Sunday, October 08, 2006

Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice: Part II

In Part I, I addressed Joe Miller's defense of positive rights -- or positive freedom, to use Joe's term for what is really a justification for the redistribution of income and wealth. Joe has since posted another defense of positive freedom, which he sums up thusly:

I might even go so far as to hold that positive freedom is more important than theoretical (or, in philosopher-speak, negative) freedom. This is not to say that I don’t value negative freedom; rather, positive freedom entails negative freedom. After all, I can have X as a member of the set of things I can actually do if and only if no one is using a gun (whether figurative or literal) to prevent me from doing X.

Why positive freedom rather than negative? Or rather, why positive freedom rather than only negative? I’m not sure that I’ve anything more than a deep-seated intuition. It strikes me as somehow empty and hollow to walk up to someone wasting away from disease and say, “Hey, you know, you’re free to do anything you’d like.” . . .

As with any sort of fundamental disagreement over basic terms, this one has serious implications. One of those implications is that liberals and libertarians often talk past one another. In academic philosophy, for example, the term “autonomy” is used to refer to positive freedom. Libertarians, however, frequently use the term, “autonomy” as a synonym for negative freedom. Because we use the term in different ways, liberals and libertarians often end up with the frustrating feeling of having beaten their respective heads against the wall when they interact.

When I say, “Of course redistribution is consistent with autonomy,” I mean that it’s consistent with a notion of positive freedom. Forcing you to give your money to someone else is no different from forcing you to stop hitting the person. Failure to provide certain of his basic needs is exactly as wrong as clubbing him over the head. Both violate his autonomy.

To which the libertarian responds, “Redistribution is obviously a violation of autonomy. After all, you’re using a gun to force someone to give up his money. How could that not be a violation of his autonomy.”

The fact is, both claims are right. But they are both right only because the interlocuters are, in effect, equivocating on the word “autonomy". If the term means positive freedom, then the liberal is right. If autonomy means only negative freedom, then the libertarian is right.

Joe hasn't really advanced his earlier argument. Rather, he has restated it, but in a way that better exposes its flaws. Here is Joe's argument, with all of its assumptions made explicit:

1. Autonomy is necessary in order to do as one will toward one's ends, though one may not do harm to others in the service of those ends.

2. Autonomy is not possible unless one possesses some minimal degree of health, wealth, income, etc. "Minimal" must be defined by someone, of course, and liberals stand ready to do the job.

3. But autonomy is not served by having too much wealth or income -- or the things they can buy, such as health. "Too much" must be defined by someone, of course, and liberals stand ready to do that job, as well. (This is how liberals, in general, square their lip service to the harm principle with the actual doing of harm in the name of autonomy -- which is done by taking wealth and income from some persons and giving it to others.)

4. Liberals' arrogant willingness to play at being gods -- by defining "minimal" and "too much," and by ignoring the harm done to some for the benefit of others -- rests on these deeper (and usually unacknowledged) assumptions:

  • One person's well-being can be measured against another person's well-being through interpersonal comparisons of utility.
  • There is a kind of cosmic justice -- or social welfare function -- that is advanced by harming some persons for the benefit of other persons. That is, a benefit cancels a harm -- at least when the benefit and harm are decided by liberals.
  • Taking wealth and income from those who have "too much" does not, on balance, harm those who have "too little" by dampening economic growth and voluntary charity. (That it does do those things is a point I will address in a later part of this series.)

(The first and second assumptions enable Joe to assert that "positive freedom entails negative freedom." To Joe, there is one big "welfare pie" in sky, in which we all somehow share -- despite the obvious fact that A is made worse off when some of his wealth or income is confiscated and given to B.)

5. Given the foregoing, liberals see it as necessary and desirable to redistribute wealth and income from persons who have "too much" to persons who have "too little" -- or "too little" of the things that wealth and income can buy. Otherwise, those who have "too little" wealth or income (or the things they can buy) would enjoy only "theoretical" freedom. But the use of the word "theoretical" is a rhetorical trick, a bit of verbal sleight-of-hand. It implies, without proof, that anyone who does not enjoy a certain "minimal" state of health, wealth, etc. -- as "minimal" is defined by a liberal -- simply lacks the wherewithal to strive toward ends that he or she values. And that brings us back to point 1.

The liberal argument for redistribution, therefore, is really a circular argument intended to justify liberals' particular sense of fitting outcomes. Liberalism is paternalism run rampant, with these implications and consequences:

  • Everyone is both a potential beneficiary of and contributor to positive freedom. Whether one becomes a beneficiary or contributor depends on liberals' arbitrary and capricious criteria for deservingness.
  • Liberal control of the apparatus of the state therefore results in myriad abuses of state power in the name of "compassion" -- cheap compassion paid for by taxpayers, to be sure.
  • On the whole and over the long run -- the effect of liberalism is to harm rather than help its intended beneficiaries.

I will say more in later parts of this series about the impossibility of cosmic justice and the harm done by liberalism to those whom it patronizes.

Related post: Rights and "Cosmic Justice"