Do women today have more libertarian freedom than in 1880?

by on April 14, 2010 at 7:29 am in History, Philosophy | Permalink

Bryan Caplan set off a debate which has spread to many corners of the blogosphere.  I have no interest in recapping and evaluating the whole thing but I'd like to make a simple but neglected point: negative liberty and positive liberty are not separable.

Here is one simple scenario.  Let's say the government tells me I have to buy and place a five-foot ceramic grizzly bear statue on my front lawn.  How bad an act of coercion is that?  If I have an upper-middle class income, it's an inconvenience and an aesthetic blight but no great tragedy.  If I have a Haitian per capita income, it is a very bad act of coercion and it will impinge on my life prospects severely.  I either give up some food or they send me to jail.

In other words, even theories of negative liberty — purely libertarian theories where only negative liberty seems to matter — require standards for degrees of coercion.  Those standards will very often depend on how much wealth the victims of the coercion have and they will depend on a more general concept of positive liberty.  Negative liberty standards can't help but seep into a concern with consequences.

Fast forward to said debate.  When people are poor, apparently small interventions can be quite crushing and quite coercive.  To cite the "smaller" interventions of 1880 doesn't much convince me.  The real impact of the depredations against women was very, very large, even from some "small interventions" (and I don't think they were all small).

(Also, I would not in this case take the *legal* oppressions to be a stand-alone or exogenous variable, separable from more general societal attitudes.  There were various male desires to oppress women, which took a mix of legal and non-legal forms.  Asking how bad the "government-only" restrictions were is an odd division of the problem, since the governmental and non-governmental restrictions were an integrated package which worked together in non-linear fashion.)

Every negative liberty theorist is a positive liberty theorist in disguise and this comes out once they start citing degress of outrage, degrees of harm, degrees of coercion, and the like.

I suppose my views are close to those of Will.  I also largely agree with Dave Schmidtz and Jason Brennan in their symposium at Cato UnBound.

1 Steve Sailer April 14, 2010 at 7:48 am

Haven’t we all learned a lot about how societies and families actually work since these kind of debates were considered cutting edge in 1969? This entire discussion seems obsolete.

2 josh April 14, 2010 at 7:56 am

What the hell is this “Freedom” thing that everybody has been talking about for the past 400 years? How do we measure it? What are the units? Is it in any way associated with political power, because it certainly seems when I hear about a group gaining freedom, there wouldn’t be any information loss if we instead talked of a group gaining political power.

Like this:,2007962&dq=rhodesia+freedom&hl=en

Although when people talk about these things in the abstract they seem quite different. What gives?

3 maggie April 14, 2010 at 8:28 am

Personally I think Bryan Caplan’s blog is poisonous, if not in content then in tone. As well as distasteful I found it boring.

In his blog, and in his book on sheep, I could not help noticing the superficiality of his thoughts on ideology. This may explain why he can’t tell when his own ideology becomes fanaticism.

4 david April 14, 2010 at 8:54 am

I read Tyler Cowen for the utterly wonderful thought experiments.

Grizzly bears, indeed…

5 Ryan Vann April 14, 2010 at 9:13 am

Strange arguments abound. Negative is actually positive, women with less legal rights are somehow freer than women with more legal rights; maybe my perception is off, but it would seem something has seeped into the GMU water supply. That or the GMU Econ Department decided to extend April Fools’ Day to the entire month of April.

6 David N April 14, 2010 at 9:25 am

A grizzly bear here, a grizzly bear there…pretty soon you’re talking real loss of liberty.

7 Ed Couch April 14, 2010 at 9:29 am

“In other words, even theories of negative liberty… require standards for degrees of coercion. Those standards will very often depend on how much wealth the victims of the coercion have and they will depend on a more general concept of positive liberty. Negative liberty standards can’t help but seep into a concern with consequences.”

Tyler, this is a fantastic argument. It reveals that if you care at all about the tangible effects of government policy on liberty, and if you think at all about _degrees_ of liberty, you ultimately care about positive liberty therefore it’s silly to talk about amounts of ‘libertarian’ freedom.

But the obvious response (which runs counter to the premise of Caplan’s post) is that the issue is more black-and-white than you suggest: the _amount_ of freedom in a series of situations cannot be measured. Rather you can only look at a particular situation and decide whether it is totally free or totally unfree and you have to ignore the practical consequences. The question is one of principle and forcing a purchase of a grizzly bear statue is an equal blight on freedom for everyone because you only care about the simple fact of coercion.

