So it’s that time again, where I get the need to be pretentious and write on some theoretical topic about something that actually doesn’t really matter and won’t resolve anything. So how about liberty.
For the sake of coherence, I’m going to talk mostly about a man by the name of Isaiah Berlin, a Russian-born British academic (because globalisation is nothing new…). I would highly recommend looking up the man and taking a peek at his works for his is regarded as one of the 20th century’s brightest minds but for today’s topic, we’re going to look at his most famous work- ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’. These two concepts were referred to as ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ liberty, but what does that quite mean?
Negative liberty can best be described as ‘freedom from’. It is about having an area around you in which you are free to do entirely as you wish with little intervention from external forces. The only real constraints on this freedom are that you may act freely until you infringe upon another’s freedom i.e. ‘My right to swing my fist ends where your face begins’. Simple enough.
Positive freedom, or ‘freedom to’ is somewhat more complex. The clearest example of this type of liberty would be to imagine someone driving through a town. Rather than turning left at the junction to go a doctor’s appointment about quitting smoking, they turn right to go the shop to purchase more cigarettes. This person is governed by their addiction, not by what they know to be rational so they lack positive freedom. It discusses the ability of one to govern themselves to the best of their ability. Rather than saying that being free to do anything is freedom, it states that such freedom is insignificant without the freedom to act in a rational way. Many proponents of this kind of freedom would therefore likely be in favour of compulsory education and of laws limiting the extent of what one can do for their own good.
There are certainly rational arguments for both forms of liberty, both already form the basis of many societies. The UK for example generally protects personal freedoms like free speech etc. while also enforcing compulsory education and bans certain substances. This also shows that the two are by no means incompatible. However, those who recall my blog on Rousseau (link here) and the accusations of totalitarianism may have felt some concern when talking through positive freedom. Indeed Berlin himself laid out his personal concerns with this type of liberty and its potential exposure to abuse. While self-mastery may sound favourable in concept, the idea of an overbearing power limiting one’s negative liberty ‘for their own good’ should always be looked upon with suspicion. The raw idea that there is a ‘good’ or ‘proper’ way to live is undoubtedly a dangerous one. Who has the right to decide what is the good life? The majority as Rousseau saw it? A narrow elite? It certainly bears resemblance to something we would expect to see in the literature of George Orwell.
This critique of positive liberty leads most to believe Berlin favoured negative liberty, which is most likely true however that is not to say either should be disregarded. Positive liberty is necessary for a truly free society, however, this should never overcome the desire for negative liberty. Therefore liberty is not some ideal; rather a compromise, a trade-off. To enhance one’s freedom is to limit another’s. As the space around you in which you may act freely expands, others spaces must shrink. To enhance one’s ‘freedom to’ is to limit another’s ‘freedom from’. To tax the wealthy and to hand to the poor is to infringe and to empower.
…Then again this whole concept could be a load of rubbish. Who’s to say freedom isn’t just freedom. There aren’t two, three or twenty ‘concepts’ we can define, there’s just liberty and how we all chose to interpret what liberty means to us. Freedom may merely be the ability to get from ‘a’ to ‘b’, it’s all one journey and we merely choose the route we wish to take. You can ramble on about this for a long time however that is an entirely different debate to be had…