Capabilities and Libertarianism, Part I: Basics of Capabilities

I have continually badgered the folks behind Cato Unbound to do a discussion on the capabilities approach and how it might relate to libertarianism. My earnest requests have gone unrequited not, it turns out, only because I’m a random and irritating troll, but also because evidently it’s a hard request to fulfill. After some quick and dirty literature searches and consultation with some experts, I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that there actually is no vast literature in which the capabilities and libertarian communities have meaningfully engaged with one another. This is a shame, as I think libertarianism has much to learn from the capabilities approach. But libertarianism potentially has something to contribute to capabilities as well. I plan to write three posts about this: this first post will lay out the basics of the capabilities approach and offer some of my own amateur musings on the approach. The second post will describe a few reasons why libertarianism should seriously grapple with capabilities. And the third post will turn the tables and suggest areas where capabilitarians–who are usually of a social democratic or otherwise leftish persuasion–could benefit from the insights of libertarians.

The Capabilities Approach

For those unfamiliar, the capabilities approach is an evaluative framework for … whatever you want to apply it to. So Amartya Sen, the progenitor of the idea, has used it as a comparative tool in his work in economic development. And Martha Nussbaum, who has frequently collaborated with Sen and fleshed out the more philosophical details, has used the approach as the basis for a political theory of justice. The capabilities approach can thus be used in a modular way to address different issues.

I’ll outsource the basic description to Ingrid Robeyns (2005 review article). While most of my understanding of the capabilities approach comes from Sen’s Development as Freedom, his The Idea of Justice, and Nussbaum’s Frontiers of Justice, I found this relatively short review article to be a good refresher. (Also it is more easily copied and pasted). Long form quotes throughout the rest of this post come from Robeyns.

According to the capability approach, the ends of well-being, justice and development should be conceptualized in terms of people’s capabilities to function; that is, their effective opportunities to undertake the actions and activities that they want to engage in, and be whom they want to be. These beings and doings, which Sen calls functionings, together constitute what makes a life valuable. Functionings include working, resting, being literate, being healthy, being part of a community, being respected, and so forth. The distinction between achieved functionings and capabilities is between the realized and the effectively possible; in other words, between achievements on the one hand, and freedoms or valuable options from which one can choose on the other. What is ultimately important is that people have the freedoms or valuable opportunities (capabilities) to lead the kind of lives they want to lead, to do what they want to do and be the person they want to be. Once they effectively have these substantive opportunities, they can choose those options that they value most. For example, every person should have the opportunity to be part of a community and to practice a religion; but if someone prefers to be a hermit or an atheist, they should also have this option.

The word “effective” does a lot of work in the capabilities approach. It doesn’t matter if a freedom is protected by law if other factors obstruct the exercise of that freedom. To take an example, consider a country where there is no official barrier to women obtaining an education and joining elite professions like law or medicine; if cultural constraints, or local institutional rules prevent this, then in the capabilities approach this capability (to exercise meaningful choice of career) is obstructed. A century or so ago in America, the capability of obtaining a first class education was inhibited, not by legal rules, but by the decisions of private educational institutions to not admit women.

The distinction between functionings and capabilities is frequently emphasized. Functionings are not required in the capabilities approach in most cases. So voting, or being able to participate in the decision-making processes of a community, is a capability, but the actual functioning of this capability is not required: anarchists, the Amish, neoreactionaries, and other skeptics of democracy are free to refrain. Likewise, one can fast, engage voluntarily in dangerous behavior, and seek assisted suicide, thereby forsaking the capabilities to lead healthful lives free from unreasonable danger to a full term. This distinction between functionings and capabilities preserves agency for the individual, the power to achieve change in one’s life based on one’s own goals and values, another key aim of the capabilities approach.

