Parijs, Real Freedom for All: Ch. 1 – Capitalism, Socialism, and Freedom

This is the reading for our Saturday, November 4th meeting.  You can get the location and details at our page.

In the introduction, Parijs begins by stating two convictions.  First, that capitalist societies are full of unacceptable inequalities.  Second, freedom is of paramount importance.  The book is primarily written to those who already agree with these statements, and its goal is to provide a response to the right-libertarian claim that these two convictions are mutually exclusive.

1.1 Capitalism versus Socialism

1. If freedom is the primary value, we need to know if this leads us to capitalism or socialism.  To make this decision, we need to know what freedom, capitalism, and socialism are.  He begins with capitalism and socialism, and defines them by private or public ownership of the means of production, respectively.  These forms of ownership can also have different degrees of scope, proportion, and depth.  For example, the depth of private ownership is diminished through taxation, or an obligation to re-invest profits, or to install anti-pollution measures, or to hire people irrespective of their race or gender. The depth of public ownership can be diminished if public property can be leased to private interests.  Further, both capitalism and socialism have to be distinguished from slavery, so both require self-ownership

2. A fully capitalist society is one in which there is fully private ownership of all means of production, and a fully socialist society is the opposite.  He will use the unqualified terms capitalism and socialism to describe the spectrum of mixed economies.

1.2 Pure Socialism as the Free Society

3. The first two sections cover a priori arguments about whether a maximally free society must be socialist or capitalist.

4. Any free society requires some measure of self-ownership.  While it is obvious that slavery and collectivism are not compatible with a free society, there is nothing illogical about a slave society being capitalist or socialist.  In particular, there are two arguments against the claim that socialism is compatible with self-ownership: first, it would not allow one to engage in waged labour, or indeed in any self-employed activity, because all means of production would be publicly owned.  The only private property would be goods for consumption.  His response is that this does not make a socialist society a slave society, because the restriction is on what one may do with external objects, not with what one may do with themselves.  Self-ownership can still be a principle in a socialist society.

5. The second objection is that public ownership of the means of production would require an authoritarian method of allocating labour, which would be a violation of self-ownership.  One argument for this objection is the assumption that socialism equalizes income, and the related claim that this equalization clashes with self-ownership.  However, this claim do not logically follow from public ownership.  Self-ownership is logically consistent with an “absence of differential rewards” and “pure equality,” and so the claim has to be a factual one: if we want an efficient allocation, then we must choose between self-ownership and inequality.  However, even if this is factually true under all circumstances, it still does not follow that minimally efficient socialism must violate self-ownership: “The public ownership of the means of production does not entail any specific pattern of income distribution, and freedom-based attacks on egalitarianism are therefore not ipso facto freedom-based arguments against socialism” (9-10).

6. The public ownership of capital does not prevent wage differentials as incentive for the purpose of efficiency; “There is no obvious reason for supposing that some sort of labour market mechanism would be unable to reconcile the public ownership of capital, the worker’s self-ownership, and a reasonable level of allocative efficiency” (10).

7. Does all this allow us to say that freedom demands a purely socialist society?  Parijs thinks not: “How can each of us possibly be said to be free if she cannot breathe, eat, move, let alone preach or demonstrate without the approval of the political community which owns everything in the world around us except ourselves?” (10)  

8. The a priori freedom-based case for socialism can be salvaged in a few ways.  One way is to challenge “the assumption that public ownership requires the use of an external object to be subjected to majority approval: much autonomy could be left to individuals in the use they make of publicly owned assets” (10).  This is not quite a good enough defence.  Either this autonomy is not institutionally mandated, in which case it is like a capitalist saying charity will solve problems of need, or it is mandated in the form of leases, but then one has moved away from pure socialism.

9. Another way to salvage the a priori case for socialism is to say that there are things which can be done with jointly owned property that cannot be done with small private holdings.  For example, if our backyards were consolidated, we would lose the freedom to privately sunbath, but gain the ability to use them as a single soccer field.  This shows that private property does not unequivocally expand our freedom, and public ownership likewise does not unequivocally reduce freedom.  

10. This argument does not quite save the a priori case, because it is just as true that things can be done with private property that cannot be done with public property.  Hence, neither strategy can salvage the a priori claim that a free society must be purely socialist.

1.3 Pure Capitalism as the Free Society

11. Parijs offers his definition of a free capitalist society: “a society whose members can do what they wish to do with themselves and whatever external object they own by virtue of an uninterrupted chain of voluntary transactions starting from some initial unrestricted private appropriation of objects previously unowned” (12).  With that definition in hand, the means of production must remain in private hands, and so only pure capitalism is compatible with the libertarian ideal.  This definition of a free society involves a stronger notion of entitlements, that is, what one is entitled to do with one’s property.  Being prevented from using one’s land as a means of production would be a limitation on property entitlement.

