possible (either by having a great deal of opportunity, or a great deal of control, or both).

People are equal if and only if the social institutions those people participate in grant the same value of power. Note that this does not mean that each person must have the same opportunities, or the same extent of control, only that the resulting product is the same.

Thus, people are equally free if and only if the social institutions those people participate in grant the greatest value of power that all those people can have equally.

Nice. Can any readers spot any problems?

Pettit and Republicanism at ABC Online

Philip Pettit, the philosopher of republicanism, was interviewed at ABC Online last week. ABC is the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, not the American one. Here’s a highlight from the interview, with Joe Gelonesi:

This is where the usually mild mannered, softly spoken Pettit wants to, in his own words, ‘thump the table’.

‘You’ve got a big choice: do you think it should be everyone for themselves, alaissez faire, rip it up society? If this is what freedom means for you then you’re looking a free-for-all, with huge inequalities and lots of dependencies, a chaotic place.’

For Pettit, this is the unavoidable tendency of a model of freedom which sees non-interference as the core concept: the idea that you are best left to your own devices with minimum intervention from others, including from the state.

This, of course, is the classical model of liberty that John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, among other giants of modern political philosophy, gave their intellectual support to. But they could have just as easily rescued an older form of freedom according to Pettit, a freedom based on the ancient Roman Republic

‘The republican picture of government emerges about 100 years before the end of the Republic,’ he says. ‘It is mostly the work of the Greek slave Polybius. When freed he remained in Rome and wrote a history which emphasised the republican features of freedom.’

Of course, that picture of freedom would have only included the male citizens of Rome, though Pettit contends that it did include males without property and was surprisingly more expansive than we might imagine.

So, what’s so different about this ancient model of freedom?  In a compound word—non domination.

The idea goes beyond just not being interfered with. It takes on a stronger notion, whereby the individual is empowered to look others straight in the eye without fear or deference; what Pettit calls the eyeball test.

‘Polybius describes the liber —the free person—as having no dominus, a commander or master. You have a range of choices on your own terms. Just as there is no master, there is no public domination either and that space is created by common law; a law that all share in the making of.’

The Struggle for Liberty: Religious Liberty in Arizona?

Mr. Smith is a bigot who owns a small store who has religious objections to serving homosexual patrons. Mr. Jones is a homosexual man who wants something from Mr. Smith’s store. Mr. Smith will not serve him because of Jones’ homosexuality. Both men claim that the other man infringes his liberty. Mr. Smith claims that the state violates his free practice of religion if it forces him to serve Jones. Mr. Jones claims that the state violates his freedom of action if it forces him from the store on Smith’s behalf. How are we to decide between these two claims? Today I will show that the liberal theory of freedom does not provide guidance in this real-world case. Yet, we will find that the republican theory does.

The case above is exactly the sort of case that has come up recently with the failed passage of a ‘religious exemption’ bill in Arizona. In this case, religionists wanted an exemption from anti-discrimination laws. They claim this exemption on the grounds of religious liberty. We grant exemptions to Quakers and pacifists from the duty of bearing arms. Likewise, we should grant exemptions to bakers from the duty of baking cakes for gay weddings. The religionists have pursued this strategy before, with everything from racial segregation to birth control. The purpose of such religious exemptions is clear: to protect bigotry. For the sake of an example, let us grant that religious liberty is actually at stake.

Political theory should provide guidance on practical problems. If we have a case of conflicting liberties, then our theory of freedom should be able to decide it. The liberal theory of freedom does not provide such guidance though. The dominant political philosophy of the United States is liberalism. The Founders wrote the liberalism of John Locke into its constitution.  The liberal theory of freedom says that a person is free when they can do what they what want. The only limit to this freedom is when the action of one person interferes with the freedom of another. This principle provides no guidance in the case above. Each man perceives the other as limiting his ability to do what he wants. The liberal theory of freedom provides no clue as to which of their claims to liberty is legitimate.

Let us turn to the republican theory of freedom then. The republican theory of freedom tells us that a person is free when any interference into their choices is not arbitrary. Republicanism recognizes that we interfere in each others’ choices all the time. We remove arbitrariness from such interference by creating rules to regulate it. Those rules in turn must be those one could, in principle, consent to, because they are in one’s interest. These conditions ensure that interference into one’s choices are not according to another’s interests. Does republicanism help us decide between Smith and Jones?

