An insightful quote from economist Lars Pålsson Syll, who blogs here, on the nature of freedom and its relationship to welfare and Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen’s concept of capabilities. The latter, contrary to the beliefs and wishes of many libertarians and neoliberals, can be enabled via state intervention:
“State intervention does not necessarily mean that our freedoms are restricted. They can, on the contrary, enable and increase real freedom. Talking about freedom in abstractu counts for nothing. What really means anything is – as Sen has often stressed – capabilities. What joy does the freedom of movement give the disabled person if no one enables him to use this freedom? What good does it bring us to have freedom of the press if there are no newspapers or journals where we can put forward our views? When estimating welfare more weight should be laid on positive freedom (ability to achieve desired goals) instead of only negative freedom (absence of outer restrictions). Welfare is, as already pointed out in Sen’s Tanner Lecture 1979, best understood in terms of capabilities . Positive freedom is a kind of capability to function that has a direct value of its own, while the resources that can increase this capability only get an instrumental value in so far as they help us to achieve that which we really value – our capability to function under different circumstances. It is not possession of commodities or perceived satisfaction that at first hand give a measure of well-being, but our capability to make use of our possessions. To focus on capability means emphasising what goods enable a person to do, and not the goods in themselves. A metric of goods or utilities does not get hold of the fact that the point of our belongings is to create possibilities of choice. Functioning and capability are what matters. What makes us value our car is not the fact that we perhaps own it, but that we can use it to take us where we want to get. Even if freedom is something important in itself, it is most often not for its own sake that we search for it.
Libertarians are oblivious of the fact that some persons’ entitlements can restrict the freedom of others, and that the want of property not only restricts the self-determination of the property-less but also makes him an instrument of others’ freedom. To this they respond that the more resources there are in society, the more the rich invest their capital to make production effective, and the richer all members of society become. In the libertarian society the egoism of the rich is linked fruitfully with the rest of society.”
Lars Pålsson Syll (2016), ‘Neoliberalism and neoclassical economics’, in On the use and misuse of theories and models in mainstream economics, College Publications on behalf of the World Economics Association, p.142-3.