What, if anything, does the size of my economic choice have to do with my freedom?

It has been argued by certain economists that freedom can be measured by evaluating the amount of economic choice available to the individual.  It seems true that the collocations of these words ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’ – ‘to freely choose’, ‘freedom of choice’ and ‘free choice’ – are almost tautologies.   I believe, however, that there seems to be an inherent misunderstanding of the concept of liberty when economists suggest that greater choice leads to greater freedom. In this paper I will discuss how Isaiah Berlin’s conception of negative freedom is the answer to the paradox that freedom is in a sense reliant on choice and yet choice can be completely independent of freedom.

Isaiah Berlin in his famous essay on the two concepts of freedom distinguished two ways of understanding liberty – terming them negative and positive freedom.  Negative freedom he argued is the area where I, as an individual, am free to act without the limitations of coercion or law.  Positive freedom, he suggested, is the conception of rational self-determination. That is to say it is the answer to, what is the rational path that will lead me, as a self-reflecting rational human being, to lead the life I wish to lead?

Let us now imagine that I am lost in a desert with my pockets containing enough currency to buy one bottle of water and that I am dehydrated to the point of collapse.  In this state, I stumble on a caravan that is only selling two bottles of water where the only difference is the barcode.  Now according to some economists this lack of choice amounts to a zero amount of freedom. What is more the rationalist proponent of positive freedom would suggest there is no choice – one must have the water in order to be free and continue a fulfilling life free of thirst. Berlin I feel would argue, however, that freedom (certainly in its negative conception) is in fact freedom to act, not freedom to choose or freedom to access.  The distinction may at first seem slight but on closer evaluation it drives a wedge between the economists idea of choice and freedom and what in fact Berlin is talking about when he talks of negative liberty.

What often seems to be overlooked in the above example is that there is in fact a certain degree of freedom in this scenario that economists and rationalists do not distinguish; that is the freedom not to choose a bottle of water at all.  This, no matter how irrational or outside my individual self-interest it seems, is nevertheless to act within the area where nobody is interfering or coercing me.  Only if I am forced to choose, does it amount, in Berlin’s sense, to zero freedom.

The economist and proponents of positive liberty may well say that you have to choose, because it is in your rational self-interest to do so, the economist would go further saying that when faced with the choice of two identical items this offers you no freedom.  However, this is to deny me my perspective.  Perhaps I see no point in drinking a bottle of water, because I am ten days to the next one and I have fallen half in love with easeful death, or believe that an evil coercer has laced them with poison, or that I do not like the attitude of the man in the caravan.  No matter how irrational the reasons may be for not choosing, they are nevertheless my own and by acting upon them I am acting freely even if somewhat irrationally.

Any coercive force that demands me to choose, no matter how well meaning, is, as Bentham once suggested, ‘an infraction of my freedom’.  One may passionately appeal to me to be rational, argue that it is in my interests, that it will promote my welfare or that it may somehow create fairness and equality.  So you may, but this is not an argument for freedom that you are appealing to, but one of welfare, justice, fairness or equality.  If however I am forced to choose, as the economists and rationalists will have me, then there is no choice and no freedom; there is no real choice because the items are the same and there is no freedom because I am being coerced into adopting a preference that is not mine.  As John Grey pointed out, in his monograph on Berlin, that the ‘basic sense’ of freedom is not necessarily triadic (a is free from b to do c) because ‘an agent may wish to be without constraint, and yet have no specific action he wishes to perform.’ (1996, p.54)

However, what does this mean if I am standing in a local supermarket with 35p in my pocket, an empty bank account and a debilitating thirst.  What if then I notice that there is a woman standing besides me with 20 pounds held in a well-manicured hand.  Is this woman any freer than I am?  Does the wider range of choice that she possesses mean that liberty rests more freely in her hands than it does in mine?  It is true that she certainly has more choice than I do.

Berlin, however, would say that in standing there we have equal amounts of freedom but unequal amounts of choice.  My inability to buy anything other than a 35ml bottle of sparkling water is not an infraction of my liberty.  It may be in a sense unfair, or not in the public good, it may express an inequality of wealth but there is nothing coercive in this relation.  If, however, the supermarket has found out that I have only 35p and has pushed the prices up in order for me not to buy sparkling water, then a breach of my liberty may have occurred but not as things stand.  Berlin quotes Rousseau as saying: ‘the nature of things does not madden me, only ill will.’  No human being is deliberately keeping me, as my autonomous self, from buying what my parched lips crave.

The Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen, like others, seems to think that this line of scenario does in fact drift into the province of the unfree. This is because, he says, that although my negative freedom may not have been violated, my positive freedom from thirst has clearly been compromised[1].  Here he suggests that my lack of money keeps me from being free.

But surely this is incorrect to say that it is my freedom that is being compromised. When I opened, on a Tuesday for the past four years, the job section of The Guardian, was my freedom being compromised by the fact that I was not able to choose 99% of the jobs because of my lack of experience or lack of relevant education?  Was I being restricted from applying to these jobs by a coercive force or is it that my experience, and therefore my own agency, does not qualify me for the jobs?

Here I would argue that freedom to choose in both of the above situations, of the job searcher and the thirsty customer, surely only means ‘able to’ and not the lack of a coercive force.  In other words when I say I am free to choose what job or drink I want it merely means that I am ‘able to’ do so due to a varied set of reasons. There is nothing necessarily coercive or divisive in this set of arrangements.

Of course one cannot brush off Sen’s concerns as lightly as this. One cannot say just because a person is poor and is not ‘able to’ afford medical care for example that: ‘Well, she will just have to go without.’ To be sure Berlin understands Sen’s objection when he says that the ideas of freedom in its positive sense – in the sense of freedom from thirst or illness ­– has been at the heart of all the morally just movements of our time.  This is to say, that I should be allowed to buy what drink I need, that this is just and fair and appropriate to the needs of me as a human. But Berlin would argue that this relationship is not one of negative freedom but rather of justice, or fairness or the public good.

Berlins says that there is ‘nothing to be gained by a confusion of terms’ and that negative liberty is not the only goal of man.  Like some of the whites in South Africa during apartheid, I can reject the freedoms I have been vouchsafed by a racist government in the name of a just society.  As Berlin intimates, if my liberty depends on the misery of others, then the system is unjust or immoral.

However when my access to choice is denied by a rapacious government this is in stark contrast to a society where I may decide to be a poorly paid carpenter and in doing so limit my own access of choice.  A society where I can decide to pursue a job that will only afford me a certain bundle of goods inferior to that of the well manicured woman of the supermarket is not a coercive one that limits my freedom, although it does limit my choice of social goods. Instead it is a free society that allows me this unrestricted decision because perhaps I like the smell of cut pine and enjoy the feeling of my chisel sliding into the grain and the satisfaction of finishing a cabinet or chair or table, even though this may not ultimately be in the interests in my own welfare.

Of course not everybody has this ability to act on their desires in a free society – this is why Berlin states that liberty is not the only good.  My choice may be restricted by many things: by the lack of equality, by my birth, by the desire to have the smell of saw dust on my hands at the end of the day, but to say that my choice is being restricted by a lack of freedom seems to be a mistake.

In South Africa during apartheid, freedoms were restricted which resulted in restricted access to certain choices and ways of living.  Here choice was directly linked to freedom.  However, now that these restrictions have been lifted it is a matter of social justice and equality that must be addressed.  Again I quote Berlin, ‘without adequate conditions for the use of freedom, what is the value of freedom?’  However disparate the economic choice may be between the millionaire and the person living in a corrugated iron shack in the sprawling townships outside Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, their freedom is still, under law, the same.

No matter how unjust and unfair the situation is, and whether choice is now being denied by a lack of justice and fairness or social welfare it still remains that the poor of South Africa are politically or negatively free, under law, to pursue the ends that they desire. This is to say their economic choice is not being restricted by lack of negative freedom but rather by an unjust economic system and a government disinterested in equality.  Contrary wise, a woman married to a wealthy man in Saudi Arabia may have the largest economic choice in the world yet remain unfree.  Here, with a slight corruption of Berlin’s statement above, one could say: without adequate conditions for the use of it, what is the value of the economists’ freedom afforded by a large economic choice?



Berlin, I. (1969) Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford University Press.

Grey, J. (1996) Isaiah Berlin, Fontana.

Sen, A. (1988): “Freedom of Choice”, in European Economic Review 32: 269-294.

Rousseau, J –J. (1968) The Social Contract, Penguin Books.


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