But if anyone is talking about ‘amounts’ of freedom then you are absolutely correct and it is impossible to talk about negative freedom or ‘libertarian’ freedom per se and the discussion must include positive freedoms. This of course undermines Caplan’s entire argument.

What a great insight! I’ll admit to being surprised that you are embracing the continental view of freedom…

8 Barry April 14, 2010 at 9:41 am

Slocum: “Which of George Eliot’s female characters in Middlemarch, for example, could be described as without agency — bonded slaves taking their master’s commands?”

A bonded slave still has agency, and doesn’t have to obey *every* command – however, they are far from free. You’re dichotomizing.

“The restrictions on female liberty in the 19th century were real and important, but even so, women were clearly not powerless slaves.”

Again, dichotomizing.

9 Michael F. Martin April 14, 2010 at 10:38 am

Wesley Hohfeld settled the issue of whether there is a rigorous distinction between positive and negative rights for many legal scholars. (There isn’t, and I liked his reasoning better that given here.)

More generally on the topic of libertarian armchair political philosophy — a reasonable argument can be made that radical (especially anarcho-) libertarianism is a kind of luxury good, with only a few cohorts in the history of the world having lived long enough in a stable, peaceful, and wealthy political environment to cultivate ideas that would in any other time or place seem obviously dangerous — murderous, suicidal, or both.

10 Nicholas Weininger April 14, 2010 at 11:14 am

I would say that you need a solid theory of negative liberty to decide whether something is *wrong at all* or not. In both cases it is wrong to compel the placement of the statue on the lawn, and the right reasons why are negative-liberty reasons.

As you say, when asking about second bests– when asking which violations are worse than which others– you need to introduce some amount of reasoning about consequences. But even then the direction of that consequential reasoning is properly informed by negative-liberty ideals.

So: in an imperfect world where one is always talking about second bests, negative liberty ideals can’t be fully explicated without some positive liberty ideals. But negative liberty remains the foundation from which all else flows.

11 POWinCA April 14, 2010 at 11:57 am

Since when is deprivation of liberty a matter of degree? Sure, depriving me of my freedom of speech is preferred to depriving me of my life, but it’s a false choice – I have a RIGHT to BOTH. I need not decide between the two.

Government forcing me to buy auto liability insurance is to protect OTHERS from risk of loss due to my negligence and poverty. That is well within the police powers of a state.

On the other hand, forcing me to buy a grizzly bear statue addresses no negative externality. It deprives me of private property (my money), the free use of my property (my lawn), and violates my personal liberty of action.

The grizzly bear mandate is no different than killing me or locking me in a concentration camp. Remember what I said earlier – it is a false choice to claim that because one effect is less undesirable it is more acceptable. All such afronts to liberty should be punished by hanging the public officials from the nearest lamp post.

12 Slocum April 14, 2010 at 12:01 pm

Slocum: “Which of George Eliot’s female characters in Middlemarch, for example, could be described as without agency — bonded slaves taking their master’s commands?”

A bonded slave still has agency, and doesn’t have to obey *every* command – however, they are far from free. You’re dichotomizing.

No I’m not the one seeing in black and white. The ‘slavery’ quote wasn’t some straw-man I made up or dug up — it came from Will Wilkinson’s piece. The point is that 19th century women’s lives (in the U.S. at least), despite legal restrictions, were just not like slavery at all. The legal restrictions were onerous and deeply unjust–to the extent that I agree to argue women were freer then is clearly wrong. But still the restrictions were nowhere close to slavery.

13 Bernard Yomtov April 14, 2010 at 1:03 pm

I find it refreshing that some libertarian commentary seems to recognize that social conditions and individual endowments and history affect what is and is not coercive, and how onerous the coercion is. That seems, to me at least, to be missing from an awful lot of what I’ve seen.

14 Daniel Klein April 14, 2010 at 1:59 pm

To be fair, you should consider that perhaps the relation is the reverse of what you present it.

