Tell me, when you think of liberty, do you think of the following things?
Freedom to do what you want?
Freedom from others telling you what to do?
Freedom from outside constraint?
These are expected answers to my initial question. But, let’s try it this way: What if you lived on a large estate and were subservient to a master who, on most occasions, was never there. So, for the most part, your daily life is not constrained by any outside power, you are not being told what to do by others and you can pretty much do whatever you want. However, there is always the possibility that at any moment, your master can return and impose his arbitrary will upon you.
Do you consider yourself free? Notice that, in this example, unless the master is there, the conditions I just listed above as answers to what liberty is, are all met. Until or unless the master is there (and even if he is there, he may not wield his arbitrary power), you are perfectly unconstrained and able to do whatever you want.
And yet, my guess is that most of you would emphatically answer that you are not free in this given circumstance. I’m not surprised. Here’s the thing. This is a form of negative liberty.
“As Berlin [Isaiah Berlin] admits, on the negative view, I am free even if I live in a dictatorship just as long as the dictator happens, on a whim, not to interfere with me”. The repulsion you feel to this description, my friends, is the result of the classical liberal and Republican form of thinking that we in American have grown up with. In America we believe in and promote a Republican form of negative liberty, one that I will endeavor to explain a bit in this article.
It’s important, as American citizens, that we understand and agree upon what we mean when we say “liberty”. We cannot presume to all fight for liberty if we do not all agree upon the meaning of the very concept we are fighting for. And so, in this brief article, I will define for you, the kind of liberty that America stands for and that the Constitution provides. I’ll also touch on another form of liberty, positive liberty, the polar opposite of negative liberty—-one that many today would be more inclined to promote.
What does “liberty” mean?
According to the 1828 Webster Dictionary, civil liberty (as distinct from natural liberty or liberty in general) is this:
“Civil liberty is the liberty of men in a state of society, or natural liberty so far only abridged and restrained, as is necessary and expedient for the safety and interest of the society, state or nation. A restraint of natural liberty not necessary or expedient for the public, is tyranny or oppression. Civil liberty is an exemption from the arbitrary will of others, which exemption is secured by established laws, which restrain every man from injuring or controlling another. Hence the restraints of law are essential to civil liberty.”
In other words, liberty associated with government (hence the civil part of it), is liberty given by and through law that constrains natural liberty in so far as it hinders anyone or any government from using arbitrary power over others. Basically, liberty is the freedom to do as one wishes, unhindered by external restraints or the threat of arbitrary control from others, within the confines of law.
Negative and Positive Liberty
Negative liberty is the idea that liberty equates the absence of any external hindrances. It focuses on the ability of individuals to do and pursue want they want without being hindered by any external obstacles. This is in juxtaposition to positive liberty, which equates the ability that one has to realize the potential they have. (These conceptualizations of liberty come from notable philosophers such as John Stuart Mill, Isaiah Berlin and Karl Marx, to name a few)
Here’s a quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explaining the reason for defining liberty as both positive and negative: “The reason for using these labels is that in the first case liberty seems to be a mere absence of something (i.e. of obstacles, barriers, constraints or interference from others), whereas in the second case it seems to require the presence of something (i.e. of control, self-mastery, self-determination or self-realization).”
Do you see the difference? In one case, liberty is associated with external impediments while in the other, internal, almost, psychological impediments.
I’m not writing this article though to fully unravel positive liberty but to firmly establish republican negative liberty so that you can grasp the difference between the liberty the Constitution protects and promotes and the type of liberty that socialism and communism protect and promote. You don’t need to understand every little nuanced difference, but just the gist of what negative liberty is.
So, Republican liberty is negative liberty, with the addendum of law. In other words, it’s negative liberty attached to government. There needs to be a government established to protect people from the arbitrary power of mankind that could and would infringe on our natural negative liberty. So, for instance, law prevents someone from forcing you to work a job you do not want to work. If someone could force you to work somewhere, this ability to do so would be an external impediment on your liberty to choose what you do or do not want to do.
However, you may end up working at a job you do not want to work at because you are forced into working there as a result of some sort of internal impediment. Maybe you feel that you are not good enough to work somewhere else. Perhaps you doubt your skills. Whatever it may be, you end up feeling forced into something because of an internal impediment, rather than an external impediment. This is an an example of positive liberty being hindered.
What’s critical about the difference between negative liberty and REPUBLICAN negative liberty is this: government cannot impose its arbitrary will upon us as citizens because government is also held accountable to laws–namely the Constitution. Get that? So, while we could live under a government with a benevolent leader and live freely and unhindered under their rule (negative liberty), if that leader holds the potential to wield their arbitrary will upon us at any time, we are NOT experiencing republican negative liberty, but simply negative liberty.
