Positive vs negative liberty

I am starting this debate in the context of the following posts and the comments I received on those posts.

Vision

Aspiring for a developed India

Moral Responsibility

This is the comment by R.D. that sparked it off:

I could easily make the same point using a social engineering argument (although I believe it is one of the most abused words), but will try to put in words you believe in.

I believe according to you, the fundamental responsibility of a government is to ensure freedom of every individual and ensure there is no force on any individual. Do you believe that people in this country are free. Do you not agree that there is undue force on certain sections of the society because of historic reason and unjust prejudice because of their ‘identity’. Do you not agree that most of the people who are oppressed are economically weak and economic empowerment of these people will solve most of their problems and make them to a large extent ‘free’. Is free quality primary education not a way of empowering people to stop force against them.

I believe your version of equal opportunity and T.R.’s version of it are very different. His view (rather mine) is probably better put as an equal start for everyone. I believe the government has one more important function. That is to ensure the the country is producing the maximum it can. This can be achieved only by providing a basic start to everyone (a person might have the potential to become a math wizard, but will never if is has to be an agricultural labour all his life) and then let them perform according to their ability.

What R.D. is saying amounts to the positive liberty position. I take a negative liberty position.

34 Responses

  1. R.D,
    Consider this example.
    A child (call him X) is born to a poor dalit (“lower-caste”) couple. Most of the people in the village where he is born are casteists – i.e, they consider caste as a significant factor to consider in their actions. In accordance with their beliefs, the upper caste people refuse to touch this child, refuse to admit him into a school (which they run), frequently insult him for belonging to a low caste, etc. Moreover, the child’s parents see nothing wrong in the status-quo. The child grows up in this environment and has now become an adult.

    Without a doubt, all of this is unjust. But that is not the point of this debate. The point is “Is X free?”

    I suppose you would say he is not. As long as no physical force has been exercised, I would say he is. Freedom implies freedom from something. What is it that you are saying X is not free from?

  2. Force need not necessarily be physical and need not even be directly exerted on the individual. The fact that there is no school offering him education implies that capitalist forces have not resulted in a free market. There is large demand and zero supply, this can only result from force. So the child was never free.

  3. There is large demand and zero supply, this can only result from force.

    No, it happens whenever the only person(s) in possession of the item under consideration are unwilling to sell it. Consider a painting owned by a collector. There might be a large demand from other collectors. But the owner of the painting is unwilling to sell it at any price. Large demand, zero supply.

    The example in my previous comment is no different. There are some educated people. But they are unwilling to impart that education at any price.

    The only way you can call that force is if you reject the concept of private property (painting and knowledge respectively). I assume you are not rejecting the concept.

    Force need not necessarily be physical and need not even be directly exerted on the individual.
    Then the concept of force loses meaning. Say I want a job. But no employer is willing to hire me except as a sweeper. Am I being forced? I suppose you will say that depends on whether I deserve the job. But who is to judge whether I deserve it or not? As before, if you accept the concept of private property, the only person(s) who can make the judgement are the ones who are offering the job.

    Once you broaden the concept of force (in a political sense) beyond physical force, you will have to broaden it to include every relevant causal factor for the event under consideration. Moreover suppose you try to “correct” the situation. You can only correct it by initiating physical force. Is that more freedom or less?

  4. “The only way you can call that force is if you reject the concept of private property ”

    There is a fundamental difference between a painting and primary education. The owner of a painting when he sells it off no longer owns it. No one owns English or math. It is not private property. By teaching someone how to speak you do not lose the ability to speak yourself. You did not create English and you do not own it. So, denying someone primary education is force.

    “Then the concept of force loses meaning. Say I want a job. But no employer is willing to hire me except as a sweeper. Am I being forced? I suppose you will say that depends on whether I deserve the job. But who is to judge whether I deserve it or not? As before, if you accept the concept of private property, the only person(s) who can make the judgement are the ones who are offering the job.”

    You are not being forced to work as a sweeper. You have the choice to take it or leave it. The owner has a right to offer any job he desires to. But, that is assuming it’s a private company held by one and he has absolute authority to make a decision. A person running a publicly traded company, even if he owns 99% of the company, has no right to reject someone for his personal reasons. He has to hire the most suitable person always.

  5. “Moreover suppose you try to “correct” the situation. You can only correct it by initiating physical force. Is that more freedom or less?”

    Force can be corrected only by force.

    Consider a factory that heavily pollutes the air. No one lives very close to it. The owner of the factory is not exerting any physical force on anyone. The government passes a law limiting the amount of pollution that a factory can emit. You would call this physical force, right ? Is that unjust ?

