Inequality Of Freedom

Posts in this series. This post is updated from time to time with additional resources.

I have updated the Index linked above with a brief description of the end of Chapter 2 and the remaining four chapters of Elizabeth Anderson’s Private Government. As I note there, two of the comments are disappointing: the commenters largely ignore Anderson’s views of freedom and equality as they relate to the workplace, choosing to argue that workers don’t really care about these issues, or are satisfied with the current arrangement or that corporations don’t actually trammel on workers. This seems remarkably short-sighted in light of recent resurgence of worker actions, such as the GM strike and the Chicago Teachers Strike. In the GM case, the union won the end of the two-track wage system. The Chicago Teachers strike was notable in the solidarity among the teachers and the other employees of the school system, and the parents and the kids (shout-out to my daughter’s family!).

Anderson’s definitions of freedom and equality give us a completely different way to analyze our society. Disparities in both have created the material inequality that is wrecking our society. I begin by looking at these disparities in practice. Recall that in Anderson’s terms freedom can mean negative freedom, positive freedom or freedom from domination.* Inequality refers to differences in social relationships: differences in standing, authority and esteem. I don’t know how to quantify these categories, so let’s look at them again and ask where different people stand. In each case, as a general matter, minorities have less freedom and less equality in each of the six categories, in some cases, substantially less.

1. Negative Freedom, or freedom from interference. This refers to the ability of a person to use the force of law to protect their actions or their property. This is the only freedom economists, especially neoliberal economists, consider relevant to their practice. It’s clear that rich people have the most negative freedom. They have lots of property, and the right to bar others from using it. Their wealth gives them a very broad scope of actions, for example travel, general consumption, and political action. As we go down the wealth scale, property and the range of possible actions drops. Among the lowest income groups, there is little property, and thus little negative freedom, and the scope of actions is much more limited, especially because they are easily excluded from all except public property.

Wealthy people enjoy negative freedom created for their benefit. They can join exclusive clubs that keep the rest of us out so they can play at golf, shoot skeet, eat among their wealth peers, and gamble. They go to exclusive parties, where private security guards keep the rest of us away. They have their own airport terminals at our public airports for their private jets and helicopters. That too declines as we move down the wealth scale.

Of course, we all have some negative freedoms. For example, we can all own guns, and in many places carry them with us. No one can stop us from using those guns to “stand out ground” in some states. That means that for some people the consequence of negative freedom is death or injury by gun, interfering with their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

2. Positive Freedom, or range of opportunities. There is almost no limit to the opportunities available to the rich. As we move down the wealth incline, opportunities gradually decline. Consider the different educations the rich have had, compared to the educations of the less well off, and working class and poor people. Think about the jobs available to those who can stumble out of elite private schools with degrees, compared to those with good grades at state universities. Then think about the working class kids trying to get decent training at for-profit trade schools, which load them up with student debt.

One way to measure positive freedom is social mobility. Here’s a comprehensive study by Raj Chetty and his colleagues of social mobility in the US. Here’s one of the charts in that study, showing relative social mobility estimating the probability that a child born to parents in the lowest quintile of income will attain an income in the top quintile compared to such chances in other countries.**

Here’s another chart from Chetty, showing the likelihood that a child will exceed the income of her parents. This chart is especially depressing, because we used to think that this was proof of the excellence of the US economy.

Note that the y-axis on this chart is shortened by dropping out the bottom 40%.

This more difficult study calculates IGE:

The most widely used measure of intergenerational economic mobility is intergenerational income elasticity (IGE), a coefficient obtained via a regression model that captures the statistical connection between parents’ income and their children’s income in later life.

They apply it across the income distribution, trying to estimate the effect of parental income on their children’s incomes. Here’s how they describe their results:

We estimate an IGE value for the pooled sample of 0.47 at the mean of the income distribution, which is in line with the literature. More importantly, we observe a U-shaped pattern in the parental income influence on children’s income. Thus, IGE is highest at the lower quantiles of the distribution (0.6 at the 5th to 20th percentiles), falls to a minimum of around 0.38 at the 70th percentile, and then increases again up to almost 0.5 at the 90th to 95th percentiles.

