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The Genealogy of Liberty: Positive Liberty, Negative Liberty, and Republican Liberty

"To raise the question, what is freedom? seems to be a hopeless enterprise. It is as though age-old contradictions and antinomies were lying in wait to force the mind into dilemmas of logical impossibility so that, depending which horn of the dilemma you are holding on to, it becomes as impossible to conceive of freedom or its opposite as it is to realize the notion of a square circle.”—Hannah Arendt (What Is Freedom?)

The word liberty has a long and complicated genealogy. The first written reference to the concept of freedom is in the form of a cuneiform inscription of the Sumerian word ama-gi. The term, which means freedom, literally translates as "returning to mother," indicating the release of a person from debt slavery or the freeing of one from an obligation or debt. Liberty came to mean freedom from debt and legal obligations. Over time, the term liberty has come to mean different things in different contexts.

For a long time, liberty tended to mean something very community-oriented, so that liberty was tied up with the experience of a personalistic relational ontology within the context of a community of belonging—liberty meant standing in good relation to God and the religious community more than freedom from external coercion; and it meant being a respected member of the polis or republic. The "free man" was a person whose thoughts, opinions, and input were valued by his neighbors and his community. The "free man" was the man who was allowed to be part of the deliberative decision-making process in the Athenian polis (city-state). To be a free man was synonymous with being a citizen, which meant that one was not a mere subject but one who had a participatory role in the republic. And a person could become a free man by becoming a citizen of the "city of God" (the Church) through baptism and participation in the divine liturgy. One who defines liberty in such a way would see some form of communalism or communitarianism with participatory democracy as the most libertarian system imaginable.

There is even a certain sociological conception of liberty, generally associated with marxism, that holds that ignorance imposed by bourgeois propaganda can lead to mental slavery in the form of false consciousness—i.e. a "belief or view that prevents a person from being able to understand the true nature of a situation."( To some extent, I think the Situationists were the biggest advocates of this sort of liberty—liberty as freedom from false consciousness. Things like mass media and public education can be used to brainwash and manipulate people, preventing people from recognizing certain truths about the nature of their economic and political situation. Insofar as such bad propaganda is successful at keeping people ignorant of the multitude of other possibilities, so that the people do not know all the various courses of action that are truly available to them as a society, it keeps them enslaved to the status quo. Thus, education becomes an emancipatory act, which liberates people from ignorance and allows them to truly exercise their free will. A person is more free the more options they have available, and they will have more options available the more they know about reality. This is not, by the way, the only marxian conception of liberty; it isn't even the primary marxian conception of liberty.

There is no true definition or right definition of liberty. Liberty is an abstract concept. It is something that people feel. It is emotional, philosophical, nigh metaphysical or spiritual at times. Language is a thing that evolves, changing over time. No one has a monopoly on terms, concepts, or abstract ideas. Language is a consensus democracy. The definitions of terms are not decided by some central authority. On the contrary, people define terms by how they use them in everyday speech and in philosophical writings. We define the terms liberty and freedom by how we use them, and sometimes we use these terms to mean different and conflicting things. I may speak of my "liberation" when speaking of my own intellectual enlightenment. I may speak of my "liberty" to walk down the street. I may say, "I am not free tonight," when I mean that I am just busy. Every single person uses the same words in different and conflicting ways. Since language is a human convention, none of these ways is inherently right. Generally, no usage is inherently wrong either, unless you happen to use a term in a way that doesn't allow for communication. If I use a term in a way that no one would recognize, making it so that no one can understand what I am trying to say, then I have used the term incorrectly. The purpose of words is to convey meaning, and a usage that doesn't allow for communication is simply incorrect. Any usage of a term that follows some sort of convention and tradition, is rooted in the genealogy of the word, and thereby makes it possible for other people to grasp what the speaker is meaning when they use the term, is acceptable.

"The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others, the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men's labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name — liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names — liberty and tyranny."—Abraham Lincoln (Address in Baltimore, Maryland [18 April 1864])

In modern times, we saw the politicization of the term liberty, where liberty was taken as the ultimate good by two opposing factions, yet the definitions of each faction were mutually exclusive. Thus, in America, we have liberals and conservatives, always at each other's throats, but both claiming to be fighting for something that they call liberty. Isaiah Berlin referred to these competing conceptions of liberty as negative liberty and positive liberty. The right wing emphasizes the negative concept of liberty, while the left wing emphasizes the positive concept of liberty. These two competing conceptions of liberty can be defined as follows:

