Libertarians Misunderstand Liberty

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Liberty (also known as freedom) is a glittering generality of libertarian propaganda. Libertarians do not adequately define it, and often think the mistaken ideas of "positive" and "negative" liberty resolve problems. Liberty can be correctly understood as a triadic relation.

But what do people mean who proclaim that liberty is the palm, and the prize, and the crown, seeing that it is an idea of which there are two hundred definitions, and that this wealth of interpretation has caused more bloodshed than anything, except theology?
Lord Acton, "Inaugural Lecture on the Study of History"
Berlin's Implied Classification Of Liberty.jpg

Isaiah Berlin's Two Concepts of Liberty supposedly clarified thinking about liberty, but in actuality it takes very careful reading to spot all the assumptions he slides in at the beginning.

First he talks about "political senses of freedom or liberty": this implies a division into political and other types of liberty. By political liberty, he means socially constructed liberty. If you are trapped in a pit because somebody placed you there, you have been interfered with by a person, and your political liberty has been infringed. If you fell in by yourself, you still have an infringement of your liberty, but it is not political.

Political liberty he looks at in two senses, positive and negative, and he observes "the answers to them may overlap". He does not rule out other senses of political liberty, and indeed the idea of Freedom as a Triadic Relation clearly allows others.

The Euler (Venn) diagram to the right illustrates Berlin's implied classification of liberty. A better classification might require a much more complex diagram that would subsume this one.

Libertarian ideology tends to preoccupy itself only with the negative region the this diagram, and oppose or ignore almost all other ideas of liberty.


What Is Liberty?
Liberty (AKA Freedom), the supposed object of Libertarianism, is hardly ever defined or discussed analytically by libertarians. Liberty, as used by libertarians, is a glittering generality of propaganda: an emotionally appealing phrase so closely associated with highly valued concepts and beliefs that it carries conviction without supporting information or reason. But liberty is susceptible to analysis and that analysis reveals enormous problems with libertarian ideology.
The Heterodox ‘Fourth Paradigm’ of Libertarianism: an Abstract Eleutherology plus Critical Rationalism [More...]
A severe attack by a libertarian on the libertarian misuse of the term "liberty" for being undefined. "Instead, there is a conflation of certain kinds of deontological rights, good consequences, property rights, and ‘supporting justifications’; and all the while being oblivious to the, absurd and ironic, fact that there is no explicit theory of interpersonal liberty to explain any of this."
Freedom as a Triadic Relation [More...] (2 links)
Gerald MacCallum's interpretation that: "x is/is not free from y to do/not to do or become/not become z". This allows you to make complete "Subject verb object." sentences out of vaguer philosophical claims. That helps eliminate concealed assumptions.
Independence, Propertylessness, and Basic Income: A Theory of Freedom as the Power to Say No (book, online)
"[A] new theory of Freedom [...] freedom as the power to say no... It shows that most societies today put the poor in situations in which they lack this crucial freedom, making them vulnerable to poverty, exploitation, and injustice despite other policies in place to help them. People who have no other option but to work for someone else to meet their basic needs are effectively forced laborers and are fundamentally unfree."
Liberty Is Liberty [More...]
Tom Palmer schools David Schmidtz and Jason Brennan for confusing several meanings of positive and negative liberty. Then he goes off the deep end, claiming "liberty as a uniquely social concept".
Positive and Negative Liberty (6 links)
The concepts of positive and negative liberty are not generally agreed upon: major philosophers such as T. H. Green and Isaiah Berlin used different meanings, and modern libertarians have their own bastardized meaning. Many philosophers think the distinction is a word game. American legal philosopher Gerald MacCallum explains Freedom as a Triadic Relation, with positive and negative being a false dichotomy, different viewpoints of the same thing. The Capability Approach is much better.
Reclaiming the Politics of Freedom [More...]
"[The politics of freedom] views the state the way the abolitionist, the trade unionist, the civil rights activist and the feminist do: as an instrument for disrupting the private life of power. The state, in other words, is the right hand to the left hand of social movement."
The Difference Between a "Right" and a "Liberty" and the Significance of This Difference In Debates Over Public Policy On Abortion and Euthanasia [More...]
The Hohfeldian legal distinction between a right and a liberty (privilege or lack of duty) fairly well explained. The right-wing Christian moral analysis can be ignored.
Timely Abraham Lincoln quote: Who defines Liberty? [More...]
"The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one."
Two Concepts of Liberty [More...]
Isaiah Berlin's famous overview of how two ideas (of the hundreds) of liberty relate to various historical philosophers' ideas. He uses a different definition of positive liberty than prior authors.
Two Notions of Liberty [More...]
"... liberty is a sliding scale concept that, crucially, is related directly to how much money (or whatever you want to use as the stand in for resources/stuff) you have. This means poor people have the least liberty and rich people have the most liberty."


All forms of society grant freedoms to, and impose unfreedoms on, people, and no society, therefore, can be condemned just because certain people lack certain freedoms in it. But societies have structurally different ways of inducing distributions of freedom, and, in a society like ours, where freedom is to a massive extent granted and withheld through the distribution of money, that fact, that money structures freedom, is often not appreciated in its full significance, and an illusion develops that freedom in a society like ours is not restricted by the distribution of money. This lecture exposes that illusion.
G. A. Cohen, "Freedom and Money"
To have a theory of liberty that inherently involves particular property rules and particular moral rights is not to have a clearer and stronger theory. Rather, it is to attempt to have an unfalsifiable or uncriticisable theory. And that, as Karl Popper explained, is not clearer and stronger: it is really to avoid saying anything substantive at all. It is certainly to have no proper theory of liberty. Instead, it is in effect to assume the legitimacy or morality of certain rules or rights and then stipulatively or persuasively -- and thereby vacuously -- define those rules or rights as ‘libertarian’ and their flouting as ‘unlibertarian’ (or even ‘aggression’, or -- still worse -- ‘coercion’). Texts that are critical of libertarianism often note this.
J. C. Lester, "The Heterodox ‘Fourth Paradigm’ of Libertarianism: an Abstract Eleutherology plus Critical Rationalism"
The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one.
Abraham Lincoln, "Timely Abraham Lincoln quote: Who defines Liberty?"
Almost every moralist in human history has praised freedom. Like happiness and goodness, like nature and reality, it is a term whose meaning is so porous that there is little interpretation that it seems able to resist. I do not propose to discuss either the history or the more than two hundred senses of this protean word recorded by historians of ideas.
Isaiah Berlin, "Two Concepts of Liberty"
To my knowledge, all libertarian philosophers (except Conway), from Hayek to Nozick to James Buchanan to lesser-known writers such as Antony Flew and Tibor Machan, reject the positive-libertarian alternative, preferring to rely on the claim that only negative liberty is “real” liberty. It may be surprising that, 700 years after the collapse of Scholasticism, there should still be philosophers who assume that there are “correct” and “incorrect” definitions of words. But it would be a mistake to underestimate how important to libertarian philosophy is the conviction that only negative liberty captures the “essence” of the word liberty. Even if negative liberty is “true” liberty (and even if liberty is intrinsically valuable), however, this cannot constitute an argument for libertarianism without the further assumption that negative liberty is either uniquely or relatively embodied in libertarianism. The assumption that liberty is embodied in libertarianism relatively more than in other systems is necessarily false, however -- unless we are speaking of positive liberty -- since, as we have seen, there is no difference in the amount of negative liberty afforded people by libertarianism and by competing systems of property law.
Jeffrey Friedman, "What's Wrong With Libertarianism" pg. 431.