France Is Dead Broke, But At Least Its GDP Came In Positive
THURSDAY, JANUARY 31, 2013 1:26 AM
US GDP came out today and it was a stinker: -0.1%. Enter a choir of 10,000 pundits who all figured out that all that bad smell was the result of one thing only: cuts in military spending. That’s the sort of thing that tells me – or more correctly: confirms – that the optimism bias has become so strong and infectious it’s no longer worth even discussing. And that’s before I notice – caveat: I haven’t read all the eerily similar comments – that nobody I read bothers to explain by how much military spending has raised US GDP lately. Or to what degree they hope it’ll go up again. Soon.
So, I then think – I have a hard time focusing when confronted with blinders -, by how much would US GDP have been raised with more military spending? Would it perhaps have reached the same lofty level as French GDP? Here’s a graph:
Yes, French GDP rose by 0.3%. Ergo: France is doing better than the US, and quite a bit. Well, you know, assuming that the nouveaux Français theatre de warfare in Mali is not yet included here. Here’s a safe prediction all 10,000 can pen in right now: French GDP will rise significantly next quarter; ain’t nothing like guns and ammo and military funerals to raise the outlook of an economy.
There is just one problem with this seemingly watertight argumentation. That graph comes from a series of articles by the Daily Mail on French…. drumroll….. bankruptcy. Which is translated as "Banqueroute"; they even invented the word, and imported it into Britain right after 1066, we may assume. Now if France is bankrupt with a 0.3% GDP growth, what is the US with 0.1% shrinkage? Could the answer be: looking for a theater?
Back to France, which, despite those far better GDP numbers, gives the US a run for its money when it comes to make-believe. This week, French labour minister Michel Sapin provided a glimpse behind the Elysee curtain, which of course was promptly denied as soon he spoke out, in these hilariously priceless words by finance minister Pierre Moscovici, as per The Telegraph:
Pierre Moscovici, the finance minister, said the comments by Mr Sapin were "inappropriate".
He added: "France is a really solvent country. France is a really credible country, France is a country that is starting to recover."
Brilliant. Who said the French have no sense of humor? Nonetheless, be that as it may, French news daily Le Figaro did a poll that showed 80.5% of French think their country is indeed broke. And I don’t think all 80.5% were joking. What Sapin said comes down to something like: "There’s a state captain, but not as we know it, not as we know it". Here’s Tim Shipman’s Daily Mail piece on the issue:
France is ‘totally bankrupt’, jobs minister admits as concerns grow over Hollande’s tax-and-spend policies
France’s government was plunged into an embarrassing row yesterday after a minister said the country was ‘totally bankrupt’. Employment secretary Michel Sapin said cuts were needed to put the damaged economy back on track. ‘There is a state but it is a totally bankrupt state,’ he said. ‘That is why we had to put a deficit reduction plan in place, and nothing should make us turn away from that objective.’
In a frantic damage limitation exercise yesterday, colleagues in the Socialist administration said he was only highlighting faults of the previous government of Nicolas Sarkozy. Finance minister Pierre Moscovici said: ‘What he meant was that the fiscal situation was worrying.’ But a poll yesterday by Le Figaro newspaper showed eight out of ten readers agreed that France was indeed bankrupt.
Data from the Bank of France shows capital investment is leaving the country every day. Rating agencies Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s have both already removed France’s once-coveted AAA credit.
[UK] Tory MP Peter Bone said: ‘This is clearly a case of at least one Frenchman speaking the truth. ‘We need to hear more of this kind of honesty from the French. This man deserves promotion.’
While Mr Sapin’s admission was unlikely to have been intentional, it highlighted huge concern at President Francois Hollande’s handling of the economy. Despite all this, Mr Moscovici insisted: ‘France is a truly solvent country, France is truly credible country, France is a country which is starting its recovery.’ Mr Moscovici also insisted that France is in a position to ‘meet its financial obligations, including the payment of its employees, thankfully.’
Yes, Mr Moscovici, I’m sure we can all agree that that France is in a position to ‘meet its financial obligations, including the payment of its employees. However, there may be some disagreement on how long it can do that for. The statement itself is true even if it’s only good for just two weeks or so, though we all know that’s not what you intend people to take home from it. But it doesn’t deny that either.
Me, personally, I find it astonishing how little attention Mr. Sapin’s comments have attracted. I’m one of those rare people who are all for having these discussions out in the open. All of them, those about today’s US GDP embarrassment as well as France’s financial perils. Don’t tell me that you’re "in a position to ‘meet your financial obligations’", show me how and why. We can’t all go through life shying away from what really should be obvious questions, only to find out later we’ve been had by another bunch of lying and cheating politicians, just like generation upon generation of our ancestors before us. We need to have learned at least something from what they went through.
More from that Daily Mail piece:
Since Mr Hollande came to power, unemployment and the cost of living have continued to spiral, while ‘anti-rich’ measures have provoked entrepreneurs to leave the country. The President is currently trying to revive France’s economic fortunes by cutting spending by the equivalent of more than £51 billion.
