On Positive Liberty

“As for Otanes, he wished neither to rule nor to be ruled—the exact opposite of Aristotle’s notion of true civic liberty. … [This ideal] remains isolated and, until Epicurus, undeveloped … the notion had not explicitly emerged” – Isaiah Berlin.

Liberty: a notion steeped in millennia of political discourse and philosophical disagreement. Modern writing on liberty is saturated with squabbling over its meaning and reality; tension between its application and theory within society; and its relationship to individuals and governments.

Isaiah Berlin, the mid-twentieth century British social and political theorist, recognised two versions of liberty: positive liberty, an outward freedom to do something, and negative liberty, inward freedom from something. He would define a statement such as “I am a slave to no man” as an example of negative liberty as it is freedom from an external factor, whereas the statement “I am my own master” highlights the individual’s ability to choose their own pursuits, thus recognising it as a positive freedom. He wrote on these as opposing notions that were incompatible in political theory and governance.

A useful way to distinguish between these ideas on liberty is to look at the way they impact an agent in any given model. Negative liberty is primarily defined by the degree to which agents experience external interference, whereas positive liberty is evident by situations wherein agents have the internal capacities to act autonomously.

As aforementioned, Berlin writes on these two kinds of liberty as incompatible and rival manifestations of a political notion; they are the two interpretations of what freedom ought to be. Positive freedom, is simply about leaving all doors unlocked for the agent to find and open. On the notion of negative freedom, however, it is strictly about guiding the individual through opened doors for the right reasons, whilst locking some other doors. That being said, in the real world we crave individual liberty and self-determination, however a more nuanced combination of the two seems beneficial. So, placing this analogy into action, we can see that a nuanced approach exists if we accept that there are some constraints that government ought to place on what we can do. Notwithstanding, insofar as positive liberty flourishes independently without harming others or the agent, these constraints must be limited.

Thus, the definition of harm must be acutely defined to allow us to decipher the prime reach of government. The confusion here is that whilst left-libertarian political philosophy presupposes negative freedom with some interest in achieving limited positive freedom, the exact inverse is the practice of more right-leaning political philosophy. So where must we begin to define harm: with the assumption of positive or negative liberty as our antecedent?

This question is a key segregator in the modern right-left divide of political philosophy. Whilst some political thought, such as puritan libertarianism, suggests that we rethink this imbalance altogether and take on Berlin’s understanding of unalloyed positive liberty, most would agree that a healthy combination of both positive and negative liberties can exist without contradiction.

As a conservative who champions liberal democracy and the freedom of the individual, I would suggest that the perfect cohabitation of positive and negative liberties exists where government grants commonly culturally accepted and well-tested positive liberties as inalienable rights, alongside the credo that freedom from tyranny and physical harm are a part of its governmental duty. Of course, physical harm too can be considered a broad issue, with progressive political thought having scope to interpret this as liberty from medical vices such as cigarette smoking or even the pain of childbirth. To quash this line of thought, there must be presupposed positive liberty for all citizens that dictates government policy. In other words, it must be at the forefront of government policy that we give people rights to rather rights from.

Somewhere within that definition lies both a perfectly balanced and nuanced approach to government intervention and a prescription for liberty in our modern world.

JP Baladi is Vice-President of the Sydney University Conservative Club

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