Preserving effective agency, meanwhile, also explains the few exceptions that might be found for prioritizing capabilities over functionings. For example, a child’s desire to exercise their capability to remain ignorant and stay home from school will cut no ice with a capabilitarian. The functioning of getting a basic education overrides the choice to remain uneducated because the child doesn’t have enough information, experience, or perspective to act with meaningful or effective agency. Perhaps more controversially, a woman in a severely patriarchal society may believe she chooses her life of raising children in the home and socializing only under the guidance of male relatives, but a capabilitarian will view this evaluation with skepticism on account of the woman’s lack of perspective and other feasible options. Such skepticism would not, however, be warranted for an educated woman who chose this life amidst a society where various other life possibilities were clearly and effectively available.

Another important idea in the capabilities approach to understand is conversion factors. Not all individuals can convert the same resources into the same capabilities. An obvious example is a blind person. A given pile of cash will not go as far for a blind as a seeing person, as the blind person will need to pay for additional aids, such as a guide animal and print-to-voice devices. Transportation will likely cost more and be constrained by the unavailability of personal modes of transport. But in a society where there is no public infrastructure for the blind (braille signs, official forms, and literature, audio cross walks, etc), the personal costs the blind person incurs will also take the form of stress, danger, and simple inconvenience over and above the monetary costs. Perhaps social prejudice against the blind would add another layer of conversion inequality. Clearly the blind person cannot convert the same resources into the same capabilities (moving around, becoming educated, socializing, working, playing, etc) as the classic mold of able-bodied adult of average intelligence and physical characteristics. This emphasis of the capabilities approach is the source of one of its critiques of mere redistribution and income equality as avenues toward social justice.

The capability approach not only advocates an evaluation of people’s capability sets, but insists also that we need to scrutinize the context in which economic production and social interactions take place, and whether the circumstances in which people choose from their opportunity sets are enabling and just.

Robeyns includes a nifty diagram illustrating how the social context relates both to capabilities and the choices individuals make. Note the feedback loop between social context and preference formation/social influence. One could also imagine a feedback loop from the capabilities of individuals within a given population to the social context (especially institutions and culture) as well as to personal history and psychology. After all, an individual with robust capabilities, including mental and physical health, who is respected within their community will have a very different kind of history and psychology than a less fortunately endowed person.


Some Additional Thoughts on Capabilities

Unless I have done my job poorly, most of the above shouldn’t be controversial among capabilities scholars. I make no promises about my own reflections on the capabilities approach that follows.

What I appreciate the most about the capabilities approach is its ambition and cavalier rejection of parsimony. It’s ambitious in what qualifies as a capability. Nussbaum in her lists includes things like play, sexual fulfillment, and opportunities to interact with other species and experience nature. These aren’t activities much heard from in alternative political approaches that define justice as the bare minimum requirements for a society to be recognizably human, and to do so with as few moving parts as possible with the hope of keeping the model computable. I’m thinking especially of Rawls and utilitarianism–these are Nussbaum’s chief foils in Frontiers of Justice–but the same applies to many conceptions of libertarianism. But human nature has many moving parts, and as a capabilitarian I think it’s a good idea to start by figuring out all the moving parts and worry about how easy the model is to work with later. And even if you prefer to prioritize getting some minimalist picture of justice right, it’s important to realize it is minimalist; it’s not all that we want. We want a flourishing society, where each individual can develop their powers and character to the fullest extent possible. Incidentally, the ambition and desire to flesh out what we actually want over what is just barely defensible may remind the Sweet Talk audience of the concept of euvoluntary exchange.

Of course, the “fullest extent possible” is not static. One of the interesting consequences of the capabilities approach is that the capabilities will evolve over time as the adjacent possible of a dynamic society pushes outward. And I don’t just refer to growing economies and improving technologies; exploration of social and aesthetic spaces can also expand (and contract) human capabilities. The set of capabilities is an open set, in the mathematical sense of the term. Consider an interval of real numbers, say (0,1), where the boundary values (0 and 1) are not included in the interval. You can keep exploring numbers that get bigger and bigger without ever actually reaching the boundary of 1. Similarly, there is no practical limit to capabilities we can imagine possible in a more prosperous future, and these possibilities will be brought into the set of basic capabilities.

