Locke, Hobbes and two smoking barrels

"I'm offering you a free choice."

Since I have started writing about weighty issues of political philosophy I thought now would be a good time to explain how I define liberty.

The most influential modern definition of liberty is the absence of coercion. But what this means has always been contested. (What follows owes a lot to Quentin Skinner’s fascinating lecture “A genealogy of liberty”, which is summarised here.)

The discussion of coercion in political theory starts with Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. Hobbes argues that to coerce someone is to physically prevent them from doing something (or force them to do something). On his definition, the highwayman’s demand for “your money or your life” is not coercive, because he gives you a free choice. So there is no such thing as coercion of the will, only of the body (e.g. the highwayman wrestles you to the ground and takes your purse by force, without making any threat).

Hobbes had an ulterior motive in making such a narrow definition of coercion, which was that he was a supporter of a powerful sovereign. Hobbes rejected the republican ideas that had led to the execution of Charles I only two years before Leviathan was published. He argued that it was much better to live under an arbitrary ruler than to live in the brutal chaos of the state of nature. In Hobbes’ mind, subjects forced to follow a sovereign’s laws by the threat of punishment were free.

John Locke had a very different idea of political society, where the state was established not to contain our animal natures but in order to better defend our natural rights and to manage conflicts. Since he is opposed to authoritarianism Locke argues that coercion of the will also negates freedom.

Jeremy Bentham built on this and separated coercion from inducement. He argued that coercion occurs when A threatens B with a penalty for not doing what A wishes. (E.g. a mafioso threatens to burn down your shop if you don’t pay him protection money.) If A offers B a reward for doing what A wants this is not coercive, as B can refuse and be no worse off than he or she was before. (Imagine instead that an insurance company offers to insure you against damage to your shop. If you refuse that offer you are no worse off than you were before.)

All these definitions of freedom describe it as what Isaiah Berlin called “negative liberty” – the absence of coercion. But from the nineteenth century onwards there has been an increasingly influential alternative definition of freedom as “positive liberty” – not merely the absence of coercion but the ability to do what you want or to fulfill your self. This definition has made its way into the international law of human rights in the form of “welfare rights”. Welfare rights are obligations on other people to do something for you (like providing education or giving you a job), while “negative rights” are obligations on other people not to interfere with your choices.

The problem that I and many other people have with this redefinition of liberty and inflation of rights is that it confuses many different values under one. As Isaiah Berlin wrote in Two Concepts of Liberty, “Everything is what it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience.” Freedom from ignorance is knowledge; freedom from conformity is independence; freedom from poverty is wealth. We already have words for all of these, so why should we try to subsume them under the concept of liberty, which means freedom from coercion?

I am sure the liberals who embrace positive liberty mean well; they want to argue that classic liberty and other values go together and are not incompatible. The problem is that positive liberty and welfare rights are used all the time to justify infringements of basic freedoms. (The Soviet Union was particularly adept at this.) Creating an obligation on other people to do something for you can infringe their liberty – in other words, one person’s freedom requires another to be coerced. And as Berlin noted, there is also the risk of drifting into Rousseau’s argument that people may need to be “forced to be free” – that people’s choices may need to be directed to aid their “self-fulfillment”.

As Johan Norberg argues:*

To have freedom to choose is not the same as having many alternatives, or good alternatives. Freedom is having a free choice of the opportunities available to you. What opportunities you have is another question.

To me this is an important point. Liberty is valuable in itself even if the options available to choose from are all pretty poor.** But this should not stop liberals from striving to improve the opportunities available to people. Liberty may be the most important value to liberals, but it is not the only value. I am a supporter of free schools, but I would not support them if they damaged the quality of education. But from a liberal perspective, it is up to the critics of free choice to prove that it is sufficiently harmful to need limiting.

As Conrad Russell argued, liberalism in practice is about power: who gets to use it and for what ends. The aim for liberals should always be to help people gain power over their own lives, without getting any more power than necessary over others. Remembering that liberty is freedom from coercion is central to getting this right.

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*On page 34 of his pamphlet Fullständiga rättigheter (in Swedish). An English blurb is available here.

**In fact, even a person with no options in one particular area can benefit from living in a society with freedom of choice. For example, an illiterate cannot benefit directly from the freedom of the press – he or she cannot write a blog post or read a newspaper – but they benefit indirectly from the information that can be read out to them and from the scrutiny that the free press imposes on the exercise of power.

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One Response to Locke, Hobbes and two smoking barrels

  1. funginix Magnificent Stuff! Must say i’m impressed. fungisil

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