The Bank of France has already produced data showing that capital investment is leaving the country every day, along with the business people who helped to build it.
[..] There have even been reports that Nicolas Sarkozy, the last President of France, is preparing to move to London with his third wife, Carla Bruni, to set up an equity fund. Prime Minister David Cameron has already said that Britain will ‘roll out the red carpet’ to attract wealthy French people.
My impression, but that’s just me, is the French are still suckers for authority figures – Charles the Gaulle and Napoleon engraved that into their very foreheads -, but they’ll have to wake up at some point. From the economical fairy tale that says they’re doing fine, and from the grandeur idea they’ve been fed forever now.
As far as President Hollande is concerned, I’m mostly neutral, but if I were to single out on thing he’s done for the biggest fool award, it’s his decision to reverse pension reforms, enabling his voters to retire at 60 or even earlier. While at the same time he’s part of the Troika cabal pressuring Greeks to work longer, and while all his Eurozone neighbors are pushing up retirement age to 67-68 and onwards. That one thing makes me doubt Hollande will sit out his term. You can fool some of the people all of the time and all that, and all of them some of the time.
The Daily Mail ran a little update by Daniel Miller today:
Bankrupt France’s latest efforts to save money… turn off all the lights
The French government has ordered shops and offices to turn off their lights at night in a desperate bid to save vital resources as the country struggles to prevent a looming financial crisis. From July 1, all non-residential buildings will have to switch off interior lights one hour after the last worker leaves the premises while all exterior and shop window lighting must be turned off by 1 am. The announcement follows an embarrassing incident for President Francois Hollande yesterday when employment secretary Michel Sapin admitted the country was ‘totally bankrupt’.
The French environment ministry hopes the move will both save energy and reduce light pollution. Local authorities will be able to allow exceptions for Christmas lighting and other local events. The new law will save about two terawatt/hours of electricity a year – the equivalent of the annual consumption of 750,000 households, the ministry said. Environment Minister Delphine Batho said it would also make France a pioneer in Europe in preventing light pollution, which disrupts ecosystems and people’s sleep patterns.
Oh boy, what’s not to love? Save face and change tack with "preventing light pollution". And to make it better, don’t do it right now, no, wait till July 1. The gift that keeps on giving if ever I saw one. Isn’t Paris known as the City of Lights? Well, those days are gone.
What this tells you is that France has not one, but two problems: finance and energy. And that prior to July 1, we can expect a bunch of real nasty announcements on both. Plus also, that François Hollande is not so sure he’ll last that long. That’s why he’s pushing it forward, hoping for a miracle.
Are things that bad in the US? Who knows, really, given the ever rising extent of opaqueness? Anybody want to bet their children’s lives one way or the other? GDP comes in negative and people fall over themselves to declare that it’s only because military spending fell. So what does that mean? Does it mean the US has to go back to war to raise its GDP? Look for a new off Broadway theater?
Why is it so hard to call a spade a spade? Because incumbent politicians and wealthy moguls fear that the truth will set them free in a way they don’t like. As in "The Truth Will Set You Free, But Not When You Dunnit." And so we make do with the few scrappy shrapnels of truth that fall off their tables. Is that really the best we can do?
Something tells me the French will lead the way, farming equipment and all, in front of the crumbling presidential palaces, come July 1 or so. And when the fires rage in Paris, Americans will still be talking recovery. And if there’s anything "positive" to be said about it, it will be that somehow it has something to do with somebody getting hurt in some new theater somewhere in the world.
Statistics: Posted by yoda — Thu Jan 31, 2013 1:14 am
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In Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes set the stage for a good deal of later thinking about the nature of freedom. Freedom, according to Hobbes, signifies “the absence of opposition” or “external impediments” to motion. Such freedom applies not only to rational agents but also to “irrational and inanimate creatures.” We may say, for example, that water is not free to flow beyond the vessel that contains it.
For whatsoever is so tied, or environed, as it cannot move within a certain space, which space is determined by the opposition of some external body, we say it hath not liberty to go further. And so of all living creatures, whilst they are imprisoned, or restrained, with walls, or chains; and of the water whilst it is kept in by banks, or vessels that otherwise would spread itself into a larger space, we use to say, that they are not at liberty, to move in such manner, as without those external impediments they would.
Hobbes clearly distinguished freedom from power. When the impediments to motion are external, then an entity is said to lack freedom. But when the impediments to motion are internal, an entity is said to lack power. The fact that a stone cannot move of its own accord does not mean that it lacks the freedom to move; rather, it lacks the power (or ability) to move. Likewise, if a sick man is confined to a bed and unable to move about, he lacks not the freedom to walk (since no external impediments prevent him from walking) but the power to walk.
Hobbes’s distinction between freedom (the absence of external impediments) and power (the internal ability to do something) is frequently cited as an early formulation of negative freedom. Moreover, since classical liberals typically defended negative freedom, Hobbes is sometimes cited as an early proponent of that tradition.
