Two Concepts of Liberty

Mr. Kizer is a psychologist and business consultant in Portsmouth, Ohio.

Isaiah Berlin, in his Two Concepts of Liberty, discusses a question which is central to most arguments between libertarians and socialists—between "voluntarists" and "coercionists." The question is, what do we mean by freedom? Berlin points out that socialists accept a definition of freedom which he calls positive liberty, while libertarians assert that freedom is really negative liberty. Now positive liberty is the "freedom to" have such things as employment, respect, and the like. Negative liberty is "freedom from" restraint. Positive liberty is equivalent to what libertarians might refer to as power, that is, libertarians believe a given man is free to earn a million dollars per year even though it may not be in his power to do so, simply because he cannot provide the services required.

But, as Berlin points out, the deceptively phrased "positive liberty" has some nasty consequences. One of them is that since positive liberty is unrelated to freedom as we usually understand it, then being "liberated" (and we often find this usage of the word in current liberation movements) is being forced to do something against our will because someone else thinks it is good. This encourages confusion in the discussion of freedom. To call negative liberty "freedom" and positive liberty "power" is to make a discrimination which is fundamental. To call them both liberty, as coercionists often do when it suits their argument, leads to confusion.

For example, if legislators believe that men ought to be taught only by those with a Ph.D., then they might pass a law that only Ph.D.’s be allowed to teach. The coercionists would not consider this a limitation on people’s freedom to choose their teachers because those who accept the concept of positive liberty feel that some men may act irrationally and, therefore, must be coerced to be "free," meaning by that to do what they should do, which is always choose a Ph.D. for a teacher.

Now most people can see this conception of liberty stands totally opposed to the common sense notion of freedom. Why, then, do some philosophers hold this position? Berlin explains this. He says that it is an extension of the so-called mechanico-rationalist approach to life. Stimulated by the success of scientists or natural philosophers in finding the laws of the universe in the 17th and 18th centuries, the social philosophers of that age began to believe that they could find the social laws by which men must rationally act, the social "system of the world" which would correspond to the Newtonian Principia (subtitled The System of the World). This led to the belief that those who do not accept their system must be coerced into accepting it, as it is the "rational" social system.

Libertarians, those who accept the Berlin concept of "negative liberty," know, though, that human values may not all be compatible and, in principle, may not be capable of being harmoniously realized in one way of life. That is, people are inherently different so they may, for their happiness, need and demand a different lifestyle from the majority of their neighbors. Thus the libertarian is, of necessity, a pluralist. He tolerates different communities with laws of entirely different types. He knows that one cannot homogenize the differences among men or among the differing environments in which man finds himself. Conversely, the coercionist is, of necessity, a social monist and will not tolerate social differences.

It is interesting that the libertarians and conservatives, the social pluralists, are the ones who are likely to encourage social experiment by allowing community differences which might actually lead to progress in the understanding of the relations among men. It is the monists, on the other hand, who constantly proclaim themselves in favor of progress and sometimes (as Marx did) proclaim that their social system is scientific; these are the most anti-progressive and anti-scientific in the sense that they oppose any social experiment which might lead to real progress.

Libertarians realize that there is no perfect social system. There never will be a final answer as to how everyone should behave and, because of this realization, they refuse to coerce others to hold to their beliefs.

The only unfortunate aspect of Berlin’s analysis, and in this Berlin is merely following tradition, is that libertarians have again lost the semantic battle of connotation as they did when the socialists usurped the word "liberal." "Positive liberty," which is actually coercion, sounds so much better than "negative liberty," which is really freedom. This minor cavil does not detract from the outstanding contribution to the philosophical meaning of freedom which Berlin makes. Since individual differences among people demand pluralism if real freedom (Berlin’s negative liberty) is to be achieved, it is interesting to note the foresight of the founding fathers. One of the essential ideas behind the founding of this country was that it was to be a federal republic, that is, a nation in which the individual governmental units of the federation agree concerning the general principles of government but retain the right to enact the laws of their choosing, insofar as the details of governmental action are concerned.