The Dim-Post

January 15, 2013

A brainfart on Freedom

Filed under: philosophy,Politics — danylmc @ 8:27 am

Some think-tank I’ve never heard of has ranked New Zealand as the ‘most free’ country in the world. DPF links to the report, and I was interested in the opening paragraph describing their approach:

In constructing this index, we use indicators that are as consistent as
possible with the concept of negative liberty: the absence of coercive
constraint on the individual. We do not attempt to measure positive
freedom, however desirable such may be, nor do we measure so-called
“claim freedoms,” which often become government-imposed attempts at
realizing positive freedoms (e.g., the “right” or freedom to a have job
or housing).2 As Isaiah Berlin, Friedrich Hayek, and others have noted,
calling other good or desirable things such as wealth “freedom” merely
causes confusion.3

Berlin did preclude wealth from his definition of positive liberties, and then spent much of his career walking back that statement. It was Berlin who coined the phrase ‘Freedom for the wolves means death for the sheep,’ when critiquing the form of laissez faire capitalism this index celebrates, and in which New Zealand is an extreme international outlier.

The basic argument goes like this. There are two kinds of liberty. Negative liberty, in which you are free from coercion by the state or other external powers, and positive liberty in which you have autonomy over your own life. If you only count negative liberty as important, then a child born into poverty with a congenital illness and no access to health-care or education is more ‘free’ than a child born into a state with a taxpayer funded social welfare system, because the coercion involved in state taxation and redistribution compromises that child’s negative liberty.

Berlin made the anti-utopian argument for ‘value-pluralism’, that is a society in which both types of freedom are recognized as important, but since they often conflict with each other we should constantly be compromising, negotiating and debating the extent of both our negative and positive freedoms.  The radical extremes on this axis are totalitarian states in which most individuals have no negative liberty, and oligarchic laissez-faire states in which the government only exists to protect property rights, in which few individuals have any degree of positive liberty. According to this report, New Zealand is closest to reaching that utopia, probably why we’re hemorrhaging  individuals to ‘less free’ countries.


  1. The line “We do not attempt to measure positive freedom, however desirable such may be” kinda indicates the authors may not harbour desires to solyent green pensioners and beneficiaries.

    Comment by TransportationDevice A7-98.1 — January 15, 2013 @ 8:47 am

  2. “According to this report, New Zealand is closest to reaching that utopia, probably why we’re hemorrhaging individuals to ‘less free’ countries.”

    Yeah, like Australia: look at them all the way down at number 4!

    Gosh you say some inane things sometimes.

    Comment by Richard — January 15, 2013 @ 9:14 am

  3. I’ve always been a bit confused as to why property is seen as a negative freedom. A property right is just a claim to have exclusive use of something. A claim that other people have had their right to use the thing extinguished. And so you get fences to stop people ealking, and locks on doors, and counters where you pay for food, and so on.

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t have property rights, just that they don’t seem to be negative rights like the the rights to free speech or thought are. Those rights really do just require you to leave other people alone.

    Comment by Pascal's bookie — January 15, 2013 @ 9:15 am

  4. “walking”, folks can ealk whever they like as yet. But I suspect Brownlee is looking into it.

    Comment by Pascal's bookie — January 15, 2013 @ 9:17 am

  5. Ealk – (ee-ahwk) – v. to immediately vomit profusely due to an overwhelming amount of stress, anxiety, or nervousness.

    Comment by Sam — January 15, 2013 @ 9:36 am

  6. Surely you should be applauding the result as it demonstrates that negative and positive freedom are not incompatible. Not only does NZ score well on the former but with publicly funded health and education systems available to all, significant income support for working families, a strong welfare system for those incapable of work or unable to find it, a guaranteed retirement income and comprehensive coverage for those suffering accidents we are pretty well endowed on the positive dimensions of freedom as well. Perhaps that’s why we do well on the international quality of life indicators as well? Public debate about these things focuses on the margins rather than their fundamental underpinnings suggesting a wide and deep consensus rather than an embattled status quo imperilled by wild eyed fanatics of the right or left, a night watchman state or a totalitarian nightmare.

