In debate libertarians argue that their ideology is based on freedom, all they want is to be free of government interference. After all, liberty is so important to them they put it in their name. But how can anyone disagree with that? Do social democrats hate liberty? What I have found is that in the debates between left and right, people are arguing past each other rather than with each other. So the left does believe in freedom, but they just view it differently. In this sense there are two types of freedom. There is negative liberty or freedom from, which is the main principle advocated by the right and there is positive liberty or freedom to, which is the main principle advocated by the left.
Take a business for example. The right would argue that the owner should be free to run the business as they please. They shouldn’t be restricted in who they can hire, how much they pay them, the conditions they work in etc. In this sense freedom means not having anyone else (namely the government) interfere with your business and impose restrictions on you. This is negative liberty (not because it is bad) as it is freedom from restrictions. In this view the government is an oppressor that restricts the freedom of individuals. This is a very clear and obvious kind of freedom and is the most commonly discussed kind.
But the left has its own view of freedom too. In this view people have a right to food, clothes, housing, education, healthcare, welfare, employment, equality etc. They should be free from poverty and discrimination. They should be free to live a full life. To a leftist, someone is not free if they cannot afford an education. They are not free if they cannot afford life saving healthcare. This is a far less clear and visible form of freedom and is far less often discussed. But just because the chains of poverty are hard to see, does not mean they are any less restrictive. In this view the government advances freedom by allowing people to reach their full potential.
Debates over discrimination are a clash over the two types of freedom. Libertarians believe businesses should be free to hire whoever they want even if they are discriminatory in their approach. They believe that the Civil Rights Act is an infringement on their liberty. The left believes that refusing to hire someone because they are black or gay or Irish is an infringement on their freedom. To them, the Civil Rights Act is a powerful force for freedom. Similar logic is applied to Affirmative Action. The right sees it as repression to force businesses and schools to hire or admit minorities. On the other hand the left sees having fewer opportunities in life just because of what ethnic group you were born into as repression and an infringement of their freedom. If being born black automatically means you have less of a chance at success are you really as free as a white person?
The right believes that black people are free today. There are no longer any Jim Crow laws, they can sit anywhere on a bus, attend the same schools, same hospitals, same jobs as white people. They have the right to speech, to vote and equality before the law. They have as much negative liberty as anyone else in society. However, the left argues that black people have far less positive liberty than white people. While they can legally attend university, many cannot afford to. Many are still confined to ghettos, not because of laws or blatant racism anymore, but because they cannot afford to move out. The left would argue that if the result is the same as under Jim Crow, does it matter what form the barriers take? Invisible economic barriers are just as restrictive as the obvious legal ones.
There is one big difference between positive and negative liberty. Positive liberty costs money and a lot of it. For this reason, most constitutions limit themselves to speaking of negative liberty. Gaps in negative liberty can be easily fixed by passing or repealing a law, but ensuring people have full positive liberty involves major expenses in government spending and the welfare state. If everyone is entitled to a job, do the unemployed have a right to sue businesses for not hiring them? Where do you draw the line so that the amount of spending is enough to guarantee positive liberty for all citizens? Can we ever reach a situation of full positive liberty or is the same as chasing a rainbow? Do we have to ever reach it or is it enough to keep making advances like the war against discrimination? Discrimination will never disappear, but it can be reduced.
A society with only one type of liberty would not be desirable place to live. For example if we had full positive liberty but no negative liberty, we would be in some sort of Communist country where we had jobs, houses, education, healthcare etc but lived under a repressive dictatorship. Whereas if we had full negative liberty, we would be in cruel Oliver Twist world where we would be free to be unemployed, free to live in a slum, free to be ignorant etc. Its not much good telling a starving man that he has freedom of speech or religion or is free to enter into a voluntary contract with a business without government interference. A homeless man is not restricted by any one person, but is still oppressed.
The two types do not always line up perfectly with pro- or anti-government. Negative liberty requires the state to protect rights and enforce contracts. Even private property is dependent on the state. Likewise, the right would argue that the best way to achieve maximum positive liberty is through the free market. So neither type of freedom is intrinsically left or right, it depends on the circumstance.
It can be clear that this divide applies to most debates. The right claims gun control is an infringement of their freedom to bear arms while the left argues that if people are too scared to leave their homes for fear of being shot, they aren’t free either. The right claims environmental regulation violates their freedom, while the left claims that people have a right to a clean and healthy environment. The healthcare debate is over freedom too, the freedom of private hospitals from government regulations and the freedom of poor people to receive necessary treatment even if they cannot afford it.
Freedom is all about doing what you want to do. But there are many complex layers to this deceptively simple idea. Freedom can mean avoiding government restrictions but it can also mean avoiding the invisible restrictions of poverty. To promote freedom and ensure everyone has a chance to reach their potential and fulfil their goals, we need to remove all the barriers, both obvious and hidden. Neither left nor right have a monopoly on freedom, just different views of it.