Negative Liberty

Where freedom equates to a lack of standards, it necessarily entails no rubric for success. This means that success becomes arbitrary. “Arbitrary success,” as it turns out, is a fine description of privilege. This is negative liberty.



This simple logic should be enough to show how negative liberty is suspect. To further that end, here are three areas where negative liberty can be shown to have a negative effect. Economics, society and politics all suffer as a result of negative liberty.



Negative Liberty in Economics



The issues of negative liberty in economics has received a lot of attention from the Left. As it pertains to arbitrariness, freedom in economics has had a number of manifestations. To name a couple, there are “gifts” and “marketing”.



A “gift” in this context is any financial benefit given for interpersonal reasons. This can take the form of family paid tuition, living in a family home and, of course, inheritance. They can also exist outside the family. A friend can pay your tuition, hold you up in their house or give you an inheritance or large monetary gift during their life. All of these are advantages denied to others on grounds other than merit.



“Marketing,” following a similar type of thinking, would be the use of perception to gain income. This can be anything from simply interviewing well to selling products with psychology. Financial “bubbles” depend, in large part, on marketing. “Bubbles” form when the perceived value of an item outstrips its real value. This perception can be created via marketing. In any event, marketing and perception have a limited relationship to the quality of a product. As such, they serve to remove success from merit.



The responses to these issues would vary. Inheritance could easily be taxed. Marketing expenses could lose their status as deductibles. The smaller items could be made up for on the other end by providing housing to those in need and funding higher level education. All of these solutions would be effective (assuming the cost factor was handled), but they will never be considered so long as society maintains its reverence to Negative Liberty.



Negative Liberty in Social Interaction


This is an area that the Left seriously struggles with. It seems a good many of their leaders have become rather wealthy and have turned their attention from the “haves” and the “have nots” to the “oppressed” and the “oppressors”. Oppression is worth worrying about, but in a world without standards it is seen in the strangest of places.



The standards regarding oppression are often impossible to meet. For empirical verification, simply google the terms “is a feminist issue” and “is racist”. To call some of the issues presented “first world problems” is an understatement. Some of them are scarcely upper class problems! How did it get like this?



We live in a world obsessed with negative liberty. There are little to no standards. As such, once sustenance needs are met and people are left to seek out new goals they are given little guidance or help in defining those goals. Of course, people should be autonomous and self-directing, but many are not. They do not have the tools to define themselves because negative liberty lacks the capacity to provide these. Given that we live in an other-directed society, many will define their goals based on the approval of their peers. Those that fail to gain acceptance will become anomic. It becomes them against the world.



Naturally, those anomics that belong to a traditionally oppressed group (and one might argue that anomics, themselves, are oppressed!) are going to leverage that. Often this provides the acceptance they crave. In an other-directed society, people can put a high premium on being kind to the disadvantaged. So, they now have a place. They now “fit”. They “fit” contingent on their continued state of oppression. It follows that the gears start turning in order keep the perception of oppression alive. Worse still, if their anomie was the reason for this “oppression,” they now have an incentive to keep acting out! (If you know any drug addicts, ask yourself if they don’t sometimes use their “suffering” for status.)



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So, negative liberty leads to SJWs? Yes, that is what I am arguing. Often the complaint about SJWs is that they are “illiberal” or “totalitarian”. As such, the people who recoil at suggestions of positive liberty tend to recoil at SJWs for the same reason. They have backed themselves into a corner with these motives. In social life, as in economics, if there are no standards, someone will assert control.



As an aside, negative liberty is also the reason a lynch mob can cause a person to be fired for a perceived offense. In an anything goes culture, we have failed to define productive human effort as more valuable than personal feelings.



These issues could easily be addressed if the government took an active role in giving people a place in society. If people were deliberately educated so as to provide them both with a career and with a meaning to their lives (and that means addressing religion!), we’d be able to avoid a lot of the petty nonsense we deal with these days. Negative liberty, of course, precludes this, so Libertarians can thank themselves for the strange creatures we have in these strange times.


Negative Liberty in Politics



What is a politician’s job in a world without standards? Perhaps it is to ensure the survival of the people in society. After that is accomplished, however, the objectives become harder to discern. In a multicultural, other-directed society, individual caprice has become God. Politicians pander to the ever-changing desires of the people.



The result of this is that the public learns to judge politicians according to effectively meaningless standards. “Don’t raise my taxes,” “not in my backyard,” “those people are a nuisance,” “what are you doing for people like me.” These are the concerns of a rudderless public. An unscrupulous politician need only meet the needs of the largest number to avoid censor for genuine corruption.



This is negative liberty in action. No one feels an obligation to their country. Their voting reflects this. They vote in a petty, self-interested fashion. In my country, there are a good many eligible voters. There are not, however, very many people whom I would call “citizens.” Citizenship should entail giving a hoot about something outside of your narrow self-interest. Almost no one does.



So, as we can see, negative liberty affects society at multiple levels. The world we live in today is a lowest-common-denominator society. By limiting our intervention and allowing the individual to run society, we pay a steep price. This is not to say that our society reflects the awfulness of individuals. That may or may not be true. What is true, however, is that our society reflects the worst individuals and the worst parts of them.


Jason Calhougney writing for the Apollo Institute of Reason AIR Review©

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