Between the two of them, Jones has the rightful claim under republican theory. He expects to be able to shop at any store that he chooses without having to take into account his sexual preferences. Jones’ violation of Smith’s religious doctrines is not arbitrary. Most law and social convention uphold Jones’ expectation.

Meanwhile, Smith is seeking an exemption from law. Moreover, he seeks an arbitrary exemption from law. The whole purpose of the Arizona law is to turn arbitrary power over to religious business owners. The business owner interferes in the choices of others according to unpredictable, personal criteria. Smith’s claim must be illegitimate according to the republican theory of freedom.

In this case, the liberal theory of freedom could not decide between competing claims of liberty. On the one hand, we had the liberty of ordinary human decency. On the other hand, we had the liberty of obscene, degenerate bigotry. Fortunately, republican theory, having a more robust conception of freedom, could decide between the claims, and I think it did so correctly. Moreover, the real world was kind enough to give us a good example of republicanism in action.

The Struggle for Liberty: Varieties of Republicanism

In part one of the Struggle for Liberty,we saw that our common sense about liberty has a contradiction. If liberty is only the ability to do as we want, then a slave under a benevolent master might be as free as anyone else. While slave-owners are likely to be cruel and authoritarian, we might find one that is willing to let his slaves do largely as they please. Nevertheless, a slave cannot be said to be free. This contradiction follows from Hobbes’ assumption of what freedom or liberty in a commonwealth is. Thomas Hobbes, in his book Leviathan, sought a solution to the problem of liberty under the royal absolutism that he wanted. His solution was two-fold. First, he argued that we are as free under monarchy as under a republic, for there are laws in both to keep us from doing what we want. Second, we are as equally free in both, because we are also rational, and recognize that either we turn over all of our liberty over to a king, or we will always be at war with one another. In other words, we are free because what we really want is to be commanded, for our own good. We noted that there are parallels to this “social contract” in the real employment contracts of today. Just as in Hobbes social contract, we sign away our rights at the workplace, because that is our best choice. This concept of freedom at the foundations of liberal philosophy is ideological: the concept serves as a theoretical mask for power, just as it did for Hobbes.

In part two, we came to understand the concept of freedom in the classical republican sense. This concept of freedom descends from the assumptions of the ancient Greeks and Romans, was buried by the English philosophers of liberalism that came after Hobbes, and has been unearthed by contemporary philosophers and historians, such as Quentin Skinner and Phillip Pettit. (We started our examination from Pettit’s work in particular.) Republican freedom is the absence of domination. Domination is the ability of other people to decide your actions or limit your choices for you. As with the slave-owner in the example above, dominant people do not need to actually interfere with your choices and actions. They only need to be in a position that has that power. The slave-owner has that power no matter how nice they are, as do kings, priests, executives, managers, etc. The antidote to domination is the rule of law. When the laws rules, our actions are only limited by the law, not by the choice of any particular people. Because the law must have the assent of its citizens, the law must take account of the interests of the citizenry generally. read more »

The Struggle for Liberty: The Republican Theory of Freedom

Part I of the Struggle for Liberty

Previously, at Democracy in Principle, we discussed the apparent contradiction of the “free slave”.  If we define liberty or freedom as the classical liberal tradition does, then we would say that any person is free whose actions are not interfered with.  If this is the case, then it is possible that a slave could be free if his master were agreeable, and let the slave mind his own business for the most part.  Because the idea of the “free slave” seems contradictory, we must instead reject the classical liberal definition of freedom.

We noted that this hidden contradiction was half the point of defining the concept of freedom this way.  Thomas Hobbes, the seventeenth-century English philosopher, introduced this definition as part of his theory of government.  He wanted the English kings to rule absolutely, so government itself had to be the limit of freedom.  A democratic government would limit freedom at least as much as an absolute monarchy.