  6. No one owns English or math. It is not private property.
    Agreed.
    …denying someone primary education is force.
    That does not follow. English is not private property but my knowledge of English is. Education is transfer of knowledge. If a person’s knowledge were not private property, why would you pay him for that knowledge? If I spend several years learning programming, my knowledge of programming is certainly my private property. What else am I selling when I take a job as a consultant? When I give that knowledge to my clients, I don’t lose it. That is true. But how is it relevant? If I refuse to give my knowledge to a particular client irrespective of price, am I using force?

    A person running a publicly traded company, even if he owns 99% of the company, has no right to reject someone for his personal reasons. He has to hire the most suitable person always.
    Actually, recruitment is done by a person(s) to whom the owner(s) of the company have delegated the job. And it is always done for “personal” reasons – a personal evaluation of the candidate. Whether caste is part of that evaluation or not is a matter to be decided among the owners and the recruiter(s) according to the company’s laws (which usually grant operational independence to the majority shareholders, subject only to a periodic review by a board of directors). If the company’s laws stipulate that caste should not be a relevant factor and the recruiter is found to have violated the company’s laws, the recruiter is legally responsible to the company. Not to the people he did or did not recruit.

    As to your example of a polluting factory, a law specifying a limit on pollution is physical force. But it is retalliatory physical force and therefore not (necessarily) unjust. It is the company which has polluted common property which has initiated physical force. Only the initiation of physical force is unjust.

    To sum up:
    While one can properly refer to any causal factor as force in a general sense (evolutionary force, market force etc…), politically there is a fundamental difference between physical force and non-physical (usually economic) force. Physical force can only be properly used in retalliation. The proper response to non-physical force must also be non-physical.


  7. “No one owns English or math. It is not private property.”
    Agreed.
    “…denying someone primary education is force.”
    That does not follow. English is not private property but my knowledge of English is. Education is transfer of knowledge.
    If a person’s knowledge were not private property, why would you pay him for that knowledge? ”

    KM, I will argue the same point of RD’s in a different way:

    Consider, a begger who earns Rs.2/- per day living in a country where government doesnt fund education. I shall call him abysmal 7-2521 🙂 . He cannot afford education and hence cannot afford to take up a job that pays him enough [also nobody gives him job as he has no work exp]. Once fine day abysmal 7-2521 meets a young lady called poverty 4-3000 (who is same misery as him). Guess what, they fall in love, get married and have son. Now, what career prospects do you think the son will have? Considering his career prospects his parents name him pathetic 1- 0001. But, he has strong determination to come out of misery. He goes ahead and starts steal things. What made him commit this sin? Lack of free education. This is what RD calls “equal start”. I feel it is responsibility of the government to fund education to all its citizen. So, that every one gets a bare minimum start.

    T.R

  8. There was a typo in my previous comment
    ‘ What made him commit this sin? Lack of free education. This is what RD calls “equal start”. ‘

    It should be
    What made him commit this sin? Lack of free education. This is why RD calls for “equal start”.

  9. I feel it is responsibility of the government to fund education to all its citizen.
    Let me first make all the implications of that statement clear.

    Moral implication:
    A government does not produce any wealth. The only funds it has are the funds it obtains from citizens by taxation (by the threat of physical force). So when you say government has the responsibility to fund education, it means that some individuals have the responsibility to fund education for other individuals. Why?

    Political implication:
    A government is the only entity that can legally exercise physical force. When the government collects tax from me, the only choice I have is to pay up or face deadly force (jail if I do not pay, and death if I resist arrest). When you advocate that government fund education, you are advocating that certain individuals be deprived of their property without their consent and without recourse to legal remedies. What gives any individual or a group of individuals to deprive someone of his property?

    Consider an example. Suppose a gang breaks into the houses of some wealthy individuals and then spends that money as it sees fit (which may or may not include giving it to poor people). In a civilized society, the gang’s activities would be considered criminal and the government would be responsible to punish the gang. If the individuals try to protect themselves their acts would be considered self-defense. You are advocating that the government should play the role of the gang. That if the people whose property is being robbed resist, they should be treated as criminals. By what justification?
    Note that what the gang does with the money is irrelevant. Even if they actually give it to poor people, that does not justify robbery.

    Now take the example to the reality we have today. Such gangs already exist. They are known as political parties. They get into power by promising to share part of the loot with some segment of the population. And when they get into power, they pocket the loot. Why should they do otherwise when they have the legal system supporting them? Is this not the reality today? And the gangs have nothing to fear because people like you who are partly the victims of their robbery not only sanction their robbery but actively advocate for it.

    You might think that the problem with our system is corruption. That the bad gangs are in control. That if only you replace the bad gangs with “good” gangs, the problem would be solved. But there is no such thing as a “good” gang. There is no just way of distributing loot. A system that gives some people unlimited power to exert physical force on others is designed for corruption. The sort of “good” gangs you might have in mind (gangs of selfless social activists) are impotent to win in such a system by its very nature. A system that allows the exercise of physical force will necessarily be ruled by those who are most ruthless in using physical force, not by the most compassionate.

