To be poor, is to be unfree

Today I started reading Joseph Caren’s ‘The Ethics of Immigration’. Here is the very first line of his argument, that states should have policies of open borders:

“In many ways, citizenship in Western democracies is the modern equivalent of feudal class privilege – an inherited status that greatly enhances one’s life chances” (pg 226)

As I read through Caren’s analogy between feudal class and state citizenship, I felt my eyes widening. I have never before conceived my citizenship as what it is: an inherited status that greatly enhances my life chances.

Citizenship, given that it discriminates against people based on their place of birth, is an unjust practice. It is an uncomfortable truth that my own privilege comes at the expense of unjust practices.

This got me thinking about the political philosophy paper I took last year. In particular, about how we often fail to recognise modern unfreedoms and identify them as what they are – unfreedoms. Citizenship is one such cause of unfreedom, and an essay I wrote last year provided a way of identifying poverty as another.

I’m yet to work out a way of analysing the two together, but I thought I would discuss some of the thoughts that originate from what I was studying last year (in a form that you can hopefully understand). See whether or not you agree, and please let me know your thoughts! 🙂

“To be poor, is to be unfree” Discuss

(Spoilers, I conclude that to be poor is to be unfree.)

Some definitions

Freedom is difficult to define. However, within the literature, a 1969 paper by Berlin, ‘Two Conceptions of Liberty’, has proven very influential – and has led to a widely understood distinction between negative and positive freedom, which we can use to ground the following discussion.

Negative freedom is defined in terms of individuals having secured ‘freedoms from’ (particularly from interference). Positive freedom, on the other hand, is defined in terms of individuals securing ‘freedoms to’ (having particular capacities).

For example, if I want to go visit a friend in London, but the train driver decides to drive to Manchester instead – my freedom has been impacted by an external obstacle, an interference by someone else, meaning I lack negative freedom. On the other hand, if I want to go visit a friend in London, but can’t afford tickets – my freedom has been impacted by my own incapacity, I lack positive freedom.

We can give a definition of being poor as follows, using Townsend’s 1979 definition of poverty

“Individuals, families and groups in the population can be said to be in poverty when they lack resources to obtain the type of diet, participate in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary, or at least widely encouraged and approved, in the societies in which they belong”

The thesis

We can see how the above definitions could lead to the conclusion that those in poverty today (let’s restrict this to the UK for argument’s sake), lack positive freedom, but not negative freedom. In other words, that those in poverty are not being interfered with, but they may lack particular capacities to do things that the majority of others within the population can. Here, the ‘lack of resources’ in Townsend’s definition is conceived as a lack of the ‘freedoms to’ found within conceptions of positive freedom.

What I argue however, is that to be poor is to be at risk of becoming unfree, in the senses of both positive and negative unfreedom.

This is primarily because lacking resources can translate into unfreedoms that are well recognised by conceptions of negative freedom, because lacking resources often subjects people to physical and external interference.

How those in poverty lack negative freedom

Berlin himself describes negative liberty (freedom) as, “the absence of obstacles to possible choices and activities”. Lack of such freedom occurs, “due to the closing of doors or failure to open them, as a result, intended or unintended, of alterable human practices, of the operation of human agencies” and entails, “deliberate interference of other human beings within the area in which I could otherwise act” (Berlin, 1969).

By expanding on the implications of this conception, it can be shown that those individuals who are poor are unfree in a relevant sense as to lack negative freedom.

The freedom that ‘negative liberty’ establishes should first be laid out. Understanding negative freedom means knowing what rights to non-interference are required to achieve it. For our purposes, we can take the rights of negative freedom to be synonymous with the rights established by the rule of law, which restricts the arbitrary exercise of power (and which is therefore concerned with the limits of interference).

The rights established under the rule of law are taken to be fundamental human rights – the life and security of individuals, freedoms of opinion and expression, of belief and religion, the right to privacy, freedom of assembly and association, fundamental labour rights, the prohibition of forced and child labour, equal treatment and the elimination of discrimination. These rights are written in law (often codified in constitutions) such that every citizen is regarded equal under the law and guaranteed such freedom.

Although these rights are enshrined in law, individuals in poverty can be regarded to be unfree where they fail to have these freedoms (at least, freedoms to a necessary degree) as a consequence of a lack of resources. Arguably those in poverty may find themselves lacking not just in the economic capital of income and wealth, but in other areas such as human capital (education and health) and social capital (supportive, positive communities). Access and opportunity are empirically linked to money such that having a low income, whether due to unemployment, reliance on benefits or low paid work, limits access to adequate housing, education and other services or facilities. There is a strong case to claim that there exists an empirical regularity between poverty and lower educational attainment and health service provision (leading to such things as shorter life expectancies – as Bernie Sander’s has said ‘Poverty is a death sentence’).

