Freedom as non-interference versus Freedom as opportunity set

At Left2Right, Elizabeth Anderson has been discussing freedom; in particular, she’s been discussing two different notions of freedom. The first, “freedom as non-interference,” is the notion of freedom most Libertarians appeal to. The second, “freedom as opportunity set” – the idea that people are most free when they have a large variety of desirably options to choose between – is more like my personal conception of freedom, and I suspect that of most folks who favor redistributive government policies.

If the only kind of freedom that matters is that no one intentionally interfere with one’s formal freedom of action, and not that one’s opportunity set be large and full of worthwhile options, then freedom-lovers would have to oppose traffic laws, stop lights, and so forth, for interfering with freedom of movement. The result of a lack of such laws, however, is not actual freedom of movement, but, in areas of high traffic density, gridlock. (And, in areas of high traffic flow, grave danger.) To be sure, in a state of gridlock, one has the formal freedom to choose any movement in one’s opportunity set–which amounts to being able to rock forward and back a couple of inches from bumper to bumper, getting nowhere. Some freedom! By contrast, if we give up certain formal freedoms–to run red lights and stop signs, to drive indiscriminately across lanes–we get in return a vastly expanded opportunity set, including the ability to actually get to places one wants to go, more safely and quickly than if we hadn’t given up those freedoms. The point of formal freedom of movement–the right to move around, without coercive inteference by the state or other people–is that it is instrumental to expanding actual opportunities to move around where one wants to go. Merely formal freedom of movement, with nowhere to move to, or nowhere worth moving to, is not an end in itself. Different configurations of formal freedom of movement–different traffic laws–are justified by the extent of the opportunities for safe freedom of movement they enable. Give up a little freedom-as-non-interference, get a big bundle of freedom as real opportunities to move around to worthwhile places in return. A pretty spectacular bargain in terms of freedom, if you ask me.

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20 Responses to Freedom as non-interference versus Freedom as opportunity set

  1. 1
    Vache Folle says:

    I am not certain that the basic premise is accurate. The writer assumes that the absence of coercive traffic laws will lead to gridlock, but is it not also possible that voluntary rules of behavior will emerge? In life, each of us compromises our freedom in the abstract by choosing this or that preference over other possible choices, but it does not necessarily follow that these sacrifices of freedom should be directed by a coercive state. When you surrender your freedom to the state, you are not likely to enhance your opportunity set. Rather, the state gets to decide what opportunities you will be able to pursue.

  2. 2
    Robert says:

    The traffic example begs the question. We don’t know what would happen in our culture if we had traffic anarchy (no rules and restrictions). Maybe there would be an emergent order that would provide effective mediation of conflicts and bottlenecks; that order might even be more effective/efficient than the command and control model that we generally use now.

    In fact, experience tends to back the view that the existing system is nonessential. I’ve driven in cities where the power to the signals has failed, and so have most people. There is a lot of inefficiency created at each intersection – but traffic does continue to move as people work out solutions (generally, taking turns). There’s no reason to believe that the observed inefficiencies would not diminish in magnitude over time as people worked out informal methods of mediating conflicts over the constrained resource.

    There does have to be some underlying formal structure for emergent order to function, but in the case of transportation, physics probably is sufficiently formal; thou shalt not violate f=ma.

    (Now why the heck am I posting this here? I should go post it over at her site.)

  3. 3
    ginmar says:

    Yeah, but what do you do when you’re confronted with people who want the freedom of opportunity to abuse you, and you want the freedom to be free of them and their freedom? Freedom to and freedom from. How do you reconcile those?

    Freedom’s a nice concept if you don’t have the power to enjoy it.

    I’m unusually cynical this morning, but it’s Monday. Please skim off about 50% of my cynicism and proceed.

  4. 4
    Radfem says:

    Both freedoms are important for people.

    Freedom from interference has many different meanings though.

