On “Positive” and “Negative” Freedom

Recently on Facebook, left-libertarian activist Brianna Coyle posted:

Radical idea: The amount of freedom someone has in their life shouldn’t be dependent on how much money they have, or whether or not they own property.

“Freedom of association” in the context of property rights is a privilege afforded only to those who own property. Freedom should never be based on “property rights” instead of natural rights. We should aspire to build a world where anyone can live the lifestyle of their choosing, and a world where people’s basic needs can be met without financial or mental health struggles being an inherent aspect of that.

In response, a number of people in the comments brought up some variation on the distinction between “negative freedom” and “positive freedom.” A positive freedom — the bad, commie kind — is an entitlement to something that’s provided by other people. But a negative freedom — the good, right-libertarian kind — is supposedly just the right to do what you want with what you own, without interference. As we’ll see below, that handwavy “what you own” and “without interference” are doing one hell of a lot of work.

One commenter managed to hit all the talking points. What Brianna calls freedom, he says, 

is literally the exact opposite of the definition of freedom. The foundational principle of freedom is that you own yourself. From that is derived the idea of owning the product of your labors (owning property or anything derived from that property by your labor). It’s also the premise of freedom of association. If I don’t want to be around something or someone, I have the right to keep that influence off my property, and it’s the ONLY place I have the right to make that demand on a permanent basis. Without those, you have compelled labor and compelled association.

I am 100% for people choosing to live a communal lifestyle and being allowed to do so. I am also 100% for people not being forced to do so, and to live in a capitalist economy if they choose. The two can live cooperatively, but neither can be compelled.

The difference — You can choose your lifestyle in a capitalist world. Raise the funds, buy your commune, and live communally, potentially never having to buy another thing. . . .ever. In a communist world, I can’t do the same. I can’t choose to isolate and choose my associations. This is why communism is inherently anti-liberty, and capitalism is inherently pro-liberty.

The distinction between “negative” and “positive” freedom is circular. Let’s get back to those key phrases — “what you own” and “without interference” — in the definition of negative freedom. In much the same way as distinguishing “aggression” or “coercion” from “self-defense,” whether a given freedom is positive or negative — what constitutes ownership and interference — depends on the prior definition of property rights. What you’re entitled to as a negative freedom without interference from anybody else can only be defined in reference to what’s considered your property under the given ruleset. 

Now, even under the best of circumstances, with no violence or coercion involved, there’s an enormous amount of convention and arbitrariness involved in a society’s choice of a particular set of property rules from the many alternative rulesets available. No particular set of rules can be logically or self-evidently deduced from the axiom of self-ownership. Even Robert Nozick, in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, noted that there’s no obvious reason to believe that mixing one’s labor with a parcel of land separates it from the common, rather than (as when one dumps a can of tomato juice into the ocean) constituting abandonment of the mixed-in labor. See also Shawn Wilbur’s excellent essay “The Gift Economy of Property” (in Markets Not Capitalism p. 175), which argues that any set of property rules in a peaceful and voluntary society reflects a majority consensus on the provisional and tentative relinquishment of individual possessory rights from the commons.

Worse yet, contrary to right-libertarian polemics, there was precious little of the “peaceful” or “voluntary” actually involved in the history of either our property rules or our current distribution of individual property holdings. The way our property rules are defined, and our property holdings are distributed, are both the result of power — some of it quite naked. The central function of capitalist, right-libertarian, and neoliberal ideology is to obscure power relations behind the myth of voluntary exchange and freedom of contract.

While right-libertarians frame “property” as a negative freedom, the modern capitalist model of “private property” was largely an imposition by the state in alliance with the landed classes, and involved robbing the vast majority of their access rights to the land. If access rights to land is commons-based, as it originally was, then the right not to be obstructed from livelihood on the common lands is a negative right. So, a lot of framing of subsistence rights as “positive freedom” today involves taking for granted a distribution of property, and level of social atomization, that were actually created by violent social engineering. The right-libertarian paradigm takes as natural a social order of atomized individuals and nuclear family households, in which all economic functions are organized either by money exchange or contract.

But let’s look at the converse. Imagine a society in which everyone is born with a socially guaranteed right not to be obstructed from their individual right of access to living space and subsistence production on the commons. Imagine, rather than the society of nuclear family households created by the atomizing effects of the modern state and capitalism, most people are born into micro-villages or other co-living units, with a birthright including adequate food and clothing, medical care, etc., in return for performing some minimum of contribution to the extended household’s needs (e.g. doing one’s 15 hours in the co-living project’s gardens and workshops) when capable of doing so. In that case, what right-libertarians dismiss as “positive freedom” would be every bit as much an actual “negative freedom” as the right of a corporate shareholder to receive dividends or participate in corporate governance without interference.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory