Reclaiming Freedom From the Right

Ned Resnikoff

I am a freelance writer, researcher for Media Matters for America, and occasional inactive to Salon. Everything written here is my opinion alone, and not representative of the views of my employer.

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47 Responses

  1. Sam M says:

    “Now, tell me if I’m misrepresenting the Tea Party position…”

    I’d say yes.

    I am not a Tea Party guy, but I think the more accurate paraphrase would go like this: “The Welfare State redresses differences in economic opportunity by taking from some people and giving to others. This is an easily abused power, which we know because of frequent abuses of it throughout history. More often then notm, the beneficiaries of the goverment largesse are cronies of those in power, and who stay in power because of support from the very people who receive the support. Worse, even assuming perfectly charitable motives by all involved, the government has extreme difficulty identifying the truly needy, and assuming they ever do find who the truly needy are, it is even more difficult to help them without unleashing a huge torrest of unintended consequences and moral hazards. Therefore, we think a program of no welfare state, or an extremely limited on, is the wisest course of action, with as many decisions made at the local level as possible.”

    I am not saying that’s whhat they would enact. But it’s a better paraphrase of a platform.Report

  2. Jason Kuznicki says:

    This is a good post, but I do think you’ve given too little attention to the difference between positive and negative freedom. Although I know you’ve done it deliberately, I’d like to say a bit about this distinction anyway.

    If I give you a million dollars, then of course I’ve increased your menu of options. But these will be positive freedoms. And they will come at my expense — while your menu of options grows, mine shrinks.

    Negative freedom is a freedom from the arbitrary interference of others. We maximize it — paradoxically — by denying certain options, but only by denying them on an equal basis to all.

    The no face-punching rule is a good example. Although this rule shuts off one option, it opens up many other options to those who don’t get their faces punched. Now they don’t have to change all their plans for a quick trip to the hospital, and they have as a result both more negative freedom (they’re doing what they’d prefer to do!) and more positive freedom (no hospital bills or missed work time!).

    Surely in a sense this disappoints the face-punchers, but as compensation, we give them a reasonable assurance that their own faces won’t be punched, either. It is likely the best we can do.

    As to equality of positive freedoms, or rather, equality of wealth, I would prefer to live in a society without it. While I do support a minimal social safety net, I think it is probably best that those who are in the net don’t enjoy themselves too much. In that way they will try their best to crawl out, which is what I trust you want as well.Report

    • MadRocketScientist in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      @Jason Kuznicki,
      “While I do support a minimal social safety net, I think it is probably best that those who are in the net don’t enjoy themselves too much. In that way they will try their best to crawl out, which is what I trust you want as well.”

      Exactly, a safety net is not something that should be comfortable.

      I think too many people hear “safety net” and think it needs to be/should be as comfortable as a hammock. Maybe we should relabel it to “Social Air Bag”. Trust me, nobody who has been in a collision violent enough to trip an airbag will EVER describe the airbag experience as “comfortable”. As a matter of fact, it hurts quite a bit, but it saves your life.Report

      • gregiank in reply to MadRocketScientist says:

        @MadRocketScientist, ” think too many people hear “safety net” and think it needs to be/should be as comfortable as a hammock.”

        I really don’t believe that. Got anything to back that up. In what way has our social safety net ever been soft and easy living? Answer is it hasn’t. We have a crude safety net that covers mostly the poorest people in a crude fashion and that is about it. stories about how luxurious life on welfare is are urban legends and/ or lies ( see Reagan and welfare queens driving Caddies)Report

        • MadRocketScientist in reply to gregiank says:

          @gregiank, note that I didn’t say who thought that. Most people who have never been on welfare think it is too soft. People who have been there (like me) know that it is too soft in some places, and utterly useless in others, with policies that discourage recipients to improve their situation, and it encourages them to stay on welfare.

          When welfare abuse happens, it is rarely a single mom with 5 kids (although those exist, even if this one is not in the US), but rather, much like the family that once lived in the rental next to me, it’s a large, extended family or group of friends pooling their welfare resources to achieve a higher standard of living while gaming the system.

          A better system would provide as much support as possible for a limited time (say 5 years), long enough to complete an education program. If a single mom got money, tuition assistance, and day care assistance, in 5 years, she’d be a very productive citizen and off welffare.Report

    • Simon K in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      @Jason Kuznicki, Can you clarify what you see as the difference between a minimal social safety net and what we have now in the US?

