Monday, 16 November 2020

Positive/Negative - Two Interpretations Of Freedom Which Divide The Political Left And Right

In 1958, philosopher Isaiah Berlin delivered to the University of Oxford a lecture entitled 'Two Concepts Of Liberty'. In this lecture, he laid out two competing interpretations of the concept of liberty. Negative liberty, most easily remembered as 'freedom from', is defined by the absence of obstacles to achieve your desires, short of those desires conflicting with the freedom of others. Positive liberty, most easily remembered as 'freedom to', is defined by the ability to act in such a way as to become the best version of yourself.

Though the distance between these definitions appears small, borderline intangible, in general terms, the nuances differentiating them is as clear an example as there has ever been of the difference in outlook between those on the right of politics and those on the left.

Berlin was born into a Jewish family of timber merchants in Russian-controlled Latvia. When Berlin was six years old, he and his family fled to Britain after being identified as 'bourgeoisie' by the anti-semitic Marxist authorities. Having witnessed the February and October Revolutions in 1917, Berlin acquired a lifelong opposition to revolutionary violence. In Britain, Berlin excelled in debate and graduated with first-class honours from the University of Oxford in 1928, winning the John Locke prize for his philosophy papers, before taking a second degree in philosophy, politics and economics and eventually becoming a tutor at the university.

Berlin's experiences of the differences between the Eastern and Western blocs undoubtedly influenced his understanding of how the concept of freedom can be understood and politically deployed in such different ways and with such disparate results. Despite this, and contrary to popular interpretation, Berlin never identified either form of freedom as 'good' or 'bad' and believed that both were necessary in moderation and able to coexist in a stable society, even if there was greater precedent for rule based on positive freedom to turn quickly and bloodily tyrannical.

If negative freedom can be broadly defined as the libertarian position in American politics - state intervention in people's lives should be minimal - positive liberty is somewhat more complex and aligns more closely with that of the modern left. On paper, the definition of positive liberty - freedom to be your best self - seems almost consubstantial with that of negative liberty - freedom from interference in one's life. To clarify the difference, let's take the example of legally mandated schooling. The state forcing someone to go to school, or be home-schooled, represents a severe diminishment their negative liberty, in that they are not free to choose to live without schooling. However, it represents an aggrandisement of their positive liberty in that it represents an intervention by the State to facilitate them becoming a more able version of themselves, with an education which will expand the range of opportunities and options for them later in life.

Another example of this difference would be somebody recently released from prison. Standing outside the prison gates, the former convict might reflect that he is in a position of high negative liberty, in that all the options of life are theoretically now open to him again, but low positive liberty, in that he has nowhere to go and lacks the means to make the most of those newfound options. In these conditions, the intervention of the State to help him find a job and housing might partially restrict his negative liberty - in that the State is intervening in his life - but represent an expansion of his positive liberty, in that such an intervention affords him a chance to get back on his feet which he otherwise might not have had.

From these examples, one might be tempted to conclude that positive liberty is good and negative liberty bad. Berlin, however, urged caution, noting that history shows that government based strongly on the principles of positive liberty can easily slip into totalitarianism. This tendency has been called the paradox of positive liberty, demonstrating how a society can be oppressed in the name of freedom.

The clearest historical example of this is the French Revolution. When the French King, Louis XVI, was executed in 1793 and the First French Republic was created, the Revolution appeared to represent a triumph for the ordinary person to live free from the rule of unelected monarchs wielding absolute power. Unfortunately, the revolutionary fervour quickly curdled into mass bloodshed in the battle between the moderate Girondins and the radical Jacobins, the latter victorious, for control of the body and soul of the nation.

(Incidentally, the concept of 'left' and 'right' in politics also dates back to Revolutionary France, where those in the National Assembly who believed in the King's absolute power of veto sat on the right, and those who opposed it sat on the left.)

In the view of the revolutionaries, it was necessary for all trace of the previous regime to be cleansed in order to ensure people's freedom in the future. As long as there existed any possibility of support for the monarchy and the church, or any opposition to the ideals of the revolution, the French people would never fully be able to enjoy the freedom the revolutionaries intended for them. Thus, any action, no matter how extreme, was permissible in order to achieve this aim. As Jacobin statesman, Maximilien Robespierre, explained in justifying the massacres of the Reign Of Terror:

Terror is only justice: prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue; it is less a distinct principle than a natural consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing wants of the country.

Or, more bluntly:

To punish the oppressors of humanity is clemency; to forgive them is cruelty.

Because the revolutionaries had decided that their cause was virtuous, any evil was justified in achieving it. Revolutionaries and radicals represent positive liberty perverted into tyranny through the belief that they know what is best for people, rather than giving people the options for them to decide for themselves.

Examples of the dangers of negative liberty are smaller, but arguably more cumulative over the long term. Today's wealth gap between the richest and poorest, the ability of corporations to grow powerful enough to influence politics and crush competition, all while exploiting cheap foreign labour and depressing wages at home, arguably represent an escalating big-picture form of negative liberty becoming antithetical to individual freedom. On a more local level, one could point to the necessity of driving licences and building regulations, for instance, as required curtailments on negative freedom in order to prevent dangerous outcomes.

On the modern political right, one can see the psychology of negative freedom in their ardent defence of free speech, equality of opportunity and emphasis on personal responsibility. It can also be seen in their embrace of deregulation, limiting of the welfare safety net and outsourcing of government tasks to unaccountable and inefficient private firms. On the modern political left, one can see how a viewpoint based on positive freedom manifests in a desire to protect minorities from racism, to regulate big corporations and give a greater voice in boardrooms to workers, and strengthen social safety nets such as welfare and nationalised medicine. It also manifests in the controlling revolutionary language of Black Lives Matter ('silence is violence'/'it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist'), the emphasis on equity rather than equality, and the belief that anyone who participates in a thought or action which causes offence to certain protected groups must be shamed, punished and ostracised.

While these two concepts of freedom clash in many ways, they represent necessary balances on each other to maintain a society balanced between treating people like responsible adults free to make choices for themselves, while also giving them the means and safety to have the best chance of succeeding in those choices. The danger comes in the belief that one form of freedom is absolutely virtuous and the other absolutely evil. Berlin's warnings about historical corruptions of positive liberty were not to demonise one interpretation of freedom above the other - though having fled the Russian Revolution, he was personally more favourable towards negative liberty - but to demonstrate the dangers of moral absolutism and the human capacity for justifying immoral action for a utopian 'greater good'. Ultimately, the shape of our freedom is defined by nobody but us.

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