The notion of negative freedom: “I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no man or body of men interferes with my activity. Political liberty in this sense is simply the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others. If I am prevented by others from doing what I could otherwise do, I am to that degree unfree…. Coercion implies the deliberate interference of other human beings within the area in which I could otherwise act. You lack political liberty or freedom only if you are prevented from attaining a goal by human beings. Mere incapacity to attain a goal is not lack of political freedom…. By being free in this sense I mean not being interfered with by others. The wider the area of noninterference the wider my freedom.”—Isaiah Berlin (Two Concepts of Liberty)

The notion of positive freedom: “The ‘positive' sense of the word ‘liberty’ derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master. I wish my life and decisions to depend on myself, not on external forces of whatever kind. I wish to be the instrument of my own, not of other men's acts of will. I wish to be a subject, not an object; to be moved by reasons, by conscious purposes, which are my own, not by causes which affect me, as it were, from outside. I wish to be somebody, not nobody; a doer—deciding, not being decided for, self-directed and not acted upon by external nature or by other men as if I were a thing, or an animal, or a slave incapable of playing a human role, that is, of conceiving goals and policies of my own and realizing them.”(ibid.)

The conservative thinks of freedom as the lack of government interference. If I own all the land and want to force people to pay rent to me in order to have access to the land—the same land that they need access to in order to produce food that is necessary for survival—, then both I and the people who are forced to pay me rent are totally free under the condition that the government does not intervene in our economic affairs. This is the implication of the negative conception of liberty. The implication of the positive conception of liberty is that the people are not free under the above circumstances to the extent that I force them to pay rent to me, and they have no viable alternative option since I own all the land and they must gain access to the land I monopolize in order to survive. The liberal is primarily concerned that the people not be placed into situations where they are coerced by poverty or economic necessity. Social anarchists tried to forge a way forward that equally emphasized both of these conceptions of liberty, pushing for the abolition of the State (to eliminate the danger of external interference) alongside the abolition of private property and money (to eliminate the possibility of ever being forced to do things as a result of economic necessity).

There are many other conceptions of liberty, which I will not go into here. When it comes to political philosophy, which is the topic that interests me, it is Berlin's two conceptions of liberty—positive vs. negative—that are most relevant. But there is a third conception that is extremely relevant, and that is the classical republican conception of liberty, which I will talk about below. If you are interested in exploring the genealogy of liberty a little further, check out Isaiah Berlin's Two Concepts of Liberty, Quentin Skinner's A Genealogy of Liberty: A Lecture, and Hannah Arendt's What Is Freedom?.

The divisive, conflicting conceptions of liberty as non-interference from others (negative liberty) and liberty as capacity to act upon one's own will (positive liberty) may actually be a corruption of an older and more coherent conception of liberty. The classical republican (or civic republican) definition of liberty, which we find in writers as ancient as Aristotle and as modern as Rousseau, is that liberty is non-domination. At first glance, one may think that this is the same as Berlin's "negative liberty" or liberty as non-interference. However, there is a big difference between these two definitions and the political implications of this difference are enormous. This "Neo-Roman" (or civic republican) conception of liberty as non-domination actually encompasses aspects of both negative and positive liberty.

Scholars like Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit are attempting to revive this classical republican concept of liberty as non-domination. Pettit says that domination occurs when another person has the capacity to interfere on an arbitrary basis in determining certain choices that one is in a position to make. Domination entails three things: (1) capacity of someone else to interfere, (2) that such interference can be done arbitrarily, and (3) that this interference can determine the choice or decision that another makes. A person has dominating power if they have the capacity to interfere on an arbitrary basis in the decision-making of another so as to determine what the other will choose. In other words, "persons or groups are dominated to the extent that they are dependent on social relationships in which other persons or groups hold arbitrary power over them."(Frank Lovett, Domination and Distributive Justice)

"Non-domination in the sense that concerns us, then, is the position that someone enjoys when they live in the presence of other people and when, by virtue of social design, none of those others dominates them. Such a status, as we shall see, may come in one or another degree, but it will often be convenient to speak as if it were an on-off matter. Someone enjoys non-domination, we can say, when they live among others and when no other satisfies the conditions discussed in the last section; no other has the capacity to interfere on an arbitrary basis in their choices."—Philip Pettit (Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government)

"The basic distinction between [classical] republican and [classical] liberal political theory is that the former construes freedom, not as the absence of interference by others, but as the absence of a certain sort of dominating control. Let us say that others control me to the extent that their presence in my life raises the probability of my acting according to their tastes....
" I will escape domination only to the extent that I occupy a protected position and am empowered against such control on the part of others. My freedom will consist in that protected and empowered status."—Philip Pettit (A Republican Right to Basic Income?)