This view became a central component of modern liberalism and the neoliberal and libertarian resistance to government itself.  But instead of the authority of the state, we are still bound by authority across society, for example, at the workplace.  Our assent to this authority, by “free contract”, is a pretense.  We pretend we have a choice to refuse this contract, when the only other option is starvation.  This situation makes as much a mockery of liberty as the free-slave contradiction.

Classical Republican Theory of Liberty

This is what the republican tradition of liberty tries to correct.  Republicanism revives the political perspective of the ancient Mediterranean city-states, like Athens, Sparta, or Rome.  The ancients had a different conception of politics from our own, in which public participation and contribution were essential and exalted rights.  The concept of liberty or freedom was usually expressed metaphorically, contrasting the free citizen with the bound slave.  The position of the free citizen in the cities of the ancients was different from that of the slave.  The slave was not free no matter how benign his master was, and the citizen was free no matter the number of laws.  Freedom was not just doing what you want, but related to your position relative to others in the institutions of society.

Contemporary philosopher Philip Pettit gives us the most precise definition of republican liberty, with the help of some additional terms.  To be free in the republican sense is to not be dominated.  To be dominated is to be in a position in which you are subject to the arbitrary will of another person.  A dominant person’s will is arbitrary when he or she acts in a way that affects subordinate persons without taking account of their interests.  Let’s figure out what all of that means.

Capacity to Interfere with Another’s Action

Pettit defines domination using several terms that his work takes great pains to clarify.

First, Pettit writes that a dominating person has the “capacity” to interfere with the choices of another person.  What could be meant by “capacity”?  What sort of ability is it to dominate someone? Domination does not need to mean physical or intellectual superiority, for nations have been ruled by sickly boy-kings and half-wits for thousands of years.  Rather, the capacity to dominate is the social position of the dominating person.  By social position, I mean the role or position that a person holds in the social institutions that make society run.  One person dominates another because the first is the social superior, and the second is socially inferior.  The roles of dominant and subordinate are promoted, accepted, or tolerated by everyone else because this relationship is seen as legitimate.

This institutional capacity is an institutional inequality in decision-making power.  The dominant occupies a role that either has express decision-making power, or has some influence within society for controlling the decisions made.  The former type of inequality is represented by assemblies, boards, presidents, executives, managers, or supervisors, and may be a necessary component for efficient organizations (maybe).  The second type of inequality is often informal.  The Communist Party of the Soviet Union would be an example.  Complete Communist Party control over the state institutions of the Soviet Union was not formally introduced into the Soviet constitution until the 1970’s.  But the Party obviously controlled the decisions made by those formally democratic structures, because of its effective yet informal control over the public.

Arbitrary Will

So the “capacity” of the dominant party is the position they hold in a particular social institution, which also affects their dominance in the larger society.  But how should we understand their “arbitrary will”?  Here, Pettit is looking back to Roman law, in which arbitrium is translated as a decision or judgment.  That the will of the dominant is arbitrary means that it is their own decision to restrict the choices of the subordinate.  The dominant is not subject to any norms in their interference other than what they choose to do.  Thus, we can characterize “arbitrariness” as, on the one hand, not rule-bound.

We can determine whether interference is rule-bound by observing whether that interference ‘tracks’ (takes into account) the interests of those being interfered with.  If the rules are themselves not made at one person’s discretion, then they will reflect the interests of the public generally.  So we can tell that the rules are made arbitrarily if they do not reflect the interests of the public in general.  Thus, if interference into a person’s action does not take into account their interests, then that person is dominated and not free.

I think “arbitrariness” is an important feature of the republican theory, because it reflects the most important surviving republican concept – the rule of law.  The rule of law is not merely the requirement that public officials follow proper procedures, as it is so often portrayed.  Rather, the rule of law means that the law itself is the source of power over persons, and not the decisions of individuals.  Interference in the actions of others is on the basis of procedures established in law, and the interfering individual is not exercising their own judgment, or pursuing their own interests or purposes.

Thus, the Romans contrasted their state as res publica, or a “public thing”, from the res privata, or “private thing”, of their pre-republican kings.  Under a republic, the state belongs to the people and they are ruled only by law.  Under the king, the state was his property, and they are ruled by his whim or arbitrary will.

