Martha Nussbaum on the Capabilities Approach

One prominent idea of rights, common in the US political and legal tradition, understands rights to be barriers against interfering state action: if the state just keeps its hands off, rights are taken to have been secured.  The Capabilities Approach, by contrast, insists that all entitlements involve an affirmative task for government: it must actively support people’s capabilities, not just fail to set up obstacles.  In the absence of action, rights are mere words on paper.  Vasanti was not beaten by the government of Gujarat; she was beaten by her husband.  But a government that does not make and then actively enforce laws against domestic violence, or give women the education and skills they need to get a living wage if they leave an abusive marriage, is accountable for the indignity such a woman endures.  Fundamental rights are only words unless and until they are made real by government action.  The very idea of “negative liberty”, often heard in this connection, is an incoherent idea: all liberties are positive, meaning liberties to do or to be something; and all require the inhibition of interference by others.”

~ Martha Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach, p. 65

(Many thanks to Luis Villa for his LibrePlanet talk, which convinced me to read this book, and to Sumana Harihareswara for convincing me to read Luis’ talk!)

Liberty is a gift from mankind

I’ve been drawn to libertarian ideology my whole life but have never really embraced it, aside from a one week stint after reading Atlas Shrugged my freshman year of high school. I liked the book enough that I immediately started re-reading it so I could better understand it. And when I did I realized: there are no children in the story. There’s also no loving parents with Alzheimer’s, no aunts with cancer, no friends who need a place to crash for a couple months while they try to figure out what the hell they’re doing with their lives. In all the thousand plus pages of the book, there’s a great paucity of human relationships. It’s just heroes loving other heroes and fighting villains.

(If any of you have read Atlas Shrugged, you might be thinking, “But Eddie Willers!” Eddie Willers just proves my point. Sure he’s a lifelong friend and colleague of Dagny’s who she genuinely seems to like, but she leaves him to die without a second thought. Millie Bush is another non-exception exception. Yes, she’s an eight year old kid, and so technically the book does have a child in it, but literally all she does is get punched in the face by a heroic factory worker. Atlas Shrugged: Punch Children and Let Your Friends Die.)

Anyway, this post is not meant to be a review of Atlas Shrugged. But I think the flaws of Atlas Shrugged are of a piece with the flaws of libertarianism as a whole. It views liberty as a naturally occurring right which must be protected from all threats, most notably the government but also other organizations and individuals. A lot of libertarians do just focus on the government, either because it’s intellectually easier or because their libertarianism is a Trojan horse for small-scale authoritarianism, but my issue is not just the categorization of who is a threat to liberty. It’s the central conception of liberty as a gift from god or nature which must be protected from other men.

This conception is extremely popular.  You can find it in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

I believe that liberty is not given to men, it is created by men.  If liberty is “the ability to do as one pleases”, then how do we gain those abilities?  How do we even learn what pleases us?  I am at liberty to write this blog post, and yes that is partly due to the freedoms of speech and press granted protected by the US Constitution, but it’s also due to years of public education and the mentorship of family members, not to mention the labor and community resources that went into building WordPress, the internet, and computers in general.  Without them, I would not have the liberty to write this blog post.  In fact, I cannot think of a single liberty I possess which was not in some way facilitated by people known or unknown to me.  Even the most basic liberties such as bodily autonomy are in some ways created.  If I’m attacked, how do I defend myself?  With weapons created by and purchased from other people, with skills taught by self defense experts, with moves seen on TV.

If liberty can be created as well as destroyed, then libertarians have an obligation to support liberty creation along with liberty protection.  To care only for one half of the matter is to let liberty languish.  A person recently released from prison has regained some liberty from the state in a very meaningful way, but they also need liberty in the form of the ability to earn money legally.  Otherwise they are likely to end up back in prison.

So why are there no children in Atlas Shrugged?  Because a child is a perfect rebuke to the conception of liberty as a natural gift under threat.  A newborn has no liberty – it cannot even hold its head up!  It takes years for children to develop even a basic bodily autonomy: my niece is three and I am still always mindful of the ways I might need to intervene to protect her from herself.  As she gets older the threats change, and she will be trusted more and more to act on behalf of herself, but it is a long process.  And the ability to set her own boundaries and act on behalf of herself is itself a skill and knowledge/value set created through gifts of wisdom and care, role-modeling and expectation-setting.

We’re all children at heart.  We may have learned enough skills to get by but we all struggle both to protect our liberties and to expand them, to enforce our boundaries and to broaden our horizons.

It’s a lifelong process.  And any political movement that fails to respect both halves of that process is not one I care to be a part of.