This perspective, though fairly common, is misleading. The political absolutism of Hobbes was anathema to classical liberals, and most liberals, especially those in the Lockean tradition, did not look favorably upon his conception of negative freedom.
The notion of positive freedom – which identifies freedom with the power to do something – was a relative latecomer in political theory. It did not become a live issue until the nineteenth century, when it was mainly defended by philosophers who had been influenced by Hegel. We should therefore avoid reading too much into Hobbes’s distinction between freedom and power. Earlier philosophers who defended, say, freedom of conscience did not need Hobbes to tell them that freedom of religion means the ability to practice one’s religion without external compulsion or constraint by other people. Nor did early critics of slavery need to await the writing of Leviathan to learn that a free man, in contrast to a slave, is a person who is not under the coercive jurisdiction and control of another person. On the contrary, freedom in the negative sense – i.e., freedom viewed as the absence of coercion – is as old as political philosophy itself.
It is true that Hobbes cast his definition of freedom in negative terms, as did John Locke and other individualists. But this was only a superficial similarity. Hobbes’s definition of freedom differs fundamentally from Locke’s, but this difference has been obscured by the conventional distinction between negative and positive freedom. There is another distinction that is far more significant in this context, namely, freedom conceived as a mechanistic concept that refers to a physical relationship between things, and freedom conceived as a social concept that refers to an interpersonal relationship between human beings. Hobbes employed the mechanistic concept, defining “freedom” as the absence of physical impediments; whereas Locke employed the social concept, defining “freedom” as the absence of coercion in human affairs.
According to Hobbes, as we have seen, when we are restrained from achieving our goals by internal impediments (e.g., by the inability to do something), then we are said to lack power. When those impediments are external, then we lack freedom to exercise our powers. The nature of such external impediments is irrelevant; freedom does not necessarily refer to a social relationship between rational agents. If I desire to travel from here to there, my freedom to act can be impeded as much by a high wall or by an impassable river as it can by another person. Any external obstacle that prevents me from exercising my power, that keeps me from getting what I want and would otherwise be able to attain, diminishes my liberty.
For Hobbes, therefore, freedom consists of unimpeded power. In a social context, a free man “is he, that in those things, which by his strength and wit he is able to do, is not hindered to do what he has a will to do.”
This notion of freedom was scarcely original with Hobbes. Some years earlier, for example, Sir Robert Filmer (Locke’s chief target in Two Treatises of Government) had defended the view that “true liberty is for every man to do what he list, or to live as he please, and not to be tied to any laws.”
This conception of freedom was a favorite among Filmer, Hobbes, and other absolutists because it served to rebut the argument of individualists that the purpose of a just legal system should be to enhance and preserve freedom. This was arrant nonsense, according to absolutists, because all laws, of whatever type, necessarily restrict freedom. A man has no more freedom to do what he pleases in a supposedly “free society” than he does under despotism. No one, for instance, would argue that people should be free to rape, pillage, and murder, so even free societies enact laws that restrict those and other freedoms. Only under complete “anarchy,” a society with no laws whatsoever, would we find complete freedom. As Filmer put it:
But such liberty is not to be found in any commonweal, for there are more laws in popular estates than anywhere else, and so consequently less liberty; and government, many say, was invented to take away liberty, and not to give it to every man. Such liberty cannot be; if it should, there would be no government at all.
If Filmer and Hobbes were correct, if the primary purpose of government is to restrain and limit freedom, then the complaints made by individualists against absolute monarchy made little sense. True, absolute monarchies (and absolute governments generally) restrict freedom, but so do all forms of government, even those supposedly based on the consent of the governed. Complete freedom can exist only in the anarchistic state of nature – a society with no laws whatsoever – and this liberty is diminished each time a government passes or enforces a law.
Locke rejected this conception of freedom. In a direct reply to Filmer, he wrote:
[F]reedom is not, as we are told, A liberty for every Man to do what he lists: (For who could be free, when every other Man’s Humour might domineer over him?) But a Liberty to dispose and order, as he lists, his Persons, Actions, Possesions, and his whole Property….” In a state of perfect freedom, people can “dispose of their Possessions and Persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the Law of Nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the Will of any other man.”
Thus for Locke, “freedom” means the ability to use and dispose of that which is properly one’s own without the coercive interference of other people, including government. In this rights-based notion of freedom, I am free to the extent that I can exercise jurisdiction over my own property in the broad sense (one’s body, labor, external goods, etc.), according to my own will, without being subjected to coercion by others. (The meaning of “coercion” is a tricky topic in its own right, one that I shall consider in a future essay.)
Some modern philosophers, such as G.A. Cohen (in Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality, Cambridge, 1995), have jumped all over this rights-based conception of freedom, and, in the process, have resurrected the old Filmerian argument that even a libertarian society would not permit unrestricted freedom, insofar as it prohibited the “freedom” to murder, rob, rape and commit other rights-violating actions. (Some of these critics of libertarianism remain blissfully unaware of how old this argument is and how classical liberals attempted to deal with it.)
