Saturday, October 30, 2021

525. Power and freedom

 There is positive and negative freedom (Berlin 1969). In negative freedom, there are no outside constraints on action, from an authority, hierarchy or contract, so that one can ‘go one’s own way’. Positive freedom goes further than absence of constraints, in giving means, access to resources. Without the positive freedom of property and ability, negative freedom is ineffectual. What is the use of room for action if one does not have access to the resources needed to utilise that room? Fruitful relations give both negative and positive freedom, and democracy aims to give both, in schooling, fair competition with equal access to resources and markets, and social security. Trust gives negative freedom to the other, the trustee, the one trusted The room for action for the trustee creates risk for you, the trustor, and that requires the virtue of courage. Without risk no relations.

Relatedly, there is positive and negative power. I adopt the definition of power as the ability to affect choices of others. That can occur in two ways. In negative power one limits choice by limiting the space for choice, the room of options one can choose from, or imposing choices of options in that space. Trust yields negative freedom to the trustee, expanding the room of options and leaving the choice of an option open. Extending the room for action of the trustee opens up the risk of negative power of the trustee using that room to constrain the trustor (Nooteboom 2002). The risk may require some control, if possible without destroying the benefit of the negative freedom for the partner. Trust serves to yield also positive freedom, in creating new reciprocal benefit, in give and take, in resonance, kindling positive power.  

Machiavelli professed the need for the ruler (‘the prince’), to exercise negative power in the interest of the state. He admits that this does not apply to the population, since that would disable society. Negative power is still called for in fighting undemocratic schemes that subvert democracy, and power play in international politics, in opposition to authoritarian outside threats. A dilemma arises when in the battle against international terrorism alliances are made with undemoctratic regimes, such as the one currently in Egypt and Turkey, intended to close opportunities for terrorism.

In the dilemma of power and freedom, one can go for a combination of especially positive power and positive freedom. ‘Woke’ culture commiserates with past and present injustices of racism, slavery, discrimination and economic exclusion, all negative power, and at times is motivated by that to restrict freedom of expression, even humour, to take into account resulting sensitivities. One laughs harder at the jokes of a superior than those of a colleague. But humour has intrinsic value, and can break open discussion of sensitive issues, needed in democracy.

I have written on trust (Nooteboom, 2002), and there I make a distinction between reliability and trust. In reliance one expects the counterpart to honour agreements, in letter and spirit, for whatever reason, both control and trust that goes beyond control. Control is negative power, reducing choice, limiting room for action for the counterpart, increases his reliability, while destroying his trust. In control one presses the partner to conform to an agreement, by narrowing the space for alternatives, or creating incentives to conform. This can be done by enforcing a legal contract, or by authority, or the pressure of reputation. Trust, by contrast, gives the expectation that the partner will conform to agreements with no or limited control, even if he/she has the opportunity and the incentive to cheat. Trust is enhanced by positive power, increasing the room for action. Trust can be based on a shared morality of generalised trust, as part of culture, and/or on personal bonding in love, friendship, community, (extended) family, tribes and clans.

Trust is a complex notion One can have trust in an individual, an organisation, or a system. For example, concerning banking, individual bankers, the bank, the system of financial markets, and government regulation. In order to trust, one must trust on all levels, individual, organisation and broader system. One can have competence trust in someone’s ability to honour the agreement, or intentional trust in the intention to do so to the best of his/her competence. Trust and control are both complements and substitutes. Complements because on the one hand control cannot be complete, covering all possible contingencies, and on the other hand trust should not be unconditonal and blind. They are also substitutes because more trust allows for less control.

Trust based on personal bonding, in friendship, family, tribe or clan has the disadvantage of locking oneself up, foregoing opportunities of fresh inspiration and collaboration, resonance, with outsiders. Economically, it limits the variety needed for innovation.

Market economies are supposed to offer both positive and negative freedom. Positive freedom in products and access to resources needed to produce new products and services, negative freedom in free enterprise, the absence of entry barriers and bureaucracy.

There is a geat misunderstanding or misinterpretation, promulgated by many economists, that Adam Smith pleaded exclusively for action based on self-interest. In fact he also pleaded for the exercise of sympathy, generalised from personal feelings concerning specific others to general benevolence, and pleaded for striving for the greatest benefit of the greatest number of people. Sympathy and benevolence, requiring commitment, effort and sacrifice, entail a curtailment of negative freedom of oneself, and offer positive freedom and reciprocity to the other. It relates to the cardinal virtues of moderation and justice. Later economists have ignored or neglected this.

In the economic system, concentration of firms can yield a reduction of positive freedom, in monopoly or oligopoly, reducing the variety of supply, and reducing negative freedom, in lock-outs, erecting entry barriers to potential competitors. Competition is paraded as one of the virtues of a market economy, because it enforces efficiency and renewal in order to survive, but in practice firms have an interest in limiting competition. Government needs to institute competition-laws and -authorities to preserve competition. There is also reduction of freedom by locking-in customers, obstructing the switch to another provider of, for example, services of communication and social media, such as telephone, apps and data. Data on choice behaviour and expression on social media are currently appropriated by the platform companies Facebook etc. The EU is currently developing legislation to limit this.