Consider some examples. In 1990, Internet access would not have been considered a basic capability, such that each individual should have access in order for this aspect of society to be evaluated positively in the capabilities view. Today is a different story. High speed Internet access is a utility that individuals need in order to fulfill basic needs and desires within their lives (social, economic, … sexual fulfillment?, etc). Consider the plausible near-term possibility of radical extension of healthy living to 125 or 150 years. This will push out the definition of what counts as a full human life accordingly, and a flourishing society, flush with approbation from capabilitarian observers, will ensure this possibility for each of its inhabitants. Note for both of these examples, by the way, that individuals have every right to opt out of these expanded capabilities.

Since we’re talking about flourishing, I’ll mention a final reason why I’m attracted to the capabilities approach: it fits in comfortably with my conception of virtue ethics. Both approaches are unapologetically multidimensional. While the virtues may be unified by phronesis, they are nevertheless conceptually distinct and not really commensurable, one in terms of others. No amount of courage will make up for a lack of faith or benevolence. Likewise, the capabilities approach requires that each capability is met; while it is very nice that the Chinese are getting rapidly richer, this does not make up for their lack of political freedoms. You can’t buy off one capability with another. Virtue ethics and capabilities are both concerned with the “whole being”. Virtue ethics explores the qualities of good character over the span of an individual’s whole life to evaluate whether that life flourished. The capabilities approach explores the needs and reasonable desires of each individual and demands these needs and desires be met for a society to be said to be flourishing.

Indeed the capabilities approach and virtue ethics can be joined together in a coherent worldview in at least two ways. First, for (neo-) Aristotelians at least, the idea of a flourishing life requires suitable external conditions in addition to virtue. The capabilities approach fleshes out just what does constitute “suitable” external conditions. And second, the virtue of justice can be split into an individual’s characteristic attitude and behavior in situations requiring justice (treating others fairly, etc) and an institutional virtue of justice, whereby the rules and patterns of society are just (the focus of the individual here is maintained by the requirement that the virtuous individual would support and advocate for just institutions). The capabilities approach in this case is the basis for the institutional virtue of justice.

Stay tuned for the next post, in which I’ll explore how libertarianism could benefit from incorporating the capabilities approach, or at least grappling with its ideas in an open-minded way.

4 thoughts on “Capabilities and Libertarianism, Part I: Basics of Capabilities

  1. The capability can not be explain by words. But you plots it very well. And i like this
    “I appreciate the most about the capabilities approach is its ambition and cavalier rejection of parsimony. It’s ambitious in what qualifies as a capability.”
    Thank you for sharing.

  2. acarter

    Great stuff. I’ve already read part 2 and I really enjoy what you have to say about libertarianism in comparison and contrast to capabilitiarianism, which I just discovered thanks to you. I do value freedom in our society but only if everyone receives the same capabilities.

    Speaking as an American, almost all of our institutions inadequately service minority groups, and while the libertarian part of me wants to attribute personal failings to agency, the historian in me realizes that many people have been hindered by both the government and by informal elements of society as well. When these people have failings, it’s simply not fair to say they had the same opportunities, as it is patently false.

    1. paulcrider

      Thanks for reading! I will say, however, that the capabilities approach comes in egalitarian and “sufficientarian” varieties. So not everyone who advances a capabilities view thinks that each person must have *equal* capabilities. But each person should have their capabilities set fostered to some sufficient level. This is consistent with maintaining a very generous “gold standard” that each individual’s capabilities are developed to the greatest extent possible.

      You’re right that libertarians can easily misattribute personal failings to agency (not that personal failings don’t exist). But as you demonstrate, libertarians can correct this tendency and still be libertarian.

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