Locke’s conception of social freedom, which was essentially an effort to forge a standard of equal liberty, was accepted by the vast majority of subsequent liberal and quasi-libertarian philosophers. A notable exception was Jeremy Bentham, who expressly resurrected the Filmerian (and Hobbesian) conception of freedom and concluded that all laws necessarily restrict freedom. This is why Bentham argued that the primary purpose of law is to bring about security, not freedom.
Although modern historians stress the need to understand this historical and ideological context of earlier philosophers, they sometime fail to grant this courtesy to John Locke and other classical liberals who defended a rights-based conception of freedom. It is not as if Locke and other liberals arbitrarily introduced the value-laden notion of “rights” into discussions of freedom in order to arrive at a predetermined destination that suited their political beliefs. The notion of “rights” was an integral part of political philosophy long before liberal individualists came along.
For centuries political philosophers had defended the right of political sovereignty, i.e., the right of rulers to compel obedience to their decrees. What liberal individualists did, beginning primarily in the seventeenth century, was to challenge the notion of state sovereignty with the notion of self-sovereignty. Why do we have an “obligation” to obey political rulers and the laws they enact? It is virtually impossible to understand the liberal conception of rights-based freedom without considering this broader problem, which I shall discuss in my next essay.
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A significant amount of debate between libertarian and non-libertarian political thinkers has to do with the distinction between negative and positive liberty. These two technical terms within political philosophy play a large role in determining the limits of permissible state action, as well as establishing just what the state exists to do in the first place.
Which means libertarians and non-libertarians interested in political ideas—and keen to having meaningful conversations about them—will benefit from understanding these two sorts of liberty.
If we want to start very simple, keeping our definitions to just two words each, negative liberty means “freedom from,” while positive liberty means “capacity to.”
Another way of thinking about the difference—though again, it’s a rough one—is to see negative liberty as being about the absence of external limits, while positive liberty is about the absence of internal limits.
Let’s look at an example. Jack’s living in New York. He’d like go to California to visit family. Under a negative conception of liberty, Jack is free to go to California if nobody is actively preventing him from doing so. Thus his negative freedom would be violated if his neighbor locked Jack in the basement, or if someone stole his car.
But what if Jack’s so poor that he can’t afford a car or a plane ticket? What if Jack is sick and so not physically up to the trip? In these instances, no person prevents Jack from going to California, so Jack’s negative liberty remains intact. Yet he lacks the capacity to fulfill his desire and so, from a positive liberty standpoint, he is unfree.
Within the context of political philosophy—within the context of what the state is permitted to do and what it ought to do—a government protects Jack’s negative liberty by preventing the neighbor from locking Jack up and preventing the thief from stealing Jack’s car. If the state is unable to prevent these specific acts, it may punish the perpetrators, thus (we hope) reducing the likelihood of other, similar liberties violations. In addition to—or instead of—punishing violations, the state might force the violator to compensate Jack, striving to make him whole.
On the other hand, a state tasked with directly promoting Jack’s positive liberty might tax its citizens in order to buy Jack the car he couldn’t otherwise afford. Or it might use that revenue to pay for the medical care Jack needs to get back on his feet so he can travel. A positive liberty focused state would take active steps to assure Jack isn’t just free to pursue his desires, but also has the resources to attain them.
Typically, libertarians believe the state should only concern itself with negative liberty and should never undertake to actively promote positive liberty. In part this is because we recognize that, in order to give some people the resources they need to get what they want, it must take those resources from others. The money Jack uses to buy a car or pay his medical bills is money someone else now doesn’t have to pay for his or her own car or medical bills. (In a sense, this means the state has stolen a car from one person in order to give it to another, a violation of the victim’s negative liberty.) If the state tries to avoid this by, for instance, forcing the doctor to give Jack medical care for free, it has violated the doctor’s negative liberty to use his time as he sees fit.
Beyond this, libertarians often argue that a state aiming at positive liberty will not only result in less negative liberty, but in less positive liberty as well. By allowing people to keep the products of their own labor, for example, we grow the economy, meaning more resources for everyone to pursue their desires. States that put positive liberty above negative liberty simply end up poorer. This means, we libertarians argue, if you really care about the positive liberty of the poor, you’ll setup a government that does nothing but protect negative liberty.
Sometimes, however, libertarians take these arguments to mean that positive liberty either doesn’t exist or that it’s not something we should care about. I don’t think that’s quite right, though. While we should always recognize a bright line between positive and negative liberty when we’re talking about the role of the state, we should also recognize how important positive liberty is for all of us.
I do the work I do because I believe it’s important and because I love it. (I still sometimes find it difficult to believe that I get paid to run and write for Libertarianism.org.) But I also do it, of course, because it brings me the positive liberty to attain other things I value, such as food and shelter (and a car and medical care) for my family and lots (and lots) of books I’ll probably never find the time to read.
If negative liberty were all that mattered in any context, we’d have no reason to prefer a world of wealth to one of poverty if no one was stopping us—in either world—from doing anything we wanted.
