Principles of freedom


Positive and negative freedom

Suppose a person is on their way to an appointment, and they reach an intersection where they can go left or right. There are several possible reasons why they might choose to go one way or the other, and these reasons relate to the person’s freedom:

  1. If the road is open and the person may go in either direction without fear of the consequences, then he has what Isaiah Berlin has called negative liberty. This is freedom from in the sense Hobbes meant by

    “A freeman is he that, in those things which by his strength and wit he is able to do, is not hindered to do what he has a will to.”

  2. A person possessed of such negative freedom may still be constrained in his actions, however. There are many reasons why a person may not have the freedom to make a real choice of which road to take, ranging from

    • Those which border on external constraint, such as an inability to pay the high toll on the leftward road; to
    • Those which touch on questions of free will, such as an addiction to tobacco requiring a detour to the right to go past a tobacconist.

    A person possessed of freedom to act as he wishes and the capacity to make rational choices as to how to act is said in Berlin’s terminology to have positive liberty – the presence of self-determination and autonomy.

Neither conception is entirely satisfactory. The negative liberty to act without constraint requires that society somehow constrain murderers, protect property rights, and arbitrate disputes between conflicting action. Libertarians have characterised the negative freedom as being necessary for the flourishing of the human spirit, but they do so without answering questions of disadvantage, discrimination, or education, which may produce a society in which only the wealthy and privileged have any freedom except to work like slaves or starve.

Positive liberty has a more subtle difficulty, well recognised by Berlin who was writing at the time of the cold war. Collective action is required to allow positive freedom. The old and ill must be cared for, the young educated, and all provided with opportunity to express their wishes. In a society of finite resources a fair system of government must allocate and arbitrate the use of these resources to the benefit of all. Most new liberals would consider democracy the most just system of government, and argue that it is required for positive liberty. Nevertheless totalitarian regimes have used the arguments of positive liberty to justify their oppression, as follows:

  • A person does not have true freedom to act if they are subject to addictive desires or prejudices amounting to insanity. They are driven to act in ways which are against their own best interest.
  • Only those individuals who are truly rational have the wisdom to decide what is best for all. These far sighted leaders must force the misguided population to act in their long term best interest even if it appears that they are curtailing their freedoms in order to achieve this.
  • The true interests of each individual are in fact the interests of the collective, as understood and directed by the wise leaders.

There is a lot of common ground here. Most people would agree that a society which allows individuals the liberty to grow, and express their creativity and passions, is a free society. The argument is about the extent to which the state can and should intervene in the interests of equity, security, and the common good. It’s been argued that positive liberty is not incompatible with a pluralist democratic society, and on the other part that negative liberty requires not just that a tyrant choose not to raise his hand, but that society have the kinds of political institutions that guarantee non-interference resiliently and over time.

Internal and external freedom

To my mind there is another consideration – touched on by the framework of positive freedom and related to considerations of free will. To revisit the example of the person who has driven to an intersection and may choose the left or right hand turn, there are both external and internal influences on her decision as to which direction to take. If it is possible to choose either road without fear of the consequences, and possible to afford the expense or time to travel down either road, then the driver has external freedom. To have internal freedom the driver must have the psychological and educational predisposition to consider both possibilities and the mental harmony neccessary to make a rational choice as to which route suits her best.

Suppose the shorter path is through a dangerous neighbourhood and the driver judges that her safety warrants taking the longer path. In this case a lack of external freedom constrained her actions. Suppose instead that the shorter way was through an immigrant neighbourhood and the driver’s racism made her choose ther longer route. This would be a lack of internal freedom.

The two types of freedom are related. Politicians take political advantage in reducing people’s internal freedom as much as by reducing their external freedom, and we are living in an era when all kinds of liberty are under attack. Our (negative) liberty to travel, speak, and act is curtailed in the name of security. Our democratic and legal rights are taken away – from the right to protest to the right of habeus corpus – with consequences to our positive liberty based on an open and democratic society. The United States has always been more libertarian than liberal in its provision of opportunity, medicine, and livelihood for the poor, sick, old, and discriminated, but the trend throughout the west has recently been to decrease services in transport, education, health, and care. Depending on your point of view this is a movement away from positive freedom, but it hasn’t been matched by lower taxes or less government interference, so there has been no compensatory increase in negative freedom. It has seemed instead a simple wealth grab by the rich – the freedom of the strong to oppress the weak.

My contention is that in being asked to give up these external freedoms in return for an unfulfilled promise of safety, we have also given up our internal freedom. As individuals we have chosen prejudice over tolerance, and fear over courage. We have been lured by our desire for certainty and security, and most of all by our desire for wealth, into giving up our principles and treating others with cruelty. The great enlightenment project of a free, equal, brotherhood of humanity has foundered in oil wars and CIA secret prisons, patented drugs the poor cannot afford, and wage slavery in the sweatshops of Asia.

At one time the US officially sanctioned slavery, but I think there has always been a sense in which some slaves were free and some free men in chains. The person who will not give up her principles against the threat to life or wellbeing can never be truly bound – she has integrity and humanity which cannot be taken from her. We are in the opposite situation, having sold the values we claimed to hold dear for a locked door and a full belly.


The house Negroes – they lived in the house with master, they dressed pretty good, they ate good ’cause they ate his food — what he left. They lived in the attic or the basement, but still they lived near the master; and they loved their master more than the master loved himself. They would give their life to save the master’s house quicker than the master would. The house Negro, if the master said, “We got a good house here,” the house Negro would say, “Yeah, we got a good house here.” Whenever the master said “we,” he said “we.” That’s how you can tell a house Negro. …

This modern house Negro loves his master. He wants to live near him. He’ll pay three times as much as the house is worth just to live near his master, and then brag about “I’m the only Negro out here.” “I’m the only one on my job.” “I’m the only one in this school.” You’re nothing but a house Negro. And if someone comes to you right now and says, “Let’s separate,” you say the same thing that the house Negro said on the plantation. “What you mean, separate? From America? This good white man? Where you going to get a better job than you get here?” I mean, this is what you say. “I ain’t left nothing in Africa,” that’s what you say. Why, you left your mind in Africa. – Malcolm X

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