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Reply to Paul Cleveland's 'Economic Liberty'

Stephen J. Grabill


It is important to begin by acknowledging that economic liberty is a subspecies of freedom in general. In the tradition of Christian social thought, freedom is generally divided into three types but not always with the following labels: negative freedom, positive freedom, and ontological freedom. Free-market thinkers such as Bastiat do a fine job of developing the concept of negative freedom, which can be defined as the absence of coercion, but they usually have very little to say regarding the other two types. Consequently, freedom (and, by implication, economic liberty) is reduced to meaning the absence of external restriction or of any attempt to interfere with a persons rationally chosen end. I think that Bastiats understanding of economic liberty can be classified as negative freedom. Thus, for him, social harmony results when people are left alone to pursue their legitimate self-interests. Professor Cleveland summarizes his view as follows: Bastiats concept of civil liberty can be defined as the condition in which people are free from the arbitrary dictates of others. When applied to the realm of economics, the establishment of civil liberty implies that a person is free to engage in any mutually agreeable exchange of goods that might be legitimately traded. The problem with Bastiats view of negative freedom is not what it negatesarbitrary coercion by othersbut that, taken by itself, it begs the question of why coercion or intervention is immoral in the first place. Iwould argue that one must have a full understanding of freedom in its positive, ontological, and negative dimensions to develop a sound moral case for economic liberty.

Stephen J. Grabill, "Reply to Paul Cleveland's 'Economic Liberty,'" Journal of Markets and Morality 4 no. 2 (Fall 2001): 341-343


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