      From my point of view, the US system is excessively generous in some areas, and has giant gaping holes in others. Its not so much a safety net as a collection of extremely soft mattresses that don’t adequately cover the potential landing area …

      My worry when people say “minimal social safety net” is that they’re either thinking of means-testing or of in some way excluding the “undeserving poor”. Both of these put more holes in the net, and further increase the perverse incentives. Means testing in particular creates and disincentive to save, which just seems completely crazy to me. And any system of discrimination that means one person qualifies for a benefit and another doesn’t make the benefit less likely to retain popular support, which if it genuinely is part of a safety net is a problem in a democracy.

      I’d actually much prefer a system of universal, non-means-tested, non-purpose-specific cash benefits. If we simply gave everyone X amount of dollars at the start of the year and clawed it back from those who didn’t need it through the tax code (ie. a negative income tax) it would distort behaviour a lot less, nullify the argument for most of the specific-purpose benefits we have now, and retain majority support.Report

  3. Hyena says:

    You should read Gerald Cohen’s paper Freedom and Money if you haven’t already. Here’s a link:

  4. For what it’s worth, and to avoid restarting the liberaltarian debate on this site for the one millionth time, here is my most recent (and, I think, best) attempt to resolve the positive/negative liberty tradeoff:

  5. North says:

    Nice, I like it though I’m with Jason in that I feel there are significant differences between Negative and Positive Liberty. With that one item aside I think you’ve got a pretty nice neo-liberal first principle laid out here. Also a big amen from me regarding the red herring of income inequality.Report

  6. The left does use the language of freedom in the abortion debate, but so does the right. The right talks about the freedom of the unborn not to be murdered; and I think the fact that both sides claim the same values with different policy conclusions is what makes the whole abortion debate so intractable. If the left succumbed to Frank Luntz style politicking with everyone twirling twirling twirling towards freedom, would we risk every issue becoming as intractable as the abortion debate; i.e. how could you not support banning guns altogether; don’t you support the freedom to not get shot!?

    While I think this would probably be a good and fair move to emphasize freedom as the basis for a lot of things on the liberal platform, specifically being opposed to wars like Operation Iraqi “Freedom”, freedom can’t be the basis for everything.

    You talked in your last post about atomization, and I think it goes hand in hand with our culture’s overemphasizing freedom. I always liked the fact about the left that when it all came down to it, usually the Dems were the party that said we pay our taxes to help our fellow human beings who need it because it’s the humane thing to do. Instead of emphasizing individual freedom like the right, what the left does best is emphasize collective responsibilities.Report

  7. E.C. Gach says:

    In terms of taking about the language of liberty and freedom from the Conservative and Tea Party discourse, or at least sharing it more, the place to start would be economic freedom/liberty.

    We’re often so worried about the tyranny of government, that the tyranny of other non-state actors is overlooked, the best example being corporations. I won’t hesitate to add that most of the infringements perpetrated by corporations are done with the assistance of government, but even that critique of government acknowledges the complicity of business.

    On positive/negative right distinctions, freedom from search and seizure could be argued to be the mirror of, freedom to privacy. Perhaps I’m thinking about these concepts in the wrong way though. Perhaps someone could give me a counter example to the proposition that all negative rights imply a twin positive right, and that either one of these is really just the other reworded, without any substantive difference.Report

    • MFarmer in reply to E.C. Gach says:

      @E.C. Gach,
      Complicity of State and rent-seeking businesses is a slam on statism, not limited government and a free market. There’s no escaping this, no matter how you spin it.Report

    • North in reply to E.C. Gach says:

      @E.C. Gach, I think a better way to look at it E.C. is that negative rights seek to allow people to have what is a natural state of freedom for them.
      Freedom of not to be imprisoned, freedom not to be robbed, freedom not to be harmed, all of these things are freedoms that a person could expect to have in a natural state without the intervention of another person.
      Positive rights run opposite this. Freedom to be provided food, freedom to be provided shelter so on… they’re contrary to the default state. People don’t have food; they have to go and get it for themselves in an environment where there’re no other people. Likewise with shelter etc etc.
      Also negative rights require of other people only negative actions. In order for you to not violate my right to be free of harm you need only not attack me.
      Positive rights on the other hand require positive action of others. If I have a positive right to be provided food then someone, somehow, has to feed me.Report

    • E.C. Gach in reply to E.C. Gach says:

      @E.C. Gach,

      “negative rights seek to allow people to have what is a natural state of freedom for them.”