Loosely, this means that most kids whose parents are in the top and bottom quintiles of income are likely to remain in those quintiles, while more kids in the middle three quintiles may move up or down.*** If this is right, poorer kids have the least positive freedom, and middle class kids have more, but have a good chance of falling in social mobility, and rich kids have the most positive freedom, and are protected from failure.

3. Freedom From Domination. The more money one has, the more free one is from domination by others. At the top of the wealth scale people are generally free from domination, and through their influence in the political system, they avoid much restrictive legislation and benefit from favorable legislation.**** Wealthy people often escape accountability for actions that would incarcerate others, or result in civil damages. For example, after the Great Crash for an obvious example: not only did Wall Streeters avoid criminal exposure for causing the Great Crash, they got to keep almost all of the money.

As Anderson documents in her book, average working people don’t have that kind of freedom from domination in the work place; although employers vary in their use or abuse of that power. In other aspects of their private lives, they are able to avoid domination if they are white. That’s less true of people of color, who are easily singled out for hassling by law enforcement, security personnel in private spaces, and others with local authority.

Wealthy people have the ability to dominate many others simply by virtue of their wealth. Among the great middle, there are some opportunities for domination, both in the workplace and to a lesser extent in other private groups, The poorer one is, the fewer opportunities there are to dominate others.*****

I’ll take up social hierarchies in the next post.
* These terms are discussed in earlier posts in this series. See the Index at the top of this post.

** In 2017, the top of the lowest quintile was $24,000, and the bottom of the top quintile was $127,000. Note the use of income as a proxy for social mobility. Education is often studied as a proxy, with similar and expected results. Education may measure an important aspect of human flourishing not captured by income studies.

*** This material is complicated, largely because of the use of statistical techniques I’m not familiar with, and I am wary of it because it so closely matches what I would expect, creating a risk of confirmation bias.

**** Here’s a discussion of the Gilens and Page study of the legislative preferences of the rich.

***** I exclude families, where men can get away with domination.

16 replies
  1. Eureka says:

    Hi, Ed: I’m a bit behind on my reading, but wanted to thank you for your rapid-fire Peirce-James trilogy a little bit ago.

    • Ed Walker says:

      Thanks. The underlying materials are accessible and worth reading. For an contemporary view of these issues, I recommend Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and Social Hope. The idea of truth is hotly contested, as the usual suspects blame the left for relativism and denial of the existence of objective truth, two terms which Peirce and James would reject as ignorant.

      • Eureka says:

        Yes, I second your recommendation of that Rorty. It’s been some years now (besides brief revisits since, I read it when it came out — also difficult times in our republic…) but it lives up to the title. I’m a bit steeped in Peirce and James (jointly and severally as one might say of their works), so not only share your valuing of their ground, but thought that how you wrote the trilogy made them & key issues clear and accessible. And as uncomplicated as a pragmatic approach to reasoning may be, it’s not always easy to quickly convey — countering long-set bad conceptual habits to which interested parties cling and pull, as you note.

  2. skua says:

    Thanks Ed.
    Having those three forms of freedom fleshed out has made thinking in those terms easier.
    And I think that is valuable.

    It is entirely possible that that model of freedoms is a not a suitable tool to analse the following situation, perhaps due to the small scale of the issue, but maybe the attempt will be interesting:
    Some years ago the Education Union here, in productivity bargaining, traded away hard-set lunch and morning tea provisions in exchange for increased pay. This was done with the approval of the majority of union members.
    However those members who approved of the changes are now some 15 years older – and finding it harder and harder to make it through teaching days without reliable rest periods.

