Positive Freedom, Negative Freedom, and Wealth
By Arnold Kling
Is the freedom and individualism Lindsey sees the freedom from interference we find in Kansas or the plenitude and diversity of options we find in Manhattan? Or more generally, which of Isaiah Berlin’s “two concepts of liberty” are implicated by growing mass affluence? With this question front and center, we may begin to see the hint of a tautology in a rhetorical question Lindsey poses in his book:
The new abundance, meanwhile, opened up a mad proliferation of choices—and what, in the end, is freedom but the ability to choose?
Yet the conception of freedom that has always centrally concerned libertarians has been the freedom from restraints on choice, not the variety of available options…
That is not to say that libertarian negative freedom is the only good. Clearly I don’t think so, or I’d be living on a deserted island somewhere, rather than in coastal cities.
To put Julian’s essay in the form of a series of questions.
1. If we look narrowly at negative freedom (freedom from government restraint), has freedom increased or decreased over the past 50 years? Offhand, I would say “decreased,” in spite of less regulation of transportation and telecommunications as well as lower marginal tax rates. The sheer proliferation of laws and regulations seems overwhelming.
2. Why would not a wealthier society want more negative freedom? Shouldn’t negative freedom be a normal good, not an inferior good?
3. Has positive freedom increased? I would say so, along two dimensions. One is consumer freedom–we have lots more wealth and choice. Another is that there seems to be less cultural pressure to conform–although that one is more debatable.
4. If you agree with my answers to (1) and (3), does the increase in positive freedom outweigh the decrease in negative freedom? Or is it impossible to combine them in that way?
You might want to read Julian’s entire essay before answering.