Negative Freedom or Positive Freedom: Time to Choose?

In the seemingly never-ending battle over the scope of government in America -- on issues from gun control and climate change to federal spending and the Affordable Care Act -- opponents of active government regularly mix detailed criticism of immediate policy consequences with more general arguments about the erosion of basic freedoms. In doing the latter, critics of active government necessarily participate, whether they realize it or not, in a long-standing philosophical conversation about the nature of freedom.

That conversation has often turned on the distinction between two kinds of freedom -- negative and positive -- and on the relationship between them. We enjoy negative freedom when we are free from rules blocking our ability to act. We enjoy positive freedom when we possess enough resources to act as we wish. Keeping that distinction in mind makes clear that:

Critics of the Obama administration invariably define freedom narrowly and negatively. They focus on the limits new legislation places on people not to buy healthcare. They stress the constraints the administration wish to place on the kinds of guns and bullets that we are currently free to buy. They create an impression of a society so full of freedoms for each and every American that new government regulations can only take that freedom away. The critical role of government in guaranteeing those freedoms never gets a look in.

In the process, critics invariably exaggerate the threat posed to negative freedom by healthcare reform and by gun control advocates. In the daily reporting of implementation problems, far too often the Affordable Care Act becomes quickly synonymous with total government control of healthcare provision -- even though when fully implemented, the Act will still leave private insurance companies as the key source of healthcare finance for most working Americans. Similarly the NRA is invariably far too quick to treat any constraint on access to particular weapons or ammunition as the precursor to a full-scale attack on Second Amendment Rights -- even though no such attack is contemplated by those proposing modest reforms to existing gun legislation.

In the midst of those disagreements, critics of government regulations invariably downplay the necessary trade-offs between freedoms, and therefore the legitimate need for a conversation about how to protect freedom by limiting excess. Presumably no one in their right mind thinks that children should be able to buy machine guns, or that adults should be free to purchase nuclear weapons. Such unbridled freedom to consume would threaten the freedom of the rest of us to survive. So some limits on the freedom to buy weapons are both vital and necessary. Similarly the freedom to rely simply on the emergency room for healthcare coverage adds to healthcare costs for everyone else, and so erodes the ability of those paying for healthcare to purchase the full coverage they desire. Here again, one person's freedom is another's constraint. Yet such trade-offs rarely surface in most critiques of gun control or healthcare reform. The relentless focus of those critiques is on freedoms lost, not on other freedoms guaranteed or gained.

Critics of the Affordable Care Act regularly ignore the gain to freedom (understood as positive freedom) that comes from the subsidies at the core of the legislation. Those subsidies will enable millions of Americans to gain access to healthcare insurance that they previously lacked the means to purchase. Low-income Americans had the formal freedom to buy healthcare insurance before Obamacare, but that freedom was an empty one. Now it is not. Extending their freedom to buy healthcare also adds to the total size of the insurance pool, so helping to bring down the trajectory of healthcare costs for all of us. Indeed, that trajectory could be lower still if only Republican governors and legislators would, even now, stop throwing up roadblocks to the full implementation of the Act. There are therefore positive gains for freedom to be had from Obamacare-positive gains that need to be recognized and understood.

No matter where each of us stands on the key issues of the day, it is time for all of us to widen the debate on freedom in America. We need to move from a focus on negative freedoms to a focus on positive ones. We need to distinguish sharply between liberty and license. We need to ask ourselves why we prefer to live under rules privately determined by insurance executives we do not appoint than to live under rules publicly decided by the politicians we elect. We need, that is, to begin a more mature conversation than the one we have known of late -- a conversation on how to balance freedoms and responsibilities, and on how to act democratically to maximize the liberties of all.

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