Liberalism and negative freedom
Posted by Matt Walker on July 10, 2011
Do you remember those primary school days when another child would stick their tongue out at you? And when you challenged them they would reply, “It’s a free country!”. Back then no one has the capacity to retort, “In what way is this country actually ‘free’?”. Because of course, we are not free to do whatever we want. If we wish to steal someone else’s brand new Mercedes Benz, and hit them over the head with a rolling pin in the process, then we are likely to feel the full force of the law, created by the state and upheld by the judicial system.
The man who resents this infringement on his freedom to steal cars and hit people on the head with a rolling pin might well decide to spend some time on a desert island. For surely on the desert island he would be truly free? There would be no authority above our man, telling him what to do or placing restrictions on his freedom. He could run around shouting at the top of his voice until three in the morning, and ‘steal’ all the fruit from the trees. No one could curtail his freedom of speech, nor make laws which could result in his imprisonment. In this sense, we could argue that our man on the desert island is entirely sovereign over himself. He is free from all external constraint.
And this is what classical liberals espouse. This faction of liberalism suggests that individuals should be sovereign. No authority should unnecessarily restrict a person’s freedom to act as they see fit. But crucially, classical liberals believe in the need for some authority. If there are no rules, a rational human being might well infringe someone else’s rights for their own benefit. Consequently, classical liberals advocate the need for a state based on the notion that people’s rights need protecting. But if that state were too powerful, it would end up encroaching on the sovereignty of the individual.
Hence, classical liberals advocate the minimal state. The purpose of this state is to protect civil liberties but very little else. Over matters deemed to be self-regarding, people can do what they want. But when their actions involve others, and potentially infringe their rights, the state must intervene. This can be achieved via a judicial system, police force, an army, and the legal enforcement of contracts. The aim is to promote freedom by reducing the external constraints placed upon people. This type of freedom is known as negative freedom.
Back to our man on the desert island. He could be said to benefit from negative freedom. But is he truly free?