  10. Also take a look at this post and the real life story it links to.

  11. That does not follow. English is not private property but my knowledge of English is. Education is transfer of knowledge. If a person’s knowledge were not private property, why would you pay him for that knowledge? If I spend several years learning programming, my knowledge of programming is certainly my private property. What else am I selling when I take a job as a consultant? When I give that knowledge to my clients, I don’t lose it. That is true. But how is it relevant? If I refuse to give my knowledge to a particular client irrespective of price, am I using force?

    So, the person who will transfer his knowledge of english will get paid for it. In a true free market, as long as there is demand there has to be supply for a commodity that is not private or in limited supply. If the govt. has to use force to stop this force, it should. You seem to be very disconnected from reality. Private education is not banned in this country. Do you not see that most of the economically backward people belong to same castes and are uneducated. If every individual is truly free, this should not be the case. Basic education is common property and should not be denied to anyone. There is a cost associated with it and so is a common cost.

    ” Whether caste is part of that evaluation or not is a matter to be decided among the owners and the recruiter(s) according to the company’s laws (which usually grant operational independence to the majority shareholders, subject only to a periodic review by a board of directors). ”

    That is true only for privately held companies. The majority shareholders have no right to act according to their own whims. It is the responsibility of the CEO to ensure maximum shareholder value, not simply comply to irrational, prejudiced demands of majority shareholders. The boards job is to make important strategic decisions and ensure CEO performs his job.

    ” While one can properly refer to any causal factor as force in a general sense (evolutionary force, market force etc…), politically there is a fundamental difference between physical force and non-physical (usually economic) force. Physical force can only be properly used in retaliation. The proper response to non-physical force must also be non-physical. ”

    I fail to understand your obsession with physical force. Assume A gives a gun to B and pays him to kill C. According to you only B exerted physical force and so only he should be punished. So, A is free to go ahead and pay D to kill an E. A never exerted any physical force and so will never be punished.

  12. Sorry to interrupt this one. Just clarifying something-
    # Private education is not banned in this country.
    It is – you cannot start a school or college or any educational institution if your intention is to make a profit. That is banned. The only way you can start any educational institution is in the form of a “charitable trust” – if you promise you “won’t” make a profit. And if you are not disconnected from reality, you will know the amount of corruption that goes on in the name of education all because of the various permissions that you have to take from government agencies. If you don’t believe me, try starting an institution (I have personal knowledge – second hand though it may be – of one such “enterprise.”)

    I wrote about the whole fraud that is the government here. Some of the poorest people in some of the poorest areas “prefer” “private” “English” education (the trusts “are” private in a crooked sort of way – thanks to the government) over any government one. They want their children to grow up and get good jobs. They know, and they are willing to pay. Its the “humanitarian” “busybodies” who don’t understand the market (and who never will) who create the mess in the first place.

  13. Read this report on education in India if you want evidence for what Aristotle The Geek wrote.

  14. R.D.,
    I fail to understand your obsession with physical force.
    That is what the debate is about. I am claiming that freedom is incompatible with physical force. Your position is that freedom requires physical force. There is a host of related issues such as justice, responsibility, legality, desirability of freedom etc, but since we can’t address them all at once let us keep this debate to just these two things:
    1) Arriving at a proper understanding of the concept of freedom
    2) Deciding whether physical force is compatible with it.

    Let me start off by explaining what I understand freedom to be. You can then either criticize that or put down your own understanding.

    The concept of freedom is related to my ability to translate my thoughts into actions. It presumes two things.
    First that I have free will. That my mind has the capacity of thinking on its own and that no one else has the capacity of thinking for me. That thought is necessarily self driven. That while others can argue with me, initiate physical force on me, even prevent me from thinking (by bashing my head in), others cannot cause me to think or determine my thoughts.
    Second, that a number of factors (human and non-human) can prevent me from acting on my thoughts.
    Metaphysically, I am free if nothing prevents me from thinking or from translating my thoughts into actions.
    However, we are concerned with the political concept of freedom, metaphysical constraints on my freedom are not relevant. That I cannot instantly transport my body from here to some other place does not mean that I am politically un-free. Anything that is outside any individual’s control is a metaphysical constraint and is therefore irrelevant. Only human actions are relevant.
    Physical force is the most obvious way by which one man’s actions can prevent another man from acting. So any action by any individual that physically prevents me from acting is incompatible with my freedom.
    Obviously there are other (non-physical) ways in which other men’s actions can prevent me from acting. The debate is whether these non-physical ways should be considered as violating my (political) freedom.
    If you agree to this much, we can move forward.

  15. If you agree to this much, we can move forward.

    I agree :).

