Capitalism’s defenders often claim that it protects “negative freedom” — an individual’s freedom from others interfering with their choices. But Marxist philosopher G. A. Cohen showed that capitalism systematically denies people just this kind of freedom.

Brooklyn resident collecting cans to cash in on October 27, 2021. (Ed Jones / AFP via Getty Images)

Imagine you’re trying to visit your sister in Glasgow. You live in the United States, so the only way for you to get to Scotland is on an airplane.

Let’s consider two versions of this story. In the first, you buy a ticket. You show up to the airport, try to pass through security — and discover you’re on the “No Fly List” the US government started after the September 11 terrorist attacks. In the second, you just can’t afford a ticket.

But imagine you are not deterred in either version of the story. If you somehow sneak past security and make it to the gate before you’re discovered, the two stories will end the same way. You’ll have a very unpleasant interaction with an airplane employee before an even more unpleasant interaction with law enforcement, and you’ll eventually wind up in a jail cell.

This is an updated version of an example used by the late Marxist philosopher G. A. Cohen in his 1995 paper “Freedom and Money.” Cohen’s point there was simple but brilliant.

The most passionate supporters of capitalist property rights often defend their position by talking about the value of freedom. If asked to define their terms, they’ll argue that freedom — or the kind of freedom they care most about — is freedom from interference. This is the kind of liberty the most extreme defenders of capitalism are thinking of when they call their position “libertarianism.”

But the person who can’t afford a ticket is being interfered with in just the same way as the person denied access to the plane by the national security state. Unequal distribution of wealth just is the unequal distribution of freedom from interference.

G. A. Cohen vs. Isaiah Berlin vs. the Libertarians

Critics of libertarianism often begin by accepting the libertarians’ framing. Moderate defenders of capitalism who at least want a welfare state funded by redistributive taxation frequently argue that, while liberty is important, it needs to be balanced against other important values like equality or the alleviation of suffering.

Some socialists make similar arguments, or else argue that libertarians are wrong not about the value of freedom but about which kind of freedom matters the most. Some say that the kind of freedom that matters most isn’t freedom “from” anything (“negative freedom”) but freedom “to” act in the world in ways we can’t if we’re held back by poverty and inequality (“positive freedom”).

As it happens, I’m sympathetic to several of these points. I think equality is an important value in its own right. (So did Cohen.) I also think the capacities for human flourishing emphasized by enthusiasts for “positive freedom” are important. And I’ve argued repeatedly in the past that freedom from interference, while important, is ultimately a less fundamental kind of freedom than the freedom from domination (“republican freedom”) emphasized by past generations of the labor and socialist movements.

But in “Freedom and Money,” Cohen meets the Right on their own ground. He points out that a typical argument against redistribution has two “movements.” The first goes like this:

1. Freedom (or the most important kind of freedom) is freedom from interference.

2. Lack of money doesn’t make the poor less free from interference than the rich.

Therefore:

3. Lack of money doesn’t diminish the freedom of poor people (or at least the most important kind of freedom that they have).

The second “movement” of the libertarian argument starts from 3, adding:

4. The primary task of government is to protect freedom.

And concludes:

5. Relief of poverty is not part of the primary task of government.

Cohen’s purpose in “Freedom and Money” isn’t only to argue against libertarians, but also against thinkers like his friend and mentor Isaiah Berlin. While Cohen and Berlin disagreed deeply about Marxism and socialism, Berlin was no libertarian. He accepted the first “movement” but rejected the second, believing that capitalism’s sharpest edges should be sanded away by social welfare programs and a regulatory state.

Cohen thought Berlin and other theorists of his ilk — he mentions the great liberal philosopher John Rawls — were making a basic error. Even if they grant the first step of the argument, Cohen asked, why should they accept the second?

Libertarianism and Freedom From Interference

Think back to the two versions of the story where you try to visit your sister in Glasgow. A principled libertarian might object to the force being used to stop you from boarding the plane in the first version. After all, the No Fly List is a civil liberties abomination with no real judicial oversight.

The same libertarian wouldn’t blink an eye at the force used in the second case, though, because it’s being used to enforce something the libertarian thinks should be enforced. But whether libertarians will approve or disapprove of any particular case of freedom being limited is a separate issue from whether freedom is in fact being limited.

Of course, not all limitations of freedom are bad. I’m glad that the freedom of movement of convicted serial killers is limited, for example. But it’s a limitation of freedom all the same, and it shows the emptiness of the libertarian’s claim that their defense of capitalism is all about an abhorrence of unfreedom.

A distribution of property rights, according to Cohen, just is a distribution of “rights of interference.” When I say that something is mine, I’m asserting a right to stop other people from using it. If the law recognizes my claim, I can get armed agents of the state to use force to stop other people from using my property (or to punish them if they do).