    Comment by Roger — January 15, 2013 @ 11:26 am

  7. When I looked I was (after that opening and recognising a number of famously libertarian organisations involved) rather pleasantly surprised by some of the things they did include. Environment and social stuff.

    Comment by lyndonhood — January 15, 2013 @ 12:42 pm

  8. Property rights are seen as a negative freedom because if someone nicks your stuff, you’ve lost something – it’s distinct from your right to get it in the first place, which is (generally speaking) a postive freedom.

    The whole thing gets into tricky territory when you start thinking about stuff like ‘the right to the fruits of your labour/investment’ and the right to property you don’t actually use and wouldn’t miss if you lost it. But property rights as in ‘the right to not have your stuff taken off’ you is pretty clearly a negative freedom.

    Comment by helenalex — January 15, 2013 @ 2:43 pm

  9. The closing quote mark is in the wrong place, but you get my meaning.

    Comment by helenalex — January 15, 2013 @ 2:46 pm

  10. Follow the dpf link and do a search on it. The results are interesting and do much to explain the gobbledegook of the report.

    I am surprised that dpf was stupid enough to (a) swallow it, and (b) stupid enough to think any sane person would buy it.
    Maybe he is pitching to disheartened ex ACT supporters?

    Comment by peterlepaysan — January 15, 2013 @ 8:19 pm

  11. What are you talking about Pete?

    Comment by timmy — January 15, 2013 @ 9:19 pm

  12. This is the kind of idiotic post that can only be written by a juvenile tax paid academic with too much time on their hands.

    Comment by monty — January 16, 2013 @ 7:32 am

  13. …And a merry Xmas and a happy new year to you to Monty. I am sure you’ve got a mountain of confiscated toys that small child accidentally allowed to stray onto your lawn over Xmas to keep you happy for the next twelve months, you miserable bastard!

    Comment by Sanctuary — January 16, 2013 @ 8:11 am

  14. the only possible explanation is that Scientologists kidnapped Danyl sometime between Berlin made the anti-utopian argument for ‘value-pluralism’, that is a society in which both types of freedom are recognized as important, but since they often conflict with each other we should constantly be compromising, negotiating and debating the extent of both our negative and positive freedoms. and According to this report, New Zealand is closest to reaching that utopia, probably why we’re hemorrhaging individuals to ‘less free’ countries.

    either that or National’s deregulation of tobacco was the final straw pushing so many across the ditch.

    Comment by NeilM — January 16, 2013 @ 10:05 am

  15. I moved here because I reckoned NZ would wind up at the top of this scale and was right. I was a Canadian living in the US with a Green Card, worried about a growing police state in the US and despondent about Canadian policy. And I came here, reckoning it was massively easier for me to experience more of the policy I like by moving to a place that already has it rather than staying in the States and thinking I’d have any chance of changing policy there.

    So, if you hate that NZ is at the top of this ranking, and if the kinds of things that make up this ranking weigh heavily in your quality of life, why not just leave? I’m not trying to be snarky love it or leave it. Rather, that it is MASSIVELY easier to move to the kinds of policy you want than to move policy in the place you are. I did it. You could too.

    Comment by Eric Crampton (@EricCrampton) — January 16, 2013 @ 3:01 pm

  16. Now children, sit down and listen patiently while Danyl McLaughlin, Professor of Politicsology, explains the novel concept of negative and positive freedoms to us, and in the process blows our minds, because nobody here has ever done a first year Political Science course, and that’s why we read this blog.

    Comment by Hugh — January 16, 2013 @ 8:52 pm

  17. Why DO you read this blog, Hugh?

    Comment by Flashing Light — January 16, 2013 @ 9:25 pm

  18. It’s in his job description.

    Comment by Guy Smiley — January 16, 2013 @ 9:44 pm

  19. Somebody’s got to stop Danyl from becoming the lefty DPF.

    Comment by Hugh — January 16, 2013 @ 11:05 pm

  20. He’s not liberal enough for that job, mind you liberal lefties are pretty rare beasts these days.

    Comment by Roger — January 17, 2013 @ 7:40 am

  21. Leaving aside arguments about exactly what liberalism means (since that would be basically doing what I accused Danyl of here) I’ll say that Danyl is a pretty solid and down-the-line Green supporter.

