Confessions of a Serial Liberty-Reducer
from Peter Dorman
Since I have been placed by Econ Journal Watch in the leading ranks of economists who have signed “liberty-reducing” petitions, I figure I should respond somehow. An obvious first reaction would be, if this is all it takes to be grouped with such distinguished and thoughtful individuals as Jamie Galbraith and Eileen Applebaum (not to mention our own Michael Perelman), please give me more to sign. But maybe I should say something about this idea of liberty-reduction as well.
The authors openly state that they rely on a single principle to gage liberty, noncoercion by government. By this standard, for instance, an increase in the minimum wage is liberty-reducing, since it increases the number of wage offers that would be criminalized. This is not just a theoretical possibility; in Los Angeles the co-owners of a chain of carwashes were forced to pay over a million dollars to their workers for minimum wage violations, a plea bargain they made in order to avoid long prison sentences. There can be no denying that the minimum wage, whether you favor it or not, has an illiberal aspect.
Of course, the starting point for evaluating the single-minded reliance on noncoercion as the barometer for liberty is normally Isaiah Berlin’s essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty”. Berlin contrasts noncoercion, or “negative” liberty, with “positive” liberty, which enables individuals to make the choices they truly prefer. Berlin’s treatment confuses three different variants of liberty, however, so it is a good idea to put his essay down and think more carefully about the issue. The most precise definition of positive liberty sees it as applicable to the individual level, but pertaining to the feasibility of choosing X (what one prefers) rather than simply the absence of a coercive constraint on choosing X, as negative liberty requires. To the extent that the minimum wage provides more resources for people at the low end of the labor market, so they can enjoy a wider range of choice over access to the necessities and comforts of life, it enhances positive liberty at the expense of negative. (Workers are denied the choice of accepting, and employers the choice of offering, a sub-minimum wage.) I will say in passing that I accept Berlin’s judgment that, of the two, negative liberty is more precious in a wide variety of situations, but I think I can demonstrate that in another set of situations, also quite large, positive liberty can have as much or more “liberty content” as its negative twin. (This is due to the interdependent nature of economic and social life, which can sometimes make the costs of not being supported by others comparable to the costs of being coerced by them—so that the threat of nonsupport becomes coercive.)
Nevertheless, there are still two more types of liberty that have large followings. One is collective liberty, the freedom to engage in collective action on the part of a group with a common identity or shared interests. The great theorist of this notion was John Dewey; see, for instance, his book Individualism Old and New. Economists steeped in game theory should have no problem in understanding why such a conception of liberty is necessary and popular. At an intuitive level, if there is any basis for people conceiving of themselves as a “we” instead of simply a set of “I’s”, there ought to be a corresponding idea of joint liberty. It should also be obvious that there is great potential for abuse if the “we” is insufficiently elective, or if inadequate allowance is made for individual differences within even the most cohesive groups—but all conceptions of liberty are dangerous if they are blind to the others.
The fourth conception arose during the Romantic period in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and is associated, in the United States, with writers like Emerson and Thoreau. If collective liberty is situated above the level of the individual, “inner” liberty is two levels down: it is about freedom from convention, habit, and any other barriers to the discovery and cultivation of one’s genuine potential. We know this today as the ethos of rock ‘n roll: the role of the singer or guitar hero is not to be the most technically proficient (although this is admired), but to reveal to the audience his or her deepest, most genuine self, a role model for this kind of liberation.
Schooled by Berlin, we often think of tradeoffs between competing notions of liberty, and this is undoubtedly true, but with four distinct possibilities to consider, there may be synergies as well. The case of the minimum wage is instructive. Here is my own story: I came of age during the 1960s, when there was full employment and the real minimum wage was far higher than it is today. Thanks to the counterculture, I took time out to explore different life directions: I spent years in underground newspapers and, later, community radio to see if I wanted to be an “alternative” journalist. I spent a few months trying out the life of a professional chess player. (OK, I was no Ken Rogoff, but I did combine chess journalism, instruction, and competitive play at a lower level.) I also dabbled in other stuff that we can leave to the side right now…. How was this possible? The high minimum wage, I would argue, had a lot to do with it. I felt free to experiment because, at any time, I could find a low-labor-force-attachment job that paid enough to keep me afloat. In other words, the positive liberty I enjoyed thanks to a high minimum wage also enhanced my inner liberty to find myself during the typical finding-oneself years. I think young people coming of age today have a lot less of this freedom, and this is sad.
Closing note: the authors of the EJW article speak of “ideological” biases of economists based on the extent to which they support or oppose the noncoercive conception of liberty. I see it differently. To me, to be ideological is to be unable to recognize the claims of competing points of view. For instance, raising the minimum wage increases some kinds of liberty of some people, and reduces other kinds of others. You strike the balance according to your values and judgment. But a nonideological view demands that you bear in mind that, even though you may think the balance falls on the side of raising the wage floor, this does not cancel out the negative consequences. If a thousand workers are better able to put food on the table, but ten teenagers are unable to get an after-school job of a few hours a week, the benefits to the larger group do not erase the costs to the smaller. Ideological thinking typically means putting on only one set of glasses and disregarding other points of view. Nonideological thinking means being able to live with contradictions.
In this sense, I think the categorizers and not (necessarily) the categorized in the EJW article are the ideologues.