Aristotle used this conception of liberty when discussing politics:

"The basis of a democratic state is liberty; which, according to the common opinion of men, can only be enjoyed in such a state; this they affirm to be the great end of every democracy. One principle of liberty is for all to rule and be ruled in turn, and indeed democratic justice is the application of numerical not proportionate equality; whence it follows that the majority must be supreme, and that whatever the majority approve must be the end and the just. Every citizen, it is said, must have equality, and therefore in a democracy the poor have more power than the rich, because there are more of them, and the will of the majority is supreme. This, then, is one note of liberty which all democrats affirm to be the principle of their state. Another is that a man should live as he likes. This, they say, is the privilege of a freeman, since, on the other hand, not to live as a man likes is the mark of a slave. This is the second characteristic of democracy, whence has arisen the claim of men to be ruled by none, if possible, or, if this is impossible, to rule and be ruled in turns; and so it contributes to the freedom based upon equality."—Aristotle (Politics, Book 6, Part 2)

To Aristotle, to be free is to not be dominated by others. Domination entails an asymmetrical power relation. Consequently, Aristotle sees equality of power under democracy as a means of guaranteeing liberty. If liberty is defined as non-domination, then one can be free under a government where everyone has equal power and no one is in a position of asymmetrical power over others. Note that Aristotle defines the privilege of a freeman as the ability to "live as he likes" (i.e. be his own master), in contrast to the slave whose chief characteristic is that he cannot live as he likes because he is not his own master. To Aristotle, freedom does not mean a state of being without interference from others, but rather a state of not being dominated by others.

This conception of liberty is not the only way that classical republicans used the term liberty, but it is the form of liberty they refer to when they are talking about politics. Jean-Jacques Rousseau distinguishes three distinct types of liberty. He describes natural liberty, by which he more or less means negative liberty in Berlin's sense. However, he observes that man's natural liberty cannot be guaranteed in a state of nature, so man must enter into a social contract, establishing a government to provide civil liberty which is security and a guarantee of certain rights. Natural liberty is secured solely by the strength of the individual. In a state of nature, if a man is strong enough, he can exercise his dominion over himself in such a way as to gain dominion over others, and thereby deprive others of their liberty. Natural liberty, then, "is limited only by the strength of the individual." At the same time, other people have the same natural liberty, which they can use to deprive him of his own natural liberty. Civil liberty, on the other hand, is dominion over oneself that is limited only by the general will—the terms of the social contract. The individuals trade away some of their freedom for the guarantee of security against other people taking away all of their freedom. Finally, Rousseau speaks of moral liberty, by which he designates self-control or the ability to behave rationally and not be driven entirely by passions and animalistic instincts. This liberty "makes man truly his own master, for impulsion by appetite alone is slavery, and obedience to the law that one has prescribed for oneself is liberty."(Cf. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, On Social Contract, Book 1, Chapter 2 and Chapter 8) What informs Rousseau's political philosophy, however, is neither natural liberty nor moral liberty, but civil liberty. And Rousseau's conception of "civil liberty" is freedom as non-domination. For Rousseau, like Aristotle, freedom does not mean a state of being without interference from others, but rather a state of not being dominated by others.

Suppose that there is some public or common piece of property, something which me and my neighbors both have equal claim to, and I decide to use that item for a purpose that my neighbors disagree with. If my neighbors, having an equally legitimate claim to the said item, decide to intervene and prevent me from using the item in the way that I intend, they are interfering in my affairs for sure, but they have not become my master thereby. In such an instance, it does not violate my liberty for my neighbors to intervene or interfere in my affairs. If we are all on equal terms, with equal power and equal rights, then domination has not occurred. This alternative conception of liberty led classical republican thinkers to conclusions quite different from those that were reached by modern "vulgar libertarians" and conservatives.

Suppose that I live on a small island. All the land on the island is owned by Mr. Smith. If Mr. Smith wants to, he can arbitrarily interfere in every aspect of my life in order to manipulate me into doing what he wants. How so? Because he owns all the land, and, therefore, all the crops and food. He can leverage his ownership of property against my absolute lack of property-ownership and use that as a means of manipulating me into doing what he wants rather than allowing me to do what I want. If he will only give me access to food on the condition that I publicly humiliate myself daily, then I have no option but to obey; for food is a necessity and cannot be acquired otherwise than by submitting to Mr. Smith's will. To be freed from such domination, I need to be put in a situation where I have the capacity to make my own decisions, according to my own will, independently. If I am dependent upon another, then that other has the capacity to interfere in a dominating way. Even if that other individual does not choose to interfere in a dominating way, I am not free as long as they have the ability to so interfere. A slave is no less a slave in the moments when his master is not forcing him to do things that he does not want to do. The fact that he has a master makes him a slave. It is certainly better for the slave that the master not choose to make him do things that he would rather not do, but the slave remains a slave even if his master is not giving him any order that he happens to find objectionable. He remains a slave by the mere fact that the master could give such an order and the slave would have to obey if he did. Insofar as I am under the dominion of Mr. Smith on this island where he monopolizes all the land and food, simply because I have no land or food of my own, I am not free! My liberation, therefore, requires that I be guaranteed sufficient access to land and food so as to prevent Mr. Smith from being able to arbitrarily manipulate me into doing what he wants rather than what I want. The maximization of liberty, in this scenario, requires that some property be taken from Mr. Smith and given to me. However, supposing that there is a distribution of property that does not give Mr. Smith any leverage with which to be capable of arbitrarily interfering in my decision making, taking some of Mr. Smith's property would not help to maximize liberty. Thus, the maximization of republican liberty does not require creating total equality in the distribution of wealth, but merely a degree of equality sufficient to guarantee that no one's wealth puts them in a position of dominion over others. Insofar as I am dependent on Mr. Smith for survival, he has dominion over me. Insofar as I have independence and can survive and live well without depending upon Mr. Smith, I am free and Mr. Smith does not dominate me, even if he does have more wealth than me.

