The capacities approach of Will Wilkinson

In a 2007 blog post (Web Archived here), Will Wilkinson explored the limits of the crisp, clean, Boolean distinction between negative and positive liberty, using as his foil the Objectivist philosopher David Kelley’s treatment of the subject. The post itself forcefully argues that there is no reliable and useful way to separate positive (freedom to x) from negative liberty (freedom from interference). Many of the things we value in life depend critically on the beliefs and actions of other individuals, but have nothing to do with interference as commonly understood. That’s well and good – read the whole thing – but here I’d like to recast Wilkinson’s analysis of liberty as the liberty of the capabilities approach.

I’ve previously written a series of articles advocating a libertarianism that is consistent with and underpinned by the capabilities approach. As a quick refresher, the capabilities approach is an evaluative framework developed by the eminent philosophers Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen (the latter also a Nobel laureate economist). The approach itself is described well by Ingrid Robeyns in this review article.

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.

Capabilitarians thus understand freedom as polyvalent, consisting of capabilities as described above. Martha Nussbaum provides a list, but many capabilitarians leave this open. In nailing down what is meant by “effectively possible” capabilitarians emphasize the social context within which liberty is experienced. Conditions of discrimination, oppression, poverty, ignorance, etc can render de jure freedom ineffective.


Wilkinson touches on several concepts that are cornerstones of the capabilities approach. Throughout the rest of this post, Wilkinson is bold, his quotations of David Kelley are plain.

A diner at Joe’s Cafe has a more limited menu to choose from than does a diner at the Four Seasons, but both people are equally free to choose among the entrees available. The fact that Joe’s does not serve oysters on the half shell is not an issue of freedom.

OK. The question that arises for me, then, is why is the guy at Joe’s instead of the Four Seasons? If he (let’s call him Frank) just likes Joe’s, cool. But if it’s because he cannot afford the Four Seasons, or a place with an equivalently broad and high-quality menu, then the question is, Why not? The answer to that question is important.

Here Wilkinson demonstrates the important capabilitarian task of critically interrogating the set of options available to individuals, rather than just accepting it as given. A capabilitarian would, for example, never accept without further investigation that, compared to the average, any individual or group earns less income, or has poorer health outcomes, etc.

It’s a minor point, but Wilkinson’s acceptance of the possibility that Frank just happens to prefer Joe’s Diner over more expensive fare demonstrates the difference between capabilities and functionings described in the Robeyns passage above.

Suppose that people in Frank’s society just like relaxing more than working, and so aren’t extremely productive, leading to unimpressive rates of growth. Now, Frank is a highly motivated, hard-working, and would like to order off a Four Seasons menu, but simply can’t because his entire society is too poor. The point of this is to emphasize the interdependence of opportunities. Things can be off your menu, not because you’re lazy, or being coerced, but because of the (non-coercive) patterns in which other people are coordinating their behavior.

Wilkinson’s emphasis. The “interdependence of opportunities” is on aspect of what capabilitarians call the “social context” in which we act. This context includes institutions, norms, culture, technology, law, the environment, etc. Humans are profoundly social creatures, and most of our distinctively human pursuits involve other people. Even such a basic biological capability as getting nourishment is enhanced by the social aspect of dining and the culinary diversity and quality made possible by the art of cooking. Elizabeth Anderson has noted (pdf) that “Michael Jordan could not make so many baskets if no one kept the basketball court swept clean”, but neither could he have pursued his craft without the existence of a cultural appreciation for basketball.

In discussing the obstacles an individual encounters in attempting to pursue certain ends, David Kelley distinguishes between facts imposed by reality (tough luck) and facts imposed by other people (coercion).

One difference is whether the obstacle or limitation is imposed by reality or by other people. When some fact of reality affects the range of alternatives we face, it is wishful thinking to regard it as an obstacle to what we would otherwise be free to do. Facts are facts.

I now find this remarkably unhelpful. Are other people’s preferences and patterns of behavior, which create huge limitations on the alternatives open to me, “imposed by reality” or “by other people”?

This is an aspect of the social context. Incidentally, one way to illuminate this is with a new category of facts: conjective or intersubjective facts that are in John Searle’s words “ontologically subjective, epistemologically objective”: objective facts mutually generated and sustained between the minds of individuals. Such facts impose real constraints on human action.

Kelley offers an example.

If I cannot run a five-minute mile, my incapacity does not abridge my freedom to do so; it is simply a fact about my nature. But if I can run that fast, and somebody forces me to wear lead weights as a handicap, he is restricting my freedom.

Wilkinson rightly points out that the issue becomes much more complicated when the constraints are not so physically enforced as lead weights. He offers several possibilities, but here are two:

(b) the anti-technology norms of my society, transmitted through education and social opproprium (no coercion!), have ensured that new physical performance technologies that, but for those norms, would have been invented, and would have made me able to run a five minute mile.

(c) bad government policy that does not directly prevent me from doing anything at any particular time, decreases the rate of growth, decreasing the amount of capital available for R&D, ensuring that new physical performance technologies that would have been invented aren’t.

Wilkinson’s scenarios are interesting in considering the available responses from your stereotypical dogmatic property-rights-über-alles libertarian (the real object of Wilkinson’s critique). The dogmatic libertarian has little to say about (b), as anti-technology beliefs are perfectly in accordance with the non-aggression principle. Certainly this has no bearing on rights or liberty. As to (c), libertarians love to condemn bad government policy, and they can bring all their rhetorical cunning to bear. Even though the consequences are identical in each case, and the impacted individual’s behavior remains the same and is blameless, the libertarian qua libertarian has few resources available to address the problem except in case (c), or even to understand it as a problem.

