Hillel Steiner, a left libertarian of quasi-Marxist bent, has been for some time trying to popularise, at least amongst academic philosophers and political theorists, the idea of freedom as possession of physical objects. I was talking to someone who seemed convinced by Steiner last week, and have, with interuptions, been thinking about it a fair bit since. Unsurprisingly, I think this is not only a not a particularly strong account of freedom, but also in some ways a pernicious one. It's pernicious in the sense that it is typical of the school of analytical marxism of which Steiner is a part in what could be regarded as its systematic unwillingness to do justice to the moral complexity of politics, to acknowledge any other way of doing philosophy than the reductionism of deductive logic. Exactly what it is about the worlds outside those of a false rigour and certainty that so terrifies them, I'm not sure: an extremism left over from their genuinely subversive days, perhaps. The freedom-as-possession-of-physical-objects account, quite apart from being worth showing as shallow all by itself, is quite a good example of the failings of this kind of way of philosophising I think.
Steiner's most well-known exposition of his view is in David Miller's Liberty, in his article 'Individual Liberty', which argues, roughly, that since you want to do whatever it is that you do when you are threatened, being threatened can't involve a loss of liberty as you freely choose to do whatever it is that you do when you are threatened. Once it is established, so far as Steiner is concerned, that only physical impediments can be counted as restrictions of freedom, it seems to make sense to say that freedom consists in the possession of physical objects because by possessing physical objects - the key to the cell, for example - the restrictions which other physical objects impose can be overcome. I say seems because the claim that physical limitations can only be overcome by the use, in some way, of other physical objects, not only as a necessary but also a sufficient condition, seems dubious to me and is not much argued for by Steiner in that piece at least. The unfreedom of a lack of strength seems to require not just physical objects but also a degree of willpower - that involved in building one's physical strength - to be overcome, for example.
Still, we can allow that claim to stand. Steiner's initial argument and claim is so obviously counter-intuitive that, so far as I am concerned, it simply can't be true: it would mean that no law can possibly, of itself, threaten freedom since it is merely a threat to take some action, and it simply cannot be possible that law cannot remove freedom. This is, quite apart from anything else, quite radically anti-democratic, since it would strip of any force the most obvious justification for democracy, that law, like all social institutions, involves a loss of freedom, a loss of freedom which must be consented, in some sense, to. The reasons it is wrong are, I think, that it fails to realise that when a threat is made, if plausible, it removes a course of action that previously existed, that of doing whatever it is that will activate the threat, without the threat being carried out: the threatened party can no longer take that action simpliciter, and so they are surely no longer free to take that action simpliciter.
Not only is Steiner's argument in favour of his conclusion flawed, the conclusion itself is flawed. The idea that freedom consists in the possession of physical objects lacks an adequate argument in favour of it, it is also both fails to capture much of the usual use of the term freedom and would, if true, in a sense, be totally unenlightening. On the first point, it fails to include, without significantly distorting semantic gymnastics, the unfreedom of addiction, say, or a closed mind, since how these might be construed as resulting from some kind of physical restriction is far from clear, being as they are internal limits, within the agent in question. The types of freedom lacked in these cases may not be particularly important as political or civil freedoms - at least, an argument is required to show that they are the proper subject of public political concern - but they are surely comprehensible as types of freedom: the narrowing of option sets in both cases is standardly taken to be a loss of freedom, and so an account of freedom which does not and cannot see them as kinds of freedom is surely less than ideal.
Steiner's response here is that the whole point of his account of freedom is to disallow these kinds of claims about freedom. I am, for epistemological reasons, skeptical of this reply, but we must be prepared to allow revision, even radical revision, of our concepts, so Steiner may well have a point here and would likely not accept the epistemological reasons anyway. It is therefore important that there is a second strand to the critique, one which is in a way more fundamental. Steiner's account of freedom is trapped in a kind of regress, I think, because it is parasitic on the notion of freedom, and so requires some further explanation of freedom to make it useful, to give it application, to allow it to pick things out. I am not sure if the regress is vicious, and even if it were vicious in the case of a general account of freedom, it is not in an account of a particular type of freedom, so Steiner can rescue himself, if at the cost of the general claims of his account.
The notion of freedom which Steiner's account depends on is embedded in the idea of possession. I initially thought that the best angle of attack on the idea of freedom as possession of physical objects would be through the idea of use-rights - no-one possesses things exclusively, because other people have use-rights over them, like a right of way, for example, and so possession cannot be a key part of freedom, because there is no possession, and surely some freedom. I don't think this works, because we do sometimes possess things exclusively - the air we breathe, for example - and so there could be freedom. What it does suggest though, is a consideration of exactly what it is to possess something. It seems that to possess something is to be free to use it, perhaps within defined limits, as you please. I possess my body if and only if I can do more or less what I like with it that does not infringe on the possessions, including their bodies, of others, and likewise for other things.
Possession is thus parasitic on an account of freedom, because to possess something is to be free to do as you please with it, and so an account of freedom which depends on possession has got it the wrong way round. That is surely crippling for Steiner's account, because what he means by possession, which is what must be supplying the content of his theory of freedom, will remain utterly opaque in the absence of a theory of freedom which does not lean so totally on that very notion. It is as if Steiner has said 'x is x': quite true, but certainly not anything qualifying for a title quite as grand as a theory or permitting him to attempt drastic revisions of what x usually means. This is in a way typical of the kind of hardcore analytical philosophy that Steiner represents because it fails to see that conceptual analysis, particularly conceptual analysis as deep of that of freedom, is of necessity holistic, involving consideration of a whole host of other concepts simultaneously. In the case of freedom, an understanding of the purposes to which freedom might be put is needed, a point which is hardly particularly novel.
(Edited somewhat for harshness to Steiner)