12. The entitlement principle has to deal with the problem of original appropriation, which is what “defensible criterion can be specified for the legitimate appropriation of previously unowned external objects” 13).  Many libertarians might be willing to accept Locke’s claim that “all the fruits [the Earth] naturally produces, and beasts it feeds, belong to mankind in common,” but this can only mean one of four things:

  1. Natural resources are up for grabs, so first-come, first-serve.
  2. They are open to private appropriation as long as no one is worse off as a result.
  3. They can be appropriated so long as non-appropriators are given a fair share.
  4. They are owned equally by all.

13. Depending on which of those four things is correct, private property rights are either absolute (1 and 2) or limited by more-or-less comprehensive tax schemes (3-4).  Without a decisive argument in favour of (1), the libertarian justification of pure capitalism (as opposed to a less than pure capitalism) is on shaky ground.  

14. To the extent that (1) remains a weak position and we move towards (4), then there must be common ownership of all natural resources, as well as everything they enable us to make, including the means of production.  As a consequence, we are pushed towards pure socialism, which we have already been rejected as a restriction on freedom.  However, consequentialism and libertarian thought are not very compatible, so libertarians require a consequence-independent reason for selecting one criteria of original appropriation over another.  Without such a reason, it is not arbitrary or implausible to interpret Locke’s “common ownership” as joint ownership by all, rather than by the private interests who just happened to extract resources first.

15. The difficulties with finding a non-arbitrary account of original appropriation is a fundamental problem of libertarianism.  Imagine an island which is owned in a way fully consistent with the definition of a free society given above by one of its citizens.  If it is hard enough to leave the island, then the owner can impose any condition on the inhabitants he wishes: “If they are to be allowed to earn their livelihood, they may have to work abysmally long hours, for example, or give up their religion, or wear scarlet underwear” (14).  This fits with a libertarian definition of freedom, but strongly clashes with our intuitive ideas of a free society.  What is at the root of this clash?

16. One possible answer is that in a libertarian maximally free society, it is individual freedom in the aggregate that is maximized, and so not about the freedom of all.  One person could be very free, and others less free, and freedom would still be maximized.  However, if this is correct, there is no need for the principle of self-ownership.  Regardless, it is not a society in which people are free to run their own lives as they wish.  

17. In working out their idea of a free society, libertarians have rightly given a key role to property rights.  But in doing so, they have relied—less sensibly—on an “implausibly moralized conception of freedom.”  According to this concept, freedom is only restricted when rights are violated.  Parijs says,

“From this it follows, for example, that I remain fully free when I am rightly imprisoned or when my rightful endowments leave me no option but to starve.  More generally, such a moralized conception of freedom implies that the perfect enforcement of the ‘right’ structure of property rights (somehow assumed to be given ‘naturally’, prior to any social arrangement) means total freedom for all—since all are allowed to do anything they wish with what they legitimately own—and not just one particular allocation of freedoms and unfreedoms, which makes me unfree to hold your ankle while making you free to run away, for example, or which makes me free to grow pumpkins in my garden while making you unfree to trample them.  This is why a libertarian had to call the island of our tale a free society, however despotic its owner’s rule.  Such counterintuitive implications clearly make the moralized conception of freedom untenable, and ‘libertarianism’ a misleading label.  Libertarians should rather be called rights-fetishists, and their alleged freedom-based case for capitalism, pure or otherwise, is worth no more than the freedom-based case for socialism rejected in the previous section.”  (15)

1.4-1.5 Individual and Collective Sovereignty, and Potential Desire

18. There is not much hope of finding an a priori argument for deciding between capitalism and socialism, pure or otherwise.  However, in order to present the strongest challenge to libertarianism possible, we have to go beyond these negative considerations.  The idea of freedom that has been implicit so far has to be spelled out.  We need to show the coherence of the idea of a free society and derive its institutional implications.

19. This will partly involve sorting out the difference between positive and negative freedom.  The first step in acknowledging that the phrase “free society” is confused.  A “free society” and a “society of free individuals,” taken literally, are conflicting things.  Surely we should choose the second; when we say colloquially say “free society,” we are trying to describe a society in which its members are maximally free.  The freedom of society is a means to the proper end of free individuals.  Parijs thinks the most defensible version of a free society errs on the side of negative freedom and individual sovereignty, as opposed to collective sovereignty.