      I guess my problem with that has always been that, well, where is this natural state and how do we probe to find out what rights we did/would have.

      For instance, with out law and a “state” to enforce it, would any freedoms exist? Would the concept of freedom even make sense?

      For instance in a Hobbian state of nature, would I have a freedom from harm? And in what way would a freedom from harm be different than a right to security in this way. It seems in either circumstance I am dependent on the proactive actions of others.Report

      • North in reply to E.C. Gach says:

        @E.C. Gach, we’re creeping into deeper philosophy than I feel qualified to speak on E.C. but here’s my own personal shorthand.
        If a right guarantees an action/state that you would have as a given if you were on the planet by yourself; the ability to move about unfettered for instance or the ability to say whatever you wanted to say; then that is a negative right and is distinctly different from a positive right which guarantees an action/state that would not be given if you were on the planet by yourself. A positive right requires that you make demands on others beyond merely an admonition to leave you alone.Report

  8. MFarmer says:

    I’m writing a post on my blog that goes deeper regarding the double whammy on America from Burke and Bentham, but if these State actions are good for everyone, ultimately, and these actions have been going on for decades, how do you explain our current financial situation with real unfunded obligations in the tens of trillions, unemployment at a real rate of 15-17, and business investment stalled because of uncertainty brought about by statist intervention? If this is an expansion of freedom, I’ve had enough.Report

  9. Jaybird says:

    I had a Catholic Deacon explain freedom to me once, thusly (this is a paraphrase): “The freedom to make the right decisions, the freedom from sin. Isn’t the freedom we find in Christ infinitely preferable to the libertine notions that come from people supposedly being able to do whatever their baser notions compell them to do?”

    This strikes me as doublespeak. It’s talking about limiting options, not opening them up.

    Anyway, most neoliberal discussions of Freedom strike me as similarly doublespeaky.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Jaybird says:

      @Jaybird, I’m really just judging by my father who is still fairly Catholic (although he avoids his church because he can’t abide the mass being spoken in English)- anyway, what he’s said to me is that we don’t have freedom aside from that given by grace and our attempts to create freedom are dangerous illusions because they separate us from the true nature of existence. He might not be representative, but if he is, I’m not certain where traditionalists and libertarians could see eye-to-eye on that issue.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Rufus F. says:

        @Rufus F., traditionalists, I assume, want this stuff codified into law (or, at least, the social fabric).

        Libertarians only want it codified into the social fabric if it’s going to be codified anywhere.Report

        • Koz in reply to Jaybird says:

          It surprises me a little bit that people get hung up on this. Fwiw Steven Covey of all people talks about in a nonreligious context in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

          Btw Jaybird I responded to your comment on that other thread a couple of days ago if you still care. My response got held up in moderation purgatory for a day or so but it’s there now.Report

    • North in reply to Jaybird says:

      @Jaybird, I’d be fascinated, Jay, to hear how you percieve neoliberals view freedom.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to North says:

        @North, similarly to how the Catholics do.

        They want people to be free to make the right choices and pushed away from making the wrong ones. Pointing out how you don’t *HAVE* to do X… you can not do X and go to jail, or not do X and move to Somalia… will be the other options.

        The Catholic I argued with explained to me that gays shouldn’t be able to get married because, stay with me here, they *CAN’T* get married. How does this tie into freedom? Well, of course, gay people are free to marry women.

        I reckon neolibs play a similar shell game… look at, for example, Universal Health Care.Report

    • Ned Resnikoff in reply to Jaybird says:


      What’s your definition of freedom?Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Ned Resnikoff says:

        @Ned Resnikoff, the freedom to flourish, the freedom to be wrong, the freedom to read what I want without being told that I can’t, the freedom to speak about it without being told that I can’t, and the freedom to write a rejoinder without being told that I can’t… and, of course, the freedom to spend my money to help me do such things.

        You, of course, have the freedom to ignore, cheer, or boo me in such pursuits.Report

        • Ned Resnikoff in reply to Jaybird says:


          “Freedom to flourish” is an interesting concept. Do you have that even if you’re stuck in insurmountable poverty?Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

          @Jaybird, “stuck in insurmountable poverty”.