A sophisticated libertarian will be able to back up their judgement that the airline’s property rights should be enforced with an elaborate theory of property rights. Socialists and other critics of libertarianism will obviously disagree with any such theory. But Cohen’s question is more basic — what does any of this have to do with freedom?

Some libertarian thinkers, like Robert Nozick, have argued that “freedom” from interference is only violated if you have a moral right to do the thing you’re being prevented from doing. But this is a very counterintuitive way of using the word “freedom.” We wouldn’t say, for example, that the imprisoned serial killer is free to leave his cell just because his moral rights aren’t being violated when he’s kept there.

And anyway, Cohen points out, this “rights-laden” understanding of freedom actually makes it impossible for “private property to be vindicated through a conceptual connection between private property and freedom.” If freedom from interference is only diminished when someone is stopped from doing something they have a moral right to do, we can only decide whether taking away private property from its current owners diminishes those owners’ freedom after we’ve decided whether they had a moral right to that property in the first place — and we’ll have to make that determination on the basis of “grounds other than freedom.”

On the other hand, if we use “freedom from interference” in the ordinary way — such that when someone is interfered with, their freedom from interference is being diminished — then it’s just false that poverty doesn’t diminish the freedom of the poor.

To illustrate the point, Cohen asks us to imagine a moneyless society where the state owns everything. It doesn’t just own the things it might own in a socialist society, like factories and farms; it owns everything. And it assigns citizens tickets giving them the right to use things. You can only cross the field if you have an “allowed to cross the field” ticket. You can only write a Jacobin article on the computer in our living room if you have a “can use Computer #2463 to write Jacobin articles” ticket. You can only visit Glasgow if you have an “allowed to visit Glasgow” ticket.

If we would agree that the freedom of the citizens of this society is being diminished when they’re prevented from doing these things without the right tickets, Cohen argues, we should equally agree that when a capitalist state enforces a distribution of money that leaves some citizens in poverty, it’s diminishing the freedom of the poor. Money, Cohen thinks, isn’t a “thing” at all — not really. If you exchange a dollar for four quarters, you have different things in your possession than you did before, but you still have the same amount of money. Money is a form of social power. Like the tickets in the hypothetical moneyless society, the basic defining function of money is to cancel out interference.

In the moneyless society, agents of the state will interfere with you if you put on a sweater without flashing your “allowed to put on the sweater” ticket. In a money society, employees of the store where you found the sweater, in the “first instance,” and then agents of the state as a backup, will interfere with you if you put it on without paying for it. Money is just a ticket that can be used to cancel interference — not to a single activity, but to any activity on a very long list.

Unfreedom and Injustice

It might be easy to get lost in all this and forget the original point. The libertarian argues that the core function of the state is protecting freedom, that poverty doesn’t diminish the freedom of the poor, and therefore that alleviating poverty has nothing to do with the core function of the state. Cohen argues that this argument fails because poverty does diminish the freedom of the poor. And it doesn’t diminish it in some special socialist sense of “freedom” but in the exact sense of freedom the libertarian emphasizes — freedom from interference.

Crucially, though, Cohen cautions that a more general objection to either capitalist property rights or the massive levels of income inequality they generate can’t be derived from his point about interference. “All forms of society grant freedoms to, and impose unfreedoms on, people,” he writes, “and no society, therefore, can be condemned just because certain people lack certain freedoms in it.

That’s fair enough as far as it goes. But I do think he could have drawn a further anti-capitalist conclusion.

If we accept that not all limitations of freedom from interference are unjust, but we also think freedom from interference is extremely important, what principle should we use to decide how much of it everyone gets? In some cases, like freedom of speech, a plausible answer might be that it shouldn’t be limited at all. Everyone should be able to express any opinion.

But that answer doesn’t work in the example we started with. Airplanes have limited numbers of seats; air travel uses a lot of fuel. We can’t just let everyone board every flight. So it looks like some unfreedom is unavoidable, and we have to decide how to distribute it.

A plausible answer to how much freedom everyone should be granted when “all of it” isn’t on the table is that everyone should get the maximum degree of freedom compatible with everyone else enjoying just as much of it. That’s one way of understanding, for example, the cliché that my freedom to swing my fist ends at your nose.

There’s a complicated debate to be had about how close we can get to perfect income inequality without unacceptable losses to other values we care about. Even worker cooperatives might vote to offer some of their members higher incomes than others as an incentive to take jobs no one might want otherwise, for example, and there are all sorts of reasons a socialist society might have to make similar tradeoffs. But to whatever extent we care about freedom from interference, we can add “making sure everyone has as much of this kind of freedom as is consistent with everyone else having as much of it” to the long list of reasons to fight for a vastly more equal distribution of wealth.

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