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What the Freedom?
Isaiah Berlin's positive and negative liberty and the non-aggression principle
The words “freedom” and “liberty” mean a lot of different things to people. This is the source of a lot of heartburn in the current spiritual conflict we’re all enjoying in American society at the moment, so I figured it might be worth exploring so that when love of freedom/liberty is proclaimed by an ideological American we have a sense for what this even means.
Back in 1958 Isaiah Berlin gave a speech contrasting positive and negative liberty.The distinction between the two is interesting to consider in the context of Americanism. Negative liberty is essentially freedom from interference from external forces. Think everything in the Bill of Rights. Positive liberty, on the other hand, is having the ability to take actions that require power or resources. This distinction is entirely dependent on government to have any meaning. Government can ostensibly preserve or infringe upon the negative liberty of its citizens. Without government, negative liberty can only be had secondary to having the power or resources required to protect oneself from aggression. Since we have a government (a.k.a. an institution with a monopoly on violence), we need to keep this distinction in mind if we want it to stick to the whole “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” thing.
Freedom and Government
I don’t think Berlin did a great job explaining that government can’t provide positive liberty to any of its citizens without infringing upon negative liberty. If you look around at the promises of politicians, you’ll see that there is widespread ignorance on this point. Is healthcare a right? What about a high quality education? What about freedom from hunger? A right to affordable housing? How about clean water? All of these things represent proposed positive liberties. Giving individuals the power or resources to get all of these things with the help of government (read: coercion) obligates someone to provide these resources and violates the non-aggression principle (NAP) in the process. Unfortunately, the government can’t provide any of these things. The only thing the government can do is force some citizens to provide these things to certain other citizens. It might pay people for the privilege, but the money to induce such behavior came from somewhere. This can’t be done without infringing upon the negative liberty of these individuals. Although it is a little abstract to consider, I think the most profound example of has to do with the greatest source of positive freedom for the managerial elite, the federal reserve. Since we’re all required to transact in dollars, and the fed gets to decide who gets dollars first when they get doled out (and accordingly who gets to spend them before they exert their inevitable upward pressure on prices), everyone holding dollars has their negative liberty infringed upon by this system.
The Insidious Cost of Government Granted Positive Freedom
If you’re thinking “So what? Education and healthcare are human rights!” then I have an argument for you to consider. The elite determine who provides the power and resources to fulfill promises of positive liberty. They will always ensure that they benefit most from the application of such “rights”. Universal Healthcare sounds great in theory. In practice, you get nominal healthcare that ensures all available treatments are those provided by connected industries and cartels. The quality and efficacy of the care don’t matter for shit. Did you get care? Yes or no. You didn’t like the quality? You probably didn’t listen to the advice. You’re probably a stupid anti-vaxer. You didn’t follow the recommendation to eat more whole grains for your diabetes and refused the statin that all evidence says will lower your cholesterol to protect your heart. You didn’t drop your sodium intake sufficiently. You were given generic advice to “increase you activity” and you failed to turn that sage wisdom into stable behavior change. Your non-compliance is the problem, not the quality of care, which all of the experts that provide the care agree is second to none. Whats that? Some experts disagree? Check again. The licensing board looked into it and determined that they’re not really experts at all and terminated their ability to legally practice medicine accordingly. Isn’t a beautiful? The highest quality of care available for all.
The beauty of this setup is that it flatters the modal professional class mid-wit that provides these services while depriving only those without political capital true access to the services to which they are ostensibly entitled. The incentives that underlie this structure will continue to produce bad outcomes to an ever greater extent as long as the federal reserve system keeps those incentives intact and we remain culturally ignorant of the costs of government ensured positive liberty thanks to 100+ years of mass forced schooling. Since ending the fed isn’t politically expedient, and we might expect foreign competition to the dollar-as-world-reserve-currency anyway, I’m most interested in focusing on the cultural component. In this case, articulating a straightforward conception of freedom is necessary to overcome the specious idea that flagrantly violating the NAP can be considered American.
