Why Is Liberty So Important?

Lawrence W. Reed

At this time of the year, all of us at the Foundation for Economic Education take special note of our many friends, both new and old. Though our work is vitally important, we never want to be so absorbed in it that we neglect the people like you who make it possible.

So allow me this moment to express a collective thanks from all of us at FEE to all of you who partner with us as trustees, donors, seminar attendees and alumni, faculty network members, readers of the Freeman and FEE.org, and ambassadors for liberty.

If you’ve never financially supported FEE in the past, I invite you to do so today .

If you’re a past supporter of FEE, I thank you for your generosity and invite you to consider renewing your support .

When you invest in FEE, you invest in life-changing events and publications that will pay dividends for decades.

FEE is focused on cultivating an understanding of the principles of freedom in the minds of young “newcomers” to liberty — particularly those of high school and college age.

Every time I hear a student exclaim “I never heard this before FEE told me about it!” I know we’ve made a difference for the rest of that person’s life.

Why is liberty so important?

  • Liberty is precious, rare, never guaranteed, and always threatened. It can be lost in a single generation if it’s not advanced and defended.
  • Liberty follows from human nature: We are unique individuals, not a blob or an army of robots to be programmed by those with power.
  • To be fully human, all of us must be free to exercise our choices and govern our lives so long as we permit the same of others.
  • Liberty works. Over and over again, it produces a degree of interpersonal cooperation, innovation, and wealth creation that allows human beings to flourish — nothing else even comes close.
  • Liberty is the only social, political, or economic arrangement that requires that we live to high standards of conduct and character and rewards us when we do so. This is a crucial difference between liberty and the soul-crushing, paternalistic snares that are offered as alternatives.
  • Life without liberty is unthinkable. Who wants to live at the end of another’s leash, fearing at every turn what those armed with force and power might do to us, even if they have good intentions?

We wouldn’t expect, even if it were possible, that everyone who supports us will agree with everything they ever see or hear from FEE. We have our own core beliefs, of course, but to a considerable degree we are a forum for differing views among those who broadly share an affinity for liberty.

We don’t take for granted that we’ll earn your support every day, every month or every year. We know we have to earn it all the time. So we are engaged in a non-stop, self-improvement program. We experiment and innovate. Seminar themes, technology, content, and speakers change and improve. We expand and grow what works and drop what doesn’t. We do it all in an effort to be the best-known, most effective “first encounter” for young people with the economic, ethical, and legal principles of a free society.

I hope this cause in general — and our work at FEE, in particular — excites you as much as it does every member of the team we’ve assembled. We go to work every day with passion for what we do, and with appreciation for you who support us.

Thank you, too, for being an ambassador for liberty. Because of your sharing on social media and your own engagement with our content, FEE is reaching a wider audience than at any time in our 69-year history.

We are experiencing record levels of applications for our seminars. FEE voices are appearing in the international press. And FEE.org itself is being read by over 500,000 people per month (and rising fast!). This is a level of reach that would have delighted FEE’s founders, and the champions of freedom from time immemorial.

However, without the generosity of individuals like you, FEE would not be able to deliver life-changing moments for countless young people. We need your financial support to continue our work for liberty.

Whether you give a little or become a continuing benefactor in substantial amounts, we appreciate it deeply as a vote of confidence in FEE’s message, mission, and work.

essay about liberty is growth

Best wishes to you and your families for this holiday season and for a blessed and prosperous New Year.

Lawrence W. Reed

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Positive and Negative Liberty

Negative liberty is the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints. One has negative liberty to the extent that actions are available to one in this negative sense. Positive liberty is the possibility of acting — or the fact of acting — in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realize one’s fundamental purposes. While negative liberty is usually attributed to individual agents, positive liberty is sometimes attributed to collectivities, or to individuals considered primarily as members of given collectivities.

The idea of distinguishing between a negative and a positive sense of the term ‘liberty’ goes back at least to Kant, and was examined and defended in depth by Isaiah Berlin in the 1950s and ’60s. Discussions about positive and negative liberty normally take place within the context of political and social philosophy. They are distinct from, though sometimes related to, philosophical discussions about free will . Work on the nature of positive liberty often overlaps, however, with work on the nature of autonomy .

As Berlin showed, negative and positive liberty are not merely two distinct kinds of liberty; they can be seen as rival, incompatible interpretations of a single political ideal. Since few people claim to be against liberty, the way this term is interpreted and defined can have important political implications. Political liberalism tends to presuppose a negative definition of liberty: liberals generally claim that if one favors individual liberty one should place strong limitations on the activities of the state. Critics of liberalism often contest this implication by contesting the negative definition of liberty: they argue that the pursuit of liberty understood as self-realization or as self-determination (whether of the individual or of the collectivity) can require state intervention of a kind not normally allowed by liberals.

Many authors prefer to talk of positive and negative freedom . This is only a difference of style, and the terms ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ are normally used interchangeably by political and social philosophers. Although some attempts have been made to distinguish between liberty and freedom (Pitkin 1988; Williams 2001; Dworkin 2011), generally speaking these have not caught on. Neither can they be translated into other European languages, which contain only the one term, of either Latin or Germanic origin (e.g. liberté, Freiheit), where English contains both.

1. Two Concepts of Liberty

2. the paradox of positive liberty, 3.1 positive liberty as content-neutral, 3.2 republican liberty, 4. one concept of liberty: freedom as a triadic relation, 5. the analysis of constraints: their types and their sources, 6. the concept of overall freedom, 7. is the distinction still useful, introductory works, other works, other internet resources, related entries.

Imagine you are driving a car through town, and you come to a fork in the road. You turn left, but no one was forcing you to go one way or the other. Next you come to a crossroads. You turn right, but no one was preventing you from going left or straight on. There is no traffic to speak of and there are no diversions or police roadblocks. So you seem, as a driver, to be completely free. But this picture of your situation might change quite dramatically if we consider that the reason you went left and then right is that you’re addicted to cigarettes and you’re desperate to get to the tobacconists before it closes. Rather than driving , you feel you are being driven , as your urge to smoke leads you uncontrollably to turn the wheel first to the left and then to the right. Moreover, you’re perfectly aware that your turning right at the crossroads means you’ll probably miss a train that was to take you to an appointment you care about very much. You long to be free of this irrational desire that is not only threatening your longevity but is also stopping you right now from doing what you think you ought to be doing.

This story gives us two contrasting ways of thinking of liberty. On the one hand, one can think of liberty as the absence of obstacles external to the agent. You are free if no one is stopping you from doing whatever you might want to do. In the above story you appear, in this sense, to be free. On the other hand, one can think of liberty as the presence of control on the part of the agent. To be free, you must be self-determined, which is to say that you must be able to control your own destiny in your own interests. In the above story you appear, in this sense, to be unfree: you are not in control of your own destiny, as you are failing to control a passion that you yourself would rather be rid of and which is preventing you from realizing what you recognize to be your true interests. One might say that while on the first view liberty is simply about how many doors are open to the agent, on the second view it is more about going through the right doors for the right reasons.

In a famous essay first published in 1958, Isaiah Berlin called these two concepts of liberty negative and positive respectively (Berlin 1969). [ 1 ] 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). In Berlin’s words, we use the negative concept of liberty in attempting to answer the question “What is the area within which the subject — a person or group of persons — is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons?”, whereas we use the positive concept in attempting to answer the question “What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?” (1969, pp. 121–22).

It is useful to think of the difference between the two concepts in terms of the difference between factors that are external and factors that are internal to the agent. While theorists of negative freedom are primarily interested in the degree to which individuals or groups suffer interference from external bodies, theorists of positive freedom are more attentive to the internal factors affecting the degree to which individuals or groups act autonomously. Given this difference, one might be tempted to think that a political philosopher should concentrate exclusively on negative freedom, a concern with positive freedom being more relevant to psychology or individual morality than to political and social institutions. This, however, would be premature, for among the most hotly debated issues in political philosophy are the following: Is the positive concept of freedom a political concept? Can individuals or groups achieve positive freedom through political action? Is it possible for the state to promote the positive freedom of citizens on their behalf? And if so, is it desirable for the state to do so? The classic texts in the history of western political thought are divided over how these questions should be answered: theorists in the classical liberal tradition, like Benjamin Constant, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Herbert Spencer, and J.S. Mill, are typically classed as answering ‘no’ and therefore as defending a negative concept of political freedom; theorists that are critical of this tradition, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, G.W.F. Hegel, Karl Marx and T.H. Green, are typically classed as answering ‘yes’ and as defending a positive concept of political freedom.

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. But there are also individualist applications of the concept of positive freedom. For example, 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. The negative concept of freedom, on the other hand, is most commonly assumed in liberal defences of the constitutional liberties typical of liberal-democratic societies, such as freedom of movement, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech, and in arguments against paternalist or moralist state intervention. It is also often invoked in defences of the right to private property. This said, some philosophers have contested the claim that private property necessarily enhances negative liberty (Cohen 1995, 2006), and still others have tried to show that negative liberty can ground a form of egalitarianism (Steiner 1994).

After Berlin, the most widely cited and best developed analyses of the negative concept of liberty include Hayek (1960), Day (1971), Oppenheim (1981), Miller (1983) and Steiner (1994). Among the most prominent contemporary analyses of the positive concept of liberty are Milne (1968), Gibbs (1976), C. Taylor (1979) and Christman (1991, 2005).

Many liberals, including Berlin, have suggested that the positive concept of liberty carries with it a danger of authoritarianism. Consider the fate of a permanent and oppressed minority. Because the members of this minority participate in a democratic process characterized by majority rule, they might be said to be free on the grounds that they are members of a society exercising self-control over its own affairs. But they are oppressed, and so are surely unfree. Moreover, it is not necessary to see a society as democratic in order to see it as self-controlled; one might instead adopt an organic conception of society, according to which the collectivity is to be thought of as a living organism, and one might believe that this organism will only act rationally, will only be in control of itself, when its various parts are brought into line with some rational plan devised by its wise governors (who, to extend the metaphor, might be thought of as the organism’s brain). In this case, even the majority might be oppressed in the name of liberty.

Such justifications of oppression in the name of liberty are no mere products of the liberal imagination, for there are notorious historical examples of their endorsement by authoritarian political leaders. Berlin, himself a liberal and writing during the cold war, was clearly moved by the way in which the apparently noble ideal of freedom as self-mastery or self-realization had been twisted and distorted by the totalitarian dictators of the twentieth century — most notably those of the Soviet Union — so as to claim that they, rather than the liberal West, were the true champions of freedom. The slippery slope towards this paradoxical conclusion begins, according to Berlin, with the idea of a divided self. To illustrate: the smoker in our story provides a clear example of a divided self, for she is both a self that desires to get to an appointment and a self that desires to get to the tobacconists, and these two desires are in conflict. We can now enrich this story in a plausible way by adding that one of these selves — the keeper of appointments — is superior to the other: the self that is a keeper of appointments is thus a ‘higher’ self, and the self that is a smoker is a ‘lower’ self. The higher self is the rational, reflecting self, the self that is capable of moral action and of taking responsibility for what she does. This is the true self, for rational reflection and moral responsibility are the features of humans that mark them off from other animals. The lower self, on the other hand, is the self of the passions, of unreflecting desires and irrational impulses. One is free, then, when one’s higher, rational self is in control and one is not a slave to one’s passions or to one’s merely empirical self. The next step down the slippery slope consists in pointing out that some individuals are more rational than others, and can therefore know best what is in their and others’ rational interests. This allows them to say that by forcing people less rational than themselves to do the rational thing and thus to realize their true selves, they are in fact liberating them from their merely empirical desires. Occasionally, Berlin says, the defender of positive freedom will take an additional step that consists in conceiving of the self as wider than the individual and as represented by an organic social whole — “a tribe, a race, a church, a state, the great society of the living and the dead and the yet unborn”. The true interests of the individual are to be identified with the interests of this whole, and individuals can and should be coerced into fulfilling these interests, for they would not resist coercion if they were as rational and wise as their coercers. “Once I take this view”, Berlin says, “I am in a position to ignore the actual wishes of men or societies, to bully, oppress, torture in the name, and on behalf, of their ‘real’ selves, in the secure knowledge that whatever is the true goal of man ... must be identical with his freedom” (Berlin 1969, pp. 132–33).

Those in the negative camp try to cut off this line of reasoning at the first step, by denying that there is any necessary relation between one’s freedom and one’s desires. Since one is free to the extent that one is externally unprevented from doing things, they say, one can be free to do what one does not desire to do. If being free meant being unprevented from realizing one’s desires, then one could, again paradoxically, reduce one’s unfreedom by coming to desire fewer of the things one is unfree to do. One could become free simply by contenting oneself with one’s situation. A perfectly contented slave is perfectly free to realize all of her desires. Nevertheless, we tend to think of slavery as the opposite of freedom. More generally, freedom is not to be confused with happiness, for in logical terms there is nothing to stop a free person from being unhappy or an unfree person from being happy. The happy person might feel free, but whether they are free is another matter (Day, 1970). Negative theorists of freedom therefore tend to say not that having freedom means being unprevented from doing as one desires, but that it means being unprevented from doing whatever one might desire to do (Steiner 1994. Cf. Van Parijs 1995; Sugden 2006).