    Currently, federal grand juries in San Francisco(environmental, animal rights activists, former Black Panthers) and San Diego(anti-war, anti-Minutemen activists) are convening now, and have subpoened local activists in those areas to testify, in order to break the resolve of some of the movements. It’s a tactic, the government has used for many years. I am familiar with one guy who was subpoened b/c he protested in my city, and he’s no threat to anyone.

    Activism or free speech and assembly without interference from the government

  5. 5
    Ampersand says:

    Robert, to claim that a situation in which the traffic light isn’t temporarily out of order tells us anything about a society in which there are no traffic laws whatsoever is an enourmous stretch.

    First of all, other laws – such as intersections with no lights but stop signs – have taught us how to deal with light-less intersections.

    Second of all, in your example, other important traffic laws – such as the law regarding which side of the street to drive on – were still in effect.

    Ginmar, both libertarian and non-libertarian ideas of freedom take it as a given that no one can have the freedom to abuse someone else. At least, not in a direct, physical fashion.

  6. 6
    paul says:

    As a practical argument, this kind of thing makes perfect sense, but on a philosophical level it runs smack into Ben Franklin. Which just means that the question really can’t be answered by appeal to first principles, only by talking about what lines you draw where in particular cases. And I’ve always found libertarians particularly unconvincing at explaining why the combination of freedoms and restrictions they like is so much better than the combinations sane people like.

  7. 7
    Tom says:

    The issue of traffic isn’t a compelling one simply because removing traffic signals in high-congestion areas has been tried, and the result is more cooperation between drives and safer areas:

    I’m just being picky here with the example used in the argument — I agree with the gist of it!

  8. 8
    Brian Vaughan says:

    I suppose it’s useful to distinguish “freedom to” and “freedom from,” but I think there’s a dialectical relation between the two, rather than it being a simple matter of two incompatible concepts.

    I’m thinking about, for instance, the freedom of “free love.” That consenting adults should be free to do as they please with each other’s bodies could be described as “freedom from,” that being freedom from outside interference. But it could also be described as “freedom to,” since as a practical matter, it requires unrestricted access to contraception and abortion. It seems to me the freedom here is the totality that involves the unity of “freedom from” and “freedom to.”

    My sense is that freedom is a material question (I’m one of those Marxists Elizabeth Anderson was carefully distinguishing herself from, so I suppose this is what she doesn’t like). The old cliche is that freedom isn’t free, and there’s truth in that: my sense is that there’s a tradeoff between the responsibility to participate in social production and the freedom that social production enables.

    A trivial example: where I work, there’s a supply closet, where they stock lots of boxes of stick pens. Someone has the responsibility of keeping that supply closet stocked; and I can go and grab a box of stick pens anytime I like, without having to obtain permission or inform anyone. Stick pens are cheap and abundant, and it’s easiest to just maintain a supply and allow everyone the freedom to draw on that supply as they see fit.

  9. 9
    Josh Jasper says:

    Freedom is of little use, if all you’re free to do is starve to death.

  10. 10
    Ampersand says:

    Tom, it’s an interesting counter-example, but it’s not an example of “no laws”; for it to work, the system has to have laws that require roads designed to work without signs and lights (for example, traffic circles). Left on its own, the free market will tend to build exactly the worse kind of roads: wide, many lanes, encouraging drivers to go fast. It seems to me that the sort of system this man is suggesting requires central planning.

    Also, I’m not sure that traffic circles and the other suggestions here are are a viable solution for, say, Brooklyn. But of course, Brooklyn already incorporates one of these suggestions successfully in many places – the narrow, pedestrian-friendly roads, encouraging drivers to be cautious.

    Nonetheless, that’s a really interesting article, and thanks for posting it.

    I think that you may be right that the example doesn’t hold up as well as the priciples the example is illustrating do.

    [Edited by Amp to be less stupid.]

  11. 11
    noodles says:

    Freedom is the most abused word in the English language in 2005. Discuss.

  12. 12
    Josh Jasper says:

    Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.