Republican negative liberty attempts to eliminate any possibility of anyone ever holding the power to force their arbitrary will on another, especially government over the people.
Why these two types of liberty matter
The question being entertained in the political debates today is: should government only preserve and protect republican negative liberty but leave positive liberty alone? Read this quote from the encyclopedia:
“In its political form, positive freedom has often been thought of as necessarily achieved through a collectivity. Perhaps the clearest case is that of Rousseau’s theory of freedom, according to which individual freedom is achieved through participation in the process whereby one’s community exercises collective control over its own affairs in accordance with the ‘general will’. Put in the simplest terms, one might say that a democratic society is a free society because it is a self-determined society, and that a member of that society is free to the extent that he or she participates in its democratic process.”
Notice the heavily democratic element of liberty here and remember that our founders wanted to avoid democracy in America at all costs. Positive liberty is a collectivist form of liberty. It is one where we might assume that government should do something about our internal impediments, like the one I gave an example of a few paragraphs prior to this one. The encyclopedia explains further: “It is sometimes said that a government should aim actively to create the conditions necessary for individuals to be self-sufficient or to achieve self-realization. The welfare state has sometimes been defended on this basis, as has the idea of a universal basic income.”
This is not the type of liberty that the American Constitution promotes or protects, but it is being argued for more and more today. I notice some internal conflicts in positive liberty, however. In one breath, it assumes that the citizenry should be more involved and active in the preservation of their liberty by involving themselves in politics and government. The concept assumes that people control their own destiny. And yet at the same time, the concept also assumes that people cannot reach their potential without government aid, thereby undermining the very assumption it started with. I’ll leave my discussion on positive liberty at that and let you all puzzle over it some as I continue to educate myself in it more.
Before I share with you my perspective on American liberty though, digest this final quote from the encyclopedia:
“Contemporary republicans therefore claim that their view of freedom is quite distinct from the negative view of freedom. As we have seen, one can enjoy non-interference without enjoying non-domination; conversely, according to Pettit, one can enjoy non-domination while nevertheless being interfered with, just as long as the interference in question is constrained, through republican power structures, to track one’s interests. Only arbitrary power is inimical to freedom, not power as such. On the other hand, republican freedom is also distinct from positive freedom as expounded and criticized by Berlin. First, republican freedom does not consist in the activity of virtuous political participation; rather, that participation is seen as instrumentally related to freedom as non-domination. Secondly, the republican concept of freedom cannot lead to anything like the oppressive consequences feared by Berlin, because it has a commitment to non-domination and to liberal-democratic institutions already built into it.”
Alright now, this is key. Negative liberty can be broken into two kinds, non-interference and non-domination. Non-interference is exemplified in the examples I laid out for you all at the beginning of the article. You are subservient to the arbitrary will of a master, who does not always interfere with you, but you are always under his domination. This is different than the concept of non-domination, which assumes that a truly free person is not dominated by anyone but can be interfered with if the one doing the interfering is the Republican government that was created to protect and promote one’s liberty. The Republican government’s power cannot be arbitrary, however, because if it was, it would then be dominating over the individual it’s supposed to be protecting from domination.
In the U.S., we live with the interference of government, but not the domination of government. This is why we have a Constitution. The Constitution prevents our government from having an arbitrary will of it’s own.
Therefore, I contend that, in the U.S., the primary form of liberty we are fighting to protect is a republican form of negative liberty. We are not fighting to protect complete liberty or liberty to do whatever one wants or desires. Total liberty leads to abuse and chaos. No, there must be some external limitation on our liberties if we are to enjoy any state of peaceable living. But, the Constitution also does not protect an extreme form of positive liberty, or presume upon the people the need for government to involve itself in the citizenry to make sure everyone achieves all of their potential. Those who fail, fail and those who prosper, prosper.
I want to add a little side note here though. I do not believe, though our government’s primary goal is to protect our negative liberty, that we cannot or should not, in a positive sense, engage in government to preserve and promote our republican liberty. We must fight to keep our government from dominating us through arbitrary law and that requires a form of positive, active and engaged liberty.
Friends, republican liberty is the kind of liberty that our founders fought to establish and you and I are fighting to preserve. But, we need to develop a greater understanding of positive liberty and what it truly means if we are to engage the citizens who openly and publicly promote positive liberty.
Because in many ways, for positive liberty to live, negative liberty must die.
The Liberty Belle
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