Republican Freedom

So what does it mean to be free, in the republican sense?  Well, not to be dominated.  Domination means that a person is in an institutional or social position in which their choices are subject to arbitrary interference, that is, interference with reference only to the discretion of another and not one’s own interests.

Thus, to be free, a person would have to occupy social positions in which interference in their actions is bound by rules and norms that take account of their interests and is not at the discretion of any particular individual.

To be more concise: freedom is the equality of social relationships.  The institutions of a free society are such that no person has to accept the decision of another person without question.

So the slave of the benign master is not free because the slave is in a subordinate institutional position.  The master might allow him to keep some of what he earns, might allow him to go to town when he likes, and might allow him to say what he wants.  But because of the nature of their relationship, all of the slave’s actions are at the permission of the master, and can be taken away whenever he wishes.  We may judge the liberty of the worker and other strata of society against this measure.

Further Reading

Gourevitch, Alex, “Wage Slavery and Republican Liberty”, at Jacobin

Lovett, Frank, “Republicanism“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Pettit, Philip, “Taking back the economy: the market as Res Publica”, at OpenDemocracy

Pettit, Philip, On the People’s Terms

Pettit, Philip, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government

Skinner, Quentin, Hobbes and Republican Liberty

Skinner, Quentin, Liberty before Liberalism

The Struggle for Liberty: the Free Slave

Is it possible for a person to be both slave and free?  This would seem to be an obvious contradiction. But the contradiction dissolves according to the theory of freedom assumed by classical liberalism. By classical liberalism, I mean the political philosophy principally concerned with the freedom of the individual and limitations on the power of the state.  This is the philosophy that controls our political discourse on both the left and the right.  According to this philosophy, a person can be counted as free when no other person interferes with their actions.

We can imagine a slave with a benevolent master.  The master gives the slave all the freedom given to anyone else.  The slave works when he wishes, comes and goes as he pleases, and does what he wants, comparable at least to what most other people can do in his society.  In other words, the slave with the benevolent master has a similar range of choices as to what he is allowed to do.

The theory of freedom in classical liberalism would suggest that the slave is, in fact, free.  If he does not suffer from another person’s interference in his choices, then he is free.  Yet we would not consider any slave to be free, by virtue of his or her social position.  This should be a sufficient counterexample to the liberal theory of freedom, but the theory runs deep in American politics.

The origin of this contradiction is at the heart of its very purpose.  The purpose of defining liberty in this way was to overthrow the ancient understanding of liberty as one of relative social positions of power.  The liberal theory of freedom erases concerns about fairness and equality that was once embedded in the ancient theories of freedom.

The Liberal Theory of Freedom

Our modern theory of liberty claims that we are free when there are no obstacles to our actions and that we can do what we wish to do.  Conversely, we are forced or coerced when another human being intentionally interferes with our actions.  Typically, coercion is understood as occurring through the use of violence or the threat of violence.

A more precise formulation of the modern theory is that free persons have as many choices as possible (physically possible, as far as their bodies and modern technology can allow them).  Coerced persons thus have choices removed by the deliberate interference of other people.  Since freedom is the central concern of liberalism, its philosophers add that one person’s liberty should only be restricted for the sake of the liberty of others.  Thus, your liberty is restricted only to prevent you from interfering in the actions of others.

Ideological origins

According to Quentin Skinner, this way of conceiving freedom is the invention of the early modern English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes.  Hobbes is justly famed as the modern originator of social contract theory.  Social contract theory holds that human beings form political communities to escape the “state of nature”, a lawless natural state with no justice.  Most often this natural state is imaginary, but it always presents problems for which human beings invent the state as the most rational solution.  Even if there was never any such state of nature, the idea allows us to see why we are rational to submit to political authority in at least some aspects of our lives.

In Hobbes’ version of social contract theory, presented in his Leviathan, he imagines what the state of nature would be like.  Famously, it would be “brutish, nasty, and short”.  Since human beings are fundamentally selfish, we would live in a “war of all against all”, with each of us at each others’ throats.  Thus, we would be rational to sign away almost all of the liberty we have in a state of nature to a dictatorial sovereign to bring everyone into line.

