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A Capital Idea Part 146: What Kind of Freedom is Economic Freedom?

My friend Debra Gordon mentioned in a personal message a few weeks ago, that a distinction is made between positive and negative freedom by philosophers. As with so many "postive versus negative" distinctions when applied to abstract concepts, I found this distinction can be confusing upon application when I checked into it; however, eventually, I could find some clear distinctions between the two types of freedom, usually called "liberty" in the sources I saw.

The clearest concise definition of the two that I found was this: "Negative liberty is the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints. One has negative liberty to the extent that actions are available to one in this negative sense. Positive liberty is the possibility of acting — or the fact of acting — in such a way as to take control of one's life and realize one's fundamental purposes. While negative liberty is usually attributed to individual agents, positive liberty is sometimes attributed to collectivities, or to individuals considered primarily as members of given collectivities" (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/liberty-positive-negative/).

In my opinion, this still doesn't capture the entirety of the distinction, however, especially regarding postive freedom. Wikipedia has a definition of positive freedom, fortunately, which does exactly what I would have done on my own: "Positive liberty is defined as having the power and resources to fulfill one's own potential as opposed to negative liberty, which is freedom from external restraint. A concept of positive liberty may also include freedom from internal constraints" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Positive_liberty). Thus, while negative liberty basically refers to freedom from external restraints to act, positive liberty includes both the possibility of taking action to fulfill some potential, as well as freedom from internal constraints.

Thus, negative freedom in an economic sense would include for example, operating a business without any regulation to worry about, such as minimum wages, price regulations, safety or environmental standards, obligation to pay for damages caused by the business, and so forth. Negative freedom as applied to economics is what conservatives are talking about when they advocate for "economic freedom." Conservative think tanks actually measure "economic freedom" in this sense, and publish lists of the results for different places (nations or states, for example), as though being able to exploit society was the key to happiness and social harmony. The "individual agent" referred to in this case, would be government. Negative freedom would also include freedom from interference by other individuals, such as disapproving parents. Positive freedom would include for example freedom from collective cultural biases such as racial, ethnic, gender, religious or other biases. It would also include for example, the availability of educational opportunities or career opportunities. On the individual level, however, positive freedom would include freedom of thought and feeling, which lead to the psychological freedom to make positive choices and actions toward actualization of individual or collective potential.

It is clear to me now, that what I have been writing about in terms of necessary changes in economic systems, relates to a shift from emphasis on negative freedom as applied to economics, to positive freedom, as applied to economics. In fact, without using this terminology, this is a common theme amongst progressive economic thinkers. Again, it comes down to philosophy of governance and differing views regarding what government is actually doing. Conservatives want to keep government "out of their lives," including economically; they abhor any sort of heavy regulation of their business actions. In a libertarian sense, conservatives also want to keep government from restraining people's behavior with too many laws telling us what is legal or illegal to do. There is something to be said for the libertarian sense of personal freedom from excessive lawmaking and consequent selective application of the law, as happens all too often. However, the inadequacy of negative freedom as applied to economics, is abundantly clear by now. Essentially, it vilifies government and results in "free-market" and "trickle-down economics" mentalities, which in turn, lead to the promotion of greed, huge wealth disparities, and ultimate monopolization of entire political/economic systems by a few privileged individuals, sabotaging democracy in the process. Negative economic freedom, ironically, essentially makes the public economic slaves to a few economic elites.

The way forward to a social rebirth (to borrow the name of my friend Jules Elbeshausen's website) and a better future for humanity, involves transforming economics to emphasize positive liberties -- a world with a truly level economic playing field, for instance, for women as well as men, for people of all races or nationalities; a world free from the cultural ills of excessive wealth disparities and their effects; a world in which people are encouraged to pursue their educational, intellectual, creative, artistic, pragmatic and socially philanthropic interests, and be amply but not excessively rewarded for it. Such a world would unleash peoples' human potential to create a more productive, harmonious, enlightened society. However, we will still have to operate within life's constraints with which our environment binds us. This means that necessary to our progress is the unleashing of our potential to understand and work with nature in sustainable ways. No freedom is absolute, but rather, is relative. Being realistic on a collective level, means intelligently understanding the world's environment, determining and implementing ways for humanity to fit into this environment in a beneficial rather than destructive way. Being realistic on an individual level, means understanding our personal limitations as well as strengths, and making sure we fulfill our obligations to self and society before engaging in creative flights of fancy or other such personal enrichment and actualization practices. However, in a properly structured, modern environment, there should be plenty of time for both taking care of life's more odious chores, as well as those value-adding "broaden and build" (to borrow a phrase from psychology regarding the function of positive emotions) activities which we all look forward to so eagerly. In sum, positive economic freedoms allow all of us to fairly share in humanity's collective prosperity and potential. True economic freedom is a positive freedom, not a negative one.


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