  13. 13
    Dresden says:

    Long time lurker, first time commenting. = ] Hope I don’t take up too much space…

    I’ve been thinking about the various connotations of the word “freedom” ever since an argument on a thread about social mobility at pandagon a while ago. My interlocutor (who turned out to be something of a troll) had quoted a set of “rules” for financial success. Of course, these “economic suggestions” overlapped tellingly with non-economic conservative values–for example, one rule condemned divorce. I tried to explain why I thought these rules (even if they were relevant, which was dubious) were unfair, and that I believe people should be free to make many different “lifestyle” choices without jeopardizing their economic security. But in the process, it occured to me that “freedom” was not the only ideal in play. Another important American value is involved as well, that while deeply related to freedom is nevertheless not the same thing–equality.

    I was reminded of the cliche “freedom isn’t free,” and it’s first cousin, “with freedom comes responsibility.” Those statements had always seemed utterly empty before, but then I came up with an interpretation that actually held meaning. Living in a constitutional democracy sometimes means constraining (on the collective level) or refraining from (on the individual level) actions that one might otherwise want to pursue; we usually call this “sacrifice.” This view is behind the assertion that people must sacrifice liberty (or “freedom to”) for security (or “freedom from”). [The old addage comes to mind about the right to swing one’s fist.]

    But sacrifice is not a merely negative act. Ethical choices are not made in a vaccuum; they by definition include other people. Deciding “I won’t do this because it would hurt you” is saying “I’m not the only one who counts here; you count too.” When an employer refuses to discriminate against employees because of race or sex or whatever, she is not simply saying “no” to discrimination; she is saying “yes” to the fundamental equality of all human beings. That equality is at the very base of democracy. Democracy is about making possible as many different choices as we can while hurting or excluding as few people as we can–because everyone deserves the same rights and opportunities.

    The Bush administration obviously values freedom–the freedom to do whatever the fuck they want without worrying about anyone else. What they do not value, as they have demonstrated time and again, is the basic dignity of all human beings–equality. We cannot talk about algebraically balancing freedoms without bringing equality into the equation.

  14. 14
    emjaybee says:

    By the way, Garret A. Morgan, an African-American, is credited with the invention of the traffic light. And it was invented for a reason, namely, that it could replace *human* traffic cops, who were considered absolutely necessary to direct traffic. It was seeing a horrific crash between a horse-drawn buggy and a car that inspired him to invent it, and it was patented in 1923, when, I dare say, traffic was both slower and less congested than now in most places.

    In slow, residential areas, people might be–MIGHT be–able to take turns and be civil. But having driven in many different types of situations myself, I can safely say there are plenty of drivers who won’t do so unless there is a penalty for not doing it. The weakness of a self-regulating traffic flow is that all it takes is one person to decide to act only in their interest (or to just be stupid) to make it dangerous for everyone else. I was present at the NYC blackout, and while many drivers and citizens were cordial, many were not, and if the situation had continued much longer, people would’ve gotten hurt.

    The amount of damage a car can do to its passengers and other drivers/pedestrians is immense; I don’t think you’d find many EMTs or traffic cops who had been to the aftermath of a car wreck to be in favor of dropping traffic regulations.

  15. 15
    Glaivester says:

    It does not follow that in a libertarian society, there would be no traffic laws. Rather, whoever owned a road would make the traffic laws for that road.

    One may argue that such a system would not encourage sensible traffic rules, but that dowsn’t mean that there would be no rules. Anarchy, in the sense of no rules, would only apply to roads that had no owner and which no one was willing to stake a claim to.

    “I’m thinking about, for instance, the freedom of “free love.”? That consenting adults should be free to do as they please with each other’s bodies could be described as “freedom from,”? that being freedom from outside interference. But it could also be described as “freedom to,”? since as a practical matter, it requires unrestricted access to contraception and abortion. It seems to me the freedom here is the totality that involves the unity of “freedom from”? and “freedom to.”?”

    No, I think you’re missing the distinction here. “Freedom from” gives you the right to have unrestricted access to contraception and abortion in the sense that no one is making it illegal. “Freedom to” would mean that you have the right to force someone else to provide you with contraception and abortion. As in, if you couldn’t afford an abortion, someone else will be forced to pay for it or the abortion provider will be forced to do it pro bono.