Despite its elegance, this theory is pure ideology; Hobbes sought only to justify an illegitimate political cause.  We know better now that humans are brutes under specific conditions (like extreme scarcity), but are also natural cooperators, like many mammalian species.  Hobbes lived during the eighteenth century struggle between King and Parliament that culminated in the English Civil War.  Hobbes needed a theory that provided support for the absolute monarchy of the English kings that waged war against the forces of Parliament.  The Parliamentarians had a collection of republican philosophers (such as , John Milton, etc.) who could wave the banner of freedom for Parliament.  The forgotten English writer James Harrington described an elaborate republic in his Commonwealth of Oceana.  And John Milton (yes, that Milton) wrote many tracts advocating republicanism.  Republicans like Harrington and Milton drew on the philosophical tradition of ancient Greece and Rome for their understanding of what made a people free.

Against this tradition, Hobbes needed to understand liberty in such a way that an absolute monarch could rule without limit, and yet the population could still be counted on as free.  By the invention of the social contract, Hobbes had demonstrated that absolute monarchy is what would result if people had the perfect freedom of the state of nature.  That is, if anyone could do anything, then they would voluntarily give up all of their freedom to a sovereign.  Otherwise, they would not survive.  Thus, even the subjects of an absolute monarch are free, because the sovereign is not interfering with them in what they would (really and rationally) want to do.

Hobbes’ assumption, that freedom is the absence of interference to acting as you choose, has become “common sense”.

The Liberal Theory of Freedom in the 21st Century

This conception of liberty was to persist through the English tradition and to infect future English and American philosophy, to the point where it seems obvious.  Hobbesian liberty and property rights melded into an unholy nightmare monster of industrial authoritarianism.

We see it in the discussion of workplace liberty.  The boss has a right to do what he wants, and you have the right to do what you want.  The boss can hire and fire; you can take it and serve, or leave it and starve.  If the boss wants to keep people from using the bathrooms in his factory, then you can quit the job and find a place where they will let you use the bathroom.  Nobody’s stopping you, as long as the boss can do what he wants to do with his bathroom.

Obviously this is not any sort of freedom.  Just as I did not agree to any social contract, so my choices with regard to real contracts are also limited.  Any real contract that a person signs is against a backdrop of a great inequality in the power of the two contracting parties.  Surely that should matter with regard to evaluating the extent of my freedom.

The illusion of freedom behind the social contract has become the illusion of freedom in real contracts!  Hobbes won the rhetorical struggle more thoroughly than he could imagine.  We all live the contradiction of the free slave, bound only by free contracts with absolute sovereigns.

We can begin to escape the grip of this theory by considering alternative theories of freedom.  In the next installment of this series, we will consider the republican theory of freedom.

Further Reading

Gourevitch, Alex, “Wage Slavery and Republican Liberty”, at Jacobin

Harrington, James, The Commonwealth of Oceana

Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan

Lovett, Frank, “Republicanism“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Milton, John, The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth

Pettit, Philip, “Taking back the economy: the market as Res Publica”, at OpenDemocracy

Pettit, Philip, On the People’s Terms

Pettit, Philip, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government

Skinner, Quentin, Hobbes and Republican Liberty

Skinner, Quentin, Liberty before Liberalism


Common Sense for the 21st Century

Author Dan Hind has recently released his e-book, Common Sense: Occupation, Assembly, and the Future of Liberty, and it’s fantastic.  The fifty-five page e-pamphlet encapsulates the deep-rooted rot of our societies, and the “common sense” – the accumulated assumptions that shape our understanding of the world – that make the rot invisible to those living within it.  The core of our contemporary common sense is comprised of the cult-like mantras of “the market” and “the expert.” read more »

“Start Seeing Motorcycle Helmets”: Helmet Laws and Liberty

Recently I was reading J.D. Trout’s The Empathy Gap.  The main thrust of the work is that the reasoning capacities of human beings are limited and should be supplemented by the structure of social institutions to improve our decision-making.  For example, as the title suggests, social institutions can be used to bridge the “empathy gap,” that inability to care about the people we don’t know or see.  Many of the examples are similar to what is found in Nudge, reviewed on this site.  The example that Trout uses that I want to discuss is the effectiveness of motorcycle helmet laws, and the relationship of such laws to paternalism. read more »