Freedom and the NAP
Negative liberty is always consistent with the NAP, no matter who provides it. Using coercion to shape the behavior of peaceful individuals violates the NAP and is the essence of infringing upon negative liberty. Enhancing positive liberty is a worthy goal. The unfortunate truth is that accomplishing this goal is very difficult. It is this difficulty that seduces well intending individuals to seek to employ the coercive apparatus of the state to promote positive liberty in society. It is this idea applied to serving the oppressed that is used to justify every infringement upon negative liberty perpetrated by the supposed champions of the most disenfranchised among us: The managerial class. If it were only so easy as to take from the rich and give to the poor. If that is the cultural expectation, the elite will always emerge and determine how much gets transferred and between whom. They will ensure that the cut they receive for this service is always the lions share. For those that aspire to promote positive liberty in a sustainable and morally consistent manner, the NAP is an essential tool. The only way to avoid entrenching perverse incentives that consistently facilitate pathocratic capture of the state is to develop a cultural appreciation of the NAP with its ability to clearly provide a moral foundation for an acceptable means of enhancing positive liberty, but also a more practically effective means to do so.
While the economy isn’t a zero sum game with its potential for aggregate growth, when the state makes policy there is always a trade off. It is this introduction of political power into the system that makes those dynamics zero sum. There are few better overviews of this unfortunate fact of life than Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson. It explains in excruciating detail that when it comes to policy, there are always costs, even if diffused and difficult to appreciate. After viewing the world through this lens my entire adult life, I can’t find the justification for supporting the pursuit of such trade-offs. They are immoral if you care deeply about conserving negative liberty. They are immoral if you believe in the NAP. They are immoral if you want to live in a society aligned with incentives that will increase the positive liberty available over time. If this is so straightforward, why isn’t this position more widely adopted? Because there is a trade-off. As I mentioned above, accruing positive freedom through cooperative means is hard work. For the false narrative of government enforced positive liberty being a benefit to the poor and “oppressed” to collapse, some segment of the elite must defect. This is perhaps asking too much. Would you sacrifice the fruits of institutionally legitimized coercion just to alleviate a little cognitive dissonance? While these ideas can be made more popular, without elite support the segment of the population that feels first and thinks after can always be jerked around by the collar with the current narrative. These people see suffering, they see billionaires enjoying lives of unimaginable decadence, and they see trillions of government waste, fraud, and abuse. Their aching hearts can’t help but demand that something be done. Not later, right fucking now! These people have the best of intentions, but might fight to the death for social justice policies that directly undermine what makes America great. With Ed Schools churning out ideologues who reinforce this tendency 8 hours/day for 12+ years by not only failing to provide the truth about trade offs and incentives, but by affirming that merely believing in the narrative of the cathedral is all it takes for you to be a good person.As Americans, we can’t abide these heretics hijacking the words “freedom” and “liberty” and twisting them to mean their historical opposite.
If you read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, what the American people conceived of as liberty was explicitly negative liberty. We need to return to this tradition, especially when it comes to the role government is to play in supporting freedom/liberty. Government coerced positive liberty is socialism. Saying that might be outside the Overton window, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. If you want to enhance positive liberty for “oppressed” groups, or even just yourself, follow the NAP, and in spirit, and you’ll be as American as apple pie. Deviate and you quickly lose that assurance. I’m sure it is theoretically possible to use coercion to attain noble social goals, but this “ends justify the means” mentality in anti-American. Who has the hubris to think that they have the right, or the wisdom, to infringe upon the rights of some such that the world is made better? I’ll tell you who, people who live in hyper-reality. Ivy league graduates who haven’t enough experience living in the real world to learn the humility that accompanies inevitable mistakes and failure. If you’re going to use force or the threat thereof to subvert the will of another, you better be damn sure of the outcome. Since our best policy wonks seem to have earned universally terrible outcomes from public health to foreign relations I feel justified in castigating anyone who assumes they could accomplish such a feat as a tyrannical anti-American shitweasel.