  16. 16
    NonEuclid says:

    Hello, Everyone. I was introduced to this site by my fiance, and I’ve been lurking a while. So here is my first time jumping in on a thread.

    I think it is important to recognize that there is a tension between “freedom from” (sometimes called negative freedom) and “freedom to” (sometimes called positive freedom). Thinking gets sloppy when someone starts to think people can have it all if we just did things his/her way. Now, a society can certainly value both freedom and equality (“freedom to” tends to be a way of re-framing equality), and try to balance the two, but it can’t have both without accepting compromises on both. Likewise, a society can’t achieve both full “freedom from” and full “freedom to”–what it can do is hold them both as values, and make compromises on a case by case basis.

    Certainly, in a great many cases I personally would prefer “freedom from.” For one, decentralized groups often come up with better solutions than centralized planninng. Centralized planning has a long history of failures, whether the central planning agency is a government, or the management team of a multi-national corporation that has grown so large, and whose leadership is so far from the local conditions its decisions impact, that any free market feedback system is for practical purposes non-existence at the moment of decision. For another, I don’t trust centralized planning groups. I certainly prefer the way the web, for example, has developed in a self-governing way over an approach of placing government oversite over its contents, usage and rules.

    That said, I don’t think the principle of “freedom from” should everywhere and always trump “freedom to”. To pick one of the strongest successes of “freedom to”, I look at the Civil Rights act. An employer’s “freedom from” restriction on hiring, meaning he/she could hire based on whatever criteria he/she wanted, including racist criteria, was taken away because we value a black man/woman’s “freedom to” compete fairly for any job, regardless of race, as a higher criteria in that case.

    So, I think it is very important to be clear on a philosophical level that “freedom from” and “freedom to” are in conflict, and you can’t have both. I also think anyone who claims to act only from one of the two principles is probably either lying or fooling themselves. (I’ve never met a libertarian who suggested we should all have “freedom from” paying the taxes necessary to support a military and a police force that can enforce property rights. And I’ve never met anyone on the Left who didn’t have, regardless of what they argued, a visceral reaction to reductions of their “freedom from” the government.) We all seem to understand and value both principles. So, once we acknowledge that there is a theoretical conflict, it seems the next step is to stop holding one criteria up as superior to the other. The real task is the far policy-wonkier (policy-wonkier?) task of going case by case, and seeing where we limit “freedom from” a bit to achieve more “freedom to”, and where we insist on “freedom from”, even if it means accepting a differing level of “freedom to” for some poeple.


  17. 17
    Brian Vaughan says:

    No, I think you’re missing the distinction here. “Freedom from”? gives you the right to have unrestricted access to contraception and abortion in the sense that no one is making it illegal. “Freedom to”? would mean that you have the right to force someone else to provide you with contraception and abortion. As in, if you couldn’t afford an abortion, someone else will be forced to pay for it or the abortion provider will be forced to do it pro bono.

    No, I’m not missing the distinction. I’m saying the two aren’t truly independent of each other. Contraception is useless if you’re not allowed to have sexual intercourse; you’re not really free to have sexual intercourse unless you have unrestricted access to contraception and abortion. The mere existence of contraception doesn’t make it accessible. “Free love” isn’t a fully realized possibility. And it won’t be, unless we collectively decide to make it so.

    I think it is important to recognize that there is a tension between “freedom from”? (sometimes called negative freedom) and “freedom to”? (sometimes called positive freedom).

    As I said, there’s a dialectical relation between the two. That is, there’s a tension between them (as if they’re arguing) but they’re part of a greater whole. In the fullest sense, freedom involves both. I don’t think it’s a simple matter of finding a balance point between the two, either; increasing productivity decreases the amount of labour necessary to achieve abundance, and potentially allows for greater freedom from and freedom to alike — assuming equitable distribution, which is a big assumption.