In May of 2008 at MR I wrote:

“The expansion of positive capabilities enhances liberty ONLY by the channel that it reduces the coerciveness of restrictions. The coerciveness of a restriction ranges in magnitude, and a restriction is less coercive the less important to you it is. Expanding positive capabilities reduce the importance of any particular restriction. But it is only through this channel that the expansion of positive capabilities enhances liberty. Thus, “negative” liberty remains primary. Positive capabilities figure in only through the channel of negative liberty. Robinson Crusoe, alone on a desert island, is perfectly free, even though his positive capabilities are piss poor.”


Around that time I also enlarged on this at Will’s blog.

I am inclined to reverse matters, where you write:

“Every negative liberty theorist is a positive liberty theorist in disguise and this comes out once they start citing degress of outrage, degrees of harm, degrees of coercion, and the like.”

I suspect that “positive liberty” utterances are more like the inchoate invocation of a metaphorical “Truman Show”-esque allegory of negative liberty violation.

15 Sergei Vavinov April 14, 2010 at 3:08 pm

While I agree that positive/negative liberty dichotomy is usually not that useful, your statement that “negative liberty and positive liberty are not separable” is quite surprising. One of the critical distinctions between negative and positive liberty is precisely that negative liberty does not depend on (i.e., is not defined with regard to) the general level of wealth in the society.

Once you start requiring grizzly statues on the front lawn, the whole aspect of negative liberty (of deciding what goes to one’s lawn and what doesn’t) is gone. Stricter limits on the height or material of the statue may be regarded as further infringements of the negative liberties, but that is beyond the point. For negative liberty theories, this is the end of the story — regardless of whether the houseowner will die of hunger (because he spent all his money on the statue) or grow rich (because, say, a new statue on the lawn actually improved the look of his garden and attracted new clients).

Now, the grizzly requirement will probably also infringe on certain positive liberties, like having a place to live — if placing statue, as in your example, is very expensive. But this certainly does not mean that negative and positive liberty are “not separable” per se, as concepts. It only means that the specific regulation can be seen as infringing on both negative and positive liberties. This regulation might also affect ecology, news headers, literature of the period, specific ways of the capitalistic exploitation of the working class in the country etc — would it follow that negative liberties are “not separable” from the ecological issues, the news headers, the literature?… In this sense any two concepts (even those we might consider ill-defined and unproductive) can be said to be inseparable; this doesn’t look like a promising research approach.

16 Ralph April 14, 2010 at 7:11 pm

Thanks for posting this. I also think that Caplan blew off the right to vote because of his prior writings. The right to vote for any individual may not be of great value. But, if you belong to a group and that whole group is denied the right to vote, you have limited means to participate in the political process.

17 Philo April 14, 2010 at 8:04 pm

You wrote: “I would not in this case take the *legal* oppressions to be a stand-alone or exogenous variable, separable from more general societal attitudes.” I reply (presumably on Bryan’s behalf) that the distinction between legal and extra-legal measures is rather clear, which means that these are, after all, “separable” *conceptually*–and that is all Bryan claims. (In the Comments on Econlog I objected that *laws that are probably not going to be enforced* are a difficulty for Bryan’s view; but you seem not to have that point in mind, so I shall leave it aside here.) (By the way, I think your use of the term ‘exogenous’, above, is out of place.)

What I think you meant is that bad consequences for women were caused by the *combination* of legal and extra-legal measures. But it is still possible to assess the effects of the legal measures alone, asking what would have happened if the non-libertarian ones were eliminated, *while all the extra-legal measures remained fixed*. Bryan asserts that the restriction of freedom for women from the non-libertarian *legal* measures (alone) was less in 1880 than in 2010 (in America). So your point about the non-linearity of the combination (legal + extra-legal) is irrelevant.

“Asking how bad the ‘government-only’ restrictions were is an odd division of the problem, since the governmental and non-governmental restrictions were an integrated package which worked together in non-linear fashion.” Odd it may be; but *that was the topic Bryan chose to address*.

And your point that a given restriction of political liberty will be more easily borne by a rich person than by a poor one, while perfectly valid, is also irrelevant to Bryan’s post.

18 Bernard Yomtov April 14, 2010 at 8:54 pm

Bryan asserts that the restriction of freedom for women from the non-libertarian *legal* measures (alone) was less in 1880 than in 2010 (in America).

So coverture is outweighed by the fact that there was no EPA? Is that your point? Or is it that it’s better to have neither income nor income tax than it is to have both?

