Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Positive and Negative Liberty

I’ve been using the term promiscuously, so what is ‘liberty’?

Many writers and thinkers have defined it. Some of them use the term ‘liberty’, some use ‘freedom’, and a few speak in terms of rights. Here are some definitions.

One Kind of Liberty
‘This is what the modern concept of freedom means. Every adult is free to fashion his life according to its own plans. … What restricts the individual’s freedom is not other people’s violence or threat of violence, but the physiological structure of his body and the inescapable nature-given scarcity of the factors of production.’
– Ludwig von Mises, The Anti-Capitalist Mentality p. 3

‘…a free Government interferes with nothing except what it must. A despotic Government tries to make everybody do what it wishes, a Liberal Government tries, so far as the safety of society will permit, to allow everybody to do what he wishes.’
- Sir William Harcourt [Harcourt wrote in the 19th Century, using ‘Liberal’ in the classical sense, not in the modern sense]

“[Freedom] meant always the possibility of a person's acting according to his own decisions and plans, in contrast to the position of one who was irrevocably subject to the will of another, who by arbitrary decision could coerce him to act or not to act in specific ways. The time-honoured phrase by which this freedom has often been described is therefore 'independence of the arbitrary will of another'.”
– F.A. Hayek, Constitution of Liberty

‘Right (or justice) is the sum total of the conditions which are necessary for everybody’s free choice to co-exist with that of everybody else, in accordance with a general law of liberty’
– Kant Theory of Right

To these men, liberty or freedom meant not being coerced by others – individuals or governments. A person with liberty makes choices for himself without being subject to the threat of man-imposed violence or suffering any harm but natural consequences of “the physiological structure of his body and the inescapable nature-given scarcity of the factors of production”.

Another Kind of Liberty

‘[Liberty is the] absence of obstacles to the realization of our desires’
– Bertrand Russell

[Human rights include t]he right to a useful and remunerative job… The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation; The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living; The right of every businessman… to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies…; The right of every family to a decent home; The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health; The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment; The right to a good education.

To Russell and FDR ‘liberty’ entails possession of something (or several things). Liberty and Rights are meaningless unless one has the material ability to exercise them.

Positive and Negative
Evidently the first is called ‘negative liberty’ as it involves not having things done to you. Negative liberty is the exemption from coercion.

The second is called ‘positive liberty’ because having it depends on possessing certain things; being left alone is insufficient as something positive must happen to give a person positive liberty.

These are very different things, with very different consequences for society. When someone speaks or writes of “liberty” or “freedom” we must identify what sort of liberty is being addressed.

An important characteristic of negative liberty is that state action increasing it for one person need not decrease it for any another. In fact, social policies that increase negative liberty for one person or group are very likely to increase negative liberty for everyone else as one person’s liberty actually depends on others also being at liberty. (See the post “…and Liberty for All”)

Liberty as defined by Bertrand Russell (in the above quote) is impossible. I desire to be able to fly like a bird. Physical reality imposes an irremovable obstacle to the realization of my desire so, according to Russell, the reality of physics in our universe makes liberty impossible.

FDR refers to the idea, common among progressives, that rights and liberty are meaningless without enough wealth to do something with that liberty. Freedom of speech is meaningless to a starving man. To those born to great wealth, like FDR, or even middle-class affluence like most campus leftists, the idea of being able to do what one wants to do without having substantial material wealth (by their standards) is foreign.


The social consequences of positive liberty are chilling: it is not possible for the state to increase one persons positive liberty without reducing the liberty, both positive and negative, of other people. Since the state has no wealth of its own, it can give wealth to one person only by taking property from others, decreasing their both their positive and negative liberty by the coercive taking.

Of course an individual can use his liberty to help another, but that is voluntary and does not involve the state. Christianity expects adherents to use their liberty thusly, as do other religions.

The most effective means of increasing positive liberty for people in general is the market system, the wealth-creating system of voluntary human interaction sometimes called the extended system. People are poor because something has prevented them from contributing to and deriving benefits from the extended system – usually that ‘something’ is their own government.

When I speak of ‘liberty’ I mean negative liberty. The idea of positive liberty is an invention of those who wish to coerce others into doing “what is right”.

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