20. Negative freedom is sometimes characterized as freedom from an obstacle, while positive freedom is freedom to do certain things.  But this distinction makes no sense.  The freedom from an obstacle is not easily separable from the freedom to perform the inhibited act.  Freedom as individual sovereignty is always both a freedom from and a freedom to.

21. A more significant contrast comes when we ask what this freedom is a freedom to do.  So far, this discussion has been about a freedom tout court, rather than a freedom “to snort, to flirt, or to shirk.”  It appears this is about being free to do whatever one wants; Parijs quotes Voltaire, “When I can do what I want, there is my freedom.”  

22. This cannot be quite right; if freedom is about doing what one wants, then it is possible that one could be made more free by changing what they want, adjusting what they want to be in line with what they have, and this could result in a society of contented slaves.

23. There are three possible ways around this.  The first can be traced back to Rousseau: a person’s freedom consists in not being prevented from doing what they want, but only if what they want is also what they ought to do, such as conform to the general will.  The ideal of a free society Parijs is working towards posits no such analytical link between freedom and civic virtue; freedom has to be the freedom to do good or evil.

24. The second way around this avoids any normative criterion.  It involves a distinction between wants which are chosen and wants which are imposed.  Freedom is not just satisfying one’s desires; one has to have shaped those desires themselves.  This is freedom as autonomy.  This strategy is not sufficient either, because of a counterintuitive implication.  Imagine two otherwise identical slave societies.  In one society, the slaves have deliberately shaped themselves to be happy as slaves, and in the other, the slaves remain discontented.  The first society could claim to be closer to the ideal of a free society.  There is also a fatal dilemma: one can choose one’s wants on the basis of second-order wants.  Here, either we get caught in an infinite regress, or we stop the regress by claiming there are authentic wants, and so return to the first strategy.

25. The third strategy is related to negative freedom: it says that freedom is not only freedom to do what one wants to do, but what one might want to do.  He says, “Want-manipulation, whether by the slaves themselves or by anyone else, on this view, cannot make a society of contented slaves any freer than an otherwise identical society” (19).  This perspective also allows us to see a difference between a society that prevents its members from doing what they would all like to do, and one that prevents members from doing things no one could seriously want to do.  Parijs says that the ideal of a free society involves individual sovereignty defined as the freedom to do whatever one might want to do.

1.6 Freedom from What? Two Notions of Coercion

26. None of these clarifications explain why the a priori case for capitalism was rejected.  We need to see which obstacles count as freedom-restricting.  The a priori case for capitalism requires a narrow characterization of these obstacles, one that allows for a sharp distinction between unfreedom and inability.

27. Above, Parijs argued that an uncontroversial account of a free society involves a minimum of well-defined and enforced property rights and weaker entitlements.  No society is free if people are constantly prevented from doing what they might want to do by arbitrary threats, because if this were the case, the freedom of weaker members would be minimal.  Parijs will now assume an ideal society satisfies this condition of security rights.

28. With this in hand, the question becomes which obstacles a society’s institutional set-up ought to eliminate or minimize.  One major issue is whether or not only coercion can count as a genuine freedom-restricting obstacle.  On one account, coercion is the restriction of a person’s opportunity set relative to what they are legitimately entitled to.  However, this definition of coercion does not discriminate between institutional set-ups that satisfy the security condition stated above.  A non-coercive society is then nothing but a society with property rights, but this would be compatible with a slave society.

29. Now we can complicate the idea of coercion.  It is not only a constraint on people’s actions stemming from the threat of a violation of whatever rights prevail under a given institutional set-up, but more broadly as a threat to self-ownership.  Self-ownership is a key element in any ideal society.  While the idea of self-ownership described so far has been weak enough to be consistent with the impossibility of actually doing anything, it does exclude not only slavery but also compulsory military service or lump-sum taxes on people’s talents.

1.7 Formal Freedom versus Real Freedom

30. We have seen two possible answers to the problem of coercion already.  The standard libertarian answer extends coercion to the institutional violation of pre-existing rights in external objects.  He quotes Murray Rothbard: “The libertarian creed rests upon one central axiom: that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else.”  However, this position degrades the concern with freedom into an obsession with alleged natural rights, and only owes its face-value plausibility to a confusion between weak and strong entitlement.

31. Another answer is that while security and self-ownership are necessary for freedom, they are not sufficient for it, because doing anything requires the use of external objects which security and self-ownership cannot guarantee.  Such a move is fiercely resisted by advocates of pure capitalism.  Hayek, for example, is quoted as complaining about the “confusion of liberty as power with liberty in its original mean,” which “inevitably leads to the identification of liberty with wealth.”  Hayek continues, “whether or not I am my own master and can follow my own choice and whether the possibilities from which I must choose are many or few are two entirely different questions,” and “Even if the threat of starvation to me and perhaps to my family impels me to accept a distasteful job at a very low wage, even if I am ‘at the mercy’ of the only man willing to employ me, I am not coerced by him or anybody else.”  One is not unfree, because freedom is freedom from coercion.