    My analysis – going through the three freedoms presented:
    1. Negative Freedom – this doesn’t seem to be an issue here.
    2. Positive Freedom – increased weariness with aging, combined with unsuitable work practices are limiting the positive freedoms of the older teachers. The limiting of positive freedom seems to be a replay of what this cohort of teachers imposed on the older teachers some 15 years ago. Indeed the teachers who are now struggling with weariness have had some 15 years of higher pay prior to having to struggle through the day.
    Whereas those teachers who were immediately challenged by weariness when the changes were introduced only got increased pay for as long as they could overcome their weariness.
    The employer, the state, both proposed and promoted this change which divided the teacher body, turning those who wanted higher pay against those who needed rest periods.
    This being school teachers we are discussing, the positive freedom of the children involved also counts here.
    It appears to me that more experienced teachers will tend to educate in ways that increase the positive freedoms of their students. The changes around rest breaks bias against older experienced teachers continuing. Which would tend towards reducing the future positive freedom of the students.
    3. Freedom from domination
    I can see that the students will, by tending to have less positive freedom, tend to lower paid work, and so tend towards work with higher levels of in-built domination.
    The teachers I’m not clear about were they fit with this freedom.

    I’m interested in others correcting mistakes I’ve made, pointing out ommissions and blind spots and presenting their views. I’m not trained in this sort of analysis and would like to use this opportunity to get better at it. I think this stuff is important to being a useful member of a community.

    • skua says:

      Errata: 2…. (should read)
      “It appears to me that more experienced teachers will tend to educate in ways that produce greater increases in the positive freedoms of their students.”

    • Ed Walker says:

      Interesting question. First, I don’t recognize the terms “hard-set lunch” and “morning tea”, but I assume the the trade was more salary for more time in the classroom instead of having some time during the day to do class prep, grading, or thinking.

      I agree that negative freedom doesn’t seem to be involved for teachers.

      It seems to me that freedom in the workplace raises questions about your ability to affect your working conditions. It seems to me that by accepting employment, you limit your own positive freedom to do other things, and you accept limitations on your freedom to act in ways contrary to the job you agree to do. Within those limits, Anderson says, and I agree for what that’s worth, you want the maximum control possible over your actions. Because you are a member of the union, you have a good bit of that control, and the ability to bargain for more. In that sense, you are free from domination, with the proviso that the union may not represent your desires in some part. Anderson doesn’t ask for more than a voice entitled to be heard and considered, which union membership should provide.

      I’ll add here that control of the methods of teaching is crucial to good teaching. One of my brothers was a high school science teacher for decades. He quit when the school system imposed rigid teaching methods and required him to follow their methods, which had demonstrable success with students getting into top universities and having in some cases spectacular careers in science and technology.

      I agree that the positive freedom of some, perhaps many, is limited by exhaustion, or the need to use ostensibly private time for work that didn’t get done during the day. Again that can be changed, perhaps.

      From the standpoint of the children, they must attend school, so they are dominated. As you say, poor schooling has a terrible impact on their opportunities. Children, of course, have practically no negative freedom. In many places, they can’t even control access to their backpacks and lockers, and even their control of their own bodies has serious limits.

      I also agree that the children are being pushed into jobs that will leave them less free from domination.

      That was an interesting question, and well-designed to make Anderson’s somewhat abstract idea more concrete. Thanks.

      • Dysnomia says:

        Regarding the freedom of children, it’s not just negative freedom they’re denied. Children have practically no freedom of any type. Granted this can vary somewhat, but in general it holds true. Children have almost no positive freedom or freedom from domination either.

        Regarding this last type of freedom in particular, children are subjected to practically universal, ubiquitous and unrelenting domination. Children are dominated more than anybody else in our society, except maybe prisoners, and even there I think it’s a close call.

