On Liberalism, Equality and Positive Freedom
Listening to this week’s EconTalk interview with Alan Wolfe, author of the recently released The Future of Liberalism, I was struck by the following quote from the book, “Modern liberalism promises equality through what [Isaiah] Berlin calls a positive conception of liberty. It is not sufficient for me merely to be left alone [which is negative liberty]. I must also have the capacity to realize the goals that I choose for myself. If this requires an active role for government, then modern liberals are prepared to accept state intervention into the economy in order to give large numbers of people the sense of mastery that free market capitalism gives only to the few.”
In discussion with host Russell Roberts, himself quite libertarian, Wolfe says that liberals do and should concede that at times empirical evidence will show that such government intervention actually reduces personal autonomy, in which case he advocates changing one’s position. He cites school choice and welfare reform as to examples of traditionally conservative positions he has adopted because he considers that these were both cases of alleviating dependence created by government programs.
But the examples that Wolfe provided of intervention to assure positive freedom struck me as interesting, and provided me with some insight into how thoughtful liberals view the world.
For instance, he argues that the government should assure a certain minimal standard of living for all citizens, on the theory that there is not advantage to having legal rights (freedom from oppression: negative liberty) if one is so poor that one cannot actually exercise much positive freedom (roughly put: doing what you want to do). Or on campaign finance reform, he argues that one’s freedom of expression is not much of a right if one’s own free speech is drowned out by vast quantities of campaigning paid for by the rich. Thus, he supports limited the amount that people are able to contribute to political causes in order to level the playing field.
As a conservative, this strikes me as overly rosy thinking. Not only are playing fields not so easily levelled as it sounds he imagines, but I’m suspicious of what exactly the leveling buys for the elites in society. I’m not sure that government actually can do very much to assure positive freedom, and even to the extent that it can, I’m not sure that it should. If assuring positive freedom means providing things which might better be earned at no cost, it may well devalue in our eyes precisely those things that it seeks to protect.
It’s often pointed out that the US has fairly high inequality for a developed nation. The GINI index (on the 0 to 1 scale with 0 being total equality and 1 being total inequality) for the US is .41 while heavily socially democratic Sweden is .25. Yet as Blackadder pointed out in a recent post, although Sweden is often considered a paradise of equality and social democracy, nearly a third of its GDP is controlled by one insanely wealthy family. By comparison, Bill Gates controls, even if one imagines him to “control” all of Microsoft’s gross revenues, 0.4% of the US GDP. (US GDP is 13,840 Billion, MSFT 2008 gross revenues were 60.5 Billion.)
With all of the urgency coming from elites to make the US more like countries like Sweden as a response to the current recession, I can’t help wondering if part of the appeal of social democracy to elites is that it keeps everyone else complacent enough for them to go off and do their wealth and power thing without anyone noticing.
As many urge us to pursue the path of social democracy, we must ask ourselves if we are accept greater stratification in return for less inequality. My own fear, hearing thinking such as Wolfe’s, is that the effect of having the government be too eager to provide us with things in order to assure our positive freedom will be our increasing lack of interest in things other than our own personal consumption and pleasures.