32. Hayak’s definition of negative liberty as the absence of constraint is correct, but his account of positive liberty is misleading.  For example, it is the social institution of private property that prevents people who “lack the means” to take a world cruise from getting on the boat.  Parijs continues, “Moreover, no refining of the definition could make nonsense of the following intuitions: if I am penniless, I am not really free to join the cruise; if I have no option but to starve or to accept a lousy job, I am not really free to turn the latter down.  I shall call opportunity the third component of freedom which these examples point to” (22).

33. Parijs will use the term real freedom to refer to an idea of freedom which incorporates all three components: security, self-ownership, and opportunity, in contrast to formal freedom, which only deals with the first two.

34. Accepting this definition of real freedom amounts to choosing the broadest possible characterization of freedom-restricting obstacles.  Any restriction of one’s opportunity set is a restriction on freedom; I can lack the freedom to swim across a lake either because I am prevented by the owner of the lake or because my muscles would fail before reaching the other side, and this is the case whether or not my physical inadequacy is caused by other humans or not.

35. The strongest objection against this broad definition of freedom is that it does not capture the distinction between what I may do and what I can do, between prohibitions and capacities.  Freedom has an intuitive connection to the former, but not the latter.  Since politics is about the institutional set-up of society, it is more about mays, not cans.  

36. What this objection misses that is that what I may do is systematically affected by what I can do.  For example, our earning power and personal abilities massively affect what we are permitted to acquire.  Conversely, what I can is affected by what I may.  Whether or not I can stop limping depends on whether or not my money or the waiting list allows me to get a necessary operation.  Survival itself depends on shelter and sustenance.  There is a strong two-way causal relation between permissions and capacities, and so capacities cannot be dismissed in a freedom-based institutional set-up.

1.8 Real-Libertarianism

37. A free society satisfies three conditions.  First, there is security—a well defined structure of rights.  Second, there is self-ownership.  Third, each person must have the “greatest possible opportunity to do whatever she might want to do,” what he calls leximin opportunity.  The third condition has to be understood this way:

“in a free society, the person with least opportunities has opportunities that are no smaller than those enjoyed by the person with the least opportunities under any other feasible arrangement; in case there exists another feasible arrangement that is just as good for the person with least opportunities, then the next person up the scale in a free society must have opportunities no smaller than the second person up the scale of opportunities under this arrangement; and so on.”  (25)

38. A leximin arrangement is one judged by the status of the least well-off.  This is a better formula than an aggregative formula, such as judging by the opportunities of the average member, or by an egalitarian formula, which would insist on strict equality for all.  The leximin standard wants a society in which “all are as free as possible” (Parijs 1997, 25).

39. Since conflicts between the three standards are inevitable, we need to know how to settle them.  For example, the most effective way to prevent the violation of rights is to limit the self-ownership of some people by putting them in prison, or to restrict the self-ownership of everyone by limiting freedom of association.  

40. There is no pre-established harmony between the second two conditions.  Some paternalistic violations of self-ownership, such as primary education, are meant to expand, however probabilistically, the opportunity set of the person whose self-ownership is being limited.  Or in another case, there might be compulsory recruitment to prevent a dam from bursting.

41. This book is primarily about the opportunity condition, and does not discuss these issues in great detail.  As a basic answer, he says that society should roughly prize the conditions in the order they have been given.  This is a “soft” priority, however.  Mild disturbances of law and order are preferred if major limitations on self-ownership and opportunity would be required to end them.

42. A free society, as characterized by the articulations of the three conditions, is one that leximins real freedom, or one that realizes real-freedom-for-all.  He calls this view the real-libertarian view.  Thus characterized, we still do not know if a real-libertarian ought to favour capitalism or socialism.  

43. While in some contexts it might demand greater access to the use of land for the least-well off, it is not a straightforward egalitarianism for three reasons.  First, the imposition of formal rights limits any equalization exercise.  Second, the focus on feasible opportunity sets, rather than measured outcomes.  Third, it does not say that the worse-off should get a worse deal for the sake of more equality.

44. This is all basically an attempt to articulate the importance of liberty, equality, and efficiency.  Now, does real-libertarianism renew the struggle against capitalism, or does it justify some form of it?  That is what the rest of the book is about.


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