The Ranting Kraut

19.3.2006 – 27.9.2010

Positive liberty is a misleading concept: reflections on Jack Straw, Labour and Liberty

Posted by rantingkraut on December 18, 2007

Back in October, Jack Straw demanded a ‘Bill of Rights and Responsibilities’. I anticipated at the time that positive rights would receive more emphasis in such a project –at the expense of negative rights constraining the power of the state. Straw’s recent comments in the Guardian appear to confirm this prediction.

The notion of positive rights or positive liberty is popular with many genuinely well intentioned people: after all, who could deny the importance of access to food, housing etc. for individual autonomy? When The Economist criticised Amnesty International’s expanding human rights mandate for including economic entitlements, Amnesty International responded by arguing that these rights were just as important as traditional civil liberties.

Amnesty International is missing the point: the issue simply isn’t one of relative importance but of functional difference. From a purely pragmatic angle, it is worth noting that there is simply no evidence of a general trade-off between liberty and prosperity –the contrary seems to be the case. If access to resources, like housing or educational and health services is the issue, then a generalised increase in prosperity should be best placed to provide this.

There is a more fundamental ethical question though: those who value liberty for its own sake should be careful not to confound the issues of liberty and prosperity. Important as material resources are, it is simply not true that greater access to resources automatically makes people more free. Tom Palmer has made the point in a recent CATO institute podcast, where he pointed out that people in Nazi Germany had access to modern technology, including cars and telephones, but could hardly be said to be more free than German’s who lived before those inventions were available.

Negative liberties are designed to constrain the power of the state to prevent its growth into a totalitarian institution. Access to economic resources, via entitlements or otherwise, is convenient and useful, but can not be relied upon to preserve liberty. To see why this confusion can become truly dangerous, just look at Jack Straw’s recent Guardian comment.

Straw argues that liberty actually has increased under New Labour. To support his ludicrous claim, he points to some limited achievements (the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Human Rights Act) and then lists the ways in which a number of interest groups have benefited from legislation.

Requiring adjustments for disabilities is likely to make life easier for disabled people by restricting the liberty of all to do business with disabled people in whatever way they see fit. Whether this restriction is justified can be discussed at length, but an increase in liberty it is not.

The introduction of the minimum wage is essentially a prohibition on employment contracts with a lower wage. It benefits those who receive a higher wage as a result. It also is clearly a restriction of liberty since it reduces the number of contractual agreements which people are allowed to enter into.

The same is true of most measures which Straw lists in New Labour’s defence. Most legislative programmes will benefit somebody somewhere. That doesn’t mean they advance liberty. It is not a bad thing to make the trains run on time or cut NHS waiting lists but it is not an inherently liberal measure either.

Straw omits to mention most of the clearly authoritarian legislative projects he shares responsibility for. (Henry Porter makes up for this here, and here). Yet the combination of this omission with his bizarre apology of New Labour’s record on liberty makes it clear why positive liberty is such a pernicious concept: Straw’s method consists in defining every law that has in some way been useful to somebody as freeing its beneficiary from the effects of not having said law.

Thus any legislation at all can be classed as an act of liberation. This means that any law can be invoked as a counter-weight to the loss of civil liberties under New Labour.

To claim that New Labour’s decade of tyranny has been good for liberty, by those standards, then reduces to saying that a lot of laws have been passed under the Blair-Brown regimes.

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