Innate Capability and the American Dream
If you want to promote egalitarianism, that is fine, just don’t violate the NAP. As I’ve written previously, the American Dream always recognized there are differences in innate capability. For this reason, outcomes will never be equal. Notions that everyone has the same worth come from a good place, I’m sure, but value is subjective. We make subjective value judgements about everything (including people) whether we want to admit it or not. Freedom can’t mean truly equal opportunity in America because innate differences in capability correspond to variance in opportunity. This state of nature cannot be fixed with the application of violence, and the seductive idea that it can is perhaps the greatest enduring source of political evil that we’ve been contending with since the dawn of human civilization. For the idea of America to endure, this must not only be recognized in a demotic sense, there must also be dissidents among the elite principled enough to reject the allure of power intertwined with the false promise of egalitarian government. Internalizing this reality is the only hope we have of resisting the temptation inherent in the power to do good that it promises.
Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good.
Earning Positive Liberty
As Americans, we can’t take positive liberty by force. The American Revolution can be thought to be consistent with the NAP by striving towards a negative liberty that was being infringed upon by the crown. If we want positive liberty, we have to work for it. As far as I can tell, this is the only way to work towards a better world without engaging in hypocrisy at a fundamental level.The fact that efforts to promote positive liberty without coercion are attacked as “fascist” is informative. Cui bono from such ad hominem attacks? Unwitting apologists for the managerial elite can’t abide the legitimacy of a more effective and morally consistent approach to enhancing positive liberty. The simple message of being the change you want to see in the world by engaging cooperatively with society in a quest to be the best that you can be must be decried as the feverish ramblings of an obvious Nazi. This idiocy can’t survive unassuming scrutiny. Although it might seem obvious that endeavoring to maximize your own positive liberty through non-violent means is the optimal path, when the dominant culture rewards victim-hood above all else, the best way to satisfy your desires isn’t so clear. You might be able to harness quite a lot of positive freedom with relatively little effort in such a culture by riding the wave of managerial liberalism that converts pity into power for the “lucky” few. This system is not sustainable. These “lucky” few become parasites that grow in number at an alarming rate. Soon, the host is sucked dry and we’re left to contend with unpleasant upheaval and economic reorganization that could very well make things even worse. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can use the NAP as a guiding light for a shared morality that makes it easier to avoid the pitfalls of cognitive dissonance. We can recognize that American freedom doesn’t mean entitlements, it means the right to be left alone so that we may grow and thrive to the greatest extent that we are innately capable of.
A collection of essays followed that developed these ideas: https://cactus.utahtech.edu/green/B_Readings/I_Berlin%20Two%20Concpets%20of%20Liberty.pdf
I find it endlessly ironic that this is the genuine source of systemic oppression in our society
I feel it important to note that there are some who require no such justification. Psychopaths will use whatever excuse to wield political power for their gain that is given them.
I consider hypocrisy to be evidence of moral failing. I’d like to think this is objective in that it can be logically derived, but I have an abundance of caution concerning objectivity and value judgements. I am very confident value is subjective, and so I can only say that avoiding hypocrisy is central to my own moral values. This perspective has led me to be intensely interested in the science of human performance optimization, which I see as the ultimate technology for enhancing positive liberty without violating the NAP. If that kind of thing interests you, I write on that topic on a publication that tries to avoid politics as much as I can manage called H2F Man.
Also known as “social justice warriors”
I’ve seen 3 different sources describe being “right wing” as being related to recognizing that there are innate differences between people. If true, then SJW accusations that everyone who disagrees with them is a “far right extremist” might actually be accurate from their perspective. For anyone interested in a good introduction to the science behind innate differences and the academic resistance to what should be completely obvious, I recommend Steven Pinker’s book “The Blank Slate”.