  16. I was waiting for R.D. to respond, but since he hasn’t I will continue.

    Let me start with a simple example. Consider two men A and B living in a forest with a stream flowing in it. A wants to build a bridge over that stream, but he is not strong enough to do it by himself. So he asks B to help him. B refuses.

    B’s action (his refusal) has prevented the bridge from being built. Has this violated A’s freedom? If so, what should he do?

    Suppose A threatens to break B’s bones if B refuses to help him. B now agrees to help and the bridge is built. Now A has been able to translate his thoughts (his desire for a bridge) into action. But B has lost his freedom. He has been prevented from acting on his thoughts.

    If you restrict the concept of political freedom to freedom from physical force, B did not violate A’s political freedom by his refusal. A violated B’s political freedom by threatening him with physical force. If A had not threatened B, both would have been free. This concept of political freedom requires that A desist from initiating physical force. B’s freedom does not require A to to do anything and vice-versa. It merely prevents them from doing certain things. That is why it is called negative liberty. It does not impose any positive action on anyone, merely negative actions.

    If, on the contrary, you hold that A’s political freedom was violated by B’s refusal, then you have a situation where only one of A and B can be free, not both. So political freedom cannot be achieved for everybody. To get around this you will now have to hold that B had a responsibility to help A and therefore forcing B to help did not violate B’s freedom. This concept of political freedom imposes certain responsibilities on people. In this case A’s freedom requires a positive action from B. That is why it is called positive liberty. Where did this responsibilities come from? To arrive at them, you will have to decide whether building the bridge is desirable in some absolute sense, independent of A’s or B’s thoughts. Or you will have to decide that A’s wishes are somehow more important than B’s wishes.

    That is the crucial distinction between the two concepts. Negative liberty does not require any particular action from anybody. It does not require them to accept any particular goal as desirable against their wishes. It treats every man as an end in himself. Positive liberty requires men to accept certain goal as desirable irrespective of their wishes. It treats men as means to some end. In practice since the end has to come from somewhere, it treats some men as the means to the ends of others.

    If you agree to this, I will argue in my next comment that the positive concept of liberty is ultimately destructive to any end that anyone can come up with.

  17. Okay. Now I understand the difference between positive liberty and negative liberty. I have a question on negative liberty.

    1) Suppose building the bridge is important to A and he cannot continue living without building the bridge. Then he will be ‘forced by his need to apply physical force on B. Now, if we say negative liberty does not require any particular action from anybody and It treats every man as an end in himself. So it is the best way of political freedom one can have. We will be wrong as A is ‘forced by need ‘ to apply force on B. From where does this force come? From the very aspect of A being human who in our example needs a bridge ‘for his survival‘.

    “This concept of political freedom requires that A desist from initiating physical force …”
    My question what if A is bound to apply physical force without his fundamental need(building bridge) not being met?

    T.R.

  18. T.R.
    The answer to that question involves what I was going to write next. So I will just use your question with several variations as a concrete example. And then arrive at an answer to all the variations.

    Does A need the bridge for his immediate survival or merely for improving his life? Consider the latter case first.

    A’s life is not in immediate danger because of the lack of the bridge but there is something on the other side of the stream that he would like to have (some medicinal plant maybe) and which would prolong or improve his life. Does A need the bridge now? Is his need more important than B’s need to relax? to sleep? to read a book? to exercise? to hunt for food? to find a mate? to study farming? to build a house? to do anything that he can do if he does not build the bridge? Who is to judge? A? some committee? some C?

    Now consider that A’s life is in immediate danger. How immediate is immediate? One day? One week? One year? At what point should the answers to the first variation be reconsidered? Who decides?

    What would happen if B didn’t exist? What would happen if A’s and B’s capabilities put together were insufficient to build the bridge? What would happen if B needed to do some other work urgently to save his own life?

    The concept of negative liberty implies that all such questions can only be answered by the actors themselves. The person who is to perform an act is the only person capable of judging whether it is worth performing.

    The concept of positive liberty implies that all such questions (and we only have two people in our example, think of how many questions you would have with some 6 billion people) can and should be answered and codified into legal principles. But it is not just the number of questions that is problematic. Suppose one can come up with an extremely fine-grained theory of human values. Would that solve the problem? No. Even if you could say that at a certain moment, for all P and Q (some values), P is more valuable than Q to A, how would you determine whether P is more valuable to A than P is to B? Are the lives of different individuals comparable? Most people get around this question by saying that all humans are equally important (the premise of egalitarianism). Equally important to whom? The only possible answer can be some entity higher than man, whose wishes man has a responsibility to obey. I do not believe in the existence of any such entity.

