L e v e l - 7

Tools For A New Political Economy

The Tyranny of Private Ownership



(Excerpted from The Goldilocks Zone of Integral Liberty)


Are Conventional Conceptions of “Negative Liberty” Sufficient?

In a word, no. Both the conventional presentation of negative liberty and its representations in classical liberalism are not sufficient for the subjective felt experience of personal freedom – at least not for everyone in society, and that is our aim. In the common parlance of contemporary political discourse, negative liberty mainly represents a formal ideal of non-interference, and one which is too far abstracted from real-world conditions to result in the actual subjectively felt experience of unfettered individual agency. This is fairly easy to demonstrate. If I am left manacled in a prison cell, chained to a wall with no food or water, completely unable to alter my current situation, and with no prospect of relief, I am still free to think and say anything I like. I have absolute freedom of thought and speech, but I do not have freedom of movement, and eventually I will starve to death. In this sense, then, I only have partial and temporary negative liberty. To remedy this partiality, I will need to be set free from prison, have my manacles removed, and have access to food and water. All right then, let’s say I’m set free.

I now have freedom of movement. Unfortunately, in my current half-clothed, filthy, half-starved condition, I still do not have access to food and water, and because I am fresh out of prison,
I also don’t have the supportive means to procure it. I have no employment, no lodging, no property…nothing at all that I can trade for sustenance. And if I live in a society that advocates private ownership of most of the resources around me, then my lack of supportive means definitively results in an inability for me to alter my condition. My only recourse would be to either beg charity from my fellows, or steal what I need to survive. Some might argue that I could simply find employment and thereby earn my way out of deprivation, thus recovering my ability to exercise freedom, but such a proposition indicates a glaring lack of personal experience with abject poverty. Why? Because my current condition is desperate – I am weak from hunger and barely clothed, and even if I were to gain immediate employment, I certainly will not have the physical and mental energy or stamina to work hard enough or think clearly enough to succeed at any task for more than a short time. These conditions continue to indicate that I lack the supportive means to alter my situation, even though no one is actively interfering with my freedom to pursue such means. Thus a lack of basic supportive means equates interference with liberty, regardless of my abilities or intentions.

This is, I suspect, why proponents of “positive” liberty have had significant practical problems with classical liberal conceptions of negative liberty; it tends to remain
partial and temporary even when some supportive circumstances are improved. In this example, I have freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom to advance my condition, and zero interference from anyone else to remedy my own plight. I have been afforded complete and unimpeded negative liberty by society. But I am not really free, because the socioeconomic conditions in which I find myself interfere with my fundamental opportunities to survive and thrive; my physical and material deprivations effectively rob me of liberties available to others who already have supportive means (which, it should be noted, they may have earned themselves, or which may a gift of circumstance, social status, marriage, or family and friends). Thus without an equivalency of supportive means – in this case without equivalent access to food, clothing, shelter and employment – I will be unable to exercise freedoms available to everyone else, freedoms which those who may have obscured the fundamental nature of liberty will inevitably take for granted.

However – and this is a crucial point – the supportive means to maintain liberty are nearly always only granted to those who have reliable foundations for liberty, and (again in the real world) these foundations include more than simple physical health and basic material resources. To be truly equivalent, all people must have access to the same quality of education, the same ability to travel over distance, the same flexibility and availability of free time, the same assurance and quality of justice and collectively approved rule of law, the same quality of care for mental and physical health, and so on – such things clearly being
in addition to the aforementioned freedom of thought, speech, movement and the minimum facilities of material and physical well-being. Without these foundations, aspirations to liberty are just desires without facility. In addition, for negative liberty to be effectively equivalent for all members of society, it must also be blind to cultural barriers created by social class, race, gender, age and indeed any stigmatizing characteristics that do not, in the actuality of a person’s day-to-day achievements and demonstrated potential, alter their abilities or performance. In other words, all people must also have access to the same freedom from prejudice.

The stark reality of anyone’s subjectively felt experience of individual freedom will be framed by all of these conditions; to ignore their significance is to misunderstand how liberty itself comes into being – how it is created and maintained by society, rather than magically endowed upon a lucky few who have access to plentiful resources, pursuing their intentions without the tremendous resistance and competition experienced by the less fortunate. Misunderstanding this reality is a fundamental error of individualism, which views the world self-referentially, fixating over self-entitlement, self-reliance and the defense of egoic freedoms, without appreciating the relationships of that self to everyone and everything around it. By embracing a more interdependent perspective, we can give prudence to approaches that appreciate the dynamics of co-creative freedom, contextualizing the social self amid relationships with everyone else…and every
thing else (i.e. community, the environment, other polities, culture and history, and other levels of interaction not yet identified, etc.).

