Monday, March 30, 2009

Analyzing Negative and Positive Liberty

Of course, the question remains, Isn't all of this just semantics? That is, what is this issue all about? It seems that everyone understands negative liberty. If some people want to call an individual's personal fulfillment or individual control of the political system "liberty," as well, who cares? There seems to be no fact of the matter about whether those two things are really liberty independently of linguistic convention, so it seems to be fake issue which may be dissolved as "mere semantics."

What this objection overlooks is that if "positive liberty" is allowed into our vocabulary the proponent of positive liberty will also demand that negative liberty of the well-off be curtailed in order to increase the positive liberty of the poor, the personally unfulfilled, and those who have not had much of a voice in their government. For it is assumed by all parties that one may have as much liberty as is compatible with others' having the same amount. This is why you aren't allowed to walk down the sidewalk swinging your arms wildly, driving your car into people's living rooms, or enslaving people. People of excellence, wealth, and, due to their talents and the importance of their roles in society, customary influence in the political sphere will have to sacrifice some of their negative and positive liberty in order to increase the positive liberty of the losers in society who are unhappy, poor and, due to their having little to offer, have little role in political life. Wealth and political sway will have to be artificially transferred to these people because, thought they have as much negative liberty as anyone else, they don't have much positive liberty.

If this is what the advocate of positive liberty will argue, then perhaps the issue is not bogus. However, perhaps it may be drained of its newly found substance. Perhaps the assumption we stipulated above should be amended to read:
It is assumed by all parties that one may have as much negative liberty as is compatible with others' having the same amount.
But the advocate of positive liberty will require proof that the principle should be fine-tuned in this way when, after all, the principle originally included no reference to species of liberty.

So, the issue is of substance. We are forced to come up with an analytical definition of liberty if we want to answer the charge of varies leftists, big-government liberals, and totalitarians that, as a matter of our common devotion to liberty, the losers in life deserve to have more personal fulfillment and political influence provided for them by the winners at the cost of the winners' negative liberty.

Next, we will take up Charles Taylor's essay on this point: "What's Wrong with Negative Liberty".

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty III

Just to sum up: This is a classic of 20th C political philosophy, in particular for its carefully marshaled indictment of positive liberty as a threat to negative liberty. It is also incoherent. It is also a case study in the evolution of classical liberalism into big-government liberalism, liberal statism, or, in Jonah Goldberg's phrase, liberal fascism.

This essay, therefore, shows how it can be that "liberalism" is now a label used to refer to statist infringements of liberty. The modern liberal is on the left and devoted to big government and redistribution of wealth. He has traveled far from classical liberalism. Berlin's incoherent essay shows in a nutshell how he got lost.
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.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Natural Law, Conservatism, Moral Theory, and Divine Command Theory. Also, Verificationism and Moral Theory

Before returning to Berlin on liberty, let's tie together some loose ends. Many people are confused about the concepts listed in the title of this post. Over the last few months I have posted on them. Now it's time to lay some confusions to rest. I've also owed you my post on verificationism and moral theory for two years now.

As I said before, natural law does not entail that God exists. If God does not exists, it remains the case that this world exists and that humans have a nature such that good lives are to be had by behaving in certain ways but not in others and right acts are to be done only if one does certain things but not others. It is, for instance, right to repay a debt when promised and wrong to kill people for fun. Self-reliance is good, while sloth is not. These things are so because of the way human beings are and because of the meanings of moral terms. Anyone who understands human nature and knows the English words "right" and "good" can see that these things are so.

If God created human beings to be so, that's all well and good. But to contemplate this creation confuses the natural law theorist who has faith in God. He thinks that human nature is so because God made it so and that this explanation is the more fundamental one underlying the explanation that moral facts are what they are because human nature is the way it is. However, this is a confusion of causal explanation with essential explanation. The fact that Joe baked the bread isn't more fundamental to the explanation that the bread is nutritious because it is made of wheat. Nor is the fact, if it is a fact, that God made the wheat. It is informative to know who made something, but it doesn't tell us why the bread is nutritious. We have known for 2500 years now that right and wrong aren't so because God says so. We shouldn't confusedly think that the natural law theory of morality entails that God exists. It can be combined with divine command theory but it needn't be.

Conservatism takes human nature and moral language seriously. It doesn't try to ignore or change the former or pervert the latter, as leftism and other assorted statisms and totalitarianisms do. The moral term "right" has to do with judgments about the competing interests of multiple people. To say that an action is "right" is to say that it strikes a proper balance of these interests, that is, it distributes fulfillment of them in accordance with the most coherent set of shared preferences in the society of the speaker and the agents about whom he is speaking and assuming that these preferences are informed by the relevant facts of the case and of human nature.