Some theorists of positive freedom bite the bullet and say that the contented slave is indeed free — that in order to be free the individual must learn, not so much to dominate certain merely empirical desires, but to rid herself of them. She must, in other words, remove as many of her desires as possible. As Berlin puts it, if I have a wounded leg ‘there are two methods of freeing myself from pain. One is to heal the wound. But if the cure is too difficult or uncertain, there is another method. I can get rid of the wound by cutting off my leg’ (1969, pp. 135–36). This is the strategy of liberation adopted by ascetics, stoics and Buddhist sages. It involves a ‘retreat into an inner citadel’ — a soul or a purely noumenal self — in which the individual is immune to any outside forces. But this state, even if it can be achieved, is not one that liberals would want to call one of freedom, for it again risks masking important forms of oppression. It is, after all, often in coming to terms with excessive external limitations in society that individuals retreat into themselves, pretending to themselves that they do not really desire the worldly goods or pleasures they have been denied. Moreover, the removal of desires may also be an effect of outside forces, such as brainwashing, which we should hardly want to call a realization of freedom.

Because the concept of negative freedom concentrates on the external sphere in which individuals interact, it seems to provide a better guarantee against the dangers of paternalism and authoritarianism perceived by Berlin. To promote negative freedom is to promote the existence of a sphere of action within which the individual is sovereign, and within which she can pursue her own projects subject only to the constraint that she respect the spheres of others. Humboldt and Mill, both advocates of negative freedom, compared the development of an individual to that of a plant: individuals, like plants, must be allowed to grow, in the sense of developing their own faculties to the full and according to their own inner logic. Personal growth is something that cannot be imposed from without, but must come from within the individual.

3. Two Attempts to Create a Third Way

Critics, however, have objected that the ideal described by Humboldt and Mill looks much more like a positive concept of liberty than a negative one. Positive liberty consists, they say, in exactly this growth of the individual: the free individual is one that develops, determines and changes her own desires and interests autonomously and from within. This is not liberty as the mere absence of obstacles, but liberty as autonomy or self-realization. Why should the mere absence of state interference be thought to guarantee such growth? Is there not some third way between the extremes of totalitarianism and the minimal state of the classical liberals — some non-paternalist, non-authoritarian means by which positive liberty in the above sense can be actively promoted?

Much of the more recent work on positive liberty has been motivated by a dissatisfaction with the ideal of negative liberty combined with an awareness of the possible abuses of the positive concept so forcefully exposed by Berlin. John Christman (1991, 2005, 2009, 2013), for example, has argued that positive liberty concerns the ways in which desires are formed — whether as a result of rational reflection on all the options available, or as a result of pressure, manipulation or ignorance. What it does not regard, he says, is the content of an individual’s desires. The promotion of positive freedom need not therefore involve the claim that there is only one right answer to the question of how a person should live, nor need it allow, or even be compatible with, a society forcing its members into given patterns of behavior. Take the example of a Muslim woman who claims to espouse the fundamentalist doctrines generally followed by her family and the community in which she lives. On Christman’s account, this person is positively unfree if her desire to conform was somehow oppressively imposed upon her through indoctrination, manipulation or deceit. She is positively free, on the other hand, if she arrived at her desire to conform while aware of other reasonable options and she weighed and assessed these other options rationally. Even if this woman seems to have a preference for subservient behavior, there is nothing necessarily freedom-enhancing or freedom-restricting about her having the desires she has, since freedom regards not the content of these desires but their mode of formation. On this view, forcing her to do certain things rather than others can never make her more free, and Berlin’s paradox of positive freedom would seem to have been avoided.

This more ‘procedural’ account of positive liberty allows us to point to kinds of internal constraint that seem too fall off the radar if we adopt only negative concept. For example, some radical political theorists believe it can help us to make sense of forms of oppression and structural injustice that cannot be traced to overt acts of prevention or coercion. On the one hand, in agreement with Berlin, we should recognize the dangers of that come with promoting the values or interests of a person’s ‘true self’ in opposition to what they manifestly desire. Thus, the procedural account avoids all reference to a ‘true self’. On the other, we should recognize that people’s actual selves are inevitably formed in a social context and that their values and senses of identity (for example, in terms of gender or race or nationality) are shaped by cultural influences. In this sense, the self is ‘socially constructed’, and this social construction can itself occur in oppressive ways. The challenge, then, is to show how a person’s values can be thus shaped but without the kind of oppressive imposition or manipulation that comes not only from political coercion but also, more subtly, from practices or institutions that stigmatize or marginalize certain identities or that attach costs to the endorsement of values deviating from acceptable norms, for these kinds of imposition or manipulation can be just another way of promoting a substantive ideal of the self. And this was exactly the danger against which Berlin was warning, except that the danger is less visible and can be created unintentionally (Christman 2013, 2015, 2021; Hirschmann 2003, 2013; Coole 2013).

While this theory of positive freedom undoubtedly provides a tool for criticizing the limiting effects of certain practices and institutions in contemporary liberal societies, it remains to be seen what kinds of political action can be pursued in order to promote content-neutral positive liberty without encroaching on any individual’s rightful sphere of negative liberty. Thus, the potential conflict between the two ideals of negative and positive freedom might survive Christman’s alternative analysis, albeit in a milder form. Even if we rule out coercing individuals into specific patterns of behavior, a state interested in promoting content-neutral positive liberty might still have considerable space for intervention aimed at ‘public enlightenment’, perhaps subsidizing some kinds of activities (in order to encourage a plurality of genuine options) and financing such intervention through taxation. Liberals might criticize this kind of intervention on anti-paternalist grounds, objecting that such measures will require the state to use resources in ways that the supposedly heteronomous individuals, if left to themselves, might have chosen to spend in other ways. In other words, even in its content-neutral form, the ideal of positive freedom might still conflict with the liberal idea of respect for persons, one interpretation of which involves viewing individuals from the outside and taking their choices at face value. From a liberal point of view, the blindness to internal constraints can be intentional (Carter 2011a). Some liberals will make an exception to this restriction on state intervention in the case of the education of children, in such a way as to provide for the active cultivation of open minds and rational reflection. Even here, however, other liberals will object that the right to negative liberty includes the right to decide how one’s children should be educated.

Is it necessary to refer to internal constraints in order to make sense of the phenomena of oppression and structural injustice? Some might contest this view, or say that it is true only up to a point, for there are at least two reasons for thinking that the oppressed are lacking in negative liberty. First, while Berlin himself equated economic and social disadvantages with natural disabilities, claiming that neither represented constraints on negative liberty but only on personal abilities, many theorists of negative liberty disagree: if I lack the money to buy a jacket from a clothes shop, then any attempt on my part to carry away the jacket is likely to meet with preventive actions or punishment on the part of the shop keeper or the agents of the state. This is a case of interpersonal interference, not merely of personal inability. In the normal circumstances of a market economy, purchasing power is indeed a very reliable indicator of how far other people will stop you from doing certain things if you try. It is therefore strongly correlated with degrees of negative freedom (Cohen 1995, 2011; Waldron 1993; Carter 2007; Grant 2013). Thus, while the promotion of content-neutral positive liberty might imply the transfer of certain kinds of resources to members of disadvantaged groups, the same might be true of the promotion of negative liberty. Second, the negative concept of freedom can be applied directly to disadvantaged groups as well as to their individual members. Some social structures may be such as to tolerate the liberation of only a limited number of members of a given group. G.A. Cohen famously focused on the case proletarians who can escape their condition by successfully setting up a business of their own though a mixture of hard work and luck. In such cases, while each individual member of the disadvantaged group might be negatively free in the sense of being unprevented from choosing the path of liberation, the freedom of the individual is conditional on the unfreedom of the majority of the rest of the group, since not all can escape in this way. Each individual member of the class therefore partakes in a form of collective negative unfreedom (Cohen 1988, 2006; for discussion see Mason 1996; Hindricks 2008; Grant 2013; Schmidt 2020).

Another increasingly influential group of philosophers has rejected both the negative and the positive conception, claiming that liberty is not merely the enjoyment of a sphere of non-interference but the enjoyment of certain conditions in which such non-interference is guaranteed (Pettit 1997, 2001, 2014; Skinner 1998, 2002; Weinstock and Nadeau 2004; Laborde and Maynor 2008; Lovett 2010, forthcoming; Breen and McBride 2015, List and Valentini 2016). These conditions may include the presence of a democratic constitution and a series of safeguards against a government wielding power arbitrarily, including popular control and the separation of powers. As 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 (see also Hayek 1960). There is no necessary connection between negative liberty and any particular form of government. Is it not counterintuitive to say that I can in theory be free even if I live in a dictatorship, or that a slave can enjoy considerable liberty as long as the slave-owner is compassionate and generous? Would my subjection to the arbitrary power of a dictator or slave-owner not itself be sufficient to qualify me as unfree? If it would be, then we should say that I am free only if I live in a society with the kinds of political institutions that guarantee the independence of each citizen from such arbitrary power. Quentin Skinner has called this view of freedom ‘neo-Roman’, invoking ideas about freedom both of the ancient Romans and of a number of Renaissance and early modern writers. Philip Pettit has called the same view ‘republican’, and this label has generally prevailed in the recent literature.

Republican freedom can be thought of as a kind of status : to be a free person is to enjoy the rights and privileges attached to the status of republican citizenship, whereas the paradigm of the unfree person is the slave. Freedom is not simply a matter of non-interference, for a slave may enjoy a great deal of non-interference at the whim of her master. What makes her unfree is her status, such that she is permanently exposed to interference of any kind. Even if the slave enjoys non-interference, she is, as Pettit puts it, ‘dominated’, because she is permanently subject to the arbitrary power of her owner.

According to Pettit, then, republicans conceive of freedom not as non-interference, as on the standard negative view, but as ‘non-domination’. Non-domination is distinct from negative freedom, he says, for two reasons. First, as we have seen, one can enjoy non-interference without enjoying non-domination. Second, one can enjoy non-domination while nevertheless being interfered with, just as long as the interference in question is constrained to track one’s avowed interests thanks to republican power structures: 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.

Pettit’s idea of freedom as non domination has caught the imagination of a great many political theorists over the last two decades. One source of its popularity lies in the fact that it seems to make sense of the phenomena of oppression and structural injustice referred to above, but without necessarily relying on references to internal constraints. It has been applied not only to relations of domination between governments and citizens, but also to relations of domination between employers and workers (Breen and McBride 2015), between husbands and wives (Lovett forthcoming), and between able-bodied and disabled people (De Wispelaere and Casassas 2014).

It remains to be seen, however, whether the republican concept of freedom is ultimately distinguishable from the negative concept, or whether republican writers on freedom have not simply provided good arguments to the effect that negative freedom is best promoted, on balance and over time , through certain kinds of political institutions rather than others. While there is no necessary connection between negative liberty and democratic government, there may nevertheless be a strong empirical correlation between the two. Ian Carter (1999, 2008), Matthew H. Kramer (2003, 2008), and Robert Goodin and Frank Jackson (2007) have argued, along these lines, that republican policies are best defended empirically on the basis of the standard negative ideal of freedom, rather than on the basis of a conceptual challenge to that ideal. An important premise in such an argument is that the extent of a person’s negative freedom is a function not simply of how many single actions are prevented, but of how many different act-combinations are prevented. On this basis, people who can achieve their goals only by bowing and scraping to their masters must be seen as less free, negatively, than people who can achieve those goals unconditionally. Another important premise is that the extent to which people are negatively free depends, in part, on the probability with which they will be constrained from performing future acts or act-combinations. People who are subject to arbitrary power can be seen as less free in the negative sense even if they do not actually suffer interference, because the probability of their suffering constraints is always greater ( ceteris paribus , as a matter of empirical fact) than it would be if they were not subject to that arbitrary power. Only this greater probability, they say, can adequately explain republican references to the ‘fear’, the ‘sense of exposure’, and the ‘precariousness’ of the dominated (for further discussion see Bruin 2009, Lang 2012, Shnayderman 2012, Kirby 2016, Carter and Shnayderman 2019).

In reply to the above point about the relevance of probabilities, republicans have insisted that freedom as non-domination is nevertheless distinct from negative liberty because what matters for an agent’s freedom is the impossibility of others interfering, not the mere improbability of their doing so. Consider the example of gender relations with the context of marriage. A husband might be kind and generous, or indeed have a strong sense of egalitarian justice, and therefore be extremely unlikely ever to deny his wife the same opportunities as he himself enjoys; but the wife is still dominated if the structure of norms in her society is such as to permit husbands to frustrate the choices of their wives in numerous ways. If she lives in such a society, she is still subject to the husband’s power whether he likes it or not. And whether the husband likes it or not, the wife’s subjection to his power will tend to influence how third parties treat her – for example, in terms of offering employment opportunities.