    Consider how the concept of positive liberty works out when put into practice. Consider a society whose political structure is along the lines of the concept of positive liberty, a typical modern society where the state has a large role in defining and enforcing the answers to the sort of questions I raised in the two people example. Needless to say there is an enormous number of questions that the state must answer. Also needless to say, there is no grand fine grained theory of human values that anyone has ever formulated in any detail, let alone one with which everyone agrees. So the state is only able to enforce the law in a miniscule number of cases. Now consider two people in this society. C is a “moral” (agreeing with positive liberty), law-abiding person who tries to follow every law as it is intended to be implemented. D is an unscrupulous person who realizes that the system has plenty of loopholes and doesn’t hesitate to use them. Everytime C obeys a law that seeks to make some unfortunate person “free”, he has to lose some of his wealth or time. D doesn’t bother obeying the laws. He ensures that he is the one implementing them (directly or indirectly). And since the law can only be enforced in a miniscule number of cases, he makes sure that it is never enforced against him. Recognize this society? Its basic framework is such that those who wish to game it have an incomparable advantage of those who wish to obey it.

    Finally, to answer your question, if A cannot survive without the bridge and cannot obtain the help of B, A will die. He might try to initiate physical force on B, but then he becomes a criminal. And B has every right to defend himself against physical force, regardless of any needs of the person initiating the force. Every time some poor couple somewhere gives birth to a child, whom they cannot afford to raise, the responsibilities on my head do not go up. My enjoyment of my life is not conditional on the misfortunes or irresponsible actions of others.

    I would like to write more about some of these issues in more detail, but this comment has already got too long.

  19. And since the law can only be enforced in a miniscule number of cases, he makes sure that it is never enforced against him. Recognize this society?
    yes. A Socialist state [like India]. Most of your argument is correct.

    My enjoyment of my life is not conditional on the misfortunes or irresponsible actions of others.
    True. If my neighbor loses all his money in shares and needs money for survival I am not obliged to pay him.

    I need sometime to think over this issue. I have some questions though. Let us consider that a state runs on the concept of negative liberty. So state will only ensure that proper law and order are maintained and everything else is free market.

    1) Why should the deprive even recognize themselves as a part of this state? Because, they are ‘always’ bound to be terminated. Now, If they don’t consider themselves part of state, Won’t they fight for separate state or separate land. For them it might be a freedom fight. (they want freedom from a irresponsible society).

    2) There is another problem. What if the educated people take advantage of the poor and uneducated. Like what generally happens in a country like India when an uneducated farmer takes a loan. He makes a mistake of giving his thumb print on a blank paper and becomes bonded labor for his lifetime. What action can state take in such as situation? As state cannot educate them, should it remain as audience? Is this not the case of finding loop-hole in the system? (system cannot interfere if you show a bond paper).

  20. Sorry for the late reply. I agree with your earlier post.

    @T.R. :
    Now, If they don’t consider themselves part of state, Won’t they fight for separate state or separate land. For them it might be a freedom fight. (they want freedom from a irresponsible society).

    Their separate state will have the same problems. The ones who are capable of creating value will refuse to give away their hard earned money to people who add no value.

    He makes a mistake of giving his thumb print on a blank paper and becomes bonded labor for his lifetime. What action can state take in such as situation?

    As long as someone gives up his freedom by choice, the state will not interfere. If he is forced to be a bonded labour, the state will stop this physical force by physical force.

    @K.M.

    Agree with your views on your 2 person example. But, going back to what I asked in my last post:

    “Assume A gives a gun to B and pays him to kill C. According to you only B exerted physical force and so only he should be punished. So, A is free to go ahead and pay D to kill an E. A never exerted any physical force and so will never be punished.”

    Is A a criminal according to you ? He never used physical force.

    Will reply to ATG’s comment soon 🙂

  21. T.R,
    Actually the truly poor have the best opportunity to rise in a freer market than in a state regulated one. You can just look at the what poverty means in relatively free countries and compare that to what it means in shackled countries. To understand why this is so, consider that in a modern division of labor society, no one produces everything that is required for one’s life. We do just some very specialized work and depend on trade to obtain the rest of the values we need. People are paid in proportion with their productivity. In a sophisticated economy (which cannot exist without freedom), the productivity of raw physical labor is much greater than in an unsophisticated economy. And thus raw physical labor gets paid much more in sophisticated economies. Just compare the labor rates in the U.S to the labor rates in India or China.