Think of it in this way. No one would be able to interpret a speaker who said, "I know that this action goes is highly antithetical to our society's most coherent set of preferences and that these are informed by all the relevant facts about human nature and the case in question, but it is the right thing to do." (To see how this works in deliberation, go here.) No one would know what to take as evidence that what he was saying was correct. Now, these preferences are just the balances struck between altruistic and self-interested desires. So, to say that an action X is "right", then, is just to say that "X is consistent with the relevant non-moral facts of the case and of human nature and X best coheres with the largest and most coherent set of altruistic and self-interested desires shared in our society." No one has any idea what would count as evidence that X was wrong if X did indeed fit with the facts and this coherent set of desires. This is just a fact about moral language. A similar analysis may be made of "good" but we'll leave that aside for the moment, as it is relatively trivial extension of this analysis.

This is why leftism and the rest of the ideological fetishes are non-starters. They distort moral language. They do not aim at correct reflection of the facts of human nature. The loose ends I'm tying together here form a very powerful explanation, then, of truths we know must be true: that right is what it is partly because of human nature and independently of God's existence, and that conservatism is the only non-fetishistic political philosophy, while the others are perverse.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty I

This is a profound essay, a classic in political philosophy. I will suggest in this little series that it has a deep flaw, but you should read it if you have not. As I said before, it embodies part of liberalism's transition from classical liberalism evolved to big-government "liberalism." For now, two notes.

Negative liberty is "not being interfered with by others." Positive liberty, a rather more opaque concept, is autonomous action or being one's own master (by partaking in activities such as giving oneself the law, achieving an elevated status, and being in a society recognized as autonomous by other societies.) Berlin's explanation of the totalitarian dangers lurking in the concept of positive liberty is quite eloquent. But do not mistake the essay for a simple argument in favor of negative liberty and against positive liberty. In fact, Berlin defends positive liberty tenaciously.

In particular, Berlin describes the efforts of subjected societies to become democracies or to gain the status of respectable autonomy as a just cause ("their cause is just"). 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.

We'll take up Berlin's caveats later, but this is strong stuff.

I, for one, must stand as one who, in Berlin's eyes, suffers from "a profound lack of social and moral understanding." I do not accept that positive liberty has any worth whatsoever. Moreover, anything bad in the subjection of a society derives from infringement of individuals' negative liberty rights and has nothing to do with a lack of positive liberty or group autonomy, whatever those things are.

We have not gotten to the bottom of this flaw in Berlin's essay, but we will in the next post.
U.S. Government Moves Against Institutions of Civil Society, Requires Involuntary Servitude

The Federal Government is attempting to divert the flow of private wealth away from private charities and to itself. It is now about to pass laws requiring that American children do work for "charitable" projects it selects (HR 1388 "Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education", S277 "Serve America Act"). It is now about to end the tax deduction for charitable contributions.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Next up at Philosoblog

Next, we'll take a look at Isaiah Berlin, "Two Concepts of Liberty." It's essential reading if you want to understand how classical liberalism evolved into big-government "liberalism."

Also on our slate are examinations of Hayek on liberty and conservatism and Charles Taylor, Harry Frankfurt, and Patrick Devlin on liberty.
American Values

Liberty and self-reliance: How often have you noticed these values being mentioned, championed, raised in the center of debate, or placed at or near the center of the set of values to which we are devoted?

These are no longer core American values. They haven't been for many decades. They are central values for many Americans, but they have faded from the common set. The common set has at its core prosperity and equal distribution of wealth. American political values and virtues have been replaced by these. The replacement was driven by wealth, envy, resentment, hatred, and sloth.

We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
-John Adams

I think we have more machinery of government than is necessary, too many parasites living on the labor of the industrious.
-Thomas Jefferson

The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground. -Thomas Jefferson

[A] wise and frugal government...shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government. -Thomas Jefferson

I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.
-James Madison

If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the General Welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one, possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one, subject to particular exceptions.
-James Madison

There are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.
-James Madison

Hat tip: Mark Alexander.
A Government of Men

Surprise! You vote for an asshole who's never accomplished anything in his life, and that's what you get. How could that have been predicted? Who would have thought that a 47-year-old man who'd never achieved anything in his life would fall flat on his face as president within weeks?