Sometimes we object to the use of the word “liberty” in positive liberty by arguing that the only real liberty is the negative sort. And that may well be true. In fact, allowing both negative and positive to claim the label of liberty can make it more difficult to argue against the state actively trying to promote the former at the expense of the latter. After all, who wants to be put in the position of arguing against “liberty?”
In this case, we might be better off saying that only negative liberty is really liberty, while positive liberty ought to be renamed something like “power” or “capacity.” But accepting that doesn’t mean we should ignore the distinction as it’s used in the literature today, or that we shouldn’t listen to those who want to continue talking about positive liberty.
In closing, as is always the case with any philosophical dispute, a short summary neglects many of the sides and much of the nuance. So if you’re interested in learning more about negative and positive liberty and the various ways philosophers have sought to distinguish—or unify!—them, you can’t find a better place to start than the always-wonderful Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on the topic.
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Before continuing with my discussion of negative and positive liberty, a few housekeeping details are in order.
I recently learned that David Schmidtz and Jason Brennan discussed “Conceptions of Freedom” over two years ago in Cato Unbound. The lead article, which appears to be based on the introduction to their book, A Brief History of Liberty (which I have not read), covers the issue of negative and positive liberty in more detail than does Brennan in Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know. I therefore refer readers to that discussion for additional information about Brennan’s views.
I also recommend Tom Palmer’s critique of the article by Schmidtz and Brennan. It will become obvious, if it is not obvious already, that I agree wholeheartedly with Palmer’s remarks.
I would also like to call attention to Brennan’s comments on the first three parts of my series. Although I do not wish to interrupt this series in midstream by responding to his criticisms in detail (I may do this later), I do wish to comment on two things.
First, Brennan corrects my statement that no writings of Murray Rothbard are mentioned in the “Suggestions for Further Reading” at the end of his book. He points out that Rothbard’s For a New Liberty is listed under the heading “Libertarian Anarchism.” I stand corrected. My oversight was caused by relying on the index, which gives only one listing (on page 11) for Rothbard.
Second, Brennan writes:
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what we call positive liberty. If, for ideological reasons, Smith and other libertarians insist on revising the English language so that only negative liberty counts as liberty, fine. Instead of positive liberty, call it “zlarp”. My point is that a commitment to the value of zlarp isn’t an argument for Marxism, but an argument against it.
I wish to make it clear that I have no desire to revise the English language. There have been various notions of positive liberty (or freedom), some of which go back to some ancient Greek philosophers, such as the Stoics. And Brennan’s particular notion of positive freedom—by which he means the power or ability to do something—has a respectable pedigree in political philosophy, as we find in the writings of Thomas Hill Green, a leading philosopher of the “new liberalism” in late nineteenth-century England.
In “Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract” (1881), T.H. Green defended what he called “freedom in the positive sense.” He contrasted this positive freedom with what he regarded as the anemic (negative) conception of freedom defended by classical (or “old”) liberals. As Green put it:
[T]he mere removal of compulsion, the mere enabling a man to do as he likes, is itself no contribution to true freedom. In one sense no man is so well able to do as he likes as the wandering savage. He has no master. There is no one to say to him nay. Yet we do not count him really free, because the freedom of savagery is not strength, but weakness. The actual powers of the noblest savage do not admit of comparison with those of the humblest citizen of a law-abiding state. He is not the slave of man, but he is the slave of nature. Of compulsion by natural necessity he has plenty of experience, though of restraint by society none at all. Nor can he deliver himself from that compulsion except by submitting to this restraint. So to submit is the first step in true freedom….
If the ideal of true freedom is the maximum of power for all members of human society alike to make the best of themselves, we are right in refusing to ascribe the glory of freedom to a state in which the apparent elevation of the few is founded on the degradation of the many, and in ranking modern society, founded as it is on free industry, with all its confusion and ignorance license and waste of effort, among the most splendid of ancient republics.
[W]e shall see that freedom of contract, freedom in all the forms of doing what one will with one’s own, is valuable only as a means to an end. That end is what I call freedom in the positive sense: in other words, the liberation of the powers of all men equally for contributions to a common good. No one has a right to do what he will with his own in such a way to contravene this end.
Green’s notion of positive freedom played a crucial role in the overthrow of the negative freedom defended by classical liberals, so it is understandable if modern libertarians are skeptical of efforts to incorporate positive freedom into libertarian ideology. Of course, Brennan is aware of this history. His basic point is that to embrace positive liberty as an authentic kind of liberty does not necessarily mean that a government should promote positive liberty directly. Rather, positive liberty can best be furthered by the indirect means of free markets.
As I noted in my last essay, the same point can be made—and has been made many, many times—with the straightforward argument that free markets produce the greatest material abundance for the greatest number of people. Why Brennan decided to make exactly the same point by bringing in the notion of positive liberty, with all its attendant complications, remains a mystery to me.
Nevertheless, I have no desire to revise the English language. If some people wish to use “freedom” in the positive sense, so be it. But, as I also pointed out in my last essay, we should not suppose that positive and negative freedom are different species of the same genus. True, both go by the same name, but this should not blind us to the fact that positive and negative freedom signify different things altogether.
