Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Hayek: Liberty Is

Here is the way Hayek opens THE CONSTITUTION OF LIBERTY:
We are concerned in this book with that condition of men in which coercion of some by others is reduced as much as is possible in society. This state we shall describe throughout as a state of liberty or freedom. (11)
This definition of liberty or freedom makes it clear that freedom is a relation between men. Freedom is not about having greater possibilities or more things to choose from. I’ve heard or read some who do seem to equate freedom or liberty with a larger range of choices. Hayek also notes that restrictions on or infringements of freedom result from the coercion of some by another or by others. A person’s freedom is not reduced by weather or some physical event in nature, or by an accident that leads to a person being confined to a wheelchair.

This idea of freedom implies a person has a private sphere that means some realm for which the individual can act without the direct interference of others:
Whether he is free or not does not depend on the range of choice but on whether he can expect to shape his course of action in accordance with this present intentions, or whether somebody else has power so to manipulate the conditions as to make him act according to that person’s will rather than his own. Freedom thus presupposes that the individual has some assured private sphere, that there is some set of circumstances in his environment with which others cannot interfere. (13)
The words liberty and freedom are often used in different ways, which of course means the possibility of confusion and misunderstandings. Hayek discusses a dangerous and troubling use of the word liberty, which follows from the point of noting above that freedom is not about more choices and it is not about having the physical ability to do something a person wants to do.
. . .until comparatively recent times few people seriously confused this ‘freedom from’ obstacles, this freedom that means omnipotence, with the individual freedom that any kind of social order can secure. Only since this confusion was deliberately fostered as part of the socialist argument has it become dangerous. Once this identification of freedom with power is admitted, there is no limit to the sophisms by which the attractions of the word ‘liberty’ can be used to support measures which destroy individual liberty, no end to the tricks by which people can be exhorted in the name of liberty to give up their liberty. It has been with the help of this equivocation that the notion of collective power over circumstances has been substituted for that of individual liberty and that in totalitarian states liberty has been suppressed in the name of liberty. (16)
Hayek observes that this use of the word freedom has become accepted in the United States by those on the political left, and he specifically associates this view with J.R. Commons and John Dewey. While these figures are from an earlier generation of intellectuals, their work influenced much of the philosophy of the political left today.

This confusion of liberty with power is especially troubling because it can be used to associate that natural appeal of the word with the call to redistribute wealth:
This confusion of liberty as power with liberty in its original meaning inevitably leads to the identification of liberty with wealth; and this makes it possible to exploit all the appeal which the word ‘liberty’ carries in the support for a demand for the redistribution of wealth. Yet, though freedom and wealth are both good things which most of us desire and though we often need both to obtain what we wish, they still remain different. (17)
Another way of thinking about the meaning of liberty puts things more directly, I think, in terms that relate to government and the individual.
. . . it describes the absence of a particular obstacle – coercion by other men. . . .It does not assure us of any particular opportunities, but leaves it to us to decide what use we shall make of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. . . .it does not exist if one needs permission for most of what one can do. The difference between liberty and liberties is that which exists between a condition in which all is permitted that is not prohibited by general rules and one in which all is prohibited that is not explicitly permitted. (19)
It seems to me this last suggestion relates to a perspective often heard at least in political discussions, and probably also in many academic circles. Some discuss the rights of individuals as though those rights are granted to the individuals by the government. I think this is a view often used to discuss property rights for example, and it seems to me a view which is often used by law professors and legal scholars. It would seem that if government grants rights to individuals, then individuals do not have a right to do something or to take some action unless they have been explicitly granted the right to take that action by government. In contrast is the view that an individual has a right to act as he wants unless that action has been prohibited by general rules. This view seems much more the view Jefferson relied on in writing the Declaration of Independence, and it is much more the view of Locke and many others.

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