- GS-2: Political Theories
Negative and Positive Liberty
Everyone defends freedom: the freedom to speak, to move, to act, to eat, to practice the religion they want. But what does freedom — a concept that has been redefined and revisited innumerable times by scholars — really mean?
Isaiah Berlin, in his seminal essay published in 1958 titled “Two Concepts of Liberty’, speaks of two senses of freedom.
- The first is what he calls “negative liberty”. This revolves around the existence of a private sphere where an individual can do as he or she pleases, free from interference of any kind, whether from other individuals, communities, the State, or by oppressive social forces. The individual is free of any external barriers or constraints.
- The second is what he calls “positive liberty“, which refers to the act of taking control over one’s life and realising its fundamental purposes.
- Let us suppose that a woman, Devi, works in Chennai and wants to visit her family which lives in a village in Bihar.
- Under a negative conception of liberty, Devi could travel from Chennai to her village in Bihar without anyone stopping her for any reason. If someone — Devi’s relatives or neighbours or the Government — prevented her from travelling, that would amount to a violation of her negative liberty.
- But if Devi is poor and cannot afford an airplane ticket or a train ticket, her capacity to travel is hindered by her poverty. It is not a violation of negative liberty but from the standpoint of positive liberty, which is the ability to take control of one’s own life and realise its fundamental purposes, Devi is not free. Devi is lacking capabilities to realize her freedoms.
How the conception of Liberty impacts government functioning?
- While the political left has supported positive liberty for some time, the political right and libertarians support the idea of negative liberty.
- The notions of negative and positive liberty broadly determine how governments function.
- For instance, some governments may cut spending on government programmes, while others may increase spending so that the poor and marginalised can have better access to food and resources at the cost of taxation.
- If a Government increases spending by taxing one section of people, it means that it is cutting down on the economic freedoms of some classes in order for others to access certain goods and services. And this is where some people have a problem with positive liberty in its practical sense.
- Berlin also explains in his essay how positive liberty has been abused by tyrannies, especially by the Soviet Union. The regime portrayed its brutal governance as the empowerment of the people.
- On the other hand, in a society with negative freedom, everyone is freer because no one’s freedom is compromised. But negative freedom, early English philosophers believed, could lead to social chaos.
- Because there could be no limit to what human beings may want. And if they are allowed to achieve anything they want, the strong suppress the weak.
- For instance, some would argue that banks are allowed to wreck the economy in the name of freedom from regulation. This is why the area for men’s action is restricted by law.
- This is not to say that negative liberty is not important. Rajeev Bhargava “In conditions where powerful churches, caste organisations or the State is hell bent on controlling every aspect of a person’s life — who to marry, what kind of a family to lead, what opinions to hold and what to eat — negative freedom is a precious good….”.
What are the criticisms of Berlin’s idea of liberty?
- Berlin’s ideas have been critiqued by other scholars who say he never made clear the distinction between positive and negative liberty.
- Also, he lived and wrote during a period of history which saw the ideas of positive freedom exploited to justify horrific atrocities, such as the Holocaust. This, they argue, is no justification for associating positive liberty with totalitarian regimes.
- They argue that far from being forced to adopt their ideas, proponents of positive liberty simply aspire to help others attain self-mastery.
Connecting the dots:
- John Rawl’s Two Principles of Justice
- French Revolution: Liberty, Equality & Fraternity