        I think the way our society dominates children, within the family and in school, and elsewhere, serves to habituate them to being dominated. It promotes a submissive mindset, a subservient attitude, accustoming them to their will being subordinated to others, and this mindset persists into adulthood. I think this is one of the challenges for those who want to create an egalitarian society (or a libertarian society, in the correct sense of that term). We’ll need to remake society from the ground up, and one of the areas that will need to be transformed is child rearing practices, educational paradigms, and the relations between adults and children.

  3. sproggit says:

    Typo: in the banner that shows on the site main page, the tag-line reads, “negarive” and not “negative”…

    [Fixed, thanks. I will leave any editing in body of text to Ed. /~Rayne]

  4. sproggit says:


    Excellent article, thank you. I’d like to pick at one of your threads, if I may.

    In different parts of your article, you write,

    “Wealthy people enjoy negative freedom created for their benefit.” … and… “There is almost no limit to the opportunities available to the rich.” …and… “One way to measure positive freedom is social mobility.”

    You might be aware that, when asked, “What is the most powerful force in the universe”, Albert Einstein thought for a moment and then answered, “Compound interest.” But what could Einstein have to do with your article? Let’s see…

    Take two people: Adam and Bob. For the sake of this example, it doesn’t matter how Adam and Bob came to be on very different levels of the social spectrum, only to note that they do. Adam has an annual income, after tax of $1,000,000 and Bob has an annual income of $40,000.

    Bob has a family, a house with a mortgage, two cars (because his wife also needs one to work) and as a result, if he tries really hard, then he can afford to save $5,000 every year. Adam has a lavish lifestyle: he enjoys two or three overseas holidays with his family, he also has a small mortgage, but even after these expenses he can afford to save half his net income – $500,000 – every year.

    Let’s leave these two American heroes for a decade or so, then come back and see how they’re doing… In 10 years – to keep things fair – both Adam and Bob have earned annual pay raises of 2% and have also seen their savings grow by 5% each year. So let’s calculate that out and see how they did…

    After 10 years, Bob’s net income has grown to $48,760, an increase of $8,760.
    In the same period, Adam’s net income has grown to $1,218,994, an increase of $218,994.
    That’s just from giving each person a 2% raise. Except, of course, that Adam is starting with a bigger salary, so he does disproportionately well out of “percentage based raises”…

    But what about savings?
    Well, the annual amount that Bob has saved has grown as his salary has grown. After 10 years he’s able to invest $6,095 annually – and, coupled with interest he’s earned, his saving portfolio has grown from nothing to $77,828. That’s pretty impressive.

    What about Adam? Well, Adam was off to a better start than Bob, wasn’t he? Because Bob’s living expenses ate up almost all of his net income, he could only afford to save $5000 per year to start with, which was 12.5% of his net income. Adam, despite his massively more expensive lifestyle, had an even bigger net salary to work with. Where Bob’s living expenses were $35,000 yearly and he saved $5,000, Adam’s living expenses were $500,000 yearly, but he still managed to save $500,000 as well.

    So after 10 years, Adam’s savings – growing at the exact same rate as Bob’s – reach a total of $7,782,751.

    Bob’s $77,000 are not even 1% of Adam’s total portfolio, even though, when they started, Bobs’ net salary was 4% that of Adam.

    In other words, everything about the system in which we live:-

    – the “cost of living”
    – the way that salaries are calculated and, more importantly, increased
    – the way that the growth of savings disproportionately favors those who have a lot to start with

    all act as “accelerators” that actually widen the gap between wealthy and poor. The cost of living is like an insatiable black hole: not only does the gravity it exhibits serve to hold back those closest to the boundary, but it also acts disproportionately more aggressively the closer you are to it.

    The wealthier you are, the easier it becomes to stay wealthy and get even more wealthy.

    And we haven’t even got to things like company ownership, trust funds or the various other mechanisms that each generation of the super-wealthy use to hand over their ill-gotten gains without paying tax on any of it. Unlike Bob’s kids, Adam’s children will inherit most of his wealth when he passes away. Bob’s kids will have to cover their dad’s funeral expenses, because his estate won’t be able to afford it.