The observation that the words “freedom” and “liberty” have been used in many different ways is scarcely new. “No word has received more different significations and has struck minds in so many ways as has liberty.” This passage from Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws (1748) was echoed several decades later by Edmund Burke: “of all the loose terms in the world liberty is the most indefinite.” And in 1895 the liberal historian Lord Acton said that liberty “is an idea of which there are two hundred definitions, and … this wealth of interpretation has caused more bloodshed than anything, except theology.”
In his 1958 lecture and essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” Isaiah Berlin followed Acton in referring to “the more than two hundred senses of this protean word recorded by historians of ideas,” while noting that the meaning “freedom or liberty” is “so porous that there is little interpretation that it seems able to resist.”
Although Berlin did not originate the distinction between negative and positive liberty (or the terms used to describe this distinction), his influential essay played a major role in sparking a protracted debate about the distinction among modern philosophers. Ironically perhaps, Berlin’s defense of negative liberty and his criticism of positive liberty led some critics to suppose that Berlin was defending laissez-faire capitalism, so Berlin set the record straight in his 1969 introduction to Four Essays on Liberty.
Berlin explained that he intended to clarify the meaning of “freedom,” not to defend negative freedom in all cases. In practice, according to Berlin, freedom understood as “non-interference (like ‘social Darwinism’) was, of course, used to support politically and socially destructive policies which armed the strong, the brutal, and the unscrupulous against the humane and the weak, the able and ruthless against the less gifted and less fortunate.” Berlin continued:
The bloodstained story of economic individualism and unrestrained capitalist competition does not, I should have thought, today need stressing. Nevertheless, in view of the astonishing opinions which some of my critics have imputed to me, I should … have made even clearer … the evils of unrestricted laissez-faire.
Since I am ignorant, perhaps blissfully so, of the “bloodstained history” of laissez-faire capitalism, I wish Berlin had done something more than mention economic conditions in Victorian England—which, so far as I know, did not involve the shedding of blood. When Herbert Spencer and other libertarians argued that the poor should be able to spend their money and educate their children as they see fit, they engaged in “an odious mockery” of freedom, according to Berlin. “The case for intervention, by the state or other effective agencies, to secure conditions for both positive, and at least a minimum degree of negative, liberty is overwhelmingly strong.” Berlin concluded:
The case for social legislation or planning, for the welfare state and socialism, can be constructed with as much validity from considerations of the claims of negative liberty as from those of its positive brother.
We thus see that even defenders of negative freedom do not necessarily oppose economic intervention by government. It should also be noted that Berlin’s conception of positive freedom differs substantially from Brennan’s conception.
Given the welter of confusion and disagreement over the meaning of “freedom” and “liberty,” libertarians should take pains to be clear about what they mean when they use those terms. They should distinguish what they mean from other meanings, and they should be extremely cautious about elevating other meanings to the same status as negative freedom within their ideology.
Consider, for example, Martin Luther’s celebrated discussion of “Christian liberty.” Based on Luther’s theory of divine grace, which could not be earned by good works, this denoted an inner freedom from the spiritual demands of Catholicism. So what should libertarians say about Luther’s notion of Christian liberty? Should we say, as Brennan does about positive liberty, that Christian liberty is a “form” of liberty and should therefore be incorporated into libertarian ideology? Should we say, as Brennan does about positive liberty, that to embrace Christian liberty as an authentic form of liberty does not necessarily mean that a government should promote Christian liberty directly?
I think not. We could pose the same questions about many different conceptions of liberty found in the history of philosophy and theology, but what would be the point of answering such questions in a roundabout Brennanesque manner? What purpose would be served by embracing dozens upon dozens of different conceptions of liberty, as if each conception is on a par with negative liberty in libertarian theory? Rather, we should simply point out that such alternate conceptions are not relevant to libertarian theory in any fundamental sense, period.
As I shall argue in my next essay, the same reasoning applies to Brennan’s notion of positive liberty.
To be continued…
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Jason Brennan opens the second chapter of Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know with the question: How do libertarians define “liberty”? He answers his question by distinguishing between “two major kinds of liberty: negative liberty and positive liberty.” Negative liberty, Brennan explains, signifies “an absence of obstacles, impediments, or constraints.” Positive liberty, in contrast,
is the power or capacity to do as one chooses. For instance, when we talk about being “free” as a bird, we mean that the bird has the power or ability to fly. We do not mean that people rarely interfere with birds.
Negative liberty is the absence of obstacles; positive liberty is the presence of powers or abilities.
Brennan’s bird does not serve his purpose; it is a poor example. When we speak of being “free as a bird,” we don’t usually mean what Brennan claims we mean. To be “free as a bird” suggests more than the power or ability to fly. It also suggests that the exercise of that ability is not hindered by external constraints. The fantasy of being “free as a bird” is linked to the desire to be free from external constraints—or, as Brennan puts it in his account of negative liberty, to act in “the absence of obstacles.”
