(image by historicphiladelphia.org)
As we near the November election and tensions continue to rise between the supporters of the two major U.S. political parties, one thing is increasingly clear. Most people do not fully understand what the term ‘liberty’ means. More importantly, most do not realize that there are different senses of the term. Many of the arguments I see online involve this basic confusion, and it was present in the first Presidential debate as well.
While many writers have discussed the nuances of the term ‘liberty’, the historian of ideas, Isaiah Berlin, has probably done the best job of explaining why we must be very careful with this term. In a speech he gave upon receiving a professorship at Oxford, Berlin presented his “Two Concepts of Liberty”, which was later turned into an essay on the subject.
Berlin believes that the term is easily misused because people often use it to represent two different notions of liberty, neither one of which is more right than the other, but each of which would lead you to very different conclusions about the role of government. He labels these two approaches ‘negative liberty’ and ‘positive liberty’. Before I explain each approach, I should note that ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ in this context do not mean good or bad. As you will see, ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ more closely resemble something like passive versus active approaches to helping people enjoy freedom in their lives. Also, for this discussion, ‘liberty’ will refer to the ways in which government affects the freedom of citizens. In other words, ‘liberty’ is a political issue, while ‘freedom’ is what a person or group of persons experience.
Negative liberty is “the absence of obstacles to possible choices and activities” (Berlin Four Essays on Liberty pg. xxxix). In other words, we enjoy negative liberty in a civil society when nobody and nothing are standing in the way of our potential choices. The state (government) can enhance negative liberty by creating rights that prevent the government from interfering in certain aspects of our lives.
Many of the Constitutional amendments found in the Bill of Rights would fall under negative liberty. For example, the right to free speech means that the government will not impede (i.e. put obstacles in the way of) our ability to say what we wish to say. The right to bear arms means that the government will not prevent you from purchasing weapons. The Third Amendment means that the state cannot force you to let military personnel stay in your home (I guess this was a big problem once!). Each of these rights creates a space within which you are free from government interference.
Of course, there could be other issues that prevent you from fully enjoying these liberties. The government may not prevent you from speaking, but that doesn’t mean anyone will listen to what you say. It doesn’t guarantee that you will have an audience, or that you will speak well, or even that you, personally, will be able to speak at all. If you are rendered mute by birth or accident, the First Amendment does not mean that the government must pay for medical procedures to correct that issue. Similarly, the right to bear arms does not guarantee that you will have the money to purchase or gun, or the ability to shoot straight!
Negative liberties are labelled ‘negative’ because they are about the absence of interference. They tell us what the government may not do. In most cases, this requires no action on the part of the government. In fact, many of these liberties are guaranteeing you that the government will not act; think of it as a negation of action.
Positive liberty, on the other hand, is our ability actually to achieve our goals. Berlin associates it with the notion of self-mastery (very similar to Kant’s idea of ‘autonomy’, which is about self-control through following the rational will).
A civil state can increase positive liberty by providing citizens with various aids to help them achieve their goals in life. A great example of this in the U.S. is the public education system, which is meant to provide all citizens with the basic learning that is needed to function in our society and pursue a meaningful and productive life. Another example is roads, which allow us to get where we want to be more easily. More controversial examples would include things like welfare, social security, food stamps, etc. These safety nets and savings aids are meant to ensure that no American falls below a certain minimal state of living, since a complete lack of money, housing, or food makes achieving a decent life nearly impossible in our society.
If negative liberty can be thought of as non-interference by the state, then positive liberty can be thought of as those times when the state helps you achieve certain goals. In other words, providing positive liberty requires activity on the part of government. In most cases, this means it also requires tax dollars.
At this point, you are probably associating each approach to liberty with a particular political party. You might be thinking that Republicans tend to focus on negative liberty, while Democrats focus on positive liberty, especially since I presented welfare as an example of positive liberty. In many cases, that perception is not far off, but like any oversimplification, it is misleading.
Both negative and positive liberties are valued by pretty much all humans. We all want some degree of freedom to make our own decisions, but that freedom is pretty useless if we lack the means for carrying out those choices. The government isn’t stopping you from buying a home, but that doesn’t mean you have the money (or credit) to do so.
In practice, both Republicans and Democrats value both negative and positive liberty, just like their constituents do. However, they tend to focus on one or the other, depending on the particular issue. For example, Republicans tend to lean toward increasing negative liberties for businesses. They advocate for lower restrictions on businesses. Donald Trump, in the first Presidential debate, said that businesses are being stifled by government regulations, and he would remove many of those restrictions in order to facilitate a freer market.
On the flip side, Hillary Clinton emphasized the importance of economic equality, discussing ways in which government might help the less fortunate, such as inner city minorities, achieve their goals through education credits or other government aid. This is consistent with the view that Democrats lean toward positive liberty solutions to problems.
On the other hand, things get murky when we look at social issues. The issue of gay marriage is a great example for illustrating this. In general, Democrats have supported gay rights in recent years by arguing that members of the LGBTQ community should not be restricted in their rights to marry whomever they wish. That seems to be an increase in negative liberty. However, many conservative Republicans have argued that this violates freedom of religion, which is also a negative liberty. The question of marriage itself could be seen as a negative or positive liberty issue, depending on focus. Since the government gives certain tax breaks, and there are other social advantages to marriage, the ability to marry could be seen as a positive liberty, one that enables people to achieve certain goals, or as a negative liberty, where the government cannot tell citizens whom they may marry.
Whichever perspective you take on these matters, what remains true is that different people use the word ‘liberty’ to mean different things at different times. Both Republicans and Democrats believe in the value of liberty. It’s a concept that lies at the core of modern democratic thinking. But we need to understand how easily the term ‘liberty’ can fall into equivocation. Taxing one group of people to provide benefits for another group of people decreases the (negative) liberty of one group for the sake of the (positive) liberty of the other group. When the two senses of liberty come into conflict with each other, each side will accuse the other of devaluing liberty. However, in most such cases, each side is simply valuing a different type of liberty.
In the next installment of this three-part series on the two types of liberty and how it can help us understand this election, I’ll talk more about these conflicts, including how liberty can conflict with other values that we hold dear. I’ll also give more nuance to the different factions within the two major U.S. political parties and the ways that they view liberty. In the third installment, I plan to directly relate all of that to the policies being proposed by the major candidates, so that we can see which of elements of their platforms correspond to which approach to liberty and why. My goal is to help people understand the candidates in the election and what their approaches would mean for America, if implemented.