The Two Types Of Freedom

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.

18 thoughts on “The Two Types Of Freedom”

  1. This is a very interesting analysis, Robert. I was thinking about those distinctions, but more in the terms of “my freedom” (I should be able to do anything I want) versus “societal freedom” (freedom to do anything that does not adversely impact others).

    1. That’s an interesting variant of it. It also covers the main divide between left and right, in that the right (and libertarians in particular) view things from an individual perspective whereas the left views it from a society wide perspective.

  2. I prefer Spinoza’s concept of freedom: freedom is to realize your full potential. This requires both negative as well positive liberty, as illustrated by the following example:
    A seed has the potential to become a wonderful plant, but it needs heath and food (positive liberty), but it also need space to grow (negative liberty).

  3. Every right comes with an obligation. To enjoy the right you have to fulfil the obligation.

    There are no god given rights, only human given ones. And humans can therefore take them away again. Which means the entire field is under constant negotiation.

  4. Brilliant! I am currently thinking there is another dimension to this and that is the balance between individual freedom and the common good. I will keep your distinction in mind as I work.

    1. That’s true though libertarians would reject the entire notion of a common good, so I tried to avoid off putting terms so that they would at least read the article and hopefully get a new way of thinking of liberty.

  5. The philosopher John P. Clark recently advanced in his book “The Impossible Community” what he calls a third concept of liberty, which is very much in line with Spinoza’s conception of freedom as the capacity for self-realisation. This requires not just balancing negative and positive liberty but also, in a conceptual sense, transcending both dialectically.

    Clark’s book is also a great introduction to philosophy of modern anarchism in case you’re interested. Though it does get into the domain of high academic philosophy at times, so make sure you’ve read at least an introduction to GWF Hegel before tackling it.

    On a related note, you may call this nitpicking, but you really ought to be saying “libertarian capitalism” or “right-libertarianism” rather than simply libertarian.
    Anarchists, remember, are the original libertarians as the first group to use the term in a political context; and they have always supported positive liberty along with the rest of the Left.

  6. The ultimate freedom is to arm yourself to the teeth, either with physical weapons or financial ones and ruthlessly take whatever you want from whoever has it. When the rich have done this to an unbearable extreme, the poor have exercised their freedom to chop off their heads. Responsible government seeks to avoid letting loose either freedom by getting us to obey laws. When government fails to restrain the rich in their predations upon the poor, the poor have had no choice but to cut of the heads of both the rich and the government that toadies to them. In our current situation, the rich are hoping their new mind control tools, aspartame, MSG, fluoride, obesity and television have rendered the poor incapable of revolt. So far it’s working.

  7. Ideology is the root of the left, rather than reality.

    How can you an individual be entitled to the labour of others? That is to say how can it be that I have a right to a house, health care, education and food. Who is to provide it for me?

    These things cost money and labour must be exercised to produce it for me. By the very nature of the “right”, if I have the right to something I did not produce or earn, then by logically extension, someone else does NOT have the right to the products of their labour.

    These are not right. These are wishes.

    LIBERTY, is the basic right of man. How can positive liberty, and IMPOSITION (in many instances by force) by the state, be liberty at all? If man to man has no right to their choices and free will in interactions with each other, how then can the left say that they love liberty?

    No one is forced by imprisonment, death or loss of property in negative liberty.

    1. “Ideology is the root of the left, rather than reality.”

      Really? It is only the silly left that is blinded by ideology, the noble right only makes decisions based on fact. Be real here, ideology means your worldview, everyone has one.

      “How can you an individual be entitled to the labour of others? That is to say how can it be that I have a right to a house, health care, education and food.”

      So if you saw a homeless man on the street you wouldn’t care? If you saw someone starving, that wouldn’t bother you? If people were dying for lack of medical attention, you wouldn’t have a problem with that? The difference with leftists is that we believe we have responsibilites to the rest of the community. We have a duty to ensure all people have basic necessities of life, that everyone has an equal chance at achieving their ambitions. You may be satisfied so long as you are well off, but on the left, we aren’t happy until everyone is well off.

      “By the very nature of the “right”, if I have the right to something I did not produce or earn, then by logically extension, someone else does NOT have the right to the products of their labour.”

      That’s not how logic works. When you live in a state you agree to pool resources to ensure the best outcome for the community as a whole. In exchange for your taxes you receive protection and the benefit of state services. Taxation isn’t theft.

      “How can positive liberty, and IMPOSITION (in many instances by force) by the state, be liberty at all? If man to man has no right to their choices and free will in interactions with each other, how then can the left say that they love liberty?”

      Again I must ask if you actually read the post because you completely ignore all the arguments I made. Allow me to repeat myself. Are homeless people free? They are certainly free from overt repression and taxes. There also free to be hungry, free to be cold, free to be unemployable. Is that real freedom?

      Freedom is the ability to fulfill your goals and achieve your ambitions. Economic barriers are not as visible but the end result is the same as legal ones.

        1. “Giving” or “Taking” reflect a model of society that doesn’t apply in representative forms of government. “Freedoms” and “rights” may or may not have a basis or grounding in natural law. In any case, they are negotiated as parts of a social contract agreed among the members of particular population (society, nation-state, culture, sub-culture, tribe, etc.). The members of such populations agree which freedoms are natural rights (inviolable laws of human nature, so to speak) and which freedoms are derivative from those natural rights by some previously agreed logic.

          By characterizing freedoms as “given” or “taken” implies a “giver” or “taker”. This presupposition of a “giver” or “taker” is fundamental to George Lakoff’s “stern father” model of a world view. This world view isn’t Lakoff’s; he describes and cites it in his work. In outline, the stern father world view requires an ultimate authority that serves as the source of all basic principles and assumptions about how the world works and the rules that its inhabitants must obey. Lakoff coined the phrase, “stern father” to connote the image and structure of a family with a strong patriarch, whose behavior is constrained only by his own conscience. Classic examples of current and past societies that conform to this model are tribes, monarchies and totalitarian institutions where power ultimately resides with some individual. Fundamentalist religions (Christian, Islamic, Hindu and variations thereof) are examples of stern-father world views.

          The stern father view of organizing society (vs. the contractual view) usually dominates societies that have been prone to violence and conflict throughout their history. Thus, it reflects our human need for order, predictability and “security”, yet denies that humans are able to agree a particular framework for the institution or preservation of order and security. Order must be imposed on individuals and security must be provided by the imposing institution (the monarchy, the dictator, the Party, God, Allah, Yahweh). Father knows best and provides the rules and principles that govern the family’s behavior.

          Your sarcasm, RightfromYaad (is this shorthand for anonymous chicken?) lacks impact. It originates from a simpleton’s view of the world.

          1. Thanks for your dissertation. I am no philosopher, no economist. Just a mere mortal, who wishes to be left alone and not subject to whims and fancies of the educated who can pick and choose who gets rights at the expense of others.
            This is of course through laws created by a few men to reshape the world in their view.

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