How does this constitute unfreedom? Where individuals in poverty face such restricted choice in their access to services and opportunities that their entire lives are marked by it, there is case to say that they do not have the “absence of obstacles to possible choices and activities” that Berlin described negative liberty as being. And where it is demonstrable that the poor face averagely worse access to state services, it can be argued that there is a likelihood that at least some individuals in poverty do not have negative liberty, as they are not in receipt of their right to equal treatment in the universal provisions made for citizens of a particular state.

The connection between money and freedom

Part of the reason I believe that there is a reluctance to declare that poverty and a lack of resources could make someone unfree, is due to ignorance about how money operates to ‘confer’ freedom where it prevents interference (See Cohen’s ‘Freedom and Money’, 2011).

The reason that lack of resources, most notably the financial resource of money, is taken to be the decisive characteristic of poverty, is precisely because it is money that, to a large extent, determines whether people are able to compensate for other shortfalls in their lives. The relevant shortfalls are those of human capital (education and health) and social capital (supportive, positive communities). This idea of financial resources as compensation is found in Walzer’s concept of distributive spheres (or spheres of justice) – in which there is a ‘currency conversion’ between spheres, (i.e. between those of economic capital, human capital and social capital) such that a monopoly in the sphere of wealth can translate into inequalities in other areas of social good such as healthcare and political power (Walzer, 1983).

Consequently, certain freedoms, like those of political and civil rights afforded under the state, may not be enough to guarantee that those in poverty really are free, where economic capital impacts on other spheres to the extent that it impacts on all areas of life.

Freedom as a set of conjunctions and disjunctions

Cohen gives multiple examples to show how the obstacles that result from not having economic capital are analogous to the obstacles that proponents of negative liberty usually try to eliminate. A woman who is unable to purchase the train ticket to see her sister in Glasgow, will be subject to physical external interference. She may be prevented from passing through ticket barriers. She may be forced off the train by a guard. She may even be subject to imprisonment. Her poverty causes interference, and therefore negative unfreedom.

The main critique of such examples argues that none of us have ‘full’ negative freedom. I cannot, for example, purchase expensive luxury items in Harrods without encountering the same sort of treatment. It may be said that empirical correlations, between such things as poverty and access to education and choice of housing, are therefore not enough to claim that the poor are unfree. After all, the restrictions of choice faced by individuals in poverty are those that are also faced by individuals with a higher amount of resources.

For example, an individual in poverty may be subject to living in inadequate, overcrowded housing, but an individual of average wealth does not have that much more freedom in choosing where they live – neither can buy a mansion. It is also perhaps the case that neither of them can afford to send their child to be educated privately. This could be extended further. Even a relatively wealthy individual may have to choose between either owning a mansion or a certain type of private education. Restrictions to freedom therefore apply to everyone. This may be thought to be inevitable – some resources (or positions that come with resources) are scarce, so inevitably not everyone will have access to them. The thought is that the distributions of such resources are not to do with guaranteeing freedom, but about equality – which is a separate issue altogether. As such, so long as the process of acquisition of resources is fair, the choices that individuals have as a consequence of the subsequent inequalities is fair.

At this point, it is helpful to construe adequate freedoms as a particular set of conjunctions.

My freedom can be analysed out as follows:

I can attain adequate shelter AND clothing AND sustenance AND visit friends and family AND….  go on some holidays OR buy an expensive luxury item from Harrods OR save for the future OR x OR y OR z 

Individuals in poverty see their set of conjunctions massively eroded.

They can attain adequate shelter AND sustenance AND… put the heating on OR buy their kid’s uniform.

Where those in poverty face severely limited sets of options, it is clear that they lack negative freedom. They are presented with impossible choices that they must successfully make in order to avoid interference.

Sometimes, the sets of options get so small that interference is inevitable. Homelessness is not anybody’s preference, but it is a consequence of a very diminished set of conjunctions/choices. To be homeless is to be in a position where interference is fully, legally, warranted. The homeless individual has, “no place governed by a private property rule where he is allowed to be whenever he chooses” and “no place governed by a private property rule from which he may not at any time be excluded as a result of someone else’s say-so” (Waldron, 1991).

