Freedom From vs. Freedom To

Following a post on Krugman, probably because that is what he was reading, Nathan posted the following comment:
In your description of yourself, you are a classical liberal defined as:
"Classical liberalism embodies the original concept of liberalism: a faith in freedom to, not freedom from as a guiding principle."

Yet the concept of 'freedom to,' which is positive liberty, is contained nowhere in the U.S. Constitution. The founding fathers of our country were, as far as the definition of classical liberal that I know, mostly classical liberals - hence where we get the term. Yet, the U.S. Constitution is only written in terms of negative liberty, or 'freedom from.'

How do you reconcile what appears to be a modern interpretation of classical liberalism from what is most assuredly a different actual and historical definition of the term classical liberal?

Check the definition with references from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy before answering -
The original definition of classical liberalism the way our founders saw it most certainly had nothing to do with positive liberty, which is a modern concept, and everything to do with negative liberty, or freedom from.... especially government interference.

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First, allow me to acknowledge that Nathan's post raises several valid points and that is why I am posting a separate entry on the topics raised. Second, let me further acknowledge that I use the title "Almost Classical" because I am not a purist, something I've written about on several occasions. I'm more of a pragmatic libertarian than an ideologue.

Now, let us address the points raised because they are certainly ones my students would recognize and discuss in my Intro to Ethics course, which deals with various (Western) ethical systems.

I am, as Nathan suggests, a proponent of "Negative Rights." Traditionally, these are described as the "Freedom From Intervention or Interference" but I consider that a strange wording. I admit, my problem with this reflects a political and theoretical bias: I consider these "Negative Rights" the Freedom to Act and Think what I want as long as I harm no one else — but as a professor I am obligated to help students use the proper terminology. My lectures refer to my libertarian ideals as Negative Rights because that is the accepted terminology within academia.

The challenge for a rhetorician is that concepts and terms do change, based on context. When George Lackoff writes of a "Freedom from Want" he is not describing Negative Rights. I do discuss Lackoff in my courses, as well as Frank Luntz. Both men use "Freedom From" to appeal to very different audiences. (Welcome to rhetoric, where the art of persuasion meets the science of psychology.)

Reading through old writings by socialists and communists, these thinkers used the "Freedom From" quite differently than we might when discussing "Negative" and "Positive" freedoms. The rhetorical move of supporting a "Freedom from Poverty" or a "Freedom from Disease" is quite effective. Many brilliant and admirable men and women of the left discuss "Freedom From" in ways that are far more effective than the rhetoric employed by any libertarians or conservatives. It is this rhetorical "Freedom From" various concerns and perceived threats that I oppose, not the Freedom from Interference suggested by thinkers like J. S. Mill, which is the model of freedom I embrace. (If you aren't familiar with Mill, you should read On Liberty.)

The following are the notes from one of my lectures for Intro to Ethics, revised summer 2012. In the lecture notes, you will find "Negative Rights" and "Positive Rights" mentioned. As you will see, Nathan's question does accurately reflect "Negative Rights" — which I do embrace and promote as a writer and, admittedly, the views I express when my university students ask my views on economic and social theories. However, I also hope my students realize I respect whatever views and insights they might bring to class. The role of an instructor is to raise questions, not to provide easy answers.

Realize these notes are from only one short lecture and discussion, but do reflect the topics we discuss in the course.

Human Rights
  • Do rights exist before any social order is established?
  • What are "inalienable" rights? Do they exist?
  • Are rights granted by, defended by, established by, defined by, or recognized by government? 
  • How would these views differ?
Natural (“God-Given”) vs. Man-Made
  • Natural Rights: exist for all people, naturally.
  • Rights of Law: created by a community, legally.
Natural Rights
  • Natural rights and natural law theory emerged during 16th and 17th Centuries.
  • Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679)
    • Natural Right = Survival
    • Natural Law = Do no harm to Self (or Other)
  • John Locke (1632–1704)
    • Life, Liberty, and Property… and you are your personal property.
Legal Rights
  • Utilitarianism emphasizes legal rights.
  • Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832)
    • No one is born "free" or "equal" to others.
    • Inequality increases and evolves during our lives.
  • John Stuart Mill (1806–1873)
    • Legally, we should agree to be left alone.
    • Freedom produces the most individual happiness and pleasure, so it is a logical pursuit of government.
Negative Rights
  • Limits what government should do, by listing what it cannot do to the individual.
  • Rights of "non-interference" to live as you want.
  • Locke, Mill, and Thomas Jefferson are historical supporters of negative rights.
  • John Hospers, The Libertarian Alternative (1974).
  • Ayn Rand's works also promote negative rights (in a simplistic, "immature" way).
    • She wasn't a great scholar or careful thinker. More of a"cultish" figure with followers.
  • "Conservatives" and "libertarians" claim to embrace (some) negative rights. 
Positive Rights
  • Limits what the individual should do, while granting "rights" from the government to the person.
  • Considers it "positive" to have basic needs met.
  • Karl Marx (1818–1883) major proponent of positive rights: government cares for the person.
  • Socialists, Marxists, progressives, and "liberals" embrace (some) positive rights, to very different degrees and with different ideals. 
    • Don't confuse Marxists for American liberals. Not even close, despite whatever rhetoric you might encounter.
Distributive Justice
  • Represents one aspect of social justice theory, which seeks egalitarian experiences and outcomes for citizens.
  • Seeks to provide for citizens "fairly" based on needs.
  • Redistributes goods and services to achieve equality.
  • Uses legal means to pursue social justice.
  • Embraced by "left-leaning" political philosophies.
  • Fundamental Equality: Believing we are born equal, or at least equal under the law.
  • Social Equality: Assuming equality within a social community, or equality promoted within the community.
  • Equality of Equals: Accepting equality among those of similar social stature; discriminating against the "unequals" we encounter.
  • Fundamental Equality, Revised: Striving to equalize what we can, within reason.
Dworkin's Models of Freedom
  • Ronald Dworkin, American philosopher and legal theorist
  • Taking Rights Seriously (1977)
  • Freedom's Law (1996)
  • What happens when freedoms or rights conflict?
  • Developed two models to examine rights in the law addressing infringement and inflation.
Model 1: Seeking a Balance
  • Balance the rights of the individual against the demands (rights) of the society by avoiding extremes of either:
  • Infringing Rights: Reducing freedom of the individual.
  • Inflating Rights: Exaggerating the freedom of the individual.
  • Attempt a "middle course" that does not infringe or inflate rights more than necessary.
  • Dworkin describes this as the "default" model for political debates, but a flawed model.
Model 2: Primacy of the Individual
  • Give priority to the freedoms and rights of the individual: primacy of "freedom to act" (freedom from interference) — negative rights.
  • Assume that the individual will not misuse a freedom to do harm to others.
  • Inflating rights is less risky to society than infringing on rights without substantial evidence.
  • Challenges to Dworkin assume society and positive rights are primary.
I hope the above notes indicate what I present to students in a survey course on ethical systems is within the traditions of academic terminology. However, I also admit that this blog and my other writings promote my particular views using rhetorical choices I consider the most effective.

So, Nathan is correct, but he was also assuming a bit based on a quick tagline used for a blog. That's probably my mistake, since a professor should communicate clearly. I will have to consider ways to revise the short description to avoid any potential confusion.

Also, remember that the notes posted above are incomplete, from my own lecture outline. I merely wanted to demonstrate what how I introduce "rights" during a university course.


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