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Positive and Negative Liberty

The second major reason why I am not a libertarian has to do with the social safety net – programs like public education, universal health care, food stamps or unemployment pay – that are funded by redistributive taxation. Hard-core libertarians decry these programs as theft or even slavery, arguing that it is unfair to tax them to fund programs from which they derive no direct benefit.

In reality, however, these programs do benefit all members of society. Consider universal health care. Though libertarians regularly decry such programs as wasteful government giveaways, there is a sound self-interest argument for establishing a social safety net. Even if a libertarian, through hard work and intelligent economic decisions, has guaranteed their own access to quality medical care for life, what will happen to people who lack that access? Since the poor aren’t under regular medical supervision, any new infectious disease that appears will be likely to flourish among them. By the time it spreads out of the have-nots and begins to infect the rest of society, it may have become far more virulent and dangerous, putting many more people at risk. On the other hand, if an epidemic is detected early, it is far easier to stop it. This is not a hypothetical scenario: we see it happening around the world right now with diseases like tuberculosis or avian flu, where virulent, drug-resistant strains emerge first among society’s underclass.

A similar argument holds true for anti-poverty social programs, such as welfare, food stamps, subsidized housing and job training. Certainly we should not indefinitely support people who refuse to work, and the emphasis should be on helping recipients return to the workforce as soon as possible. But eliminating these programs entirely would be a foolish idea. Eliminating these programs would not make the need for them go away. If people cannot support themselves through legitimate channels, they are far more likely to turn to crime and the black market, again posing a risk to the rest of society, as well as imposing the greater costs of police and incarceration.

Finally, consider public education. Any rational libertarian would value science, since it produces a great number of inventions and discoveries that directly benefit every member of the public. Therefore, it’s in everyone’s interest to live in a society where science is valued and supported by the public, as opposed to, for example, a society where powerful religious groups block scientific advances that are contrary to their beliefs. But to create a society of the former type, rather than the latter, we must commit to educating the public. Abdicating that responsibility creates a vacuum where all types of superstition and pseudoscience can rush in.

All of these social programs benefit us in one further way. By committing to educate people, giving them job training and housing, and providing medical care when they are ill, we help them to become productive, valuable citizens – people who contribute to society, rather than being a drain on it. A study by Columbia University, for example, found that an increase of $82,000 per student in public school spending would actually provide a $127,000 net gain to the economy over the lifetime of that student. Again, by helping people live up to their full potential for productivity and innovation, we can create a wealthier, more prosperous society than would otherwise exist, and this directly benefits everyone.

It is wrong to think of these programs as free giveaways to the undeserving. Instead, the proper paradigm is to think of them as investments. Like any investment, the spending for these programs can and will be repaid with interest if distributed wisely. Education is one example; here is another:

The US spent $32 million to fight smallpox over ten years, achieving eradication in 1977. Now we save that sum every two and a half months in reduced spending on vaccines and health care. Total savings have been $17 billion, plus 45 million lives around the world, and as an investment that $32 million has yielded a return of 45 percent per year.

The notion of social programs as an investment in society leads into an important point. There are two different types of freedom which any society must trade off between. One type is negative liberty, the absence of external restraint or coercion. But there’s a far more important type, positive liberty, which is the ability to do what one wants to do. For example, I may want to secure an influential, high-paying job, and no one will actively stop me from doing this (negative liberty). Yet I may still be unable to get that job, because I lack access to the education and other resources I would need to pursue it (positive liberty).

Negative liberty is a necessary prerequisite for positive liberty, but is not sufficient for it. Any reasonable person, I think, would agree that positive liberty is the more important of the two. It does me no good to be free of restraint if I still lack the ability to achieve what I desire. Yet a libertarian state, where private property is the most fundamental right and there are no redistributive schemes such as taxation, goes too far in maximizing mere negative liberty at the expense of positive liberty. Rather than seeking to boost one at the expense of the other, we should want to combine the two in the highest proportion. Often, the best way to do this is to pass laws that somewhat decrease negative liberty, but produce a greater, more-than-compensating gain in positive liberty, both for the individual and for society in general.

Libertarians say that we should only concern ourselves with negative liberty – as long as people can choose freely, then everything is as it should be. But it does you no good that you can freely choose if all your options are bad ones. Consider the following horrible dilemma:

Nhem Yen’s eldest daughter, who was twenty-four and pregnant with her second child, promptly caught malaria. There was no money to get medical treatment (effective drugs would have cost less than $10), and so she died a day after giving birth. That left Nhem Yen looking after five children of her own and two grandchildren.

The family had one mosquito net that could accommodate about three people. Such nets are quite effective against malaria, but they cost $5 — and Nhem Yen could not afford to buy any more. So every night, she agonized over which of the children to put under the net and which to leave out.

“It’s very hard to choose,” Nhem Yen told me. “But we have no money to buy another mosquito net. We have no choice.”

This is not an isolated instance. As the Times article points out, impossible choices like this are very much the norm in conditions of extreme poverty. People become trapped in cycles of suffering that are all but impossible to escape because they cannot afford to provide for all their needs simultaneously. They have more than enough negative liberty; it is positive liberty they lack. A society that truly sought to maximize liberty would provide the help needed to lift people out of these cruel dilemmas.

It benefits no one for people to remain trapped in situations like this. Private investment and charity have a role to play in lifting people out of poverty, but they will not accomplish that task all by themselves – especially since many of these programs may not see a payoff within the lifetime of an individual investor. Public investment that is driven by moral considerations, rather than short-term profit, is also needed if we are to break the cycles of poverty and dependency. By doing this, we can create a society where the maximum amount of both prosperity and liberty is available to all.

Other posts in this series:

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...