    Now, while you can make an argument* that the Greens’ position as the most left-leaning political party in the country isn’t as much of a given as a lot of media “analysts” make it out to be, But when Danyl attacks Labour, it’s almost always from a they’re-not-left-enough perspective.

    *One that I’m sympathetic to.

    Comment by Hugh — January 17, 2013 @ 8:48 am

  22. That’s awfully civic-minded of you, Hugh. Do you dress up in tights and cape when performing this heroic role?

    Comment by Flashing Light — January 17, 2013 @ 8:54 am

  23. I’m more of a deerstalker and tweed guy, but you’re basically there.

    Comment by Hugh — January 17, 2013 @ 8:57 am

  24. Here is the Chris Laidlaw interview on this topic from back in early August – – well worth a listen, if only to remind us all of Milton Friedmans collaboration with the criminal Pinochet dictatorship.

    Comment by Sanctuary — January 17, 2013 @ 9:38 am

  25. Ah yes, Sanctuary,, tolerance of others and their views, openness to new ideas, careful consideration of empirical reality and a sense of humour are all the natural precursors of totalitarian states of both fascist and communist variety. Why hadn’t we seen that before? Surely Kiwiblog should be shut down and David Farrar silenced before any more harm is done.

    Comment by Roger — January 17, 2013 @ 1:27 pm

  26. Roger, If I had the faintest idea what your rant was about I suspect I would disagree.

    Comment by Sanctuary — January 17, 2013 @ 1:55 pm

  27. Quite sancy, you don’t have the slightest, situation normal.

    Comment by timmy — January 17, 2013 @ 9:57 pm

  28. Helenalex wrote: “But property rights as in ‘the right to not have your stuff taken off’ you is pretty clearly a negative freedom.”

    that depends what kind of stuff you’re referring to. If the stuff in question is something naturally occurring, like land, water rights, radio broadcast frequency, then it is more like a positive freedom. Granting you the freedom of exclusive ownership of a water right clearly costs society in the form of a commitment to other people not using that water. This is not to say it’s a bad thing – private ownership of such things can be efficient – but it is equivalent to other rights that are a cost to provide.

    Comment by kahikatea — January 17, 2013 @ 10:02 pm

  29. Tim’s OCD-like fixation with putting a “y” at the end of people’s nom-de-web seems to have expanded to include himself … .

    Comment by Flashing Light — January 18, 2013 @ 9:39 am

  30. Yes we are the most free country. The reasons why we’re losing people to other countries is mostly because of factors that are outside freedom statistics, such as unemployment levels rising because of the global economic crisis. There’s also the fact that we are too free in some areas, eg, there are problems with cronyism in some small patches of our country and lack of regulation in some areas, namely the lack of regulations there are in starting up a business and other similar things that can easily be sorted out.

    Comment by Dan — January 18, 2013 @ 11:07 am

  31. “According to this report, New Zealand is closest to reaching that utopia, probably why we’re hemorrhaging individuals to ‘less free’ countries.”

    Hmm, you mean we are hemorrhaging them to more wealthy countries. Remember: money isn’t everything, but it sure beats whatever’s in second place.

    (I can’t say I agree, but sometimes the need to feed your family overrides the desire to vote for the candidate of your choice.)

    Comment by Clunking Fist — January 18, 2013 @ 12:50 pm

  32. Spike Milligan said it best; “Money can’t buy you happiness …. But it does bring you a more pleasant form of misery.”

    Comment by Gregor W — January 18, 2013 @ 1:35 pm

  33. Aw, don’t bad sad flashy lightly, I won’t leave you out. By the way, Sanctuary ends in a y so what you should have said was shortening names and ending with a y perhaps even creating a deminuitive.