Taken at face value, however, the requirement of impossibility of interference seems over demanding, as it is never completely impossible for others to constrain me. It is not impossible that I be stabbed by someone as I walk down the street this afternoon. Indeed, the possible world in which this event occurs is very close to the actual world, even if the event is improbable in the actual world. If the mere possibility of the stabbing makes me unfree to walk down the street, then unfreedom is everywhere and the achievement of freedom is itself virtually impossible. To avoid this worry, republicans have qualified their impossibility requirement: for me to be free to walk down the street, it must be impossible for others to stab me with impunity (Pettit 2008a, 2008b; Skinner 2008). This qualification makes the impossibility requirement more realistic. Nevertheless, the qualification is open to objections. Is ‘impunity’ a purely formal requirement, or should we say that no one can carry out a street stabbing with impunity if, say, at least 70% of such stabbings lead to prosecution? Even if 100% of such stabbings lead to prosecution, there will still be some stabbings. Will they not be sources of unfreedom for the victims?

More recently some republicans have sidelined the notion of impunity of interference in favour of that of ‘ignorability’ of interference (Ingham and Lovett 2019). I am free to make certain choices if the structure of effective societal norms, whether legal or customary, is such as to constrain the ability of anyone else to frustrate those choices, to the point where the possibility of such frustration, despite existing, is remote enough to be something I can ignore. Once I can ignore that possibility, then the structure of effective norms makes me safe by removing any sense of exposure to interference. Defenders of the negative concept of liberty might respond to this move by saying that the criterion of ignorability looks very much like a criterion of trivially low probability: we consider ourselves free to do x to the extent that the system of enforced norms deters others’ prevention of x in such a way as to make that prevention improbable.

The jury is still out on whether republicans have successfully carved out a third concept of freedom that is really distinct from those of negative and positive liberty. This conceptual uncertainty need not itself cast doubt on the distinctness and attractiveness of republicanism as a set of political prescriptions. Rather, what it leaves open is the question of the ultimate normative bases of those prescriptions: is ‘non-domination’ something that supervenes on certain configurations of negative freedom and unfreedom, and therefore explainable in terms of such configurations, or is it something truly distinct from those configurations?

The two sides identified by Berlin disagree over which of two different concepts best captures the political ideal of ‘liberty’. Does this fact not denote the presence of some more basic agreement between the two sides? How, after all, could they see their disagreement as one about the nature of liberty if they did not think of themselves as in some sense talking about the same thing ? In an influential article, the American legal philosopher Gerald MacCallum (1967) put forward the following answer: there is in fact only one basic concept of freedom, on which both sides in the debate converge . What the so-called negative and positive theorists disagree about is how this single concept of freedom should be interpreted. Indeed, in MacCallum’s view, there are a great many different possible interpretations of freedom, and it is only Berlin’s artificial dichotomy that has led us to think in terms of there being two.

MacCallum defines the basic concept of freedom — the concept on which everyone agrees — as follows: a subject, or agent, is free from certain constraints, or preventing conditions, to do or become certain things. Freedom is therefore a triadic relation — that is, a relation between three things : an agent, certain preventing conditions, and certain doings or becomings of the agent. Any statement about freedom or unfreedom can be translated into a statement of the above form by specifying what is free or unfree, from what it is free or unfree, and what it is free or unfree to do or become . Any claim about the presence or absence of freedom in a given situation will therefore make certain assumptions about what counts as an agent, what counts as a constraint or limitation on freedom, and what counts as a purpose that the agent can be described as either free or unfree to carry out.

The definition of freedom as a triadic relation was first put forward in the seminal work of Felix Oppenheim in the 1950s and 60s. Oppenheim saw that an important meaning of ‘freedom’ in the context of political and social philosophy was as a relation between two agents and a particular (impeded or unimpeded) action. However, Oppenheim’s interpretation of freedom was an example of what Berlin would call a negative concept. What MacCallum did was to generalize this triadic structure so that it would cover all possible claims about freedom, whether of the negative or the positive variety. In MacCallum’s framework, unlike in Oppenheim’s, the interpretation of each of the three variables is left open. In other words, MacCallum’s position is a meta-theoretical one: his is a theory about the differences between theorists of freedom.

To illustrate MacCallum’s point, let us return to the example of the smoker driving to the tobacconists. In describing this person as either free or unfree, we shall be making assumptions about each of MacCallum’s three variables. If we say that the driver is free , what we shall probably mean is that an agent, consisting in the driver’s empirical self, is free from external (physical or legal) obstacles to do whatever he or she might want to do. If, on the other hand, we say that the driver is unfree , what we shall probably mean is that an agent, consisting in a higher or rational self, is made unfree by internal, psychological constraints to carry out some rational, authentic or virtuous plan. Notice that in both claims there is a negative element and a positive element: each claim about freedom assumes both that freedom is freedom from something (i.e., preventing conditions) and that it is freedom to do or become something. The dichotomy between ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’ is therefore a false one, and it is misleading to say that those who see the driver as free employ a negative concept and those who see the driver as unfree employ a positive one. What these two camps differ over is the way in which one should interpret each of the three variables in the triadic freedom-relation. More precisely, we can see that what they differ over is the extension to be assigned to each of the variables.

Thus, those whom Berlin places in the negative camp typically conceive of the agent as having the same extension as that which it is generally given in ordinary discourse: they tend to think of the agent as an individual human being and as including all of the empirical beliefs and desires of that individual. Those in the so-called positive camp, on the other hand, often depart from the ordinary notion, in one sense imagining the agent as more extensive than in the ordinary notion, and in another sense imagining it as less extensive: they think of the agent as having a greater extension than in ordinary discourse in cases where they identify the agent’s true desires and aims with those of some collectivity of which she is a member; and they think of the agent as having a lesser extension than in ordinary discourse in cases where they identify the true agent with only a subset of her empirical beliefs and desires — i.e., with those that are rational, authentic or virtuous. Secondly, those in Berlin’s positive camp tend to take a wider view of what counts as a constraint on freedom than those in his negative camp: the set of relevant obstacles is more extensive for the former than for the latter, since negative theorists tend to count only external obstacles as constraints on freedom, whereas positive theorists also allow that one may be constrained by internal factors, such as irrational desires, fears or ignorance. And thirdly, those in Berlin’s positive camp tend to take a narrower view of what counts as a purpose one can be free to fulfill. The set of relevant purposes is less extensive for them than for the negative theorists, for we have seen that they tend to restrict the relevant set of actions or states to those that are rational, authentic or virtuous, whereas those in the negative camp tend to extend this variable so as to cover any action or state the agent might desire.

On MacCallum’s analysis, then, there is no simple dichotomy between positive and negative liberty; rather, we should recognize that there is a whole range of possible interpretations or ‘conceptions’ of the single concept of liberty. Indeed, as MacCallum says and as Berlin seems implicitly to admit, a number of classic authors cannot be placed unequivocally in one or the other of the two camps. Locke, for example, is normally thought of as one of the fathers or classical liberalism and therefore as a staunch defender of the negative concept of freedom. He indeed states explicitly that ‘[to be at] liberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others’. But he also says that liberty is not to be confused with ‘license’, and that “that ill deserves the name of confinement which hedges us in only from bogs and precipices” ( Second Treatise , parags. 6 and 57). While Locke gives an account of constraints on freedom that Berlin would call negative, he seems to endorse an account of MacCallum’s third freedom-variable that Berlin would call positive, restricting this variable to actions that are not immoral (liberty is not license) and to those that are in the agent’s own interests (I am not unfree if prevented from falling into a bog). A number of contemporary liberals or libertarians have provided or assumed definitions of freedom that are similarly morally loaded (e.g. Nozick 1974; Rothbard 1982; Bader 2018). This would seem to confirm MacCallum’s claim that it is conceptually and historically misleading to divide theorists into two camps — a negative liberal one and a positive non-liberal one.

To illustrate the range of interpretations of the concept of freedom made available by MacCallum’s analysis, let us now take a closer look at his second variable — that of constraints on freedom.

Advocates of negative conceptions of freedom typically restrict the range of obstacles that count as constraints on freedom to those that are brought about by other agents. For theorists who conceive of constraints on freedom in this way, I am unfree only to the extent that other people prevent me from doing certain things. If I am incapacitated by natural causes — by a genetic handicap, say, or by a virus or by certain climatic conditions — I may be rendered unable to do certain things, but I am not, for that reason, rendered unfree to do them. Thus, if you lock me in my house, I shall be both unable and unfree to leave. But if I am unable to leave because I suffer from a debilitating illness or because a snow drift has blocked my exit, I am nevertheless not unfree, to leave. The reason such theorists give, for restricting the set of relevant preventing conditions in this way, is that they see unfreedom as a social relation — a relation between persons (see Oppenheim 1961; Miller 1983; Steiner 1983; Kristjánsson 1996; Kramer 2003; Morriss 2012; Shnayderman 2013; Schmidt 2016). Unfreedom as mere inability is thought by such authors to be more the concern of engineers and medics than of political and social philosophers. (If I suffer from a natural or self-inflicted inability to do something, should we to say that I remain free to do it, or should we say that the inability removes my freedom to do it while nevertheless not implying that I am un free to do it? In the latter case, we shall be endorsing a ‘trivalent’ conception, according to which there are some things that a person is neither free nor unfree to do. Kramer 2003 endorses a trivalent conception according to which freedom is identified with ability and unfreedom is the prevention (by others) of outcomes that the agent would otherwise be able to bring about.)

In attempting to distinguish between natural and social obstacles we shall inevitably come across gray areas. An important example is that of obstacles created by impersonal economic forces. Do economic constraints like recession, poverty and unemployment merely incapacitate people, or do they also render them unfree? Libertarians and egalitarians have provided contrasting answers to this question by appealing to different conceptions of constraints. Thus, one way of answering the question is by taking an even more restrictive view of what counts as a constraint on freedom, so that only a subset of the set of obstacles brought about by other persons counts as a restriction of freedom: those brought about intentionally . In this case, impersonal economic forces, being brought about unintentionally, do not restrict people’s freedom , even though they undoubtedly make many people unable to do many things. This last view has been taken by a number of market-oriented libertarians, including, most famously, Friedrich von Hayek (1960, 1982), according to whom freedom is the absence of coercion, where to be coerced is to be subject to the arbitrary will of another. (Notice the somewhat surprising similarity between this conception of freedom and the republican conception discussed earlier, in section 3.2) Critics of libertarianism, on the other hand, typically endorse a broader conception of constraints on freedom that includes not only intentionally imposed obstacles but also unintended obstacles for which someone may nevertheless be held responsible (for Miller and Kristjánsson and Shnayderman this means morally responsible; for Oppenheim and Kramer it means causally responsible), or indeed obstacles created in any way whatsoever, so that unfreedom comes to be identical to inability (see Crocker 1980; Cohen 2011, pp. 193–97; Sen 1992; Van Parijs 1995; Garnett forthcoming).

This analysis of constraints helps to explain why socialists and egalitarians have tended to claim that the poor in a capitalist society are as such unfree, or that they are less free than the rich, whereas libertarians have tended to claim that the poor in a capitalist society are no less free than the rich. Egalitarians typically (though do not always) assume a broader notion than libertarians of what counts as a constraint on freedom. Although this view does not necessarily imply what Berlin would call a positive notion of freedom, egalitarians often call their own definition a positive one, in order to convey the sense that freedom requires not merely the absence of certain social relations of prevention but the presence of abilities, or what Amartya Sen has influentially called ‘capabilities’ (Sen 1985, 1988, 1992; Nussbaum 2006, 2011). (Important exceptions to this egalitarian tendency to broaden the relevant set of constraints include those who consider poverty to indicate a lack of social freedom (see sec. 3.1, above). Steiner (1994), grounds a left-libertarian theory of justice in the idea of an equal distribution of social freedom, which he takes to imply an equal distribution of resources.)

We have seen that advocates of a negative conception of freedom tend to count only obstacles that are external to the agent. Notice, however, that the term ‘external’ is ambiguous in this context, for it might be taken to refer either to the location of the causal source of an obstacle or to the location of the obstacle itself. Obstacles that count as ‘internal’ in terms of their own location include psychological phenomena such as ignorance, irrational desires, illusions and phobias. Such constraints can be caused in various ways: for example, they might have a genetic origin, or they might be brought about intentionally by others, as in the case of brainwashing or manipulation. In the first case we have an internal constraint brought about by natural causes, and in this sense ‘internally’; in the second, an internal constraint intentionally imposed by another human agent, and in this sense ‘externally’.

More generally, we can now see that there are in fact two different dimensions along which one’s notion of a constraint might be broader or narrower. A first dimension is that of the source of a constraint — in other words, what it is that brings about a constraint on freedom. We have seen, for example, that some theorists include as constraints on freedom only obstacles brought about by human action, whereas others also include obstacles with a natural origin. A second dimension is that of the type of constraint involved, where constraint-types include the types of internal constraint just mentioned, but also various types of constraint located outside the agent, such as physical barriers that render an action impossible, obstacles that render the performance of an action more or less difficult, and costs attached to the performance of a (more or less difficult) action. The two dimensions of type and source are logically independent of one another. Given this independence, it is theoretically possible to combine a narrow view of what counts as a source of a constraint with a broad view of what types of obstacle count as unfreedom-generating constraints, or vice versa . As a result, it is not clear that theorists who are normally placed in the ‘negative’ camp need deny the existence of internal constraints on freedom (see Kramer 2003; Garnett 2007).