    I will take just a couple more examples of how laws enacted to help the poor end up hurting them the most.
    Minimum wage laws: They exist supposedly to improve the living conditions of the poor. But the people who are most affected by these laws are the ones who were getting wages lower than the minimum wage. With the laws in place, their employers simply cannot afford to hire them and unemployment rises.
    Rent control laws: They exist supposedly to prevent rents from rising too high. But when they are enforced, what happens is that people who already live in rented houses (not the very poor) get a subsidy and are thus able to occupy houses they would not otherwise be able to afford, reducing the supply. This raises the rents in all new constructions to abnormally high levels. The people worst affected are the poor migrants, newly entering a place. They cannot afford any housing at all. Mumbai is a very good example of this.
    For more examples, you can read the book “Economics in One Lesson” by Henry Hazlitt. (available online here)

    The bonded labor that you are talking about is not a loophole in the law. In fact the Indian constitution does not allow bonded labor. It existed (I dont know if it still does) by a lot of coercion and physical force. No legal contract can require a person to work for someone for life without exit conditions. That would be slavery.
    But perhaps what you mean is the loans that farmers are “forced” to take at extremely high interest rates, which leaves them debtors for life. Even here, the problem is caused by the state which does not allow private banks to make loans at market rates. Because of this, there is a whole parallel black market of moneylenders who operate entirely outside the legal system. In a proper free market, a debtor who is unable to repay a loan can declare bankruptcy under limited liability as decided by the law. But when a farmer is “forced” (note that it is the state which is using force on private banks) to take a loan outside the legal system, no bankruptcy proceedings can save him and he is left to the mercy of the goons of the monylenders.

    This sort of thing plays out in every area where the government violates peoples’s freedom.
    Consider drugs. If drugs were legalized, their prices would immediately drop to low levels at which no smugglers and no mafia would find it profitable to sell them. And few producers would find it profitable to produce them without the high prices the black market pays them.
    Consider excise duties. Abolish them and no smuggler has any incentive to engage in illegal activities.

    But if someone enters a legal contract that is not profitable for him, what is the state or anyone else going to do? His mistake and he will pay for it. Why should people be protected from the consequences of their actions?

  22. R.D,
    I did not answer that question before because I wanted some background in place first. Now that it is there, I will consider it. Your question was:
    Assume A gives a gun to B and pays him to kill C. A has not initiated any physical force. Should he go unpunished?
    Consider a few similar questions first. In all the cases below, assume that A wishes to see C dead and also knows that B is a crook.
    1) A gives a gun to B as a gift and tells him that C deserves to die (but does not pay him). B kills C. Should A be punished?
    2) A gives a gun to B as a gift and tells him that C has a will that leaves all his wealth to B but C is about to change it. B kills C. Should A be punished?
    3) A makes a public speech saying C is a very evil man who always wishes ill of others. B listens to the speech, gets a gun and kills C. Should A be punished?

    What I am trying to illustrate is that there is (and should be) a difference between moral responsibility and legal responsibility. Moral responsibility is based on choice, causality and knowledge of the actor. Legal responsibility is based on contracts and rights (essentially the right to be free from physical force). To give an example, suppose that while driving, I accidentally damage your car. Since it was an accident and I did not choose to damage your car, I am not morally responsible for the damage. But since I initiated physical force against you (your property), I am legally responsible for paying appropriate damages. Your question and the variations I considered are examples of the opposite kind. A is morally responsible but not legally responsible.

    Your question seems to imply that the government exists to prevent (or minimize) harm to people. Although the operation of a proper government would in general do that, harm to people is not the proper criterion for deciding what actions a government may take. Government exists to protect people’s rights. (I should expand on this harm vs rights thing sometime…)

    There would be practical difficulties too. Suppose you wanted to punish A for paying B to kill C. How would you establish that the payment was made for the purpose of the murder and not for something else? After all A will not sign a contract with B for the murder. Practical difficulties do not prove anything. But they usually indicate that there is a problem in somewhere the underlying theory. Finding evidence that B killed C would be much easier. Physical force usually creates evidence.

    Also, there might have been the implication (though you didn’t make it) that in a free society, people will go around hiring murderers. Note that hired murderers exist because organized crime (the mafia) exists. One of the biggest reasons organized crime pays is that there are too many artificial incentives for it in an unfree society.

    With that, the question becomes a lot less interesting. Perhaps a more interesting question would be:
    A tells B that he will kill B’s wife unless B kills C. B kills C. Should B be punished?

  23. What if A is the host of the most popular reality show, where every week he invites a bunch of guests, then picks up the telephone directory and says something like 5th person on page 500. And promises to give a million to the person who kills him. There is clear evidence, the videotape of the show and the millions watching the show. Neither A nor the person who kills him have ever known the victim. A pays the killer because he makes a profit out of hosting the show. Negative liberty says A should go free and be free to host the next episode of the show and do the same again. Is that right ?

    Just because a society is free, assuming that there won’t be murderers is stupid. There will always be people whose desires are greater than their abilities and would like to resort to unlawful means to achieve their goals.

  24. R.D,
    A counter question first. The Quran explicitly calls for killing of infidels. And promises rewards. So did the old testament. Should these be banned?

    Is that right ?
    Yes, that is right. But why is it interesting?
    Are you asking it as a rhetorical question? In the sense that if the concept of positive liberty leads to the answer “Yes”, then the concept of positive liberty must be flawed. Such a position implies that you believe that political power is the only answer to any problem. Any society can (and will) make it virtually impossible for A to live in it, even without resorting to force. He would have to disappear in some forest where no one could find him.