The point is, many incapacities are contingent, and are very, very often a side-effect, intended or unintended, of human action. I understand why having weights forcibly attached to one’s body is an especially vivid, salient, and emotionally compelling violation of freedom. But I can’t see a principled reason why the very concept of freedom should apply only to coercive interference with the excercise [sic] of present capacities when present capacities are so dependent on contingent patterns of human interaction. I simply cannot see the special normative salience of coercion as a method for trimming the feasible set. I can definitely see why robust restrictions on the exercise of coercion are completely necessary for achieving the range and kinds of opportunities that allow us to create, develop, and fully excercise [sic] our capacities. But then that’s why we should care about limiting coercion.

Emphasis all his. With “that’s”, Wilkinson shifts the normative basis of freedom from a strict proscription of narrowly conceived coercion toward those conditions “necessary for achieving the range and kinds of opportunities that allow us to create, develop, and fully exercise our capacities.” This even sounds like Sen stylistically. Replace “capacities” with “capabilities” and this sentence could be smuggled into Development as Freedom without anyone noticing. The word choice, of course, isn’t terribly important. “Capacities” is probably better just on the syllable count alone. What is important is the reconception of liberty as liberty-worth-having, or what an Aristotelian might call flourishing. “Thin” libertarianism, concerned with eliminating coercion for its own sake, is not a robust theory of how to live together. Wilkinson understands that libertarian rights are useful, but only if they serve the greater purpose of enabling substantive liberation and agency.

Or perhaps it is better to see people as fully part of nature, and to see certain formal institutions and cultures—-like a system of strong individual rights and the beliefs and norms that back them—-as just other technologies of liberation from recalcitrant nature.

Wilkinson appeals to the capabilitarian concepts of capabilities-as-options (to be exercised or not), the necessity for critical analysis of social outcomes, the social context of capabilities, and the purpose of capabilities as allowing individuals to develop and exercise their agency to the fullest extent possible. This is fully in line with the spirit of the capabilities approach. He doesn’t quite hit all of the important features. A capabilitarian would also tend to emphasize human dependence, not as rare or temporary, but as a universal aspect of the human condition. A capabilitarian would also discuss the differential ability of specific individuals to convert the similar resources into similar capabilities (so-called conversion factors). It would of course be interesting to see Wilkinson or other libertarians of a similar persuasion specifically address these topics, but I doubt that dependence and differential resource conversion represent insurmountable barriers between these libertarians and the capabilities approach.

Wilkinson, along with his colleagues at the Niskanen Center, seeks to draw libertarianism into the political mainstream. By my understanding, this task is not primarily about the strategy of compromising on politically unpalatable issues, but on rebuilding libertarianism on a sturdier and more realistic foundation, both normatively and empirically. The capabilities approach can help supply part of this foundation, and at the same time resituate libertarianism back within the classical liberal tradition (Adam Smith has few bigger fans than Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen). At the very least, a libertarian dialogue with capabilities theory could provide fresh perspectives on and a new vocabulary for some of the ideas that Wilkinson and the Niskanenites are already deploying in their quest to make libertarianism reasonable.



3 thoughts on “The capacities approach of Will Wilkinson

  1. I find my sentiments in harmony with the capabilities approach far more than with the more dogmatic approach. Rothbard and Rand just sound tone deaf and naive to me, but Sen and Smith seem more realistic and reasonable. Getting rid of restrictions is all well and good, but that’s not the extent of freedom by a long shot, and dare I say it, freedom isn’t everything.

    I wonder to what degree the two approaches actually differ on preferred policy. I guess if dogmatic libertarians had 100% control over policy, they’d prefer something totally alien to current law, but the reason why the status is quo is because it’s fairly popular and reflects actual power dynamics. Farmers have high per capita political power, so they get subsidies. End of story. You could lecture people about rent seeking until you’re blue in the face, but that doesn’t change the fundamental reality that each state gets 2 senators.

    So, we libertarians must influence policy on the margin, and only just barely considering our relatively small population. I don’t think the capacities framework disagrees much with the dogmatic approach within the feasible margin except concerning welfare, which, let’s be honest, isn’t a large part of what government does anyway.

    Current political debates don’t rise much above “Let’s have $15 minimum wage because being poor is bad” and “Let’s end trade because foreigners are evil”. I appreciate reading more nuanced discourse from time to time, but when glancing back at reality, I get depressed.

    1. Paul Crider

      Thanks for commenting. I think how capabilitarians and libertarians do and must (dis)agree about policy is an open question. Or really, it’s a set of open questions. Folks can reasonably disagree about all kinds of details. I’d just like more libertarians to admit that they actually do care if people are starving in the streets. That doesn’t mean that a libertarian critique of policy doesn’t have a lot of wisdom to impart in discussions about how to keep people from starving in the streets.

      Discourse can be hella discouraging. But there are often green shoots too. While Republicans have been steadily trying to out-Trump each other on immigration, for example, the increasingly diverse demographics of the US seems to be pushing the Democrats into more straightforwardly open immigration territory. Just last week the candidates were pressured into promising not to deport children and non-criminal adults. Promises can and will be broken, but this time 4 years ago they didn’t even feel the need to make such promises.

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