Thursday, August 21, 2008

Positive and Negative Liberty

Isaiah Berlin once did a valuable service to the cause of liberty. He wrote a rather muddled book that discussed the difference between positive liberty and negative liberty. People are familiar with negative liberty - it is the "leave me alone" liberty that forms the cross-axis of the Nolan Chart, stretching from Statist to Libertarian. What is less familiar to most people is positive liberty, which is the liberty of having a voice in government, be it the ability to vote, to create and implement ballot initiatives, or to run for office.

This is an important distinction because occasionally these two come into conflict. When the come into conflict, the libertarian believes that negative liberty must win while the democratic statist believes that positive liberty must win.

A common theme among those who would argue against libertarianism is that the will of the majority must be obeyed. "What if the majority is wrong?" and often ducked question, is occasionally answered with "then work within the system to change the system."

It is a commonly used argument, to obey the majority, often expressed in the fallacious argument that by refusing to obey the majority the one doing so is imposing his will on the majority. This is an accusation that disturbs libertarians because the one thing the libertarian doesn't believe in is forcing others to comply with his will, but instead wished to be left alone and to leave others alone on all matters political.

It is a fallacious argument because it ignores the difference between initiated force and responsive force. When a libertarian says "you cannot pass that law", he is not saying "you must do as I say" but "there is no just reason for me to do as you say." Others can still choose of their own free will to act as if the unpassed law applies to them, by refraining from whatever activity the law was supposed to restrict or engaging in whatever activity the law was supposed to mandate.

The difference between initiated force and responsive force is glossed over in an effort to create a moral equivalent that takes the issue outside of the question of whether force itself is justified. Having dispensed with the integral moral question, the only remaining question is whether the majority or the minority shall have dictatorial power. By that mindset, a libertarian saying "no" is imposing dictatorial power.

The proper response by the libertarian when accused of imposing his will on others is "Yes, I do impose my will on muggers when they ask for my wallet." That places the question firmly back in the realm of whether or not the resisted action is justified, the one place statists do not wish it to go. The counter arguments range far and wide to try to distinguish between different types of initiatory force.

But even those who wish to engage in initiatory force through democratic action seem to have limits to what they would consider a justified action for the government to take. Based on the principle that a government action is good because it is approved by the majority, an inevitable conclusion is that it is perfectly justified for 90% to strip the remaining 10% of all of their rights, including the right to protest such a stripping. This is an issue always avoided by democratic positivists.

If one is to be consistent, there are absolutely no limits on what a democratic positivist would place on the majority’s decision making power.

Often times the question is phrased in terms of the social contract, and that the libertarian saying "no" is somehow violating the social contract. It should be noted that the social contract is a myth, nothing more. It is a useful myth, but it is still a myth. It is useful in that it is an intellectual tool used to analyze the relationship between the individual and the society as expressed through the government.

In this myth, people had the freedom to kill each other but not the right to life, the freedom to steal, but not the right to property, et cetera. Dissatisfied with that state of affairs they banded together and agreed to certain terms, that they would respect each others rights in exchange for a respect for their own rights. In order to safeguard this arrangement government was established to protect and enforce these rights.

The problem is that now those who wish to impose their will on others through the government have co-opted the term "social contract" and use it to mean that since government has decided everyone else is obligated to obey. What they do not realize, or hope nobody else realizes, is that by using the term "social contract" they undermine their own case. The Social Contract is specifically about respecting people's rights, and under social contract theory any government that violates the contract is not a legitimate government and the people have the right to overthrow said government.

Saying "social contract" in the abused sense of it as used by statists is simply another way to say that positive rights trump negative rights.

Positive and negative liberty can be arranged into a four quadrant chart similar in appearance to the Nolan Chart or Pournelle Chart. In the quadrant where both are low the result is despotism. In the quadrant of low positive and high negative the result is a libertarian monarch. In the quadrant of high positive and low negative the result is mob rule and the martyrdom of Socrates. Finally in the quadrant where both are high the result is anarcho-capitalism or other variants on libertarianism.

The important point of all of this is to remember that democracy is simply a form, not a function, of government. Libertarianism is concerned with the function, that government maximizes the rights of the people. When politicians talk about spreading democracy, they express their own ignorance of the difference between function and form. What should be spread isn’t democracy, but liberty.

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