Well, at least he has Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank, and Chris Dodd to help him along. They wouldn't happen to be idiotic and incompetent buffoons on the take, would they? They are? What a shock!

Who would have thought that Pelosi, Frank, Dodd, and Obama would use your children's money like monopoly money, bankrupting them while they are still in the cradle? Who would have thought that a man who knows nothing about economics or business would come into office, promise to halve the deficit, and immediately lay out budgets that the CBO says will balloon it beyond the scope of imagination? Surprise! And who would have thought that such a man would be utterly incapable of handling a major financial problem, such as the one we find in AIG and the tangle of MBS/CDS? Amazing, isn't it? Astoundingly, he decided to turn his attentions from this problem to an imagined crisis in insufficient government health insurance, alternative energy, cap-and-trade programs, and highway bridges. Well, at least he can act suave in shades and make fun of retarded people on TV.

Who would have thought that our Congress and Executive would not be august and noble statesmen but instead would promise bonuses to AIG executives in order to get them to fix the CDS mess that might otherwise cast the world into a deep depression, feign outrage and shock over the bonuses, and then tax the bonuses at 90%, not expecting those execs to walk and leave the mess to drive us into depression? Eh? Who would have thought that?

Now, it turns out that the president can read aloud what someone wrote for him and make fun of retarded people on national TV, but he can't speak extemporaneously about issues of the day. Amazing, but true! Who would have thought that a man who went to a pathological church for twenty years would have been a pathological narcissist? Oh, well.

Did you know what you can tell about anyone who can't speak about an issue? That there is no evidence that he understands that issue and significant evidence that he does not. And do you also know what you can tell about anyone who can't speak insightfully and extemporaneously about the important issues which intelligent people are supposed to be able to discuss? That he isn't very bright. He may have an IQ as high as 125, but that isn't very bright, especially when there is no significant achievements or common sense to bolster it.

Who would have thought that a man who never exhibited any profound political, economic and historical sensibility would turn out to be an empty suit in office! It's pretty surprising, isn't it?

But we get ex post facto bills of attainder and a budget bent on bankruptcy while we are in a recession. Welcome to what you voted for!

This is a government of men, not of law. The American electorate is not sufficiently knowledgeable or virtuous to elect decent men. During the last few decades, our political system has collapsed and been replaced by another one. We can only hope that the current system fails miserably, so that the electorate learns, starts over, finds some way to recreate the American political system. The best thing that could happen now is a severe depression. Like the proverbial frog in the pot of water on a low light, it will be impossible for the electorate, ignorant and spoiled as it is, to wake up by any other means than being subject to abrupt and shocking distress. Fortunately, our leaders are even more incompetent and stupid than we and have exhibited every indication, for instance with their "budget", that they will turn the light under the pot up to high.

Don't look for hope in the GOP. It is merely less infected by corruption and idiocy. Your political system is broken and dysfunctional. It is not the American political system laid out by the Founding Fathers. We need to go through the hell necessary to give us to understand that we must replace it with the original. We must regenerate the virtues necessary for sustaining the original. Is there an example in history of a society returning to health after decline into depravity?

UPDATE: Here's VDH. Read the comments.

Friday, March 13, 2009

A Terrible Oversight in Mill and Hayek

I find myself in the uncanny position of defending liberty more stridently and absolutely than two giants of libertarianism. You see, Mill and Hayek overlooked something important: a person's right to liberty.

I'm referring to On Liberty and The Constitution of Liberty. You can find a few posts below regarding the former. As for Hayek's book, I'll have a few more thoughts on it in subsequent posts.

They are both wonderful books. They both make enormously important arguments for liberty from considerations of utility. One of the most important of these is that people who would control others (the various statists, tyrants and totalitarians) don't have enough information to know what is good for others. It is better to leave each man to his own devices since he will best be able to tell what is good for him. Moreover, Hayek makes quite clear the fact that there is a tradition which we need to preserve, which has evolved over a lengthy and vast field of individual experience and discovery, and compared to which the knowledge of those who wish to control others is tiny. Hayek is startlingly eloquent on that point, to the extent that there is no use in my discussing it here. Go and read the first two chapters of his book.

However, besides Mill the avowed utilitarian, we have Hayek tarnishing his brilliant case about human cognition with this howler:

If there were omniscient men, if we could know not only all that affects the attainment of our present wishes but also our future wants and desires, there would be little case for liberty.

If there were omniscient men, no one would have a right to liberty? Hardly. Let me state the obvious.