          You’ll probably have a lot less room to flourish, that’s for sure.

          Here. I writ an essay a while back.

          I see morality as a vector rather than a destination.

          It is possible to flourish even in insurmountable poverty. Once upon a time, the entire human race lived in insurmountable poverty.

          Then, over the course of millennia, it was surmounted.Report

  10. Simon K says:

    I agree with Jason that the difference between positive and negative freedoms could use a bit more attention, although I also agree with you (I think), Ned, that the line is actually quite blurry and is difficult to clarify.

    At the very basic level, negative freedoms are the ones that just require other people to not do things. You can do what you like provided you don’t punch anyone in the face. Positive freedoms are those that require other people to do specific things. In order for my neighbor’s kids to go to the local school I (and a bunch of other people) must pay property taxes. Negative liberties are a great deal easier to justify than positive ones, since they clearly leave a lot more scope for individual action, but positive liberties are a great deal more interesting to most people – my right to not be punched in the face is not of much interest if I have been punched in the face and can’t get medical care.

    This isn’t an argument for the enforcement of positive liberties as rights, and in fact its very hard in many cases to work out what that even means. You can assert a right to medical care, but who exactly is going to provide it? Another way of looking at positive liberties is that they constitute a call on some service or another. If you want medical care someone has to provide it. If you want a house, someone has to build it. If you want food, someone has to grow it. In the modern world of course, that means that everyone has to pay so that someone can be paid to do those things. I don’t have a problem with this in itself, but I have some trouble with the orthodoxy in some circles of calling these things rights – its not that helpful from my point of view to assert these rights in the absence of a mechanism for creating the required goods.

    But its when we look a positive liberties as a call on some service or another that the clear distinction between positive and negative liberties starts to get blurry. When we talk about negative liberties, we are after all implicitly saying that you have a call on some agency to provide defensive force if you are punched in the face. That threat has to be effective or the right isn’t very useful, after all. There’s a certain macho bullshit school of libertarian rhetoric (to which as far as I know no-one here subscribes, I should say) which asserts that these rights derive from the ability to enforce them personally, and are delegated to the state only for efficiency reasons. While its fine to say that you can punch someone back if they punch you (although personally I’d probably just break some fingers) its hard to extend this to your ownership of AAA tranches of sub-prime mortgage-backed CDOs, involving money owed through a long chain of contracts by people you’ve never met and probably could never find if you tried.

    So it looks like very negative liberty actually has a positive right – a call on the state to provide protection and enforcement services – embedded in it. I’m imagining that some libertarians are not going to concede this point, but I can’t see the problem and I’d be interested in hearing the counterargument. Even if we do concede that, there is a still a respectable libertarian argument that the call on the state to provide protection is different from other potential positive rights – the state has to have a regional monopoly on force in order to avoid the free-rider problem, and because it must do that, it similarly has to extend the right to its services to everyone in the region under its control, so everyone also has to pay to support it.

    It seems though that several other problems have basically the same structure, especially in public health. If enough children in an are are vaccinated to provide herd immunity against smallpox, everyone benefits, and in order to be effective such a campaign has to cover a specific geographic area, so doesn’t the same argument that everyone should pay for common defense apply to vaccination campaigns? And to clean water, and sewerage – it doesn’t really help me to have city water and sewers if my neighbors are drinking dirty well water and crapping in the gutter.

    I think it might be possible – and here I’m certain I’ll lose all the libertarians if I haven’t already, if indeed anyone is still reading this excessively long comment – to extend this public goods argument into still more areas where the structure of the problem isn’t quite so clear. For example, if we all accrue an additional benefit from living it a society where everyone has access to elementary eduction and decent medical care, as well as a benefit from our own eduction and healthcare, as I think we do, doesn’t the same argument apply that these goods should be publicly provided because part of their benefit only exists if they’re available to all? Is the only objection to this that there is no such shared benefit, or is there some other problem with the argument?Report

  11. Jaybird says:

    We all agree that there are people who need stuff and there are people who have excess stuff and we should do something and move the excess to the people who have legitimate need. Sure.

    The problem is that there are overhead costs, and we really want to make sure that the people in charge of making sure that there is no fraud have ergonomic chairs and have a good union and a decent pension, and we need to make sure that the people in charge of divvying out the excess have similar, and, whoops, we need more excess… before we’ve moved a single cent to the benefit of those in need.Report