Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Positive Liberty a Vacuous Concept At Best

...leftist legerdemain at worst. Here's the gist of it.
  1. First, we expand the concept of liberty to include power and wealth.
  2. Next, we show that since power and wealth are unequally distributed, liberty is unequally distributed.
  3. We then infer that those with more power and wealth are violating the right to liberty of those with less.
  4. Finally, we conclude that those with more power and wealth are obliged to give some of theirs to those with less.
I object to 1 as it makes no sense as an analysis of liberty. It is a redefinition of liberty. It is not an analytic definition; it is a redefinition. It is true only if stipulative. Fine, stipulate all you want, but don't pretend to be analyzing.

2 follows from 1.

3 does not follow. Now that you have changed the concept of liberty to include power and wealth, things which held true of liberty when the concept was narrowly defined as negative liberty no longer necessarily hold true. It holds true of negative liberty that a deficit of someone's negative liberty is a violation of his right. But it doesn't necessarily hold true of positive liberty. If you define "liberty" as fried chicken, don't expect every use of the word to hold true that held true before. In fact, since we are speaking of power and wealth, and we know that there are no positive rights to power and wealth, we know that in some cases an unequal distribution of liberty (as power and wealth) is not a violation of rights. For an unequal distribution of power and wealth in some cases is not a violation of rights. Cases of theft or tyranny are cases in which it would be a violation of rights. How ironic that leftism advocates theft and tyranny in response to distributions of power and wealth which are not in fact unjust. Legerdemain is needed in order to accomplish such a sophistical feat.

4 follows from 3.

In sum, 1 is idle stipulation and 3 is an invalid inference. Positive liberty has very little substance, though it may be used sophistically to marshal us along to the leftist drumbeat.

A coda: Some may wish to preserve positive liberty as self-direction, strength of will, self-control. One is constrained by weakness of will, by vice. However, even this won't work. We can speak of vices as hamstringing us, coercing or constraining our actions only figuratively. For they are not entities distinct from the agent. They are structures and dispositions of the agent. You can be free of your vices only in the figurative way that you can be free of a hamstring injury. A man with a hamstring injury is as free as he would be without it. It's just that there is something wrong with him. And a lack of liberty cannot literally be something wrong with you. Keep your concepts clear. Speak figuratively if you like, but don't use figurative speech as a foundation for a moral or political philosophy.