    Footnote: none of this happens by accident. The reason that our society works like this, is because if everyone enjoyed the wealth of the 1% – if everyone in our society were super-wealthy, then who would be there to do the work to ensure that the wealthy earned the benefits? Who would be there to clear a blocked drain? Or re-surface that road? Or drive the semi that hauled the wealth-making freight across the country?

    The only way – the ONLY way – to reverse this, is to completely tighten the law around the definition of wealth and assets and then tax the assets of the very rich – say anyone with a net worth of more than $10 million…

    • Sharon says:


      Don’t forget all the special taxes on the poor. Not just regressive taxes such as sales tax. Everything costs more if you can only afford to buy in small quantities. If bills come due before your Social Security check arrives, you pay a late fee AND you pay higher interest charges. Fines and penalties on everything are compounded and disproportionately loaded onto the bent backs of the poor.

      • sproggit says:

        So now the question becomes: why is this so? Why, when we are supposed to have elected representatives who act in the best interests of the majority. That, after all, is what being in a just society means.

        A simplistic answer to this second question might be to observe that if we extrapolate the experiences of Adam and Bob over a couple of generations, what we end up with are an underclass of Bob and his relatives, who will take any job, work any hours, suffer any indignity, just to put food on the table, even while Adam and his family live like princes.

        But there’s a deeper problem now. Adam, his family and his friends have become so wealthy that he can now afford to give millions to political campaigns. He knows his congresscritters and his governor personally, because they play golf together, they stay in the same hotels.

        So now Adam looks at the federal taxation system, or the business tax breaks that he can get, realizing that he could do even better if only there were a couple of minor changes in this law here and that law there. So next time he plays bridge with his CongressCritter, he mentions the same. Over time, laws change and, steadily, Bob, his friends and his family are gradually crushed under an ever-increasing burden of debt.

        Meanwhile, Bob’s not feeling too good. He’s been working two-and-a-half jobs to keep the family solvent and he’s caught a nasty flu virus. Unable to meet payments without the income, Bob works when he should rest and ends up in hospital with full pneumonia. Unfortunately, Adam already thought of this. Instead of paying for healthcare through general taxation (which would mean that those that can afford the most, pay the most), Adam came up with the idea of directly funded healthcare, paid for by insurance. Bob can only get menial work and the coverage his employers offer is dire. So even though Adam could have helped to pay for a system that was cheaper and overall better, he worked the system to push the costs down to those least able to afford it.

        This is a good model. Adam likes it, so he applies it everywhere he can. Over a generation or two, these distortions become normality.

        And the worst part of it? The talking heads and so-called investigative journalists, those who claim to exist to speak truth to power; they fawn and toady to their masters with such pathetic obeisance that they – who are in fact part of the great disadvantaged masses (even if they’re too dumb to realize it) end up spouting the propaganda of Adam and his billionaire buddies.

        Great wealth is radioactive. Too much of it in concentration is harmful. For all of us.

        • rip says:

          @sproggit – thanks for a cogent explanation of the concept of power series – otherwise manifest in compound interest (and compounded penalties) as well as wealth begets wealth begets power begets more wealth.

  5. sproggit says:

    I am *really* sorry that this is an “Off-Topic” comment, but I also really want to call attention to this, as it has not yet been covered.

    On “Face the Nation”, Republican Congressman Jim Jordan was asked about the timing and the justification that the Administration has for releasing the funds to Ukraine when it did. This was his answer:-

    “Because President Zelinsky met five times with senior US officials, so they became convinced that this media star, that this new guy to politics, whose party just won an overwhelming majority in their parliament, was the real deal and that he was legit and he was worth the risk…”

    See here, in the opening clip before this interview with Senator Blumenthal:-

    Let’s be charitable and given Mr Jordan the benefit of the doubt. In everything he said:-

    1. The US Administration felt that they did not know President Zelensky, because he had only been active in politics since the “Servant of the People” party was set up in March 2018. In other words, Mr Zelensky went from outsider to President in 13 months and the US Administration felt they needed to better understand him before handing over hundreds of millions of dollars worth of weapons.

