ON THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FORMAL AND EFFECTIVE FREEDOM: Why libertarians and progressives don’t communicate about freedom.

schenectady_libertyI’ve touched on this before. I blamed semantics for my inability to communicate the message of individual liberty to progressives and conservatives. “Surely,” I thought “if we can just agree on what liberty is, we can come to some agreement on how to get there.” A recent, short Facebook exchange with a very smart progressive online acquaintance prompted me to dig a little deeper into this divide. I’m glad I did.

What I’m about to write about will be inadequate. I have skimmed a number of scholarly articles about this but I have barely scraped the surface, so if any of this grabs you I encourage you to do your own research.

Bottom Line Up Front: Instead of accepting my own definition for freedom, I’m going to use the term “formal freedom” for the standard libertarian term, and “effective freedom” for what progressives use. I didnt’ make these terms up by the way. Smarter people did. I’ve been trying to argue that there is only one freedom and prove that my version is the real one. I now accept that there is two ways to define freedom. And here’s the rub: both are legitimate. Libertarians and progressives just need to work together to encourage effective freedom in ways that we can both live with.

Libertarians see liberty from a “freedom-from” position. To a libertarian, a person is free when he no one is forcing him to do something he doesn’t want to, or using force to keep him from doing something he wants to do. Of course, all bets are off if what he wants to do includes using force on someone else. That would be logically inconsistent.

Progressives see liberty from a “freedom-to” position. To a progressive, a person is not free if he doesn’t have the means to do that thing that he is otherwise free to do. Progressives and libertarians agree on a lot of things that a person is free to do/ not do. Where we part ways is how we go about empowering people to do what they want, but don’t have the necessary tools to actually do it.

For example, contrary to some of the progressive rhetoric about libertarians wanting to see poor people starving on the street, sacrificed on some kind of “free market alter,” nothing could be further from the truth. We love people just as much as progressives do. That’s why we encourage free market capitalism so strongly: we really belive that it is the best way to ensure the least amount of people end up in that condition as possible. We really do, progressives. Really. And there is science to back that assertion up. So bear with us a little.

Alternatively, I’ve been convinced that the progressive agenda was really about “soaking The Rich” and that issues like poverty or access to necessities are really just excuses. But the vast majority of progressives just want hungry people to have food, and they see market capitalism as the reason they don’t have it. What I am starting to realize is that they look out into the economy and examples of market capitalism failing to do what libertarians (and conservatives) say it should do. Further, if government is supposed to secure liberty, progressives expect government to intervene in order to end the disparity. When resources are moved from where they aren’t being used to the betterment of society toward where they are being used that way, the mission of “securing the blessing of liberty” is clearly made evident. The evidence is right before everyones’ eyes.

Libertarians are quick to point out that what we are talking about when we say “market capitalism” is a far cry from what we have now. What we have now is a far cry from true free markets. But where libertarians advocate moving toward free markets, progressives advocate more central management of the economy instead. I get it: more of the same gets more of the same. When progressives advocate more central management of the economy, libertarians see more of what keeps the system from working. More of the same gets more of the same, again. And we stare at each other incredulously wondering why we would be willing to sacrifice people over “politics.”

Here’s the rub: both of us want a different system in place to allocate resources fairly and equitably. Both of us want it because we want people to be prosperous. Both of us want people to be free. Both of us believe that it is the proper role for government to ensure we are all free. So why the arguing?

Back to the different versions of freedom we espouse. How is a person free to eat if he can’t get any food? How is a person free to own a home if he can’t get a mortgage? How is a person free to go to college if he is too poor to pay the tuition? To a progressive, the answer is simple: government exists to ensure people are free. Government should ensure that people have the resources they need to do the things that they have a right to do. Effective freedom.

Libertarians on the other hand believe that formal freedom, freedom from coercion is the best way to ensure effective freedom. That is because we believe that the greatest enemy to freedom is the government itself. Government has a necessary monopoly on the initiation of force, and when it uses that force in ways that restrict our freedom, even if it is to provide the resources that proponents of effective freedom advocate, we see a reduction of liberty, not an increase in freedom. At best what we see is a transfer of “freedom” from one group to another. And I can see where that might seem “fair” to some people, it comes with enormous moral hazards. I submit that those moral hazards tend to make the problems worse rather than better. I wish libertarians and progressives could get past the yelling and investigate these occurences together. Conservatives are unwilling to do it at all.