To illustrate the independence of the two dimensions of type and source, consider the case of the unorthodox libertarian Hillel Steiner (1974–5, 1994). On the one hand, Steiner has a much broader view than Hayek of the possible sources of constraints on freedom: he does not limit the set of such sources to intentional human actions, but extends it to cover all kinds of human cause, whether or not any humans intend such causes and whether or not they can be held morally accountable for them, believing that any restriction of such non-natural sources can only be an arbitrary stipulation, usually arising from some more or less conscious ideological bias. On the other hand, Steiner has an even narrower view than Hayek about what type of obstacle counts as a constraint on freedom: for Steiner, an agent only counts as unfree to do something if it is physically impossible for her to do that thing. Any extension of the constraint variable to include other types of obstacle, such as the costs anticipated in coercive threats, would, in his view, necessarily involve a reference to the agent’s desires, and we have seen (in sec. 2) that for those liberals in the negative camp there is no necessary relation between an agent’s freedom and her desires. Consider the coercive threat ‘Your money or your life!’. This does not make it impossible for you to refuse to hand over your money, only much less desirable for you to do so. If you decide not to hand over the money, you will suffer the cost of being killed. That will count as a restriction of your freedom, because it will render physically impossible a great number of actions on your part. But it is not the issuing of the threat that creates this unfreedom, and you are not unfree until the sanction (described in the threat) is carried out. For this reason, Steiner excludes threats — and with them all other kinds of imposed costs — from the set of obstacles that count as freedom-restricting. This conception of freedom derives from Hobbes ( Leviathan , chs. 14 and 21), and its defenders often call it the ‘pure’ negative conception (M. Taylor 1982; Steiner 1994; Carter and Kramer 2008) to distinguish it from those ‘impure’ negative conceptions that make at least minimal references to the agent’s beliefs, desires or values.

Steiner’s account of the relation between freedom and coercive threats might be thought to have counterintuitive implications, even from the liberal point of view. Many laws that are normally thought to restrict negative freedom do not physically prevent people from doing what is prohibited, but deter them from doing so by threatening punishment. Are we to say, then, that these laws do not restrict the negative freedom of those who obey them? A solution to this problem may consist in saying that although a law against doing some action, x , does not remove the freedom to do x , it nevertheless renders physically impossible certain combinations of actions that include doing x and doing what would be precluded by the punishment. There is a restriction of the person’s overall negative freedom — i.e. a reduction in the overall number of act-combinations available to her — even though she does not lose the freedom to do any specific thing taken in isolation (Carter 1999).

The concept of overall freedom appears to play an important role both in everyday discourse and in contemporary political philosophy. It is only recently, however, that philosophers have stopped concentrating exclusively on the meaning of a particular freedom — the freedom to do or become this or that particular thing — and have started asking whether we can also make sense of descriptive claims to the effect that one person or society is freer than another, or of liberal normative claims to the effect that freedom should be maximized or that people should enjoy equal freedom or that they each have a right to a certain minimum level of freedom. The literal meaningfulness of such claims depends on the possibility of gauging degrees of overall freedom, sometimes comparatively, sometimes absolutely.

Theorists disagree, however, about the importance of the notion of overall freedom. For some libertarian and liberal egalitarian theorists, freedom is valuable as such. This suggests that more freedom is better than less (at least ceteris paribus ), and that freedom is one of those goods that a liberal society ought to distribute in a certain way among individuals. For other liberal theorists, like Ronald Dworkin (1977, 2011) and the later Rawls (1991), freedom is not valuable as such, and all claims about maximal or equal freedom ought to be interpreted not as literal references to a scalar good called ‘liberty’ but as elliptical references to the adequacy of lists of certain particular liberties, or types of liberties, selected on the basis of values other than liberty itself. Generally speaking, only the first group of theorists finds the notion of overall freedom interesting.

The theoretical problems involved in measuring overall freedom include that of how an agent’s available actions are to be individuated, counted and weighted, and that of comparing and weighting different types (but not necessarily different sources) of constraints on freedom (such as physical prevention, punishability, threats and manipulation). How are we to make sense of the claim that the number of options available to a person has increased? Should all options count for the same in terms of degrees of freedom, or should they be weighted according to their importance in terms of other values? If the latter, does the notion of overall freedom really add anything of substance to the idea that people should be granted those specific freedoms that are valuable? Should the degree of variety among options also count? And how are we to compare the unfreedom created by the physical impossibility of an action with, say, the unfreedom created by the difficulty or costliness or punishability of an action? It is only by comparing these different kinds of actions and constraints that we shall be in a position to compare individuals’ overall degrees of freedom. These problems have been addressed, with differing degrees of optimism, not only by political philosophers (Steiner 1983; Carter 1999; Kramer 2003; Garnett 2016; Côté 2020; Carter and Steiner 2021) but also by social choice theorists interested in finding a freedom-based alternative to the standard utilitarian or ‘welfarist’ framework that has tended to dominate their discipline (e.g. Pattanaik and Xu 1991, 1998; Hees 2000; Sen 2002; Sugden 1998, 2003, 2006; Bavetta 2004; Bavetta and Navarra 2012, 2014).

MacCallum’s framework is particularly well suited to the clarification of such issues. For this reason, theorists working on the measurement of freedom tend not to refer a great deal to the distinction between positive and negative freedom. This said, most of them are concerned with freedom understood as the availability of options. And the notion of freedom as the availability of options is unequivocally negative in Berlin’s sense at least where two conditions are met: first, the source of unfreedom is limited to the actions of other agents, so that natural or self-inflicted obstacles are not seen as decreasing an agent’s freedom; second, the actions one is free or unfree to perform are weighted in some value-neutral way, so that one is not seen as freer simply because the options available to one are more valuable or conducive to one’s self-realization. Of the above-mentioned authors, only Steiner embraces both conditions explicitly. Sen rejects both of them, despite not endorsing anything like positive freedom in Berlin’s sense.

We began with a simple distinction between two concepts of liberty, and have progressed from this to the recognition that liberty might be defined in any number of ways, depending on how one interprets the three variables of agent, constraints, and purposes. Despite the utility of MacCallum’s triadic formula and its strong influence on analytic philosophers, however, Berlin’s distinction remains an important point of reference for discussions about the meaning and value of political and social freedom. Are these continued references to positive and negative freedom philosophically well-founded?

It might be claimed that MacCallum’s framework is less than wholly inclusive of the various possible conceptions of freedom. In particular, it might be said, the concept of self-mastery or self-direction implies a presence of control that is not captured by MacCallum’s explication of freedom as a triadic relation. MacCallum’s triadic relation indicates mere possibilities . If one thinks of freedom as involving self-direction, on the other hand, one has in mind an exercise-concept of freedom as opposed to an opportunity-concept (this distinction comes from C. Taylor 1979). If interpreted as an exercise concept, freedom consists not merely in the possibility of doing certain things (i.e. in the lack of constraints on doing them), but in actually doing certain things in certain ways — for example, in realizing one’s true self or in acting on the basis of rational and well-informed decisions. The idea of freedom as the absence of constraints on the realization of given ends might be criticised as failing to capture this exercise concept of freedom, for the latter concept makes no reference to the absence of constraints.

However, this defence of the positive-negative distinction as coinciding with the distinction between exercise- and opportunity-concepts of freedom has been challenged by Eric Nelson (2005). As Nelson points out, most of the theorists that are traditionally located in the positive camp, such as Green or Bosanquet, do not distinguish between freedom as the absence of constraints and freedom as the doing or becoming of certain things. For these theorists, freedom is the absence of any kind of constraint whatsoever on the realization of one’s true self (they adopt a maximally extensive conception of constraints on freedom). The absence of all factors that could prevent the action x is, quite simply, equivalent to the realization of x . In other words, if there really is nothing stopping me from doing x — if I possess all the means to do x , and I have a desire to do x , and no desire, irrational or otherwise, not to do x — then I do x . An equivalent way to characterize the difference between such positive theorists and the so-called negative theorists of freedom lies in the degree of specificity with which they describe x . For those who adopt a narrow conception of constraints, x is described with a low degree of specificity ( x could be exemplified by the realization of any of a large array of options); for those who adopt a broad conception of constraints, x is described with a high degree of specificity ( x can only be exemplified by the realization of a specific option, or of one of a small group of options).

What perhaps remains of the distinction is a rough categorization of the various interpretations of freedom that serves to indicate their degree of fit with the classical liberal tradition. There is indeed a certain family resemblance between the conceptions that are normally seen as falling on one or the other side of Berlin’s divide, despite there being some uncertainty about which side to locate certain particular conceptions. One of the decisive factors in determining this family resemblance is the theorist’s degree of concern with the notion of the self. Those on the ‘positive’ side see questions about the nature and sources of a person’s beliefs, desires and values as relevant in determining that person’s freedom, whereas those on the ‘negative’ side, being more faithful to the classical liberal tradition, tend to consider the raising of such questions as in some way indicating a propensity to violate the agent’s dignity or integrity. One side takes a positive interest in the agent’s beliefs, desires and values, while the other recommends that we avoid doing so.

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On Liberty: Positive and Negative

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essay about liberty is growth

  • Don A. Habibi 4  

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One century after the publication of On Liberty , Sir Isaiah Berlin delivered his celebrated Inaugural Lecture before the University of Oxford entitled “Two Concepts of Liberty.” 1 Berlin’s lecture is described by Ronald Dworkin as “the most famous modern essay on liberty” and praised by John Gray as developing “an argument of unsurpassed perspicuity.” 2 It is therefore understandable that scholars would consider it alongside the famous nineteenth-century essay On Liberty and apply Berlin’s ideas to those of John Stuart Mill. Unfortunately, imposing Berlin’s two concepts on Mill’s theory has been a source of confusion and has added to the misunderstanding that surrounds Mill. The goal of this chapter will be to clear up this confusion and thereby regain a better understanding of Mill’s theory of liberty.

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Mill’s On Liberty was first published in February, 1859. Berlin’s lecture took place on October 31, 1958, and was published later that year. All page references to Berlin are taken from Four Essays on Liberty (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969). In addition to “Two Concepts of Liberty” (pp. 118–172), I will be citing Berlin’s “Introduction” (pp. ix-lxiii), and his essay “John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life” (pp. 173–206).

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Ronald Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977), p. 267; John Gray “On Negative and Positive Liberty,” Political Studies 28:4 (1980), p. 508, reprinted in Gray’s Liberalisms: Essays in Political Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1989), p. 46. Dworkin also praises Berlin in “Two Concepts of Liberty,” in Edna and Avishai Margalit, eds., Isaiah Berl in: A Celebration (London: The Hogarth Press, 1991), esp. p. 100; and, in the opening paragraphs of “Liberty and Pornography,” New York Review of Books ,August 15, 1991, reprinted as “Pornography and Hate,” in Freedom’s Law: The Moral Reading of the American Constitution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), pp. 214ff. More recently, Lesley A. Jacobs echoes Dworkin’s sentiment when he describes Berlin’s essay as: “The single most important and influential analysis of freedom by a modern political philosopher.” See An Introduction to Modern Political Philosophy: The Democratic Vision of Politics (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997), pp. 72, 83. William L. McBride describes Berlin’s work as “a most unusually influential essay.” See “’Two Concepts of Liberty’ Thirty Years Later: A Sartre-Inspired Critique,” Social Theory and Practice , 16:3 (Fall, 1990), p. 298. See also Susan Mendus, “Tragedy, Moral Conflict, and Liberalism,” in David Archard, ed., Philosophy and Pluralism (Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 191–92.

Berlin, p. 121.

Ibid., pp. xliii, xlix, 122, 130, 132, 160, 166, (cf. p. 158).

According to J. P. Day, Plato was the creator of the concept of positive liberty. See “Individual Liberty,” in Of Liberty , A. Phillips Griffiths, ed. (Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 17. (Cf. Berlin, pp. xl, 129.) On page 18, Day also points out that Jeremy Bentham coined the term ‘negative liberty.’ For this see Bentham’s letter to John Lind (March/April, 1776), in The Correspondence of Jeremy Bentham , vol. I, Timothy L. S. Sprigge, ed. (University of London: Athlone Press, 1968), letter #158, p. 310.

This has already been done by others. See for example William A. Parent, “Some Recent Work on the Concept of Liberty,” American Philosophical Quarterly , 11:3 (July, 1974). A good discussion is found in John Christman’s “Liberalism and Individual Positive Freedom,” Ethics , 101:2 (Jan., 1991). See also George G. Brenkert, Political Freedom (London: Routledge, 1991), ch. 1, sect. II.

Berlin, p. lvi.

Ibid., p. 127 (emphasis Berlin’s).

Ibid., pp. 122–23. Beyond negative liberty (and also social and political liberty), it is not clear if inabilities (such as not being able to fly) and unfulfilled wishes (such as not being a movie-star) would count as unfreedoms, since they are not caused by deliberate human interference. If we understand ‘freedom’ to mean the absence of constraint to actual and possible desires, and we understand a ’constraint’ to be whatever prevents satisfaction of an actual or hypothetical desire, then it follows that we are unfree to do what we are unable to do, regardless of the source of our inability. However, if we accept this reasoning, and consider any unfulfilled wish as unfreedom, then we run the risk of making freedom an ’utterly empty and unapproachable ideal.’ For a discussion on this point, see Joel Feinberg, Social Philosophy (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973), ch. 1, esp. pp. 8–9, 12–14. Feinberg suggests that “We should think of freedom as related to actual and possible wants rather than idle wishes.” (p. 8.)