    I never said that there would be no murderers in a free society. Merely that organized crime does not pay in free societies. It pays only in places where legal institutions have broken down or never existed. Unorganized crime is a part of human nature. The possibility of making wrong choices is implicit in the possibility of making choices at all.
    “assuming that there won’t be murderers is stupid.”
    You really need to give me more credit than that. If I were really that stupid, why are you wasting time arguing with me?

  25. The point of my last post is that what you have been saying amounts to ‘Positive liberty is bad, so by default negative liberty is good’. You are saying that the options are mutually exclusive and exhaustive. So, if one is wrong the other has to be right.

    ‘Yes, that is right. But why is it interesting?’
    It is interesting because I believe negative liberty is wrong in this case. Also, your argument that he will disappear is very subjective.

  26. That helps to understand your position. It is true that I have not made much of a positive defense of negative liberty. Before I go on to do that, let me be sure that I understand your position fully.

    You agree that positive liberty and negative liberty are mutually exclusive and that positive liberty is bad. You do not agree that they are exhaustive. You believe that there are cases in which negative liberty is also bad. Is that right?

    Regarding my argument about society making A’s life virtually impossible:
    A society that cooperates with someone who is obviously morally responsible for murder with no extenuating circumstances is doomed anyway. No laws (no matter what concept they are based on – positive, negative or something else) can save it.

  27. KM, I agree with RD. I do think there are equal number of flaws in negative liberty. Suppose In a society running on this concept.

    1)How would the society deal with the downsides of monopoly?
    Consider drugs. If drugs were legalized, their prices would immediately drop to low …

    2)Well what if people turn into drug addicts. Probably, it was there choice and we cannot do anything about it. right?
    Do you know why there are more gun shot deaths in America than India? (This is not my question). This was the question asked by Micheal Moore In bowling for columbine (Documentary). See this video.(2 min.)

    3)
    Consider excise duties. Abolish them .. True there wont be any smuggling. But, What will be the effect on Indian Industries? Chinese and Americans have ability to make goods for much cheaper price than Indian companies. What will be the raise in unemployment level?

    I still haven’t read the link you provided. Your points in the last post which were convincing to me are.

    1) Actually the truly poor have the best opportunity to rise in a freer market …
    2) Minimum wage laws: ..
    3) loans to poor.

    T.R.

  28. T.R,
    I will follow up with a theoretical defense of negative liberty. Meanwhile:
    1) Monopolies: The only way a true monopoly can exist is with government intervention.
    Examples:
    WalMart routinely gets subsidies and tax breaks for opening new stores. The public highways are in effect another subsidy since they reduce Wal Mart’s transport costs and give them an advantage over local dealers.
    Cable operators, utility companies (like power) get franchises from government that prevent new entrants from setting up business
    Regulatory authorities are formed with eminent people from an industry. Needless to say these eminent people are from already established companies and have an interest in preventing newcomers.
    Increases in taxation (which have steadily been occurring in developed countries for more than a century) work to the benefit of established companies since they had a smaller burden when they started out.
    All government regulation (as opposed to laws) and bureaucracy always works to stifle innovation and increase the barrier to entry in any industry.
    Companies that rise to dominance without government support do so by providing exceptional products. Look at the relatively less regulated software industry for example (Microsoft, Google etc). And these companies do not have real monopolies. There are and always have been alternatives which are useful to narrow areas outside the mainstream. I know there is a lot of propaganda against Microsoft, but Microsoft’s existence has established de-facto standards in desktop computing by producing an incomparable development platform. These standards are hugely beneficial. Just ask any web developer what difference standards make. There are no de-facto standards in the web-world because there is no dominant company.
    Also watch this video for an analysis of the Standard Oil company by Rockefeller. (it is a long one, starts at around 3 min)

    2) Drug addiction:
    This is mind boggling. You claim that a significant number of people will become drug addicts simply because drugs are not banned. That may or may not be true depending on culture. For the sake of argument let us assume it is true. If it is true, then the culture encourages mindless destructive activities for the sake of short term perceived pleasure. How then do you expect such a culture to democratically elect people who are not mindless? Why are you willing to have a state that will restrict your actions, especially when you know that the state’s policies are at the mercy of these same mindless people (through their votes)?
    This point is not restricted to drug addiction. You claim that people are not wise enough to act for their own interests and need to be regulated. By whom? By democratically elected representatives? How does collective foolishness translates into wisdom? And what justification can there be in subjecting the actually wise people to the whims of this collective foolishness?

