Negative and Positive Liberty

Powerful Essays
Negative and positive liberty are best understood as distinct values within Berlin’s own scheme of value pluralism. While an increase in either is desirable, ceteris paribus, attempting to maximize any single idea of liberty without regard to any other values necessarily entails absurd and clearly undesirable conclusions; any sensible idea of jointly maximizing freedom in general, therefore, must acknowledge the tradeoffs inherent in increasing one aspect of freedom or another. The tension here is akin to the familiar tradeoff between equity and efficiency concerns in economics; negative and positive freedom are not diametrically opposed, but the two ideals may not be individually maximized at the same time.

Berlin defines an individual’s negative liberty as the extent of the sphere in which he is “left to do what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons” (169 ). By tying liberty fundamentally to the absence of (“freedom from”) coercion, proponents of negative liberty generally maintain that the defining characteristic of an infringement on liberty is the “deliberate interference of other human beings” (169). (However, Berlin seems to concede that relaxing the deliberateness of the interfering agents’ actions does not substantially alter this concept of freedom.) Negative freedom by Berlin’s definition, then, plainly does not constitute the affirmation of human potential in any sense. We are free if and only if we are unimpeded in the pursuit of that which is doable; if we take Berlin at face value here, whether and to what degree we actualize our capabilities in reality is entirely irrelevant to the question of liberty in the negative sense.

The most pertinent of Berlin’s immediate conclusions is that a p...

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...stantial degree of public provision for education is politically defensible in a philosophical sense, and robustly so.

The most reasonable approach, then, seems to require committing to some (tolerable) level of negative freedom to every private individual. Then, having carved out such a sufficiently sizeable private sphere, society should be structured as to secure as much positive liberty for each person as possible. While negative and positive liberty are not fundamentally at odds with each other, society at large does face an intrinsic and inescapable tradeoff between the two values. Since positive liberty by its nature represents a longer-term, (arguably) more fulfilling criterion by which to evaluate one’s life, its prioritization defined thusly over negative liberty seems an acceptable response to the inevitable decision that the social planner will face.
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