Why Everyone Values Freedom
Photo by Grant Ritchie on Unsplash

Why Everyone Values Freedom

Ben Burgis and Matt McManus
Ben Burgis and Matt McManus
9 min read

On March 28, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders uploaded a video to YouTube entitled “Medicare for All Is about Freedom.” This may strike some viewers as an abuse of language. In a market system, a consumer can freely choose whether or not to pay Aetna or Blue Cross Blue Shield or no one for health insurance. In a single-payer system of Medicare for All, everyone with taxable income pays Medicare for health insurance—theirs and everyone else’s—whether or not any individual tax-payer wants to be part of that “All.” Such a system may serve many social goods. It may even save most individual taxpayers money. (If X is your current tax burden, Y is the current cost of your private health insurance plan, and Z is the cost of your tax burden after the implementation of Medicare for All, the question that matters for your bottom line is whether Z comes to a figure more or less than the combined cost of X and Y.) It may, however, be difficult for conservatives to understand the contention of many progressive thinkers—from Karl Marx to Amartya Sen—that the provision of these social goods enhances not just the welfare and equality of many individuals but their real freedom.

Conservative thinkers have argued that the provision of these benefits must surely come at a price of reduced personal freedom. Consider the following thought experiment. An oddly conscientious thief steals my car and leaves more money stacked in my driveway than I would have likely received had I put the car on sale. This, however, doesn’t detract from the objectionable involuntariness of the theft. More systematically, in his classic Anarchy, State and Utopia, the philosopher Robert Nozick adapted the thinking of classical liberals such as Locke and Kant to make the argument that only a libertarian “minimal state” can be justified. A state which appropriates private property to pay for social services, outside of developing the institutions of a minimal state providing security and the rule of law, is involved in a form of unjustifiable coercion. Effectively, state officials have decided that an individual’s liberty to use their property as they see fit can be superseded by the social goods which emerged from redistributive efforts. According to Nozick (at least at the time, given he shifted his political orientation), this is comparable to a form of benign slavery.

Our contention is that neither side of this debate is playing fast and loose with language. Instead, the two sides are separated by a sincere difference of opinion about how best to conceptualize freedom. This dispute about “freedom” isn’t new in American politics. In his book Before the Storm, the historian of conservativism Rick Perlstein points out that civil rights protestors and supporters of Republican Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater both chanted about freedom. They did so despite taking opposite positions on such crucial issues as the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 compelling private businesses to desegregate against the will of their owners. Even more dramatically, an anti-communist thumbing through the Collected Works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels for the first time might be startled to find that while Marx and Engels hardly ever talk about “justice” or “equality,” they do talk quite a bit about “freedom.”

So what’s the right way to understand freedom? We both have strong views on the semantic issue and its moral and political implications, but we won’t try to settle any of those arguments here. Instead, we hope to illuminate the difference between negative or formal freedom and positive or substantive freedom so that readers can better understand what the dispute is about in the first place.

The Conservative Approach to Freedom

The conception of formal freedom holds that freedom is best analyzed and understood in terms of property. This tradition has its roots in the philosophy of John Locke and comes to fruition in the work of twentieth century libertarian thinkers like Robert Nozick and Murray Rothbard. We have a right to do what we want with our own bodies and labor because we own ourselves. As Locke articulated in the Second Treatise on Government, when we mix our labor with the world around us, we acquire “external” property. Our rights to this property then need to be protected by a government, the primary duty of which is to ensure we can enjoy the fruits of our labor without coercion by others. In the best iterations of this approach, slavery, forced labor, and the forcible confiscation of the fruits of one’s labor are all considered violations of the laborer’s property rights. Indeed, some libertarian thinkers have gone so far as to suggest that all three violations are morally on a par.

Mainstream conservatives don’t go that far. They typically believe that freedom has to be balanced against other important values like tradition, stability, and social cohesion. This is frequently characterized as an “ordered liberty” approach to distributive justice and society, and receives its classic exposition in the work of Edmund Burke. Even so, a libertarian-like understanding of freedom is an important part of contemporary Anglo-American conservativism. Here’s Ronald Reagan in an interview with Reason magazine five years before he was elected President:

The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is.

Now, I can’t say that I will agree with all the things that the present group who call themselves Libertarians in the sense of a party say, because I think that like in any political movement there are shades, and there are libertarians who are almost over at the point of wanting no government at all or anarchy. I believe there are legitimate government functions…. We have government to insure [sic] that we don’t each one of us have to carry a club to defend ourselves. But again, I stand on my statement that I think that libertarianism and conservatism are travelling the same path.

If you think of freedom the way that Locke or Nozick or Rothbard or Reagan defined it, it might be natural to assume that the difference between the Left and the Right is that the Left’s core value is equality while the Right’s core value is liberty. (On this picture, we can imagine different twentieth and twenty-first century political factions claiming different parts of the slogan of the French Revolution, with the Right taking Liberté, the Left taking Egalité, and the center being left with fraternité.) And, indeed, this binary between freedom and equality has been invoked by conservative icons for centuries. Alexis de Tocqueville made it a central dynamic in his analysis of American society in Democracy in America. Max Weber consistently expressed concerns that modern bureaucratic society was engaged in a levelling effort which would minimize freedom. And Ayn Rand consistently observed that the push for any kind of equality was always a reaction by the unproductive against the affluence and success of superior men.