From the perspective of the poorest members of any market-based society, these foundations for liberty are often perceived as the perks of the affluent, as inaccessible as they are rare. From the perspective of the affluent members of that society, these foundations are frequently perceived as the natural consequences of one’s focused effort and native intelligence. Both perspectives are flawed, because what is really at the heart of the disparity are societal expectations of private property and individual wealth accumulation in a commercial exchange economy, and the consequent capacity for individuals to transfer that property and wealth to whomever they choose – most often their own offspring, friends and peers, and members of like-minded affiliations.
That is, to transfer the foundations of liberty to those of their choosing, resulting in the exclusion of those not chosen. I call this the tyranny of private ownership, and like all of the other conceptions discussed here, it too has also been collectively created and maintained by society.

In the case of modern State capitalism, we have a collective acceptance of a market-based economy – enabled by property laws, contracts and financial systems enforced by the State – in which assets may be accumulated without restraint, then fluidly translated into social advantage, political influence and legal power, also facilitated by the State. And while attempts to secure the foundations for liberty via the State (i.e. civil rights laws, socialized infrastructure and services, polices to counter discrimination, social welfare for the poor, democratic controls, etc.) have had varying degrees of success, the amplification of supportive means that individual wealth accumulation and control over property affords has routinely either undermined or far exceeded these State-enforced efforts at equalization.
This is, in fact, how private ownership has become increasingly tyrannical, directly interfering with the liberty of anyone who does not have such accumulations of wealth or control over property. And as long as any society perpetuates such tyranny, the natural consequence will be that some individuals and their families will have ample foundations of liberty available to them, while the rest of society will not. As long as private property and individual wealth accumulation are central features of a given economy, that economy will inevitably tend towards feudalism – no matter how artfully disguised its feudalism may be in Constitutionally enshrined liberties – because of the corrosive force that concentrations of wealth inevitably produce.

Thus the formal concept of negative liberty must be contextualized in real-world experiences, experiences which point toward much broader, more egalitarian structures that support civil society, and a much more precise and multifaceted formula of intersubjective agreement, in order for freedom to exist at all. To clarify, I do not mean various levels of
ability or opportunity to exercise freedom, but the freedom itself. In this sense I concur with G.A. Cohen’s evisceration of these differentiations with respect to wealth in his lecture, Freedom and Money (2001), where he artfully describes how “poverty demonstrably implies liability to interference.” As he writes:


“Consider those goods and services, be they privately or publicly provided, which are not provided without charge to all comers. Some of the public ones depend on special access rules (you won’t get a state hospital bed if you are judged to be healthy, or a place in secondary school if you are forty years old). But the private ones, and many of the public ones, are inaccessible save through money: giving money is both necessary for getting them, and, indeed, sufficient for getting them, if they are on sale. If you attempt access to them in the absence of money, then you will be prey to interference.”


I am simply extending this logic to include additional variables beyond wealth that have precisely the same impact on freedom – that is, as Cohen might phrase it, their “whole point…is to extinguish interference.” For the practical purposes of ensuring actual freedom that avoids actual domination, the ideal must be reconciled with the real. If my subjective experience is that my individual sovereignty is being wholly disrupted by conditions beyond my control – whether by the direct actions of others or a system in which the status quo indirectly oppresses me – then my subjective experience of unconstrained free will is effectively destroyed; I am dominated, enslaved and deprived of agency as a result of external factors. This may be difficult for proponents of traditional conceptions of negative liberty to accept or appreciate, especially if they are unable to see beyond their own privileges and status. But I think it long overdue for our society to take responsibility for the oppressive harm narrow conceptions of freedom ultimately impose on anyone who lacks appropriate foundations for liberty.

Now, does this mean that notions of “positive liberty” – that is, authorizing and enforcing conditions that allow everyone the same opportunity, means and ability to exercise free will – are somehow more comprehensive or correct? Not necessarily, because the aim of creating a level playing field can also impose constraints on unwilling parties, so that they subjectively feel coerced and oppressed. I think when advocates of positive liberty include interior freedoms, these are important considerations, and we will address them shortly. But the assumption that the power to self-actualize – the granting of the subjective experience of free will – should somehow be authoritatively enforced as an unqualified empowerment or entitlement is indeed a precarious, often paternalizing road, clearly having the potential to interfere with liberty. At the same time, if we focus only on negative liberty in terms of simplified conceptions of external interference, we are also likely to neglect some of the more nuanced but persisting impedances to felt experiences of personal freedom.

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