Ibid., pp. 121–22, 130.

Ibid., p. 144.

Ibid., p. xlvii.

Berlin takes the position that negative liberty is valuable in and of itself, and not just instrumentally as a requisite for positive forms of liberty. But he also points out, in his response to critics, that “The freedom of which I speak is opportunity for action, rather than action itself.” (p. xliii.)

Berlin, p. 131.

Ibid., pp. 122, 130. See also page xlvii.

Ibid., pp. lvii, 132, 144.

Unless otherwise stated, all citations in this paragraph and the following are from Berlin, p. xliv, or p. 132.

Berlin, pp. 132, 150.

Ibid., p. 148. Here, Berlin is commenting on Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Du Contract Social [1762], Bk. I, ch. 7, sect. 54) and other prominent thinkers who claim that paternalism actually liberates us. Martin Hollis makes an interesting point when he likens Mill to Rousseau on this matter. “The final comment on Mill’s expostulation that ‘the principle of freedom cannot require a man that he be free not to be free’ is Rousseau’s that, men, being born free and being everywhere in chains must be forced to be free.” “J. S. Mill’s Political Philosophy of Mind,” Philosophy , XLVII:182 (Oct. 1972). Cf. John Plamenatz, “On le forcera d’Être libre,” Annales de Philosophe Politique , vol. 5 (1965), reprinted in Maurice Cranston and Richard S. Peters, eds., Hobbes and Rousseau: A Collection of Critical Essays (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1972), pp. 318–332.

Ibid., p. 157. Here, Berlin quotes Immanuel Kant.

Ibid., p. 152.

Ibid., p. 154.

Ibid., p. 131, see also p. 144.

Ibid., p. 141.

Ibid., pp. 141–44.

Berlin connects negative freedoms with liberal political theory. See for example pp. 122–31 (esp. pp. 127–29), pp. 139, 163, 164.

Berlin, p. 134.

For example, Leslie Paul Thiele writes that Berlin thought positive liberty was treacherous. See hinking Politics: Perspectives in Ancient , Modern , and Postmodern Political Theory (Chatham, New Jersey: Chatham House Publishers, Inc., 1997), p. 176.

Berlin, pp. 127, 128, 139, 155, 160–61, 163, 165. See also “John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life,” p. 197.

Ibid., p. 160.

Ibid., pp. 127–28.

The closest Berlin comes is when he notes that some of Mill’s reasons for desiring liberty have little to do with his conception of freedom as noninterference (p. 160). Still, it does not occur to Berlin that Mill might also advocate positive freedoms. See also the introduction to the Four Essays , where he suggests that Mill saw ‘democratic self-government’ (an aspect of positive liberty) as a means to the attainment of happiness (p. xlvii).

In addition to Berlin, a legion of writers view Mill exclusively or primarily as a proponent of negative liberty. Among them are: Anonymous, “Mill on Liberty” The National Review , v . VIII (April, 1859), p. 407; Matthew Arnold, “A Courteous Explanation” (1866), cited in Douglas Bush, Matthew Arnold: A Survey of His Poetry and Prose (New York: Macmillan, 1971), pp. 150–51; Alexander Bain, John Stuart Mill (London: Longmans Green, and Co., 1882), p. 104; Brian Barry, Political Argument (New York: Humanities Press, 1976), p. 42, pp. 141–45; Richard Bellamy, “T. H. Green and the morality of Victorian liberalism,” in Richard Bellamy, ed., Victorian Liberalism: Nineteenth-Century Political Thought and Practice (London and New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 135; Fred R. Berger, Happiness , Justice , and Freedom (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), pp. 250–51 (cf. p. 229); Owen Chadwick, The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 1975), pp. 46–47; Howard Cohen, Equal Rights For Children (Totawa, NJ: Littlefield, Adams & Co., 1980), pp. 63–65; Stefan Collini “Liberalism and the Legacy of Mill,” Historical Journal 20:1 (March, 1977), pp. 237–38; Roger Crisp, Mill on Utilitarianism (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), pp. 198–99; Lawrence Crocker, Positive Liberty: An Essay i n Normative Political Philosophy (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1980), pp. 1, 71; J. P. Day (op. cit., endnote 5), pp. 19, 22, 29; Morris Dickstein, “Introduction: Pragmatism Then and Now,” in Morris Dickstein, ed., The Revival of Pragmatism: New Essays on Social Thought , Law , and Culture (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 1998), p. 14; Wendy Donner, The Liberal Self John Stuart Mill’s Moral and Political Philosophy (Cornell University Press, 1991), p. 162; Gerald Dworkin, “Paternalism,” in Morality and the Law , Richard Wasserstrom, ed. (Belmont CA: Wadsworth, 1971), pp. 107–8; William Ebenstein, “John Stuart Mill: Political and Economic Liberty,” in Nomos IV: Liberty, Carl J. Friedrich, ed. (New York: Atherton Press, 1962), p. 94; James S. Fishkin, Justice, Equal Opportunity, and the Family (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), pp. 39–40; F. W. Garforth, Educative Democracy: John Stuart Mill on Education in Society (Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 9, and, John Stuart Mill’s Theory of Education (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1979), pp. 89, 165; James W. Garner, “Government and Liberty,” Yale Review XV (Feb., 1907), p. 364; Gerald F. Gaus, The Modern Liberal Theory of Man (London and Canberra: Croom Helm, 1983), pp. 164–65, 196 n. 5; Robert Goehlert, “Individuality and the Active Society: J. S. Mill’s Man as a Progressive Being,” Ph.D. thesis, Indiana University, 1981, pp. 27–29; James Gouinlock, Excellence in Public Discourse: John Stuart Mill, John Dewey, and Social Intelligence (New York: Teachers College Press, 1986), pp. 47, 51; F. L. van Holthoon, The Road to Utopia (Assen, the Netherlands: Van Gorcum & Company, 1971), p. 24; Richard Holt Hutton, “Mill On Liberty,” The National Review, vol. 8 (1859), p. 407; Lesley A. Jacobs, An Introduction to Modern Political Philosophy: The Democratic Vision of Politics (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997), pp. 69–75; Stewart Justman, The Hidden Text of Mill’s Liberty (Savage, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1991), pp. 4, 25, 66; Charles E. Larmore, Patterns of Moral Complexity (Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 47; H. J. McCloskey, “A Critique of the Ideals of Liberty,” Mind 74:296 (October, 1965), p. 486 (cf. John Stuart Mill: A Critical Study [London: Macmillan, 1971], p. 104); C. B. MacPherson, Democratic Theory: Essays in Retrieval (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1973), essay V, and, review of On Liberty and Liberalism, Mill Newsletter, XI:1 (Winter, 1976), p. 23; Michael S. McPherson, “Mill’s Moral Theory and the Problem of Preference Change,” Ethics, 92 (January, 1982), p. 267; Robert H. Murray, Studies i n the English Social and Political Thinkers of the Nineteenth Century, v. II (Cambridge: W. Heffer & Sons, 1929), ch. VII, p. 301; William Allan Parent, “Mill’s Conception of the Summum Bonum,” Ph.D. thesis, Brown University, June, 1970, pp. 390, 401–2; Philip Petit, “Negative Liberty, Liberal and Republican,” European Journal of Philosophy, 1:1 (April, 1993), p. 34; Peter Radcliff, ed., Limits of Liberty: Studies of Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1966), intro., p. 4, Berlin selection, pp. 74–81; Andrew J. Reck, review of Gouinlock’s Excellence in Public Discourse, Journal of the History of Philosophy, 27:1 (Jan. 1989), p. 166; J. C. Rees, Mill and His Early Critics (University College, Leicester, 1956), pp. 14, 39 (Cf. John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985], p. 49); Melvin Richter, The Politics of Conscience: T. H. Green and His Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964), p. 201; George H. Sabine, A History of Political Theory (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 3rd edition, 1961), p. 711 (cf. pp. 708, 715, 729); Vardaman R. Smith, “Friedman, Liberalism and the Meaning of Negative Freedom,” Economics and Philosophy , 14:1 (April, 1998), p. 78; David Spitz, preface to On Liberty (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1975), p. x; Leslie Paul Thiele, Thinking Politics: Perspectives in Ancient , Modern , and Postmodern Political Theory (Chatham, NJ: Chatham House Publishers, 1997); Anthony Thorlby, “Liberty and Self-Development: Goethe and John Stuart Mill,” Neohelicon , 1:34 (1973), p. 93; David F. B. Tucker, Essay on Liberalism: Looking Left and Right (Dordrecht, the Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1994), p. 3; W. L. Weinstein, “The Concept of Liberty in Nineteenth Century English Political Thought,” Political Studies , 13:2 (June, 1965), p. 145; Alan R. White, Rights (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), p. 138; Robert Wokler, “Rousseau’s Perfectibilian Libertarianism,” in The Idea of Freedom: Essays in Honour of Isaiah Berlin , Alan Ryan, ed. (Oxford University Press, 1979), pp. 237, 245; and, The London Review , v . XIII (October, 1859), p. 274 (unsigned). I should point out that Berger, as well as Ebenstein, Garforth, Goehlert, the posthumous Rees, and Sabine recognize that elements of positive liberty are found in Mill’s writings, and therefore have a more balanced view of Mill’s theory of liberty. The ranks of those with a balanced view on Mill’s theory have grown significantly since I noticed the problem with applying Berlin’s two concepts to Mill. Among those who see both negative and positive liberty in Mill are: Christian Bay, The Structure of Freedom (Stanford University Press, 1958), p. 54; John N. Gray, “On Negative and Positive Liberty,” Political Studies , 28:4 (December, 1980), pp. 519, 523, and Liberalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), ch. 7; Alan S. Kahan, Aristocratic Liberalism: The Social and Political Thought of Jacob Burckhardt , John Stuart Mill , and Alexis de Tocqueville (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992) ch. 4; Bruce Mazlish, James and John Stuart Mill: Father and Son in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Basic Books, 1975), pp. 384–85; Maria H. Morales, Perfect Equality: John Stuart Mill on Well-Constituted Communities (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996), p. 110; Peter Nicholson, “The reception and early reputation of Mill’s political thought,” in The Cambridge Companion to Mill (Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 484–88, 495 n. 84 (Nicholson points out that Thomas Green and Bernard Bosanquet construe Mill to be a negative libertarian); Richard Norman, Free and Equal: A Philosophical Examination of Political Values (Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 11, 12, 35; Alan Ryan, Property (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), pp. 39, 42; Roger Scruton, A Short History of Modern Philosophy: From Descartes to Wittgenstein , second edition (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 228; John Skorupski, John Stuart Mill (London: Routledge, 1989), p. 343 (cf. p. 20); and, his “Introduction” to The Cambridge Companion to Mill (Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 4; Paul Smart, Mill and Marx: Individual liberty and the roads to freedom (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1991), pp. 2, 9799; G. W. Smith, “The Logic of J. S. Mill on Freedom,” Political Studies 28:2 (June, 1980), pp. 244–47; Gail Tulloch, Mill and Sexual Equality (Boulder CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1989), p. 150; and, E. G. West, “Liberty and Education: John Stuart Mill’s Dilemma,” Philosophy 40:152 (April, 1965). See also Susan Mendus, Toleration and the Limits of Liberalism (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1989), pp. 47, 146.

Gerald MacCallum, in a footnote, challenges Berlin for lumping philosophers into positive or negative camps; however, he pays no special attention to Mill. “Negative and Positive Freedom,” Philosophical Review , 76:3 (July, 1967), p. 321. R. J. Halliday criticizes commentators for saying that Mill adopts a negative notion of liberty, but he cites only George H. Sabine’s A History of Political Theory , ch. 32, for evidence. Sabine does not actually say this; he develops his interpretation of Mill along different lines. Halliday goes on to suggest that the positive/negative distinction did not exist during Mill’s lifetime. John Stuart Mill (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), p. 115.

As far as I know, only five writers call Mill a positive libertarian. See Richard Vernon, “John Stuart Mill and Pornography: Beyond the Harm Principle,” Ethics , 106:3 (April, 1996), pp. 623–24; H. S. Jones, “John Stuart Mill as Moralist,” Journal of the History of Ideas , 53:2 (April-June, 1992), p. 299; D. D. Raphael, Justice and Liberty (London: Athlone, 1980), p. 56, and Moral Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 83; Michael St. John Packe, The Life of John Stuart Mill (New York: Macmillan, 1954), p. 403; and, Bernard Semmel John Stuart Mill and the Pursuit of Virtue (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), pp. 14, 166, 170–71, 196–97. While Semmel emphasizes positive liberty, he does recognize the negative dimension to Mill’s theory of liberty.

Berlin, p. 161. See also pp. xlvi, 163, 165, where Berlin places Mill squarely in the liberal tradition.

Mill did approve of authoritarian rule for underdeveloped countries, but only insofar as it promoted individual improvement and social progress. (On Liberty , p. 224.) I shall discuss Mill’s views on dominion and authority in chapters six and seven.

Berlin, p. 202. See below, endnote 40.

