Sunday, March 29, 2009

Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty II

Berlin's essay defends positive liberty vehemently, though without argumentation. One of his interpreters sees the essay as a "polemic against positive freedom" which "left his commitments to social justice unspecified" (M. Ignatieff, Berlin: A Life), while another, M. Rothbard (in The Ethics of Liberty) says, "Berlin fell into confusion, and ended by virtually abandoning the very negative liberty he had tried to establish and to fall, willy-nilly, into the 'positive liberty' camp."

Both views are correct because Berlin was confused. It is worth quoting again the passages in which Berlin lashes out at those who do not cherish the positive liberty of the poor. As I said in post I:
Indeed, he claims that "it is a profound lack of social and moral understanding not to recognize that the satisfaction" of this goal of positive freedom is, as well as negative freedom, "an ultimate value which, both historically and morally, has an equal right to be classed among the deepest interests of mankind." Again,

[I]t is the notion of freedom in its 'positive' sense that is at the heart of the demands for national or social self-direction which animate the most powerful and morally just public movements of our time, and...not to recognize this is to misunderstand the most vital facts and ideas of our age.
Elsewhere Berlin lashed out at systems of full negative liberty for the usual trite reasons about their letting the "wolves eat the sheep." He praised the New Deal and other restrictions on economic freedom as correct trade-offs of negative freedom or "social justice" (a hackneyed leftist phrase meaning redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor.) Rothbard attempts to diagnose the confusion of a man who so clearly understood the threat of positive liberty yet also embraced it.

...Berlin’s fundamental flaw was his failure to define negative liberty as the absence of physical interference with an individual’s person and property, with his just property rights broadly defined. (Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty)

Not so. Rothbard thinks that if Berlin could only see that removing property from the wealthy and giving it to the poor was an infraction of the rights of the wealthy to liberty, then he would have backed away from his "social justice" and avoided the confusion. But on the contrary, Berlin knew that his redistributive ambitions would impinge upon liberty. Indeed, he said precisely in "Two Concepts",

Everything is what it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience. If the liberty of myself or my class or nation depends on the misery of a number of other human beings, the system which promotes this is unjust or immoral. But if I curtail or lose my freedom, in order to lessen the shame of such absolute loss of liberty occurs. This may be compensated for by a gain in justice or in happiness or in peace, but the loss remains, and it is a confusion of values to say that although my 'liberal' individual freedom may go by the board, some other kind of freedom - social or economic - is increased.

Of course Rothbard fails to explicate Berlin's essay; the essay is incoherent. Berlin holds that social justice both is and is not liberty. Now we're at the heart of the flaw in the essay. Berlin is bothered by his conscience and his shame to speak out in favor of positive liberty. He doesn't want to associate himself with the wolves by arguing solely for negative liberty. Yet, he also sees that his goal of positive liberty requires infringing upon the negative liberty rights of the wealthy. He thinks that their wealth depends on the misery of the poor which is impossible in a system of pure negative liberty. He sees the rich as wolves and the poor as sheep devoured, which is an appropriate simile only for a system in which negative liberty rights are not enforced but not for one in which they are.

The flaw of Berlin's essay, then, is two-fold. It both embraces and eschews positive liberty, and it is based on the confused notion that a system of absolute negative liberty is one in which the wealthy oppress the poor.

Berlin's pluralism about competing values is spot on, and this, along with the carefully-argued indictment of positive liberty, is what makes the essay valuable. However, when the pluralist misunderstands one of his values - justice - and makes an illicit addition to his set - equality of economic outcome - then he ends in confusion and incoherence. In addition, he champions the New Deal and other monstrous infringements upon liberty and frugality.

This is the transition from classical liberalism to big-government liberalism. Big government is a burden of debt on America, and in the case of the current financial debacle, the liberal government's meddling in the mortgage market has brought us a housing bubble and the real possibility of economic collapse. We respond now with more government spending, of course. What we reap next is what liberalism, in its confusion, has sewn.