The ban on limiting competition also has perverse effects, however, in blocking agreements between partners in mutual concessions of loyalty, commitment, sticking to each other in collaboration for the development of novelty, in combining complementary resources, skills and knowledge, requiring investments that are ‘specific’ to that relationship, i.e. lost when the relationship breaks. This loyalty temporarily excludes other parties, which does constitute a limitation of competition, but the blocking of collaboration hinders certain forms of innovation. This is a dilemma of competition policy. The constraint on enduring, exclusive collaboration can be circumvented by taking over the partner or merging with him, internalising the collaboration, while such mergers and acquisitions are often less desirable than staying apart in alliances, because they yield concentration of market power and too little cognitive distance.

An argument for limits to negative freedom comes from the theory of ‘Complex Adaptive Systems’ (CAS). There, subsystems are connected to yield higher level benefits, in the integrated system, a wider competence, positive freedom, such as organs constituting a body. For the coherence of the system, the subsystems need to conform to coherence, within certain tolerance levels, restricting their scope of action, negative freedom

Take the measures taken to fight Covid-19, such as a lock-down, which constitute a massive restriction of freedom. The lock-down blocks the social contacts that people long for, the opportunity of resonance, and which are needed for the development of one’s identity, especially for the young, shrinks the scope for interactive learning by home schooling, resulting from the closure of schools, threaten the existence of many enterprises and their jobs, shrivel access to culture, in closure of museums, theatres, and concerts, and increase inequality because the lower paid and lower educated are the most vulnerable. This triggers a debate on whether extending the life of the old and vulnerable who have little perspective of survival is worth such a loss of freedom.

Sometimes the targets of criticism of free markets claim that the criticism is an attack on their freedom. On the contrary, criticism is not an attack of freedom but its exercise. Democracy needs opposition and thereby thrives on criticism. Inability to tolerate, indeed welcome to criticism, leads some people to isolate themselves from it, in some harness or bunker of identity that shuts out opposition.

More fundamentally, much of what we decide and choose has been shown to be subconscious, based on automatic, unreflective routines (Kahneman and Tversky, 1979; Kahneman et al., 1982; Tversky and Kahneman, 1983). We mostly act impulsively or habitually rather than reflectively and rationally. Cognition is enabled but constrained by forms of thought as enabling constraints by which we perceive and interpret the world, and which we have adopted in education and teaching and have further developed in life. Feelings are kindled and channelled by experience in life. We are constrained by our past.

This limits the freedom of rational choice, evoking a plea for nudging such unreflective routines paternalistically, in the interest of those who decide, or in the presumed public interest. (Sunstein and Thaler, 2003). An example is the ruling that donation of organs after death is taken for granted unless one signs a written refusal in advance, rather than the other way around, giving written acceptance of it. This utilises the lack of attention to the issue, as a result of laziness or lack of interest. It can be in the public interest, but it constitutes manipulation, lack of freedom. Formally, there is freedom in the possibility of sidestepping the nudge, but it remains manipulation.

Negative freedom, space for action, is limited by control. Often, that is not an outcome of dialogue, but imposed one-sidedly, according to standardised measures and labels that allow for classification and measurement. This occurs, for example, in health care, especially psychiatry, where disorders are labelled and imposed on professionals, to control the legitimacy of practice and its remuneration. The problem with the labels is not only that standardisation constrains custom-made, personalised treatment, but also that they are static, not geared to the fact that disorders are dynamic.

In many areas there is a dilemma between on the one hand strict control, based on measurement, with ‘evidence–based’ policies, and, on the other hand, Aristotelian phronesis, in made-to-measure control and judgement, considering the merits and demerits of each individual case. As indicated earlier for the judgement of scholars and civil servants, however, leeway for phronesis may lead to the exercise of prejudice, arbitrariness or even corruption, but this may be controlled to some extent, and occasionally, by justification in dialogue with supervisory panels that are themselves competent in phronesis.

There is a branch of organisation theory that studies ‘communities of practice (Brown and Duguid, 1996, Burgelman, 1983). The claim is that in a wide range of professional practice, such as maintenance of installations and machines, not everything can be standardised and caught in protocols, because reality is too rich, i.e. complex and changing, with unforeseeable contingencies, which a protocol cannot cover. A novice needs to engage for a while in peripheral participation, coached by an experienced member of a team, to develop a ‘feel’ for this richness of practice, before he can become a full, legitimate member. Vygotsky’s image of ‘scaffolding’ comes to mind. This is ignored or neglected in much professional practice, such as in teaching and health care. Apart from the quality of the practice, and the intrinsic value of it, when professionals are caught in protocols, they do not learn, or forget, how to take responsibility for interpreting and judging a particular situation. They may develop into automatons, ignoring the deviation, the particularity, of an individual case.


-          Have you experienced cases of positive power

-          What do you value more, negative or positive freedom

-          In view of the importance of unreflective mental routines, is there free will

-          What is your position on ‘woke’ culture

-          Do you approve of nudging

-          What is your position on regulations to fight Covid-19

-          What do you consider good in conservatism

-          Are you in favour of high taxes for the rich



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