For instance, Berlin is mistaken when he writes of Mill that “His father brought him up in the strictest and narrowest atheist dogma.” (p. 203.) James Mill was an ordained Presbyterian minister who later turned to agnosticism. In his Autobiography ,Mill writes of his father: Finding, therefore, no halting place in Deism, he remained in a state of perplexity, until, doubtless after many struggles, he yielded to the conviction, that, concerning the origin of things nothing whatever can be known. This is the only correct statement of his opinion; for dogmatic atheism he looked upon as absurd; as most of those, whom the world has considered Atheists, have always done. Autobiography of John Stuart Mill (New York: Columbia University Press, 1924), p. 28 (Collected Works I, p. 41). Others make a similar oversight. See, for example, Geoffrey Scarre Utilitarianism (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 83; William Stafford, John Stuart Mill (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire and London: Macmillan Press, 1998), pp. 10, 19 [cf. pp. 26, 45, 64]; and, J. Salwyn Schapiro, “John Stuart Mill, Pioneer of Democratic Liberalism in England,” Journal of the History of Ideas , 4:2 (April, 1943), p. 128. [Cf. James E. Crimmins “Bentham on Religion: Atheism and the Secular Society,” Journal of the History of Ideas , 47:1 (Jan-Mar., 1986), p. 99, n. 21; Crimmins’ Secular Utilitarianism: Social Science and the Critique of Religion in the Thought of Jeremy Bentham (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990); and, Crimmins’ “Introduction: Secular Utilitarian Critics of Organized Religion,” in Utilitarians and Religion (Bristol, England: Thoemmes Press, 1998), pp. 263ff.] As far as J. S. Mill’s beliefs are concerned, he denies atheism in his correspondences to Charles Westerton (June 21, 1865), and Frederick Bates (November 9, 1868), Collected Works XVI, pp. 1069, 1483. [Cf. the closing of Mill’s letter to the newspaper Republican (January 3, 1823), p. 26 (Collected Works XXII, p. 9).] Mill’s most substantial work on theology is his Three Essays on Religion (Collected Works X). The interested reader should also see Alan Millar, “Mill on religion,” in John Skorupski, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Mill (Cambridge University Press, 1998); David Berman, A History of Atheism in Brita in: From Hobbes to Russell (London: Croom Helm, 1988), pp. 235–47; Jim Herrick, Against the Faith: Essays on Deists , Skeptics and Atheists (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1985) pp. 170–75; George C. Kerner, Three Philosophical Moralists: Mill , Kant , and Sartre (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990); Bernard Lightman The Origins of Agnosticism: Victorian Unbelief and the Limits of Knowledge (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987); and, The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell: 1872–1914 (Vol. 1) (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1967), pp. 47–48.

Berlin seems to see Mill through rose-colored glasses. Writing on Mill, he asks: “Can anyone doubt what position he would have taken on the Dreyfus case, or the Boer War, or Fascism, or Communism? Or, for that matter, on Munich, or Suez, or Budapest, or Apartheid, or colonialism, or the Wolfenden report?” (p. 202.) I have many doubts about what position Mill would take on some of these events and institutions. Mill’s record on colonialism is mixed at best. He did criticize the British government’s colonial policies on certain occasions; nevertheless, he was among the chief architects of colonial policy in India for over thirty years. He lived during the heyday of the ‘Empire’ and he thought that colonization could be useful for easing England’s economic and political problems, relieving overpopulation, spreading ’civilization,’ and stimulating progress. His impression of most non-Western peoples was unflattering. It is therefore reasonable to doubt Berlin on what stand Mill would have taken on colonialism, Suez, and the like. Several works bring out this darker side of Mill. See Eileen P. Sullivan, “Liberalism and Imperialism: J. S. Mill’s Defense of the British Empire,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 44:4 (Oct.-Dec., 1983); Lynn Zastoupil, John Stuart Mill and India (Stanford University Press, 1994); Jeanne Clare Blarney, “Savages and Civilization: References to Non-Western Societies in the Theories of John Locke and John Stuart Mill,” Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton University, June, 1983; E. D. Steele, “J. S. Mill and the Irish Question: Reform, and the Integrity of the Empire, 1865–70,” The Historical Journal ,13:3 (1970), pp. 435–36. Cf. Abram L. Harris, “John Stuart Mill: Servant of the East India Company,” The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science , 30:2 (May, 1964). I will take up the issue of Mill on colonialism in greater detail in chapter six below. Unfortunately, Berlin is not the only reputed scholar guilty of projecting his political opinions on to Mill. See, e.g., John Gray, Liberalisms (op. cit., endnote 2), pp. 2–3.

In one passage, Berlin writes: “I am not in agreement with those who wish to represent Mill as favoring some kind of hegemony of right-minded intellectuals. I do not see how this can be regarded as Mill’s considered conclusion.” (p. 206n.) Of course, Mill never advocated a dictatorship of the intellectuals, but he endorsed and relied on the ‘instructed classes’ to educate and lead society. To support his view, Berlin points out that Mill warned against Comte’s elitist despotism. It is true that Mill opposed Comte’s plan for the distribution of power, but this was because it involved the wealthiest members of society, was based on governmental coercion and a controlled press, and was ’so liable to perversion.’ Mill’s ideas on elitism and a clerisy differed greatly from Comte’s. See Mill’s August Comte and Positivism , Collected Works X, pp. 302–3, 313–15, 326–27, 352. See also, Mill’s Autobiography , pp. 148–49 ( Collected Works I , p. 219). For a discussion on Mill’s disagreements with Comte’s elitism, see Maurice Cowling, Mill and Liberalism (Cambridge University Press, 1963), pp. 22–23.

Peter P. Nicholson, The Political Philosophy of the British Idealists: Selected Studies (Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 120–26.

Ibid., esp. p. 126. Nicholson makes the point about Green’s sparing use of the term ‘positive liberty’ on p. 121, and he cites Green’s Lecture on Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract (1881), in Works of Thomas Hill Green , R. L. Nettleship, ed. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1906), Vol. III, pp. 372, 384. For other scholars who follow Berlin’s lead in misconstruing Green’s theory of freedom, see Nicholson’s endnotes, particularly note 31 on p. 269, and note 9 on p. 270.

Philosophical Review , 76:3 (July, 1967), p. 314. MacCallum was not the first to conceptualize liberty in this fashion (see his endnote 2, p. 314). Francis W. Garforth develops a similar format in his article, “The ‘Paradox of Freedom,”’ ( Studies in Education , 3:4 [July, 1962]). I should point out that MacCallum and his predecessors do not focus their attention on Mill; rather, they approach the subject of liberty from a general point of view. For another viewpoint advocating a single concept of liberty, see Stanley I. Benn, A Theory of Freedom (Cambridge University Press, 1988). See also Rodger Beehler, “For One Concept of Liberty,” Journal of Applied Philosophy , 8:1 (1991), and Kristjan Kristjansson, “For a Concept of Negative Liberty—but which Conception?” Journal of Applied Philosophy , 9:2 (1992). Kristjansson’s Social Freedom: The responsibility view (Cambridge University Press, 1996), offers a thoughtful analysis of negative liberty. For a critique of MacCallum, see Tom Baldwin, “MacCallum and the Two Concepts of Freedom,” Ratio 26:2 (1984), pp. 125–42.

Responding to MacCallum, Berlin rejects his triad on the grounds that “A man struggling against his chains or a people against enslavement need not consciously aim at any definite further state. A man need not know how he will use his freedom; he just wants to remove the yoke.” (p. xliii, n. 1.) See also Claude J. Gallipeau, Isaiah Berlin’s Liberalism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), chapter 4, esp. pp. 91–93. In other words, negative liberty can be an end in itself. As a limited case, Berlin’s (and Galipeau’s) point makes sense, however, in the context of Mill , negative liberty is never an end in itself, and so Berlin’s objection has little relevance here.

Collected Works XVIII, p. 217.

Ibid., p. 293.

Ibid., pp. 226, 294.

Berlin, pp. 127, 139.

See John Stuart Mill’s Theory of Education , pp. 89, 165. Garforth repeats himself, practically verbatim in Educative Democracy , pp. 103–4. (Both books are cited above in endnote 33.)

John Stuart Mill: A Critical Study, pp. 104–5.

William Parent, “Mill’s Conception of the Summum Bonum,” p. 399 (op. cit., endnote 33.)

Autobiography , p. 170 (Collected Works I, p. 249).

Lawrence Crocker, Positive Liberty: An Essay in Normative Political Philosophy (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1980), p. 1.

Ibid., pp. 69–74. Crocker recognizes Mill’s enthusiasm for diversity, however he fails to understand how this complements Mill’s theory of liberty. This is because he does not recognize that Mill’s conception of liberty extends beyond the absence of restrictions. Crocker follows the common interpretation and classifies Mill as a strict negative libertarian. He therefore figures that Mill’s enthusiasm for diversity must be an exception. (p. 71.) Like Berlin and Garforth (and most everyone else), Crocker is guilty of analyzing Mill and On Liberty too narrowly, and this leads him to overlook some basic features of Mill’s theory of liberty.

On Liber ty , pp. 262–63.

Berlin, pp. 150–52. As mentioned above, Berlin goes further to connect positive liberty and elitism with paternalism, authoritarianism, and other forms of despotism.

See above, endnote 41.

The discussion in the remainder of this paragraph follows On Liberty , pp. 266–69. The two quotations that are not marked by endnotes are taken from page 267. Numerous examples of Mill’s elitism can be found throughout his writings. Garforth offers scores of references to Mill’s elitism in chapter four of his Educative Democracy (op. cit., endnote 33). See also, Joseph Hamburger Intellectuals in Politics: John Stuart Mill and the Philosophic Radicals (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965), pp. 81–107; F. L. van Holthoon, The Road to Utopia (Assen, the Netherlands: Van Gorcum & Company, 1971), chapters four and five.

“Sedgwick’s Discourse,” London Review , April, 1835 (Collected Works X, p. 66). For a further analysis of Mill’s views on elitism, see below, chapter seven.

Many writers overlook this point, and charge that Mill’s elitism neglects the common man. See Manfred Weber, Verbesserung Der Menscheit: Untersuchungen zum politischen Denken John Stuart Mills (University of Munich, 1971), pp. 170–71; Paul Smart, Mill and Marx: Individual liberty and the roads to freedom (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1991), pp. 97, 104, 108ff; and, Judith N. Shklar, The Faces of Injustice (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1990), p. 92. Maurice Cowling, whom I discuss in the following paragraphs, takes a similar view. These critics fail to consider Mill’s concern for the development of everyone and the elites’ role in elevating the masses. They do not account for important passages in On Liberty (e.g., pp. 243, 270). For other discussions demonstrating Mill’s concern with advancing the interests of the common people, see his letter to D’Eichthal (Nov. 7, 1829), Collected Works XII, p. 40, and The Early Draft of John Stuart Mill’s “Autobiography , ” Jack Stillinger, ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1961), pp. 188–89. See also, Wendy Donner, The Liberal Self John Stuart Mill’s Moral and Political Philosophy (Cornell University Press, 1991), pp. 129, 159ff, and “Mill’s Utilitarianism,” in John Skorupski, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Mill (Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 271.

Mill and Liberalism , pp. 86–93. (In 1990, Cambridge University Press published a second edition of Cowling’s work.)

Ibid., chapter 1. Cowling describes Mill’s works as a “morally insinuating, proselytizing doctrine.” Continuing, he writes: Mill was a proselytizer of genius: the ruthless denigrator of existing positions, the systematic propagator of a new moral posture, a man of sneers and smears and pervading certainty. It is in this respect that he has now to be considered. (p. 93.) For another critical interpretation of Mill advocating an intolerant, proselytizing ‘militant liberalism,’ see Aleksandras Shtromas, “Ideological Politics and the Contemporary World: Have We Seen the Last of ’Isms’?” in Aleksandras Shtromas, ed., The End of “Isms”? Reflections on the Fate of Ideological Politics after Communisms’s Collapse (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), pp. 193–94.

Ibid., p. 117, p. xii.

See Gertrude Himmelfarb, On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974), chapters 2 and 3, esp. pp. 64–71; H. J. McCloskey, John Stuart Mill: A Critical Study , p. 97; and, Shirley Robin Letwin, The Pursuit of Certainty (Cambridge University Press, 1965). See also, Stewart Justman, The Hidden Text of Mill’s Liberty (Savage, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1991), p. 122ff.

C. L. Ten offers a thoughtful refutation of Cowling’s thesis in Mill On Liberty (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), pp. 144–51. See also, Graeme Duncan, Marx and Mill: Two Views of Social Conflict and Social Harmony (Cambridge University Press, 1973), pp. 276–80.

Berlin, p. xliv (see text above, corresponding to note 17).

In Robert Paul Wolff, Barrington Moore Jr., and Herbert Marcuse, A Critique of Pure Tolerance (Boston: Beacon Press, 1965), pp. 86, 93, 106.

Ibid., p. 83. The interested reader might find it interesting to read Ariel Dorfman’s, “The Infantilizing of Culture,” in Donald Lazere, ed., American Media and Mass Culture: Left Perspectives (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987). This is excerpted from Dorfman’s The Empire’s Old Clothes: What the Lone Ranger , Babar , and Other Innocent Heroes Do to Our Minds (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983).

