Friday, July 25, 2003

Telemarketing and positive liberty

It occurs to me that the second part of yesterday's freedom from telemarketers post - the bit about who is entitled to balance the interests of the conflicting selves - is a really good example of the difference between negative and positive liberty. It's also an excellent example for Alan Henderson of why "legal protection of property rights" is a positive rather than negative liberty.

First, definitions. Isaiah Berlin introduced the idea of negative and positive liberty in his landmark paper "Two Concepts of Liberty". Negative liberty is generally understood as freedom from outside interference; it's also related to questions of "what may I do". Positive liberty, OTOH, is generally characterised as "freedom to", and is related to the question of "who rules me", or who (or what) is qualified to make decisions on my behalf, and with concepts of the good life. Positive liberty is also related to questions of providing the means by which other liberties may be exercised... the rights to education, healthcare and basic welfare are positive liberties because they are seen as necessary to lead any decent human existence.

The basis behind a "do not call" list is that people have a right to privacy, or a right to their own time, uninterrupted by phone-spam. However, absent some form of legal protection, that right means nothing - people can violate it at will, with no comeback. In order for the right to be meaningful and useful, it needs some form of legal protection to enforce it and allow those who violate it to be punished. Hence, a "do not call" list.

The same argument applies to private property rights, which Henderson characterises in terms of freedom from theft. Absent a stable legal environment which both enables proof of ownership (via titles, deeds, receipts and what have you) and punishes thieves, your "freedom from theft" is worth precisely nothing. Again, the legal environment is what makes it meaningful and useful - which is why the Cato institute pays attention to it when handing out points on its freedom index.

(The same argument applies to sound money and a (negative) freedom from fraud, BTW - though Crooked Timber has a few things to say on this as well...)