We libertarians get a little carried away with rhetoric sometimes. “Taxation is theft!” isn’t helping our image with progressives, for sure. As I have said, there is a certain shock value we hope to gain when we say it, but let’s face it: there has been too much shock and not enough value, so I hope libertarians reign that in a bit. I’m trying to myself.

So here’s what I hope we can do, we libertarians and progressives. I hope we can come together and balance our approaches to government involvement in the betterment of people’s’ lives. I’m willing to meet you in the middle. Let’s start by understanding that we really want the same goals accomplished: human and civil rights protected. Economic prosperity made available to everyone. Then let’s respect each others’ concerns about the second and third order consequences to possible solutions to the problems we face. We have a lot of work to do and we’ll never get it done if we can’t talk to each other.


Theft and Taxation: Why I call taxation theft and why you should not be offended.

Libertarians are wont to call taxation theft. Progressives who advocate government reallocation of wealth get livid when we say it, and Conservatives who generally hate taxes but want a strong national defense sometimes resort to the biblical admonition to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” as they give up on the logical inconsistency of holding both views at the same time.

I recently admitted to a particularly intelligent, if hopelessly opinionated progressive that I am a little hyperbolic about taxation being theft. I thought I would take a minute to explain.

Theft is taking someone’s property without their consent. If a man with a gun came to your house and demanded that you give him 40% of your paycheck, you would agree with me. You would clearly feel threatened and would call the police when he left because you did not give the money willingly. You did not consent to it. You were coerced.

If the man came back on the evening of the next payday, he would not need to show you the gun. You would know that the gun was there because you saw it last week. Would you still give him the money? Of course you would. You are still being coerced, and you still aren’t consenting. You give it because you are afraid of the consequences of not giving.

Eventually, the collector could merely call you on the phone, as long as the threat of violence for not complying was real. He could even arrange to have the money taken out of your check before you got it. As long as you haven’t consented, you are still being coerced. It is still theft.

“But wait,” you say, “I like having government take a portion of my income and giving it to other people to spend.” Is that still coercive? Maybe not as far as you are concerned. I mean, I guess you can decide after the fact that you are okay with the system as it is. But what about the rest of us?

“But taxes are the price we all pay to live in a free and productive society” you might say. I might agree to an extent, but what if I disagree? When did I become obligated to participate? I had no choice where I was born. I had no choice where I would live, at least for the first 18 or so years of my life. I was brought into a system that I never agreed to, but am somehow obligated to participate in financially…regulated by the whims of the majority through a democratic process. I never consented to it. And I face the prospect of imprisonment (or worse) if I don’t comply. That, ladies and gentlemen, is coercion, whether or not I see the gun when my money is collected.

What I’ve described is called “social contract” theory, whereby it is assumed that all the members of a particular society automatically agree to participate. But contracts require a few things in order to be legitimate: both sides must understand the terms, both sides must enter into it willingly, and both sides must sign it. Social “contracts” are not contracts at all.

Do I personally believe so strongly that taxation is theft that I refuse to participate? Of course not. Aside from the prospect of life-time incarceration, I recognize that at least in the present time and place we need government and government needs funds in order to operate. So why the “taxation is theft” hyperbole? Because the legitimate power to FORCE people to give up their property, particularly their wealth, is an enormous power to have. Unchecked, that power has the capacity to rob us of all of our rights. And because of the nature of how government goes about collecting that money, it is easy for people to lose sight of how that money is being used. Often, the money makes the problem it is supposed to solve WORSE, not better. Without an option to opt out, the people are powerless to stop government and to address the problems in ways that make things better instead.

So consider my rants about theft and taxation a cry in the night if you must. Call me the crazy voice in the darkness, all worked up over so little. But maybe, just maybe, we need a few guys like me reminding everyone that there is a limit to what can be solved by throwing money at problems, and unintended consequences of blindly giving anyone, government included all the money they want whenever they want it. Good ideas don’t need coercion to get people to participate. Resorting to violence, or the threat of it is at least lazy and potentially immoral. There is no room for it in a free society.

Thanks for reading, and share with a friend if you think I’ve said something worth sharing.