Ibid., p. 111.

Ibid., pp. 112–13.

Ibid., pp. 84, 90. For a liberal’s response to Marcuse, see David Spitz’s “Pure Tolerance: A Critique of Criticisms,” Dissent , 13:5 (Sept-Oct., 1966), pp. 510–25 [reprinted in The Real World of Liberalism (University of Chicago Press, 1982), ch. 4]; and Alasdair Maclntyre, Herbert Marcuse: an Exposition and a Polemic (New York: The Viking Press, 1970). The interested reader should also see Alex Callinicos, “Repressive toleration revisited: Mill, Marcuse, Maclntyre,” in Aspects of Toleration: Philosophical Studies , eds., John Horton and Susan Mendus (London and New York: Methuen, 1985), pp. 53–74.

I believe that Mill’s vagueness was intentional. On this point I disagree with Brenda Almond, who writes that in On Liberty , Mill “argued that a clear line could be drawn in answering such questions between the parts of a person’s conduct that concern or affect only that person, and those which also affect others.” The Philosophical Quest (London: Penguin Books, 1988), p. 55. See also Stephen Holmes, Passions and Constraint: On the Theory of Liberal Democracy (University of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 182; Gertrude Himmelfarb, On Looking Into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), pp. 76ff; and, H. J. McCloskey, John Stuart Mill: A Critical Study , p. 107.

See, for example, Robert Paul Wolff, The Poverty of Liberalism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), p. 24; J. R. Lucas, The Principles of Politics (Oxford University Press, 1966), pp. 174–75, 345; and, J . A. Hobson, The Social Problem: Life and Work (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1901), pp. 88–89. See also John Allet, New Liberalism: The Political Economy of J. A. Hobson (University of Toronto Press, 1981) pp. 185–86.

See for example, Lord Patrick Devlin, The Enforcement of Morals (London: Oxford University Press, 1965), ch. 1 (cf. ch. 6). See also James Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (Cambridge University Press, 1967).

Autobiography, p. 177. (Collected Works I, p. 259.)

The Subjection of Women (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1869), p. 1 (Collected Works XXI, p. 261).

Ibid., p. 27 (p. 271).

Ibid., p. 98 (p. 302).

Ibid., p. 178 (p. 336). In this context, Mill writes: “After the primary necessities of food and raiment, freedom is the first and strongest want of human nature.

Ibid., p. 114 (p. 309).

Ibid., p. 182 (p. 338).

See, for example, James Fitzjames Stephen (op. cit., endnote 75), p. 167; Willmoore Kendall, “The ‘Open Society’ and Its Fallacies,” American Political Science Review, 54:4 (1960) [reprinted in both the Norton Critical Edition of On Liberty, David Spitz, ed. (op. cit., endnote 33), and Limits of Liberty, Peter Radcliff, ed. (op. cit., endnote 33)]; Gertrude Himmelfarb, On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill, pp. 33, 272, and On Looking into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society, ch. IV, esp. pp. 76ff, 104ff; James Gouinlock, Excellence in Public Discourse: John Stuart Mill, John Dewey, and Social Intelligence (New York: Teachers College Press, 1986), pp. 47, 75; Max Lerner, introduction to Essential Works of John Stuart Mill (New York: Bantam, 1961), p. xxviii; Oskar Kurer, John Stuart Mill: The Politics of Progress (New York: Garland Publishing, 1991), p. 192; James A. Colaiaco, James Fitzjames Stephen and the Crisis of Victorian Thought (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983), ch. 7, esp. p. 134; Stephen Holmes, Passions and Constraint (op. cit., endnote 73), pp. 185, 195–96; and, Thomas Hurka, Perfectionism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 148.

At least, this is what Mill claims. Several writers have challenged Mill’s claims and contend that he was not a utilitarian or that he does not argue for liberty in a utilitarian way. For reasons given in chapter three, I do not subscribe to this view.

The Letters of John Stuart Mill, Hugh S. R. Elliot, ed. (London: Longmans, Green and Company, 1910), Appendix A, p. 379 (Collected Works XXVII, p. 661).

For instance, Willmoore Kendall, who never notices Mill’s message of growth, finds it easy to conclude that extending the freedoms Mill advocates in chapter two will “constitute a major onslaught against Truth.” (American Political Science Review [op. cit., endnote 83], p. 979.) In this egregious article (which has been reprinted several times in anthologies on and about On Liberty) , Kendall attributes an extremist position to Mill, against which he then argues. He claims that Mill confronts the reader with a choice between ‘unlimited freedom of speech or all-out thought control.’ On Kendall’s interpretation, Mill’s over-enthusiasm for liberty (and disregard for truth and improvement) blind him to the dire consequences that unrestricted freedom brings. Kendall writes: a society as Mill prescribed, “that regards unlimited free speech as its primary value,” will descend ineluctably into ever-deepening differences of opinion , into progressive breakdown of those common premises upon which alone a society can conduct its affairs by discussion, and so into the abandonment of the discussion process and the arbitrament of public questions by violence and civil war. (p. 978.)

I do not wish to imply that liberty or individuality serve no other functions. To be sure, liberty is highly valued for numerous reasons beyond making individual expression possible. Individuality is highly valued as well. (See, for example, On Liberty ,p. 261.) For those who construe Mill’s utilitarianism in a narrow way, this is puzzling. Garforth offers a thoughtful discussion of the value Mill places on individuality in Educative Democracy (op. cit., endnote 33), pp. 82–84.

Utilitarianism (Collected Works X, p. 216). See also Mill’s review of the second volume of Democracy in America (Collected Works XVIII, p. 169) and Principles of Political Economy , Bk. V, ch. xi, s. 6 (Collected Works III, p. 943). Several of Mill’s critics seem not to notice that he balances the principle of individuality with other values. See, for example, Frederic Harrison, “John Stuart Mill,” Nineteenth Century , 40:235 (July-December, 1896), pp. 493, 504; Henry D. Aiken, “The Justification of Social Freedom,” in Nomos IV: Liberty , p. 124; Susan Mendus, Toleration and the Limits of Liberalism (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1989), pp. 44, 71; Michael Freeden, The New Liberalism: An Ideology of Social Reform (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), pp. 23, 30, 216; and, Benjamin Schwartz, In Search of Wealth and Power: Yen Fu and the West (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1964), pp. 133, 141. See also Gertrude Himmelfarb, On Looking into the Abyss (op. cit., endnote 73), pp. 79ff; and, James T. Kloppenberg, Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought , 1870–1920 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 52.

On Liberty, chapter four, p. 277.

On Liberty, p. 266.

Ibid., p. 267; see also Autobiography p. 179 (Collected Works I, p. 260).

Ibid., p. 261. In an article entitled “The Negro Question,” Mill writes: “spontaneous improvement, beyond a very low grade,—improvement by internal developement, without aid from other individuals or peoples—is one of the rarest phenomena in history.” (First published in Fraser’s Magazine, XLI [Jan., 1850], p. 29 [Collected Works XXI, p. 93].)

Ibid., p. 270.

See Principles of Political Economy, Bk. IV, ch. vii, s. 6–7 (Collected Works III, pp. 790–96); see also pp. 768, 942.

On Liberty, p. 274.

Ibid. See also Mill’s letter to De Tocqueville (May 11, 1840), in Collected Works XIII, p. 434. For brief discussions of Mill’s “Sinophobia,” see Edward Alexander, “The Principles of Permanence and Progression in the Thought of J. S. Mill,” in John M. Robson and Michael Laine, eds., James and John Stuart Mill/Papers of the Centenary Conference (University of Toronto Press, 1976), p. 134; and, Susan Mendus, Toleration and the Limits of Liberalism, pp. 49, 67.

See, for example, James Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (Cambridge University Press, 1967), pp. 80, 84; and, Susan Mendus, Toleration and the Limits of Liberalism, p. 27. See also, John Gray, Mill on liberty: a defence (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983), p. 87.

On Liberty, p. 272. For a different view on ‘custom,’ see Principles of Political Economy, Bk. II, ch. iv.

John Stuart Mill: A Critical Study, p. 104.

Of course, Mill would agree that the freedom to make mistakes is indeed freedom. On this point, see Berlin, p. 148, note 1, and p. 192; and, F. A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (University of Chicago Press, 1960), p. 18. See also below, chapter seven.

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Habibi, D.A. (2001). On Liberty: Positive and Negative. In: John Stuart Mill and the Ethic of Human Growth. Philosophical Studies Series, vol 85. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-017-2010-6_4

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Voice of Vivekananda

Liberty Is The First Condition Of Growth

July 9, 2019 By VivekaVani

essay about liberty is growth

To prepare articles for this website we regularly need to study  Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda  and many other books, articles, journals. When I was preparing an article on Swami Vivekananda’s quotations on growth, I found the following quotation—

Liberty is the first condition of growth.

(Yes, I know that every person has “his” or “her” opinion), still, in my opinion, it is a terrific quote. In life, in society or in a country, “growth” of any individual or a group is just not possible if there is no “liberty”, no “freedom”.

Swami Vivekananda discussed this idea “Liberty is the first condition of growth” several times. In this article our attempt will be making a collection of these quotations.

Liberty is the first condition of growth

According to Swami Vivekananda—

  • Freedom is the only condition of growth; take that off, the result is degeneration. [Source]
  • Liberty is the first condition of growth. Just as man must have liberty to think and speak, so he must have liberty in food, dress, and marriage, and in every other thing, so long as he does not injure others. [Source]
  • There cannot be any growth without liberty. Our ancestors freed religious thought, and we have a wonderful religion. But they put a heavy chain on the feet of society, and our society is, in a word, horrid, diabolical. In the West, society always had freedom, and look at them. On the other hand, look at their religion. [Source]
  • What else can they be under the existing social bandages, especially in Madras? Liberty is the first condition of growth. Your ancestors gave every liberty to the soul, and religion grew. They put the body under every bondage, and society did not grow. The opposite is the case in the West — every liberty to society, none to religion. Now are falling off the shackles from the feet of Eastern society as from those of Western religion. (From a letter written to Alasinga Perumal dated 29 September 1894) [Source]
  • You must remember that freedom is the first condition of growth. What you do not make free, will never grow. The idea that you can make others grow and help their growth, that you can direct and guide them, always retaining for yourself the freedom of the teacher, is nonsense, a dangerous lie which has retarded the growth of millions and millions of human beings in this world. Let men have the light of liberty. That is the only condition of growth. [Source]

Presentation format

You may read these quotes in this powerpoint presentation too—

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essay about liberty is growth

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Freedom vs. Liberty: How Subtle Differences Between These Two Big Ideas Changed Our World

by Sam Jacobs | May 2, 2019

essay about liberty is growth

“I see the liberty of the individual not only as a great moral good in itself (or, with Lord Acton, as the highest political good), but also as the necessary condition for the flowering of all the other goods that mankind cherishes: moral virtue, civilization, the arts and sciences, economic prosperity. Out of liberty, then, stem the glories of civilized life.”

Sam Jacobs

Sam Jacobs is the lead writer and chief historian at Ammo.com . Work from Ammo.com 's Resistance Library has been featured by USA Today, Reason, Bloomberg's Business Week, Zero Hedge, The Guardian, and National Review as well as many other prominent news and alt-news publications. Sam grew up in a working-class suburb in New England. He has lived in the EU, so has spent a lot of time in countries that don’t value gun freedom. He currently lives off-grid with his wife and kid back in the U.S.

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Liberty at risk as threats to freedom grow

  • November 4, 2022

Peter Frankopan

Non-western elites are redefining freedom on their own terms, as sovereignty, state security and stability. But the world becoming a lot less free should concern us all.

Eugène Delacroix's 'Painting of Liberty Leading the People'

Freedom is fundamental to conceptualisations of the modern world – at least in the West, where freedoms of speech, of the press, of sexuality and gender, of religious conviction, and many more, are central bastions of the societies we live in. These freedoms, we are often told, have been fought for by our predecessors and need to be defended for this and for future generations.

As we usually think about them, these freedoms evolved from the Enlightenment in Europe , where thinkers such as John Locke , David Hume , John Stuart Mill and many others articulated the principles of what it meant to be ‘free’, how important liberty was and why it mattered. This says more about how we think about history in general than about freedom itself, which was the question that was pored over by scholars and philosophers in South Asia and in parts of China 2,000 years ago . They thought long and hard about if, how, and why humans were able to be independent of nature, of each other and of higher powers.

The authors of the Upanishads , or scholars like Xunzi , writing more than 2,000 years ago, spent considerable energy investigating whether humans really acted freely and were able to control their own destiny — or whether they were constrained by divine will or by fate. In ancient Mesopotamian societies , astrologers and soothsayers looked for signs to help them understand meanings and portents, as well as for ways in which they (and contemporary rulers) could influence the future through making offerings.

Indeed, assessments of freedom were crucial even in Western societies more than a millennium before the Enlightenment: the law code assembled by the great Roman emperor Justinian (r. 527-565) took care to formulate a definition that could be applied in legislation. Freedom, says the code, is ‘the natural power of doing what we please unless prevented by force or law.’