Homelessness can be seen to exemplify how a lack of resources ends up in an individual becoming unfree in negative liberty terms – many of an individual’s rights that should be guaranteed through their claim to negative liberty become vulnerable (security of person, privacy, freedom of assembly and association, elimination of discrimination etc.) This is ‘the more extreme end’ of those in poverty, but I believe that unjustice in the form of negative unfreedoms occur much before this extreme.

Those in poverty lack positive freedom

Our defence of the thesis that those in poverty lack negative freedom, does to an extent rely on the assumption that there is a qualitative difference between sorts of freedoms. That freedom is not quantitative. In other words, getting ten choices for your kid’s school shoes does not compensate for the fact that, because you need to buy your kid some school shoes, you cannot put the heating on; some choices are more important to have than others.

In our set of conjunctions, we are required to moralise. We must decide that it is important that all people, as a minimum, be able to do ‘x AND y AND z‘, in order for them to be considered to have freedom.

To some extent we already have an agreed ‘moralized conception of freedom’ that makes up an agreed set of conjunctions. This is the minimal set of conjunctions comprised by the requirements of negative freedom (All people can have security of person AND freedom of association AND freedom from discrimination). This we have already shown is not the case for those in poverty, as seen most blatantly in the extreme of those individuals who are homeless.

However, I think that there are important respects by which individuals are rendered unfree when they are poor, which require us to specify other things which should be included within the set of choices an individual must be able to make in order to be considered free. In Cohen’s example of a woman trying to buy a train ticket to see her sister in Glasgow, we may want to say that if the woman considers time with family among her most important purposes, then her being able to buy a train ticket is necessary for her to have freedom.

How we draw the parameters on important choices is difficult, because what people consider valuable is different. What would you include amongst the minimum set of conjunctions required for freedom? A certain level of education? Of health facilities? And to what level would these provisions need to be?

Luckily, what is important for the present discussion, is only that we are able to see that poverty can prevent people from engaging in the activities and practices that makes life meaningful for them. We can then conclude that those in poverty lack positive freedom.

Where do we go from here?

I hope that reading through the above thoughts has given you pause for thought.

Becoming abjectly poor is for an individual to lose freedoms. Poverty imposes a lack of choice that can render individuals unfree in important respects.

To be poor, is to be unfree.

Some questions to be asking

How can we make sure that the choices we make, as individuals acting within our rights are such that the choices of other individuals aren’t reduced to the extent that their freedom is endangered? How do we do this where it is not our individual actions which directly endanger the freedoms of others, but it is our actions within systems that do (on the basis that systems that cause unfreedoms are comprised of the individual decision-making perpetuating them)?

In relation to the very beginning of this post, in what ways can we use the privileges and rights that we have by virtue of our respective citizenships to enhance the freedom of others?

How can we use our wealth to grant the freedom we have to others?

“Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker,
but whoever is compassionate to those in need honours God.”

Proverbs 14:31

One thought on “To be poor, is to be unfree

  1. Alan A. Malizia: Contagious Optimism! Co-Author says:

    “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker,
    but whoever is compassionate to those in need honours God.”

    Proverbs 14:31

    Rachel, great effort and thought-provoking essay.
    You conclude that to be poor is to be unfree.
    I believe both the haves and the have-nots are both unfree in the context of each one’s station in society. The haves are burdened with the responsibility of ownership, while the have-nots are but responsible for the day-to-day necessities. For with power and money come responsibility. And for the haves is the added responsibility to consider the needs of the have-nots.

    The Proverb above is well chosen. The oppressors of the poor are those who keep the poor so, through continual hand-outs because their poverty is needed for the oppressors to maintain their relevance. The compassionate, rooted in truth*, are those who provide the poor the hand- up they need to raise them out of poverty to enable them to aspire to some purpose. For without purpose is denied a basic human right of one’s worth given by God. (* I mention rooted in truth, because compassion without truth is nothing more than sentimentality, and truth without compassion tends to cruelty. In the balance are we truly liberated.)

    As you say: Are we free from something for something? To free someone from poverty is to free them for something greater. Is that something simply to be a solitary self-sustaining product of being freed. Or does that now give the newly freed the responsibility to free another? That is how great numbers can be lifted from poverty and given an opportunity to know freedom.

    One must be careful not to confuse liberty with license nor laws with restriction. For regardless of our station in life, whether have or have-not, our actions have consequences which will impact those around us. The question is will they be virtuous or the contrary. Liberty with just laws maintains order, while unrestricted license unleashes chaos.


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