What is freedom?


nozickAn interesting article by Stephen Metcalf, on Robert Nozick and libertarianism, appeared recently in Slate. The piece, entitled “The Liberty Scam,” claims that Nozick’s chief failure was to confuse capital with human capital. Editorialising on the man’s life and the era, Metcalf explains that this came from being a post-war arriviste on the tenure track at Harvard, who arrogantly thought his success the consequence of endeavour rather than the Keynesian welfare state. Nozick finally came to his senses in 1989 after realising that his star shone but faintly “in a world gone gaga for Gordon Gekko and Esprit.”

The pseudo-biography may be a bit suss. The article is sharpest when it challenges Nozick on his definition of liberty. “Nozick is arguing that economic rights are the only rights, and that insofar as there are political rights, they are nothing more than a framework in support of private property.” Metcalf contends that economic freedom means a minimum of economic opportunity, rather than complete private property rights, and thus requires a social welfare state and progressive taxation. Second, he claims political rights and civil liberties are components of liberty. “When I think with my own brain and look with my own eyes, it's obvious to me that some combination of civil rights, democratic institutions, educational capital, social trust, consumer choice, and economic opportunity make me free.”

This seems to get to the heart of the divide between classical and social liberals. Does freedom mean maximising opportunity or maximising one’s range of action within a given set of opportunities? That is, is freedom feeding one’s children according to the Department of Health food pyramid or buying whatever food one wants with an income untaxed but also unsupplemented by government? Moreover, can we apply utilitarianism to liberty? Let us leave aside trickle-down economics. Assuming that all this laissez-fair, privatisation, poll tax business really does leave the poorest worse off – according to whatever measurement you choose – does that justify stripping other people of their property?

The case for yes relies upon the logic that denying Mr. Gates another hot tub is better than leaving Mr. Bloggs’s children wearing tatty sneakers. This makes some moral sense, but social liberals should note two uncomfortable adjuncts. First, social justice usually means the loss of liberty in some sense. Taxation is coercive; there are no two ways about it. Second, it is impossible to measure utiles. Social liberals have decided that guaranteeing one kind of liberty is worth limiting another. Libertarians have decided that the only freedom is of unfettered individual action. The dichotomy is coarse, but worth chewing over. What is liberty? What can it mean to grant one freedom by restricting another?