    3) The protctionism argument is really very bad economics as India has found out. The Indian economy has become incomparably better than when it was protected by sky high tarriffs. The reason is very simple. The cheaper prices of goods manufactured abroad mean that domestic consumers get quality goods at a cheaper price increasing their efficiency which they then use in their role of producers to produce something else better than they used to. After all every consumer is a producer. (Otherwise he wouldn’t have the money to consume, unless of course the government subsidizes him at the expense of genuine producers) This is an elementary result: trade benefits both parties. You should really read the Hazlitt book. It explains a lot of such economic fallacies in a very simple way.

  29. I want to discuss on drug addiction.

    U r claim is that the state should impose no ban on drugs. My claim no it should be banned. Let me start by defining addiction. Addiction means being abnormally tolerant to and dependent on something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming (especially alcohol or narcotic drugs). How does one get habituated to this? Peer pressure, curiosity, belief that trying them is cool (rock stars are big time drug addicts) and finally indirect ways (somebody added it in the food item without ur knowledge). Lets consider the last case i.e., somebody adds drugs without general public’s knowledge. Why does he do this? Ofcourse, to promote the sales of the food items initially and later increase the demand for drugs. He can add small quantities in the food items and start selling. You might say this is illegal and he can be punished in the court of law.True. But, how many food items will the food scrutiny department (if there exists one ) can keep regular track/check of? Also, you can say its the responsibility of the guy to check what he is eating? I eat out daily and its impossible to know what is added. If I take daal – roti how to check.? Once a man is habituated by direct or indirect means. He can hardly resist himself from consuming the drugs. Thats the reason why it is called addiction. Addiction has impact on brain, Man’s only source of reasoning his choices. He ceases to exist as a free Man the moment he loses his ability to reason. If there is “no physical” force how can we avoid this catastrophe from happening? I like your concept of free society as it gives maximum freedom to a Man . But I don’t think it will work in this case. I would be delight if you can prove my line of thought wrong in case of drugs.

    T.R.

  30. T.R.,
    That is certainly an interesting (and amusing) line of argument. One of the reasons it is amusing is that I have never heard of any such thing anywhere. People get into drugs by the direct reasons you mentioned. Of course, that in itself does not mean that it is not worthy of consideration. But just think why it has not happened. First, to do something like this on a significant scale, a large number of people need to be involved, cooks, shopkeepers, factory workers, superintendents etc. Why would so many people engage in crime (adulterating with food is definitely a crime)? The implict premise is that only a very few people are criminals. Note that this premise is not necessary just for the success of negative liberty. It is even more necessary for any non-liberal theory to work. This is because non-liberal theories actually create incentives for people to profit by crime. The success of non-liberal theories is dependent on people following certain moral rules even when they conflict with reality. This is why I wrote that the argument for banning drugs is mind boggling when it is made by advocates of statism.

    Second, banning drugs does not do anything that banning adulteration does not. If people are not deterred by a law against adulteration, why should they be deterred by a law against drugs? If it is difficult for the police to detect or prevent cases of adulteration, why is it easier to detect or prevent trafficking of drugs?

    Finally (and most importantly), any statist idea when put into practice gives some men the power to make decisions for other men – a power that these others may not be willing to grant. This necessarily inverts the normal incentives that guide people. When people are free, their success depends on how well they are able to deal with reality (including such things as bad luck, the irrationality of others). The moral and the practical are in harmony. When people are not free, there is a conflict between the moral and the practical. If the only way I can do business is to get a license from some bureaucrat, it is practical to give a bribe. Is it moral? (I am not asking this rhetorically) Regardless of the answer, I think you will agree that giving the bribe is not in any collective interest (no matter how it is defined). This conflict between the moral and the practical necessarily results in a corruption of morality, since morality divorced from real life is useless. I will make this argument in more detail later but the point I am trying to make is that (negative) liberty is a precondition for the exercise of morality. I wrote a post sometime back on social planning which can serve as background to this point.

  31. That helps to understand your position. It is true that I have not made much of a positive defense of negative liberty. Before I go on to do that, let me be sure that I understand your position fully.

    You agree that positive liberty and negative liberty are mutually exclusive and that positive liberty is bad. You do not agree that they are exhaustive. You believe that there are cases in which negative liberty is also bad. Is that right?

    Agreed.
    I wont say negative liberty is bad. I just say it is not exhaustive.

  32. R.D,
    I have been thinking of writing out an arguement for why protection of (negative) liberty should be the fundamental principle of politics. To do that, I will have to assume an ethics of egoism. Since I don’t want to assume an ethics, I will make the arguement only after I have concluded my series of posts on Heumer’s criticism of Ayn Rand’s essay “The Objectivist Ethics”.

  33. I am writing a Politics exam tomorrow on Positive and Negative Liberty and this debate has certainly been helpful!
    @K.M. good luck with your efforts in writing for the protection of negative liberty – I look forward to reading your thoughts

  34. Good day! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to
    folllow you if that would be okay. I’m absolutely enjoying
    your blogg and look forward to nnew posts.

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