Wednesday, January 4, 2017

What Is Liberty? The Positive and Negative Promise of Independence


With liberty and justice for all”

These words from the Pledge of Allegiance affirm the golden promise of the republic. Liberty – it is the same word bequeathed to the mighty woman in New York Harbor, the Mother of Exiles who lifts her lamp of freedom for the homeless and the tempest tossed of the world. The statue and the word represent an ideal concept of free choice rooted in the guaranteed rights and privileges of Americans.

Yet, what is this most precious gift of independence? What is the distinct meaning of the word that represents the core of social, political, and economic rights and privileges in the United States? What is liberty?

As inhabitants of a country founded on democratic principles, all Americans champion the concept of something commonly known as “liberty” and uphold its virtue akin to freedom, but it is safe to say that the majority of "freedom-loving" Americans don't actually understand the meaning of liberty at all. Their homage to the concept is little more than a general understanding and lip service to a rather vague notion.

While holding the concept of liberty so precious, Americans often mistakenly believe personal privileges afforded by their citizenship are simply unfettered, fundamental rights of human nature. And, they consider any intrusion of personal belief as an attack upon these precious gifts. Thus, they often perceive any limitation by a government or any other power as injurious to their American birthright. However, the practicality of applying liberty to a society is much more complicated.

Defining American Liberty

To better understand liberty, one may consider its “negative” and “positive” qualilties. This idea was proposed by Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997), Russian-British social theorist and philosopher, in the essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” in 1958.

(Isaiah Berlin. "Two Concepts of Liberty." In Isaiah Berlin Four Essays on Liberty. 1969.)


(a) Negative – “freedom from” and the absence of external limits

"I am slave to no man."

Negative liberty is the freedom from interference by other people. It is primarily concerned with freedom from external restraints or obstacles. One possesses negative liberty if he is not enslaved by external forces and has equal access to a society's resources. No law has restricted the exercise of these liberties. Negative liberty is an “opportunity” concept.

According to Berlin,"Liberty in the negative sense involves an answer to the question: 'What is the area within which the subject – a person or group of persons – is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons.'"

(b) Positive – “capacity to” and the absence of internal limits

"I am my own master."

Positive liberty is the possession of the capacity to act upon one's free will. The concepts of structure and agency are central to the concept of positive liberty because in order to be free, people should be free from inhibitions of the social structure in carrying out their free will. It is primarily concerned with the possession of sociological agency, and it is enhanced by the ability of citizens to participate in government and have their voices, interests, and concerns recognized and acted upon.

Positive liberty is an "exercise-concept": possessing it might mean that one is not internally constrained; one must be able to act according to his highest self according to reason. In this sense, positive liberty is the possession of the capacity to act upon one's free will in such a way as to take control of one's life and realize one's fundamental purposes.

Aaron Ross Powell, Cato Institute research fellow and founder and editor of, offers this useful explanation to distinguish negative liberty from positive liberty ...

Let’s look at an example. Jack’s living in New York. He’d like go to California to visit family. Under a negative conception of liberty, Jack is free to go to California if nobody is actively preventing him from doing so. Thus his negative freedom would be violated if his neighbor locked Jack in the basement, or if someone stole his car.

But what if Jack’s so poor that he can’t afford a car or a plane ticket? What if Jack is sick and so not physically up to the trip? In these instances, no person prevents Jack from going to California, so Jack’s negative liberty remains intact. Yet he lacks the capacity to fulfill his desire and so, from a positive liberty standpoint, he is unfree.

Within the context of political philosophy – within the context of what the state is permitted to do and what it ought to do – a government protects Jack’s negative liberty by preventing the neighbor from locking Jack up and preventing the thief from stealing Jack’s car. If the state is unable to prevent these specific acts, it may punish the perpetrators, thus (we hope) reducing the likelihood of other, similar liberties violations. In addition to – or instead of – punishing violations, the state might force the violator to compensate Jack, striving to make him whole.

On the other hand, a state tasked with directly promoting Jack’s positive liberty might tax its citizens in order to buy Jack the car he couldn’t otherwise afford. Or it might use that revenue to pay for the medical care Jack needs to get back on his feet so he can travel. A positive liberty focused state would take active steps to assure Jack isn’t just free to pursue his desires, but also has the resources to attain them.”

(Aaron Ross Powell. “What Are Negative and Positive Liberty? And Why Does It Matter?” December 20, 2012.)

No wonder few people understand liberty. It involves a critical relationship of internal and external elements. Like most beautiful and enduring works, liberty is formed from a pure, simplistic idea with a very complex design.

While negative liberty is based on opportunity, positive liberty is based on exercise. If opportunity is lacking, liberty suffers and if the free will stagnates, liberty dies.

So, liberty is not absolute in that it lives through “give and take.” The individual finds his liberty in an American society free of enslaving obstacles yet dependent upon his own actions. So, personal liberty in America involves a dual reliance – a reliance upon society and a reliance upon the self. The true libertarian recognizes liberty and obligation. 
From a positive perspective, negative liberty can be meaningless. If a person is constrained by poverty or ignorance, he is still free in the negative sense. However, that person is enslaved in the bounds of societal inequality. What good is choice if choice is not there? A just society must allow citizens to become “their own masters.” The “freedom from” external interferences must be balanced with the “capacity to” take control.

Oh, how these two concepts of liberty would compliment each other if only people employed both good conscience and excellent judgment. These things would justify the belief that no one should tell a person what to think or to do while also accepting the precepts of moral obligations. How sad liberty is frequently mistaken for reckless abandon. In truth, it must be carefully measured in the hands of educated and responsible citizens if it is to be preserved.

Real liberty is neither found in despotism or the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments.” 

Alexander Hamilton

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