    Comment by timmy — January 19, 2013 @ 5:29 am

  34. I don’t buy this take on the report, and I get the strong feeling you didn’t read it in full, but rather objected to a libertarian interpretation of negative liberty on the intro page, and didn’t go any deeper. Taxation and social welfare may be elements of ‘negative liberty’ under a libertarian view of liberty, but they’re not used as part of the index, and are thus irrelevant.

    Looking at the details, the only part of the index that’s suspicious to me is the ‘threat to property’ category, containing theft, burglary, and inheritance, which could be code for taxation. The first two, however, are scored on per capita criminal offences, while the last is a measure of gender equality in inheritance law, with data from the UN Office of Drugs & Crime and the OECD. The other 31 measures are exactly what I’d expect in an index like this – freedom from extra judicial killings, limits on speech, freedom of movement, and so forth.

    Details of the index are in the report’s Appendix B, and a summary of the index is on page 4 (58).

    Incidentally, I agree that an index based on a libertarian version of liberty would not be something to be proud of. There’s a more theoretical article (that I’ve not read properly) linked in the text of the merits of different conceptions and their application to measuring freedom: McMahon, Fred (2010). Literature Review: The Fraser Institute Human Freedom Project

    Comment by xorgnz — January 24, 2013 @ 11:14 am

  35. Freedom is desirable and children having access to education and healthcare is desirable, but there is no point confusing the two. Berlin’s idea of “positive liberty” is not simply about the gaining of some popular good. If you read Berlin’s original essay you will see that Berlin’s idea of ” “positive liberty” was explicitly about the ancient and Hegelian notion of the realisation of some higher self, some authentic true self, free not from the impediments place by other men, but from “irrational impulse, uncontrolled desires, my ‘lower’ nature, the pursuit of immediate pleasures, my ’empirical’ or ‘heteronomous’ self, swept by every gust of desire and passion, needing to be rigidly disciplined if it is ever to rise to the full height of its ‘real’ nature.”

    But what gives such plausibility as it has to this kind of language is that we recognise that it is possible, and at times justifiable, to coerce men in the name of some goal (let us say, justice or public health) which they would, if they were more enlightened, themselves pursue, but do not, because they are blind or ignorant or corrupt. This renders it easy for me to conceive of myself as coercing others for their own sake, in their, not my, they would not resist me if they were rational and as wise as I and understood their interests as I do

    And this then is the justification used by anti-liberals today to justify some new restriction on tobacco or alcohol, to prohibit recreational drugs, to try to regulate one’s choice in food as those in the government and the Labour and Green parties are apt to do. Berlin himself recognised the danger of this view.

    Once I take this view, I am in a position to ignore the actual wishes of men or societies, to bully, oppress, torture them in the name, and on behalf, of their ‘real’ selves, in the secure knowledge that whatever is the true goal of man (happiness, performance of duty, wisdom, a just society, self-fulfilment) must
    be identical with his freedom – the free choice of his ‘true’, albeit often submerged and inarticulate, self.

    The whole idea of ” positive liberty” is confused. It is something that proponents of “positive liberty” themselves understand As Thomas Green said “As soon as the term ‘freedom’ comes to be applied to anything else than an established relation between a man and other men, its sense fluctuates much more.” Berlin himself said “nothing is gained by a confusion of terms”: “Everything is what it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet culture.” Conflating a whole bunch of goods and stipulations with the concept of freedom merely leads to confusion. Freedom is an inherently social concept about the relation between man and other men. It is not about finding one’s true self, it is not about wealth or ability, it is not about access to popular goods. We already have words for all those things.

    Here is a thought experiment. Take a Robinson Crusoe alone on an island. He is thirsty and hungry. Suddenly a spring wells up from the ground and fruit materalises on a tree. Is he more free than he was before? The proponent of the confused concept of positive liberty would answer in the affirmative. According to them the spring and the tree increased Robinson Crusoe’s freedom. The proponent of ” negative liberty” would say he is neither more or less free because freedom is a social concept. It is about the relationship between man and other men.

    Comment by Quoth the Raven — January 25, 2013 @ 1:14 pm

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