The connection between the ability to fly and negative freedom is expressed in these famous lyrics from “The Prisoner’s Song”:
Now, if I had the wings of an angel,
Over these prison walls I would fly.
When we speak of a bird as being “free” to fly, we assume that the bird in question has not been confined in a cage. We would not normally speak, for example, of a caged canary as being free to fly. This way of speaking suggests that a bird can exercise its ability to fly without external constraints, such as by being locked in a cage. The notion of negative freedom is, at the very least, an implicit presupposition of all such examples.
Of course, a caged bird may be free to fly around inside his cage to some extent, just as a human prisoner in solitary confinement may be free to walk within the confines of his tiny cell. Such cases illustrate the fact that negative freedom, or liberty (the terms are normally used interchangeably), may exist in varying degrees. But to say that a prisoner possesses the “positive freedom” to walk merely because he possesses the power or ability to walk (as Brennan’s bird is said to be “free” to fly in virtue of its ability to fly) is to use the word “freedom” in a peculiar way.
According to the positive conception of freedom (as summarized by Brennan), the fact of imprisonment would not even diminish a prisoner’s “freedom” to walk, so long as he remains able to walk. Even a prisoner bound tightly in chains would still be free to walk in the positive sense, provided he retained the ability to walk. When we say that a chained prisoner is not free to walk, we mean that he is constrained and therefore lacks the negative freedom to walk as he chooses, not that he lacks the power or ability to walk per se.
I may seem to be nitpicking here, and so I might be if not for Brennan’s attempt to incorporate positive liberty into libertarian theory. As he puts it (p. 27):
Until recently, most libertarians tended to argue that the only real kind of liberty is negative liberty. The believed the concept of positive liberty was confused. For a long time, the status quo was that libertarians and classical liberals advocated a negative conception of liberty, while left-liberals, socialists, and Marxists advocated a positive conception of liberty.
Brennan assures us that the status quo has begun to change: “Recently, though, many libertarians have begun to accept both negative and positive liberty.”
When contemporary libertarians say they want a free society, they mean that they want both (1) a society in which people do not interfere with each other and (2) a society in which most people have the means and ability to achieve their goals.
I confess to being unclear about the identity of the “many libertarians” who embrace positive liberty; but judging by Brennan’s subsequent mention of a book he co-authored with David Schmidtz, he appears to mean “neoclassical liberals.” In his recommended readings at the end of his book, Brennan lists four authors (including himself) under the heading “Neoclassical Liberalism.”
Now, there are probably a few more neoclassical liberals roaming the halls of academe, and I won’t quibble over how many libertarians it takes to qualify as “many libertarians.” But when Brennan moves from “many libertarians” to his much broader statement about what “contemporary libertarians” supposedly believe about positive liberty, I must question his sense of proportion.
Consider Brennan’s next statement: “Until recently, most libertarians rejected the concept of positive liberty.” Until recently? Admittedly, I am not as active in the libertarian movement as I once was, but I doubt if I missed a sea change in regard to what “most libertarians” (including conventional classical liberals) think about the notion of positive liberty.
Brennan is again exaggerating the influence of his band of neoclassical liberals. A handful of academic philosophers does not a movement make.
Let’s proceed to the more substantive problems in Brennan’s account. Why was the notion of positive liberty traditionally rejected by libertarians? According to Brennan, libertarians “thought that if positive liberty—understood as the power to achieve one’s ends—counted as a form of liberty, this would automatically license socialism and a heavy welfare state. Since they opposed socialism and a heavy welfare state, they rejected the concept of positive liberty.”
This explanation is neither accurate nor fair; traditional libertarian objections to positive liberty were far more sophisticated than Brennan would have us believe. I will cover some of those objections in my next essay. For now, we should try to understand what the point of all this is. Why, for instance, do we find Brennan (p. 28) asking this loaded question: Why do many libertarians now accept positive liberty? Brennan explains:
Contemporary libertarians tend to embrace positive liberty. They agree that the power to achieve one’s goals really is a form of liberty. They agree with Marxists and socialists that this form of liberty is valuable, and that negative liberty without positive liberty is often of little value.
Permit me to be blunt: contemporary libertarians, on the whole, “tend to embrace” no such thing. They do not agree with Marxists and socialists on this matter. On the contrary, they tend to argue that positive liberty is not a “form” of liberty at all, if by “form” we mean to suggest that positive and negative liberty are two species of the same genus. Rather, as Murray Rothbard wrote in Power and Market (p. 221), freedom pertains to “interference by other persons.” The word, in a social context, “refers to absence of molestation by other persons; it is purely an interpersonal problem.”
I see no evidence to indicate that the mainstream of libertarian thinking has changed substantially from this description of “liberty” given in 1773 by the American clergyman Simeon Howard:
Though this word [liberty] is used in various senses, I mean by it here, only that liberty which is opposed to external force and constraint and to such force and constraint only, as we may suffer from men. Under the term liberty, taken in this sense, may naturally be comprehended all those advantages which are liable to be destroyed by the art or power of men; everything that is opposed to temporal slavery.