This sounds simple enough. But it raises many additional questions, perhaps the most important of which concern the relative obligations between the individual and the state, and the ability of the latter to compel behaviour or make demands from the former. Much depends, in other words, on precisely what ‘force’ or ‘law’ mean and who is able to wield either or both.

So heavily embedded are concepts of freedom within western societies that during the Cold War , commentators often categorised the world as being divided into the Soviet bloc, on the one hand, and the Free World, on the other — a distinction that made more sense in the United States, Europe and former settler colonies such as Australia and New Zealand than it did in many parts of Africa, Asia and Central and South America.

Cynics might suggest that ideas about the ‘free world’ are a mirror of how Western societies not only like to present but also view themselves, namely as proponents of the most enlightened, progressive and sophisticated socio-economic and political model that is the benchmark to which other nations would want to aspire — perhaps best articulated in Francis Fukuyama’s seminal article and book,  The End of History .

Whether such cynicism might be merited is one thing; but another is that one of the most prominent themes in global geopolitics in the last decade has been the push-back against Western models, for which there are many and complex explanations. Taken as a whole, the idea that the international legal order is one that was set up by Western powers to protect their interests and exclude others has found widespread and increasing support in many countries around the world.

In the most extreme cases, this has been manifested by diminishing freedoms : across almost every index, societies have become less ‘free’ in recent years, with authoritarianism, restrictions, and crackdowns not only increasingly common but also increasingly popular. Ironically, this is the case, too, in states with long traditions of democracy, where political debates have become measurably more polarised, institutions challenged, and media and social media have created antagonisms that present significant problems for centrist politics.

This creates ambiguities in high income, liberal democracies in which freedom forms a central concept, not only of national identities, but of nationhood itself. The United States, after all, is the Land of the Free (as well as home of the brave); its constitution states that the purpose of the government is to ‘establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for common defence [and] promote the general welfare,’ as well as ‘secure the blessings of liberty.’ If the simple rallying cry of France , ‘Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité,’ leaves little to the imagination as to the importance of freedom, then the same can be said in Britain, where perhaps the most striking line in the patriotic Rule Britannia (composed in the eighteenth century) is that ‘Britons never will be slaves.’

In the case of the latter, there is an obvious and painful irony in the fact that the benefits of freedom from bondage owed much to the enslavement of peoples in other parts of the world, and from the requisitioning of raw materials, goods and labour that helped to build not only a fleet that ruled the waves, but an empire to boot .

That should serve as a reminder that freedom is usually in the eye of the beholder. Take, for instance, the constitution of one country that declares: ‘Man, his rights and freedoms shall be the supreme value. The recognition, observance and protection of human and civil rights and freedoms shall be an obligation of the State.’ Few, other than Vladimir Putin and the circle around him , would seriously think that any of these protections were real or meaningful. And yet, such is how the Russian Federation presents itself to its own citizens, not only as an aspiration, but as a key duty of the state.

Likewise, guarantees that citizens of the People’s Republic of China have the right to ‘enjoy the freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly and of demonstration,’ show the mismatch between intention and reality — but also underline how states of all political persuasions and structures at least claim to defend freedoms as a central right for all citizens. In this case, too, that is further articulated by the constitutional commitment that ‘the freedom of the citizens of the PRC is inviolable,’ something that might cause eyebrows to rise both in China itself and beyond.

The key question, then, is what freedom really is, and who gets to decide. In 2022, this was put into sharp focus by Putin, because of his actions in invading Ukraine in what he claimed was a ‘special operation’ rather than an invasion, and because he has often taken to mulling over his views in public about history, including in a series of turgid essays written in July 2021 and the summer of 2022.

States were either sovereign or they were not, he opined in June 2022: ‘There is no middle way between being a sovereign country and a colony.’ In other words, one is either free or one is not free.’ Russia, by Putin’s formulation, was a sovereign power, like the United States and China, that could act independently and, additionally, could not be coerced. This was not true, to judge from his statements, about other states — such as Ukraine, but also members of the European Union, which were dependent on energy , raw materials and more from Russia, and, as such, were vulnerable, dependent and effectively unfree.

While this throws up a great many questions, not least about Putin himself, for the current purposes of this essay, the most important one is whether he is right. In a world that has seen profound globalisation, accelerated over the last three decades, has the harmonisation of markets reduced independence and freedom because of the gamble that supplies of all kinds — energy, foods, materials and so on — would always be available? Or has globalisation served to increase risk by introducing points of failure that can be exploited intentionally (in the case of Russia, for example) or otherwise (such as in the case of the pandemic)? Has the international legal order become a cipher, in other words, for mutual dependencies that serve to create fewer ‘sovereigns’ and more ‘colonies,’ to use Putin’s formulation?

Economists might argue markets solve problems better than political dogma, and provide sanguine reminders that what seem to be reckless actions (such as war) can also strengthen resilience and lead to supply-side gains, by triggering reforms that can have positive long-term impacts.

A historian might look at this in a slightly different way and focus on the age of the Enlightenment when liberty and freedom were topics of almost obsessive interest for scholars and philosophers in western Europe. The concepts of freedom were set in a context not only of rationalism, scientific advancement and wider engagements with other parts of the world, but also that of sharply rising personal and public wealth.

It was important, too, that these ideas about liberty were framed in a specific set of assumptions and built on hard realities that enabled ideas about freedom to look better to those who talked about them than to the world at large. This was clear, for example, when it came to suffrage; it is easy to forget, or never learn, that women in what are now Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan were given the right to vote before women in Britain. And universal voting rights for all adults in what are now proud liberal democracies are still an extremely recent phenomenon in historical terms — in most cases, less than a century old.

That is because those who wrote about freedom and expressed strong opinions about how important it was were direct or indirect beneficiaries of the lack of freedom of others. That was evidently the case when it came to slavery, especially in the Caribbean and the Americas ; but those freedoms were not limited to coerced labour and the fruits (and profits) it generated in lucrative industries, such as sugar, cotton and tobacco.

The key to staying free — or at least talking about it — was the acquisition and accumulation of resources from other parts of the world at the lowest cost. These did not just produce financial dividends, but calorie benefits too: sugar imports between 1600-1850 are estimated to have improved living standards in England by almost ten per cent, an astonishing amount, in other words.

The flow of benefits shifted in more recent centuries, with accusations being made 30 years ago, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, that the parts of the world that had industrialised first were now guilty of neo-colonialism. Richer countries parked dirty industrial production on low-income countries, while taking advantage of the lower costs of labour and the lack of responsibility for land, air and water pollution that have significant knock-on effects on everything, from cognitive development to suicide rates.

In this sense, then, the single most important aspect of the meaning and practice of freedom is institutional development — that is to say, political structures that not only preserve independence, but prevent the accumulation of authority, power and decision making from what early modern scholars called tyrants.

As one Middle Eastern minister put it in the early twentieth century, freedom is never given, it is always taken. This is how liberal democracies evolved: not by the consensus that liberty was a good in itself, but because mercantile elites were able to take powers always from autocrats, and to build institutions that protected and enhanced their independence. The rewards of such developments owed little to conceptual ideas about whether freedom was good in itself — self-evidently the case, given how jealously participation in political life was guarded.

What elites did successfully in countries that later transitioned into fully functional democracies (at least in so far as all adults have a right to vote) was to force the introduction of controls on poor decisions that could lead to enhanced risks. One way that worked in Great Britain, for example, was for parliament to insist on meeting regularly, and, in doing so, restrict unilateral decisions made by the monarch. Curiously, it seems that a major part of the success in ensuring political stability, as well as sound investment in the army and the navy, was the insistence of parliament to raise taxes — and thus underline what lay at stake by making the population (including those not allowed to vote) at least partially invested in the success of the country abroad.

It is perhaps no coincidence, therefore, that while much attention is paid by commentators to individual countries and the threats that they pose, both real and imagined, the most significant development in the first two decades of the twenty-first century has been the degradation and undermining of global institutions, most notably the United Nations, but also the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation.

Despite appearances, this has not just been done by nefarious actors but by liberal democracies that have chosen to act unilaterally and, in some cases, even unlawfully. In doing so, it is not just the metaphysical pillars of freedom that have been weakened, but the international legal order too. The decision by the US and its coalition allies to effectively bypass the United Nations over interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria has proved to have significant implications when others, too, have sought to take matters into their own hands through the use of force, most notably Russia.

The withdrawal of the United States from major climate agreements, from the Trans-Pacific Partnership as well as from UN agencies such as UNESCO, or the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union (and the intentional breaches of international law regarding the Northern Ireland agreement), all have their own logic — especially for the champions of such decisions. Nevertheless, taken individually and collectively, they represent cases of unilateral actions that benefit the few in the place of the many. As such, while they might offer additional freedoms for the beneficiaries, they limit those for others.

Not surprisingly, then, other actors have proved adept at exposing disunity, in playing on vulnerabilities that promise new solutions to old problems, and which further undermine local, regional and global institutions. We are living in a post-Enlightenment age, where powers are progressively being harvested by leaders with autocratic tendencies and authoritarian political structures, who present themselves as guardians of their citizens’ interests, in much the same way as medieval kings did.

That is self-evident in countries such as Russia, China, Turkey, Hungary and others , where the apparatus of the state, as well as the media, is either in government or friendly hands. It is increasingly true in liberal democracies, too, however, where chaotic domestic politics — from the merry-go-round in Britain to the 6 January 2021 storming of the Capitol in Washington — suggest there are serious problems in states that have long prided themselves on being stable, and able to avoid the personality cults that characterise autocratic rule.

It is hard to predict the impact on freedom of current economic pressures — with the financial implications of the pandemic dovetailing with inflationary headwinds, the exclusion of Russia from many international markets, sudden shifts by central banks to change money supply, and climatic stresses.

Historians, however, would point to the past to underline the strong correlation between downturns and reduced freedoms. What the coming years and decades have to offer is unclear. But few would bet that our world will be freer than it has been for the past 30 years, and a wiser gambler would put money on the chances that the opposite trend — of restrictions, exclusions, centralisation of power — will rise sharply. That prospect should concern us all.

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Essay on Liberty: Importance and Meaning

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Importance of Liberty :

From the very beginning both man and the state have been making efforts for the security of their freedom. Freedom is a very precious condition without which neither the state nor the individuals can make any progress. We remember very well how cruelly the absolute monarchs ignored the claims of liberty in England in ancient and medieval ages.

These absolute monarchs did not pay any attention to the liberty of the individuals and acted according to their will. But people could no longer tolerate it. They rose in revolt and continued their struggle against the absolute monarchy of these cruel rulers till they got their freedom.

As a result of this constant revolt and struggle against absolute monarchy, Emperor John had to bow down before the public and had to ensure freedom to his subjects. After that Tudor and Stuart emperors tried to continue their absolute monarchy. It resulted in the outbreak of the Civil War in their regime.

King Charles I was beheaded and Oliver Cromwell succeeded him. Even in the regime of Cromwell when people failed to attain their freedom, the British continued their struggle for freedom. This resulted into the outbreak of Glorious Revolution in the regime of Charles II and James II.

As a result of it, people succeeded in attaining the absolute monarchy of their cruel rulers for a long period. This long struggle resulted in the outbreak of the famous French Revolution in 1789. But even this political upheaval could not help people in attaining their long desired liberty. The successors of Napoleon behaved like absolute monarchs. At last after the fall of Napoleon III, Third Republic was established and people succeeded in attaining their liberty in the real sense of the term.

After the fall of Third Republic in 1940 and Fourth Republic in 1958, Fifth Republic was established in France. Just as people struggle for individual liberty for a long period of time, so slave countries also go on struggling against the foreign yoke till they succeed in attaining independence.

In nineteenth century, Italy and m twentieth century, India, Algeria and many other countries made untold sacrifice for the noble cause of attaining their independence. These sacrifices bear a testimony to the fact that the slave countries have been attaching a very great importance to their national liberty or independence.

Meaning of Liberty :

The term ‘liberty’ has been derived from the Latin word ‘Liber’ which free from all shackles? The Latin word ‘Liber’ denotes the absence of all restraints. It means one can do whatever one likes, regardless of all conditions. But as a matter of fact liberty does not permit a person to do whatever one likes. Liberty, in the sense of a complete absence of all restraints is not possible. Such liberty cannot exist. The fundamental maxim of liberty is that law is the condition of liberty.

Professor Barker has beautifully pointed out that just as the absence of ugliness does not mean presence of beauty so that absence of all restraints does not mean the presence of liberty. “Liberty is possible only in an ordered state, a state where the legal and political aspects of sovereignty coincide or nearly coincide”.

“Historic experience”, says Professor Laski, “has evolved for us rules of convenience which promote right- living; and to compel obedience to them is a justifiable limitation of freedom”. He defines liberty as “the eager maintenance of that atmosphere in which men have the opportunity to be their best selves”.

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Home / Essay Samples / Government / Liberty / On Liberty: A World For The People 

On Liberty: A World For The People 

  • Category: Life , Government
  • Topic: Freedom , Liberty

Pages: 3 (1497 words)

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Works Cited

  • Bromwich, Jonah Engel. “Everyone Is Canceled. ” The New York Times, The New York
  • www. history. com/topics/africa/idi-amin.
  • Mil, John Stuart. On Liberty. Dover Publications, 2002.

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