"Negotiable freedom" sounds like a phrase used in selling out to the enemies of liberty, when in fact it points to a fundamental feature and one of the biggest advantages of liberty.
In preparation of a conference paper, I have recently noted down these ideas:
Classical liberalism has been politically ineffective and intellectually marginalised since declining precipitously from its zenith of influence in the mid 19th century. At the same time, liberty has prospered along with the political opponents of liberalism. This constitutes the paradox of freedom, the phrase chosen for the title of our paper presented at the first X conference: “The Paradox of Freedom – F.A. Hayek and the Crisis of Liberalism.”
We have identified an inability to comprehend the role of politics and the state in a free society as the chief reason why classical liberalism has failed to marshal the popular support requisite to achieve substantial political weight.
Among the robust conditions of freedom - the conditions indispensable if feasible freedom is to be attained - is political freedom, the possibility for every citizen to participate in the political processes through which many of the most important forms of social governance are being shaped. Classical liberalism does not appreciate that the spontaneous order of politics and the state drives the future shape and meaning of liberty.
Classical liberalism is inclined to overlook the political nature of the forces and processes that define feasible liberty for two reasons in particular: [In the present post, I am concerned with only the first of the two reasons, G.T.]
Robust Conditions of Freedom – A Pool of Elements with (Re-)Negotiable Relations and Alterable Mutual Effects
In the first place, classical liberalism tends to be inspired by the presumption that liberty
(1) is rooted in a number of inalterable and non-negotiable basic premises and demands, and
(2) is to be achieved only to the extent that these fundamental precepts are being honoured in human interaction.
While it is true that feasible liberty depends on the presence of certain indispensable conditions, the latter represent nonetheless a set of features that are relational to one another, being subject to mutual trade-offs rather than absolute, complete and immutable in their meaning and implications.
Within the set of robust conditions of liberty, we address different subsets and seek different relative weightings of the relevant conditions depending on
(1) the specific nature of an issue, and
(2) the outcomes of our political handling of them.
For instance: on introducing minimum wages, we witness a stronger weighting of political freedom vis-à-vis contractual freedom. The supporters of national minimum wage laws having prevailed in the process of political legitimisation, are entitled to override certain aspects that otherwise would be protected under contractual freedom.
In a different context, say, the question of using employer resources to express one’s political preferences, there tends to be a stronger weighting of contractual freedom than political freedom, i.e. the wish of the employer not to be forced to support with his company's resources (other than indirectly by wage payments) an employee's political activism is generally protected by contractual freedom and unenforceable by appeal to political freedom.
The set of robust conditions of freedom is constantly reshuffled, whereby its elements assume different relations and proportions vis-à-vis one another, depending on the issue at hand, as well as the political acumen and dexterity of the negotiating parties.
The dynamism and negotiability of the permutations formed by the indispensable conditions of freedom is not recognised in classical liberalism. Hence a large number of policies and significant social developments based on internal trade-offs among robust conditions of freedom are perceived by classical liberals as violations of freedom.
The fact that we still enjoy high levels of freedom in societies permeated by such violations (from a classical liberal perspective) speaks to the resilience of freedom in the face of changing permutations of relative weightings among her robust conditions.
Mechanisms That Aren’t Mechanisms – But Politically Induced Outcomes
The most seminal shared heritage in classical liberal thought over a period of 300 years has a modern name: spontaneous order.
From John Locke, David Hume and Adam Smith to Friedrich Hayek, the belief that order can be achieved in human society by observance of appropriate rules rather than by authoritarian fiat is the differentia specifica of the classical liberal vision of “the good society.” This vision gives rise to an entirely new paradigm of the ideal society.
If by following the correct set of generally applicable rules we can ensure a better outcome for all members of society than by bowing down to the edicts and whims of a ruler or a ruling elite, we are faced with an entirely new model of society, one in which there is a standard by which to rationally criticise and limit the discretion of authorities; one in which, every person matters, for she is a welcome and integral part of a community whose collective compliance with rules of a certain nature produces a better world. This is tantamount to an enormous upgrading of the individual and her emancipation in a number of important aspects, not the least of which being her right to take part in the ruling of society.
The individual becomes a player in a game whose outcome is freedom. She is tied to the game through rights, individual rights. How exactly the individual is related to her rights proves contentious and decisive concerning the view one holds of liberty.
Monadic "Freedom" Versus Relational Freedom
In using subsequently the term monadic, I mean: "relating to the individual alone," as opposed to "relational, i.e. regarding the relationship between two or more individuals." In their monadic construal, rights defining liberty are absolute and inhere solely in the individual. That is, by virtue of vesting a right in the individual, it can no longer change or loose its meaning simply owing to an alteration in the relationship of that individual with other individuals. Thus, if the individual has an absolute right to contractual freedom, no circumstances can modify this entitlement, including contrary demands of political freedom.
In reality, people are forced to and often quite like to engage in a trade of the components that make up the precise and viable meaning of their rights - "I will sell part of my property to you, if you let me use the driveway you are planing to built." In fact, the insistence on the monadic nature of liberty rights (think "rugged individualism") is the reason why political freedom, the very lever of relational rights and negotiable freedom, is so poorly integrated into the world view of classical liberalism.
Spontaneous Order and Feasible Liberty
Ultimately, it is the monadic construal of liberal precepts that proves detrimental to the career of liberalism’s most basic idea: spontaneous order. The latter is thought to be a mechanism, an automatism, something that runs by itself, an "automobile" in the broadest sense of the term. But that is certainly not what the spontaneous order of a free society is.
Sure enough, there is a strong temptation to commit the fallacy of composition by taking the automatic processes of a spontaneous order, say, in the form of a reasonably free economy, to represent the whole, when it is only one aspect embedded in more formative aspects.
What is not seen is the political depth structure of the spontaneous order.
What is not seen is that the possibility for every individual to participate in negotiating the conditions of order in human interaction and a congenial negotiation process itself are core features of freedom.
What lends classical liberal recommendations an unpalatable flavour for so many people is the blanket consent they are asked to grant in too many cases and with promises painted in too broad strokes not to act by their own discretion but to stand back and await the benefits of an automatism.
Of course, the classical liberal overkill in terms of restricting political deliberateness encourages an overkill by political pragmatists in terms of dysfunctional intervention.
Risks and Costs of Liberty
Fair enough, liberal political abstention can never be the proximate cause of societal catastrophe, only excessive mal-intervention can play that role.
Though I do not think that the destruction of liberty can ever be ruled out, still in the freest countries the safeguards against such an event are substantial. But, we cannot have freedom without the costs and risks involved in living out her possibilities, which dangers are especially pertinent with respect to political freedom. For more see Costs and Benefits of Freedom.
However, if I see it right, the best we can achieve is to make the mistakes we are prone to make within (not outside!) the framework of robust conditions of freedom which strengthen and expedite our capacity of correction, recovery and renaissance.