  18. 18
    Glaivester says:

    “Contraception is useless if you’re not allowed to have sexual intercourse; you’re not really free to have sexual intercourse unless you have unrestricted access to contraception and abortion. The mere existence of contraception doesn’t make it accessible. “Free love”? isn’t a fully realized possibility. And it won’t be, unless we collectively decide to make it so.”

    But I could likewise argue that if no one wants to have sex with me, I’m not really free to have sexual intercourse, and therefore I have the right to rape someone. The person who resists the rape is, by this argument, trying to force his or her will on the rapist as much as he or she is trying to force his or her will on them. Or perhaps, rape is okay as long as the collective agrees to it; if it is collectively decided that Jane should have sex with Jim, then she has no right to say no, because that would deny Jim’s freedom to have sex with her, and the freedom of society to choose who has sex.

    It seems to me that a lot of the arguing about “freedom to” being so closely related to “freedom from” is another way of saying “I have the right to force my ideas on you, you don’t have the right to force your ideas on me.”

  19. 19
    Brian Vaughan says:

    If there’s no consent, it’s not really sex.

    You also skipped over the bit about this requiring our collective decision to establish “free love” as a principle.

  20. 20
    roberta robinson says:

    Freedom is relative, it depends on who you ask, in this world we have laws for a reason, there are penalties but yet you have lots of lawbreakers despite those laws, take away the laws and you add more people who are willing to risk their life and limb as well as everyone elses too, I can imagine what would happen if we didn’t have laws to govern conduct in society, we would have total chaos,

    trouble is it depends on the reasons those laws are made, is it for the benefit of people or is it to benefit the rich or make them richer or to prevent competiton or whatever. or to just benefit a few over the many.

    traffic laws are usually, and I mean usually to keep people from killing each other either accidentally or purposly when driving their cars. trouble is even with all these things in place, education, laws, traffic signals etc, many thousands still die in auto related fatalities.

    and in most cases it was because someone was either breaking the law or was just inattenetive, distracted as it were. that is why they push for certain laws such as not driving and talking on the cell phone, I have been with friends who are driving and trying to open and read their mail at the same time or putting on make up and driving, that makes me very nervous and I remind them that is dangerous.

    I do not do that, and refuse to. I guess your freedom is as much freedom as you give to others. if you restrict others you only restrict yourself, we cannot however count on the moral values or social graces of others to keep everything in balance. there will always be those who abuse the freedoms they have thus inffriging on others freedoms.

    along with exercising freedoms you have consequences or penalties laws or not. if you drive to fast (even if there were no speed laws) you run the risk of a serious accident, and if you are involved in one, you have a greater chance of serious injury or death if you are traveling at 80 mph then if you are traveling at 40 mph at the time of the incident.

    and we cannot count on people’s sense of self preservation or their recognizing the serious responsibility of driving to ensure they will do all they can to avoid wrecks in their cars, many people believe they won’t ever have an wrech no matter what they do, overconfidence is a killer too.

    and this applies in other areas. you may have the freedom to have sex with anyone you want to, consenting, but you also suffer consequences of that freedom, unwanted pregenancies, sexual transmitted disease, emotional hurts, conflicts with others you have had relations with too that sorta thing, guilty conscience, loss of self respect, the list is endless.

    so freedoms do not mean lack of responsibility for your actions. what we do effects others. what should be the focus is how to teach and get people to cultivate love of neighbor, if you love your neighbor as much as yourself you would not want to steal from them, drive recklessly because you want to minimize any chance you might hurt someone, not poisen their enviroment if you own a company that has chemical wastes or whatever (like corporations do) not hurt them in other ways, that love would protect you from doing anyting that would hurt others and that alone would mean we would need minimal laws.

    alas most people do not want to cultivate such a love, it would require what was mentioned in other’s posts, self sacrifice, and such self sacrifice is considered hinderence of freedom. it takes effort to cultivate such a concept, or moral strength in one’s heart.

    Love is seeking the others advantage too not just your own. but that is one thing you cannot legislate in people, unselfish love. that is something we have to do ourselves if we want to.