19 POWinCA April 14, 2010 at 10:10 pm

Well Aaron, either you didn’t read or didn’t understand the concept of false choice nor do you understand that rights are not prioritized. Otherwise, you would understand the difference between hyperbole and profound belief in human rights.

How about I graciously allow you to live but take away EVERY “lesser” right you have or even just a few select ones?

Try reading the Ninth Amendment. It may help. But I doubt you will understand that either. People so dense don’t deserve their rights. You can’t protect what you don’t understand.

20 Andrew April 15, 2010 at 5:09 am

“Berlin, himself a liberal and writing during the cold war, was clearly moved by the way in which the apparently noble ideal of freedom as self-mastery or self-realization had been twisted and distorted by the totalitarian dictators of the twentieth century — most notably those of the Soviet Union — so as to claim that they, rather than the liberal West, were the true champions of freedom.”

If a billion people can be fooled for generations by dissembling, we’d better be careful, eh? A weak clarity may be better than no clarity.

21 chris April 15, 2010 at 9:14 am

Asking how bad the “government-only” restrictions were is an odd division of the problem

But an inevitable one for certain strains of libertarianism, which can’t see any oppression that doesn’t come with a badge.

Indeed, once you’ve admitted that private parties can oppress anyone, then you’ve opened the door to the possibility that some government interventions may *reduce* oppression rather than cause it, and from there it’s a short trip to supporting things like antidiscrimination laws, at which point you are no longer recognizably a libertarian as the term is commonly used.

22 Bernard Yomtov April 15, 2010 at 11:36 am

though I admit it seems plausible to me, too.

What difference does government regulation of the economy make to someone who essentially doesn’t participate in the economy?

I said nothing about what was better, only about what constituted *more (political) freedom*.

Who cares? I mean, it’s a strange philosophy that claims to value freedom and then declares political freedom the only kind worth worrying about, even at the extremes. No taxes and severe social constraints somehow makes for a freer situation than taxes coupled with vastly lower constraints imposed by society?

23 Philo April 15, 2010 at 4:56 pm

“Who cares [about political freedom]?” Are you quite ignorant of the classical liberal tradition? Freedom is an instrumental good. Without it one is hindered from pursuing whatever it is he thinks is ultimately valuable. (And without it others are similarly hindered, which reduces the gains from trade.)

“[I]t really is silly to talk about political freedom for people who generally could neither vote nor hold political office.” Resident aliens in the U.S. have considerable “political freedom” in the sense in which I was using this term (though I wish they, as well as us citizens, had more).

24 Jonquil April 15, 2010 at 6:44 pm

Steve Sailer:

Modern women imagine themselves as the middle-class-but-intelligent Elizabeth Bennet, who marries a witty, intelligent, wealthy man for love, not as her equally sharply drawn best friend, Charlotte Lucas, who marries a stupid, contemptible man because her alternative is impoverished spinsterhood. Austen is painfully clear about the limited choices available to women, and about the interaction of economic and romantic forces. Marianne Dashwood and John Willoughby would very probably have been extremely happy together if only he had had money of his own.

Saying “Women love reading Jane Austen” says nothing about how women prefer to live — witness the recurring popularity of Wuthering Heights, which boasts not a single happy character.

25 Jonquil April 16, 2010 at 11:18 am

I’m not quite sure how we got from “Women who love Austen find the early c19 attractive” to “Feminists are NO FUN \AT PARTIES\ IN NOVELS”. In any case, I haven’t heard of many 21st century women who read Jane Austen to the exclusion of all else. Quite a few 21st century women are fond of Jennifer Crusie, who regularly makes the New York Times bestseller list with frank, witty novels about women’s economic and romantic choices in the early c21. And then there’s the not-undersold J. D. Robb (alias Nora Roberts) who has a lot to say about women’s romantic and economic choices in the mid c21, and in particular about her witty, prickly heroine’s reluctance to marry a rich man for fear of losing her own independence.

26 Bernard Yomtov April 16, 2010 at 2:22 pm

You seem to accept the argument: “X is valuable; therefore, the government ought to produce X.” Libertarians *and lots of other political theorists* reject this.

No. I accept the argument that “X is valuable. Therefore, under some circumstances, and depending on what X is, and some other factors, it can be a good idea for the government to produce X.”

And it puzzles me why the government should provide only “political freedom.” Indeed, I’m less and less sure what that term even means to libertarians. It seems to wiggle around and mean whatever is convenient to the argument at hand.

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