    Well, OK, but… President Trump announced his bid for the US Presidency on June 16th, 2015 and became the presumptive nominee on May 3rd, 2016, winning office 6 months after that. So it’s interesting to see the different ways that the US administration applies the standard of “no political experience”.

    2. Mr Jordan then goes on to say that Senior US Officials met with Ukrainians five times, on which they were able to make a determination as to whether or not to trust his government with hundreds of millions of dollars in aid. Five times? Five? Who met with who? What was discussed? Did those conversations involve anyone from the US Embassy in Kiev? How about Ukraine experts at the State Department? In the public testimony we’ve witnessed, there doesn’t seem to be much examination of the way that this decision was apparently made.

    What about the transcripts from those 5 meetings? Who was present? What topics were covered? On what basis was the decision made to release the “funds”? But, more importantly, what was *actually* released? Was it *funds* as is continuously repeated in the media, or was it actually “military equipment, including anti-tank weapons” worth $391 million dollars? The continual reference to “funds” seems calculated to generate an impression of an armored truck pulling up with bullion inside it, but the truth is that cash money would have been as useful to Ukraine as confetti.

    3. Back to Mr Jordan. Eventually, as he tells it, after what I am sure must have been five incredibly lengthy, gruelling and fact-based meetings, loaded with searching, factual questions, the decision to release was made. Given that it took five meetings and Mr Jordan was able to determine that all this was above board, why has he not had the minutes or transcripts of those five meetings read into the impeachment record? Surely they are contemporaneous evidence?

    The more you look at this, the more it becomes obvious that the only thing Mr Jordan has are smoke and mirrors.

    • porthos says:

      As of November 2019, $35.2 million of the $391 million has not been released–10%. This was from a Pentagon document. There are two tranches of funds—$250 million from the Pentagon and $141 from the State Department. There is still a hold on $35.2 million from the Pentagon.

      The Pentagon aid includes funds for grenade launchers, secure communications and naval combat aircraft–no Javelins. Potentially this $35.2 million is continuing to be used as leverage. The Pentagon has no comment.

      Zelensky also indicated his desire on the 25 call for more Javelins. This is not part of the aid. The State Department OK’ed the sale of 37 210 Javelins Dec 2018 and those went to Ukraine in March 2018 before Zelensky was inaugurated. Apparently there were no concerns about corruption for any 2018 aid distributed to Poroshenko.

      The Javelin 2018 sale did trigger comments from Russia and they were not congratulatory. Noticeably absent from current 2019 aid were any more Javelins. Zelensky’s offer to buy more would be Ukraine buying from Raytheon. Furthermore, the 37 Javelins already provided are encumbered with a defense only stipulation and cannot be used against Russian tanks offensively. They are stored away as a threat, but Russia knows they cannot be used per the restrictions imposed by the State Department. You will notice the careful ask in the 25 call where Zelensky says he will buy them only for “defense”.

      Bottom line $35,2 million or 10% still in the treasury and not Ukraine. No more Javelins at all.

      The GOPs constant gloat about trump’s big support with deadly weapons that Obama would not give is pockmarked with huge holes and nobody has bothered to push back and clarify–utterly maddening. Add to that the apparent freeze on any more Javelins after sternly worded warnings from Putin and we have a picture of just how dedicated trump is to Ukraine and anticorruption. We are losing the battle of the Big Lie.

    • TooLoose LeTruck says:

      Perhaps the more succinct, to-the-point explanation of why Jordan said what he said is that Jim is simply completely full of crap and so committed to carrying water for “President” Trump that no statement is too ridiculous to make at this point, especially when talking to friendlies like Fox News…

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