You have a right to liberty because your life is yours.

In an undergraduate philosophy class you might convince yourself that an omniscient man's advice was binding since he would know what's best for you. You might conclude that a person should do what the omniscient man said and would have no right to make up his mind for himself what to do. But beyond the sophomoric level it is easy to see that the omniscient have no right to control others. It is wrong for me to control my neighbor, even though he is a fool and it is obvious to any reasonable person that the decisions he makes are bad for him. The reason is that his life is his. That's an airtight argument and I'm surprised the champions of individual liberty missed it. As important as the utilitarian argument from lack of knowledge is, it is no more important than this one.

But there is more to the story. It is too simplistic to leave it with these two arguments, one utilitarian and one based on basic rights to be left alone. There is a place where the right to be left to one's own devices blends together with the considerations of utility. At that point we can see that being left to one's own devices is inseparable from the good life and happiness taken so seriously by those overly concerned with considerations of utility.

The point is this. A human being's good is found partly in winning for himself his way of life by coming to understand himself and becoming able to control himself in accordance with that understanding. Self-control and self-directedness are important components of a good life and not just because they enable one to do what one wants but because they are excellences in themselves and therefore to be coveted and prized upon being obtained. Part of what's good about a good life is that it has been of one's own making and created through one's own experience and discovery.

So, not only is the utilitarian case of Mill and Hayek incomplete and, in the instance of the Hayek quote, incorrect. It is also mistaken about the nature of the good that is promoted by preserving individual liberty.

Thursday, March 05, 2009


We've been on the lefty bus for decades. Now it's swerving into a brick wall instead of proceeding surely towards its destination. The survivors will heal and reflect on the vices and ignorance which drove them to let the insane drive the bus. This is almost optimal. The only better scenario would have been our waking up and taking the wheel. That was not going to happen, given the vice and ignorance. At least we will have a chance to avoid the fate of reaching the destination.

The bus is driving toward the gulags. We are asleep on it. The idiot driver is swerving into the wall. At least we won't reach the guglags, whence there is no return.

Plus, with the hardship millions upon millions of American children will not grow up spoiled as they otherwise would have done.
Philosophy Blogs

Why are you here? That's the question.

No, I mean why are you here at Philosoblog? After all, there are also Bill Vallicella and Franklin Mason. Click, click!

Sunday, March 01, 2009


To have set out a few goals, dear to one and fulfilling plenty of one's most coherent and persistently strong dispositions, and to have fulfilled these goals during significant part of a life enjoyed and found worthy of cherishing are feats which produce great happiness. This is the recognition of one's great fortune and extraordinary experience of fulfillment in it.

In youth you figure out what you want to do over a decade or two. These are things that resonate deeply with your talents, desires, and moral aspirations. Staying true to these goals and persistently planning and doing what is best to fulfill one's goals, you end up years later dizzy and in awe of your good fortune.

For us it is a proper function to feel intense gratitude for a good life. This is resulting from and, by feedback, contributing to the effort to fulfill one's goals.

To have done what one wanted, to have excelled in areas that drew one inexorably and with delight at their fitting in with one's set of aspirations and to have experienced deep gratitude for these things bring one to recognize that one has loved oneself well all along, in the sense of Bishop Butler, namely, that one has taken as one's only ends the goals generated from one's most coherent and persistently strong dispositions, including those that require regard for others, as well as those that do not. Certain long-term projects were best and one pursued them instead of fluffy, ephemeral, undesirable pastimes. The relief at having chosen right leads to the gratitude. There is a potential horror or nausea when contemplating the failure to have chosen right.
Keeping what is Precious

The reason for my recent post recommending homeschooling in order to produce people educated in American political values is that if you think in terms of time spans of several decades from now, you notice opportunities to protect what is right and good that need attention. Twenty and thirty years from now we will need people who remember what is precious of American political culture. They will remember history and grasp the greatness of the U.S. Constitution's division of power. They will preserve a high regard for liberty, self-reliance, justice as just deserts, charity, polite decency in society, prosperity, and other values.

The present moment is dramatic with the ignorance and credulity of the electorate and with the blundering buffoonery of the American left and its stupidly ruining the American economy. The attendant damage to liberty, self-reliance, justice as just deserts, charity, polite decency in society, and prosperity spurs one to protect these values. One thinks in terms of decades. We need to teach thousands upon thousands of children what we know. We need to preserve in them what is precious. This is a great gift to them as well as a fulfillment of our loyalty to what is worth preserving.