Republican liberty cannot be reduced to Berlin's negative liberty (freedom as non-interference). Can it not, however, be reduced to Berlin's positive liberty? While the classical republican concept of liberty appears to be a variety of negative liberty at first glance, it appears perhaps to be a variation of positive liberty upon closer examination. Does this appearance correspond to fact? Is republican liberty just Berlin's positive liberty stated in another way? Positive liberty "derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master," to be independent and have self-determination rather that being guided by "external forces" or "moved by...causes which affect [him], as it were, from the outside." (Cf. Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty) This too is quite different from the republican concept of liberty. The classical republican notion is that a man is free to the extent that he is not dominated—not under the dominion of another man! Thus, a man enjoys complete liberty if he lives in a society where no other individual has dominion over him, even if his available options happen to be restricted by natural limitations. A proponent of positive liberty, on the other hand, would hold that a man is not free to the extent that his available options are restricted by natural limitations. To maximize positive liberty, then, I would need to ensure that all individuals are equal in regards to their natural limitations. The naturally talented man and the naturally untalented need to have their natural inequality leveled out. The wealthier a person is, the greater their capacity to do whatsoever they like; thus, the maximization of positive liberty requires the absolute equalization of wealth, such that the richest man has no more wealth than the poorest and no man has more capacity to act upon his desires than anyone else. There must not be just equality of opportunity, but equality of outcome as well. To maximize republican liberty, however, we only need to ensure that the richest man in society does not have so much more than the poorest men that his wealth gives him dominion over them. The wealthier individual and the poorer individual are equally free to the extent that no other individual has the capacity to interfere, on an arbitrary basis, in their own free choices. If the poor man is not so poor as to be forced to let himself be dominated in order to survive and the rich man is not so rich as to be able to arbitrarily control the choices of the poor man, then liberty has been maximized without a total equalization of conditions. The maximum liberty possible for each individual, an equal liberty for every man—justice—can be attained without totally eliminating inequality of condition.

The examples that I gave above—about my neighbors intervening in my use of common property and about Mr. Smith having a monopoly on land and food—demonstrate that this classical republican concept of liberty does not lead to all the same conclusions as one would reach trying to maximize liberty using Berlin's definition of negative liberty (or liberty as non-interference). Nevertheless, this civic republican concept of liberty as non-domination does entail aspects of both negative and positive liberty, such that maximizing republican liberty will require some of the same policies that would be necessary to maximize either negative liberty or positive liberty. At the same time, republican liberty counter-balances itself, checking the extremes that arise with the Berlinian dialectic of negative liberty vs. positive liberty. If you want to maximize Berlin's freedom as non-interference in one's attempts to act upon their own will (negative liberty), then either anarcho-capitalism or primitivism naturally follows. If you want to maximize Berlin's liberty as a guarantee of a capacity to act upon one's own will (positive liberty), then an absolutely equal distribution of wealth and power is necessary. To maximize republican liberty, you only need to ensure that the distribution of wealth and power is not so unequal as to allow one person or group of people to arbitrarily interfere in the choices of others. And with this republican concept of liberty, interference that seeks to minimize domination would not be seen as limiting freedom but maximizing freedom—since liberty is not defined as non-interference, an interference aimed at maximizing liberty would not be seen as a limitation upon liberty.

"As a matter of logic, the liberal government that interferes with people in order to reduce overall interference will have to take liberty-as-noninterference away from some in order to increase such liberty overall. But the government that interferes with people in order to reduce overall domination may not have to take liberty-as-nondomination away from any in order to increase such liberty overall. "—Philip Pettit (A Republican Right to Basic Income?)