Perhaps the most well known analysis was given by the Austrian economist F.A. Hayek in his popular polemic, The Road to Serfdom. Written and published in the 1940s, as governments were expanding to fight fascist aggression, Hayek worried that this expansion would not retreat once the conflict ended. Instead, driven by well-meaning but misguided and controlling technocrats, the state would continue to expand under the auspices of securing a higher quality of life for all and rectifying unjustifiable inequalities. Unfortunately, because these technocrats do not truly understand the relationship between economic growth and liberty, they will cause ongoing damage and in fact generate declining standards of living for all. This will inevitably lead to the technocrats seizing more and more power to rectify the very problems they produced, eventually leading to a decline in freedom for all. This is why, in The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek argued that only a minimal state can both guarantee freedom and secure prosperity for most. While considerable inequalities will emerge in such a social context, many of them not predicated on merit but luck, this is preferable to the damage which would be caused by seeking greater equality.

In some respects though, framing the difference between the Right and the Left as a dispute about whether to prioritize freedom or equality can lead to significant misinterpretations. Any conservative or libertarian who reads deeply into the history of left-wing thought will be struck by the fact that advocates of redistribution of the society’s resources (and even of nationalization of the means of producing those resources) have always understood themselves as being primarily motivated by liberté. Major figures in progressive thought, from Rousseau down to Žižek today, have emphasized that the primary reason to reform society and engage in more egalitarian distributions of social goods is that it will enhance the freedom of all. So the difference between Left and Right is in some respects more about the kind of freedom we should seek to secure.

The Left’s Approach to Freedom

As leftists, this makes perfect sense to us. We believe that substantive (as opposed to merely formal) freedom is best served by a left-wing economic program. This is because freedom is not exclusively about non-coercion by government or other individuals, which is only part of a more complex whole. Freedom is also about how capable one is of making choices to pursue various life goals. Acute precarity or lack of resources, for instance, can severely limit freedom by curtailing the number of choices available to an individual. A bumper sticker sold by the Libertarian Party bears the slogan “Pro-Choice About Everything.” From our perspective, however, the Libertarian Party isn’t as meaningfully pro-choice as the socialist Left—even on the narrow issue of abortion. If a pregnant woman has the legal option to abort but is unable to raise a child in her financial circumstances, she has fewer meaningful choices than a woman who lives in a society with legal abortion and generously state-subsidized childcare.

In this vein, Amartya Sen has argued that freedom is not just about non-interference, but about the availability of meaningful choices. While negative freedom is certainly one important kind of freedom, is isn’t the only one. Even someone who feels the pull of the Lockean freedom championed by Reagan might see how, for example, the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 increased freedom in Sen’s sense. That said, a more conservative interlocutor might suspect equivocation. The stand-up comedian and libertarian podcaster Dave Smith, who recently debated one of the authors of this piece, put it this way: “We might describe the experience of flying in an airplane as being ‘free from the ground,’ but surely this doesn’t have much to do with the political meaning of ‘freedom.’”

We believe that the best way for the Left to meet this challenge—and, indeed, the way in which various historically important left-wing writers have met it—is to argue that a more expansive understanding of freedom is more relevant to political principles like freedom from coercion. If a boss tells an employee—especially an unskilled employee in a time of high unemployment—”go on a date with me or you’re fired,” this isn’t as coercive as “go on a date with me or I’ll kill you” and it might not even be as effectively coercive as “go on a date with me or I’ll tell everyone what you did,” but the degree of coercion is considerably greater than zero. If the employee is a member of a union, or even if they benefit from a national health insurance plan and so don’t have to worry about losing their insurance if they lose their job, then that degree is dialed down a notch or two.

The conception of freedom as a meaningful and practical freedom from domination by others is sometimes called the “republican theory of liberty.” (That’s “republican” as in the Roman Republic, not the GOP.) While Locke understood freedom as non-interference, thinkers in this “neo-Roman” tradition understand freedom as non-domination. Frank Lovett describes this tradition of interpreting the republicans of classical antiquity in an article for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Undoubtedly, the classical republicans were committed to the importance of active political participation, civic virtue, combating corruption, and so forth. But rather than viewing these as intrinsically valuable components of a particular vision of the good life, these authors argued, they should instead be viewed as instrumentally useful tools for securing and preserving political liberty, understood as independence from arbitrary rule. Republicanism, on this view, has its roots not in an Aristotelian vision of the ancient Greek polis, but rather in Roman jurisprudence with its fundamental and categorical distinction between free men and citizens on the one hand, and dependent slaves on the other.

To use a standard example in this tradition, slaves beaten by their master every day are interfered with more than slaves whose master treats them more kindly. Even so, it’s implausible that the latter are more free.

As Quentin Skinner observed, Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism falls well within this “neo-Roman” tradition. (Indeed, from “wage slavery” to the idea of a temporary “dictatorship” of the proletariat, Roman political vocabulary looms large in Marx’s thought.) If most people born into a capitalist society lack the financial resources to start a business of their own (and most small businesses fail in their first year of operation), most people have little realistic choice but to go to work for others. Marx’s solution was to advocate the confiscation of businesses from their owners in favor of a system based on workers’ control of the means of production. Even many left-wing authors who stop short of that kind of radicalism—much as Ronald Reagan fell short of wanting to do away with all government in the name of non-interference—see the issue of working-class people being vulnerable to arbitrary rule on the job as a major concern.

Social democrats propose that this kind of domination can be usefully lessened with redistributive social programs that make workers less dependent on business-owners. (If the government provide tuition-free higher education at public universities, someone considering saying “no” to an unreasonable request from his boss doesn’t have to worry that they won’t be able to pay their children’s way through college. If Medicare for All has been instituted, they won’t have to worry about losing their health insurance. Given sufficiently worker-friendly labor laws, they may not even lose their job.) Whether such programs are worth the cost in government interference in the market depends not just on how we weigh the importance of freedom relative to other values but on how we understand the meaning of “freedom” in the first place.