We talk a lot about freedom, but what kinds of freedom matter?

Freedom of speech. Freedom of association. Freedom from poverty. Freedom from unemployment. Freedom to hire and fire as one wishes. Freedom to be an entrepreneur. Freedom from homelessness. Freedom of assembly. Freedom to set the definitions of one’s labour.

There are two kinds of freedom: positive freedoms and negative freedoms. Positive freedoms are the “freedoms to”: freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of association. Liberals, centrists, right-libertarians, and moderate conservatives focus on positive freedoms, often disdaining negative freedoms as an unwanted constraint on individual (or corporate) liberties. The rhetoric of Marxists, some progressives, and other leftists focuses on negative freedoms, or the “freedoms from”: freedom from hunger, freedom from poverty, freedom from homelessness, freedom from illness. Traditionalist conservatives and fascists care neither about positive freedoms nor negative freedoms, except for the ruling class.

Both positive and negative freedoms are necessary for a functioning society. They are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they are synergistic (and I use this word advisedly; it’s not just business jargon if you use the term to say “these things work together and the whole is more than the sum of its parts.” Without negative freedoms, you have a lot of rights that won’t put food in your belly, keep a roof over your head, protect you from preventable diseases, or keep you safe from domestic violence—and others may have the right to exploit your labour, refuse to serve you because of your race, rip you off because there are no regulations on the books. Wage slavery deprives people’s lives of meaning. Without positive freedoms, you can’t speak truth to power. You can’t make your own choices about how you live. Everything you do is tightly regimented. With no choice, you may see life as futile.

Lopsided freedoms make people’s lives miserable.

If you’re homeless, starving, and hungry, is that really freedom? Even if you are not constrained by the law—after all, under “at-will” employment, you are just as free to quit as your company is to fire you—you are constrained by your material conditions. Free speech matters—after all, leaders need to be held accountable—but you can’t eat free speech. But under a dictator, you are under both the constraints of an authoritarian regime AND your material circumstances. If the state assigns you a job and you end up hating it, how do you find fulfilment when you’re occupied with tedium eight hours a day, even when there is no risk of being fired? Instead of these nightmarish scenarios, it’s better to give companies some discretion, but ban workplace discrimination and provide a generous social safety net for those who can’t find fulfilling work or simply can’t work at all. This way there is freedom from want and freedom of association.

This is why I vehemently disagree with both tankies and libertarians about their idea of freedom: their utopias are dystopias for everyone… including them.