According to this approach, negative liberty (the absence of coercive interference by others) is itself the fundamental means by which individuals are enabled to pursue their own values as they see fit. Brennan doesn’t disagree with this assertion, as we see in his remark (p. 29) that “protecting negative liberties is the most important and effective way of promoting positive liberty.”
Thus, a commitment to positive liberty does not license socialism; it forbids it. Marxists say that positive liberty is the only real liberty. This real liberty is found in market societies, and almost nowhere else.
Brennan obviously wishes to turn the notion of positive liberty against socialists and other advocates of expansive governmental powers; whether his efforts are successful is a problem I shall take up at a later time. For now I wish only to point out that everything Brennan wants to say could easily be said without dragging in the notion of positive liberty at all. What we have here, in my judgment, is a type of political correctness run amok.
Will socialists, seduced by Brennan’s endorsement of positive liberty, see the light and agree that free markets are the best means to attain their cherished goal of positive liberty for everyone? As the old saying goes, there are two chances of this happening; fat and slim. By needlessly incorporating positive liberty into libertarian theory and, even worse, by claiming that negative liberty without positive liberty often has no value, Brennan has opened the barn door so wide as to admit all manner of anti-libertarian proposals.
Brennan appeals to “historical fact” to support his claim that free markets are the best way to achieve positive liberty. He would have gotten no objection from me if he had simply said, as Murray Rothbard put it in Power and Market (pp. 221-22), that “it is precisely voluntary exchange and free capitalism that have led to an enormous improvement in living standards. Capitalist production is the only method by which poverty can be wiped out.” But this straightforward claim wasn’t good enough for Brennan, who succumbed to the desire to put old wine in a new libertarian bottle labeled “positive liberty.”
In short, Brennan’s attempt to incorporate positive liberty into libertarian theory accomplishes nothing more than to transform a strong argument for free markets into an argument that is perilously weak.
Anyone concerned with “historical fact” needs to understand why the notion of positive liberty proved so destructive to the negative liberty defended by classical liberals and libertarians. This will be the subject of my next essay.
To be continued….
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Slowdown in corn sell-off may be ‘positive’ sign
A slowdown in sales of corn by funds raised questions over whether a sell-down by funds in their net long position in the grain will continue – even as speculators’ bearish position in wheat increased.
Non-commercial investors in Chicago corn futures and options continued to reduce their net long position – the advantage of long positions which benefit when prices rise over the short positions which profit when values fall – in the week to last Tuesday, with the figure falling to a 17-month low of 50,099 contracts.
"Pessimism about the global economy outlook amid Europe’s debt crisis urged investor caution and sapped trading volume ahead of the year-end holidays," Lynette Tan, at broker Phillip Futures, said.
However, the week-on-week decline of 1,363 lots represented a considerably slower pace than seen in the previous four weeks, which cost Chicago corn more than 70,000 lots in net length.
Indeed, the data "could be construed as positive by some in the trade", Jon Michalscheck at Minneapolis-based broker Benson Quinn Commodities.
"The liquidation by the large funds has slowed considerably, at least for this reporting week," leaving future data likely to be especially closely watched by investors for signs that a long-term sell-down is over.
Non-commercial investors’ net long position in corn topped 350,000 lots in February, before beginning a descent which continued even as the grain ran up to a record high in March of $7.99 ¾ a bushel.
That was reflected in the managed money segment, viewed by many commentators as a proxy of speculators – who raised their net long in corn by 2,021 contracts, after a drop of more than 15,300 lots the previous week, the position data, from the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission, show.
‘Threat to soybean development’
Extremes in the range of net longs, and net shorts, are closely watched as they can signal an increased wariness to continue the trend – and a greater risk of a wave of sales of long positions, or covering of short positions, sparking hefty price pressure.
And the slowdown in the corn sell-off comes amid increasing worries over dryness setting back South American corn and soybean crops due for harvest early in 2012. A disappointing harvest would reduce competition with US corn and soybean exports, raising Chicago prices.
Indeed, non-commercial investors reduced their net short position in Chicago soybeans by more than 8,600 contracts to some 15,500 lots in the latest week.
In managed money, the net short fell by more than 7,000 contracts to a 3,158 contracts.
"After several weeks of clear negative positioning short and long contracts are now almost balanced again," Commerzbank analysts said.
"News of a possible threat to soybean development in South America due to dry weather is likely to have been responsible for this."
Softs out of favour
In wheat, speculators increased a negative stance, increasing their short position by nearly 4,400 contracts to 43,049 lots, not far short of the record set last month.
They turned more pessimistic in many soft commodities too, such as New York cocoa too, in which they increased their net short exposure by nearly 4,000 lots to nearly 12,000 lots.
Net long positions in cotton and coffee, also took heavy pastings. Managed money’s net long in New York coffee more than halved to 5,721 lots.
Statistics: Posted by yoda — Mon Dec 19, 2011 10:53 am
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