A brief on Negative & Positive Liberty

Negative & Positive Liberty
While Isaiah Berlin is often credited with distinguishing positive from negative liberty, this view was in fact put forward in the nineteenth century by, among others, the English political philosopher, T. H. Green who contributed to understanding what positive liberty, or freedom, implies. Green put the matter this way:
We shall probably all agree that freedom, rightly understood, is the greatest of blessings; that its attainment is the true end of all our efforts as citizens. But when we thus speak of freedom, we should consider carefully what we mean by it. We do not mean merely freedom from restraint or compulsion. We do not mean merely freedom to do as we like irrespective of what it is that we like. We do not mean a freedom that can be enjoyed by one man or one set of men at the cost of a loss of freedom to others. When we speak of freedom as something to be so highly prized, we mean a positive power or capacity of doing or enjoying something worth doing or enjoying, and that, too, something that we do or enjoy in common with others. We mean by it a power which each man exercises through the help or security given him by his fellow-men, and which he in turn helps to secure for them. When we measure the progress of a society by its growth in freedom, we measure it by the increasing development and exercise on the whole of those powers of contributing to social good with which we believe the members of the society to be endowed; in short, by the greater power on the part of the citizens as a body to make the most and best of themselves.
There are very formidable defenders of the idea of positive liberty (or freedom or rights) among contemporary political philosophers–among them, Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, Cass Sunstein, Ronald Dworkin, and Henry Shue. All of them conclude from their somewhat diverse approaches, that the freedom or liberty to make progress (or advance or develop or flourish) in one’s life is even more important to respect, secure, and protect than negative liberty. Negative liberty, in the tradition of Locke’s natural rights theory, is the condition of not being interfered with or intruded upon in one’s person and estate. This liberty is dubbed “negative” because it requires that everyone abstain from acting aggressively, that they refrain from invasive or intrusive conduct. Positive liberty or rights involve securing, for those in need, the capabilities to achieve the ends they seek.
The underlying understanding of human nature in these two schools of political thought is markedly different. In the Lockean tradition of negative liberty–or the right to it–human beings are taken to have the capacity and responsibility to advance in their lives once a condition of negative freedom has been secured for them. In other words, (negatively) free persons can and ought to strive to flourish in their lives and to this end they may only make use of provisions from others which are given or voluntarily exchanged. Social cooperation–in such areas as education, industry, science, philanthropy and the like–is deemed quite likely (though not guaranteed), as a function of the self-responsible conduct everyone is expected to engage in.
With respect to the conception of human nature that underlies the notion of positive liberty, it is generally held that those who are indigent, poor, or are otherwise importantly lacking in provisions needed for their lives to flourish require support mandated from others so that they will become capable or enabled. Without such support, they will very likely languish in their deprived situations and will ultimately suffer the indignity of helplessness.
Implicit in the position of those who embrace the idea of positive liberty is an emphasis on the right of all citizens to take part in political decision-making. “Put in the simplest terms, one might say that a democratic society is a free society because it is a self-determined society, and that a member of that society is free to the extent that he or she participates in its democratic process.” Furthermore, “there are also individualist applications of the concept of positive freedom. For example, it is sometimes said that a government should aim actively to create the conditions necessary for individuals to be self-sufficient or to achieve self-realization.”
The basic idea here is that by enjoying this kind of positive political liberty–namely, the liberty to take part in the determination and configuration of laws and public policy–citizens are capable of securing for themselves the conditions that are needed for their flourishing. They are able to vote into law the appropriate and necessary distribution of society’s resources.
Champions of negative liberty, who argue that laws and public policy ought to concentrate on extirpating society conduct that invades persons and properties of citizens–that is, that violate our negative rights–object to this idea on the grounds that voting for laws and public policies that involve distribution of society’s resources amounts to unjust rights violations and discourage self-responsible behavior. Supporters of a political theory predicated on positive liberty reject this on the grounds that without such mandated provisions, too many individuals will remain poor, ignorant, and helpless in innumerable ways.
The debate between the two schools hinges on numerous features of their respective positions. Are men and women who are forced to work for objectives to which they haven’t give their consent being treated unjustly? And will these laws undermine the productivity of those being forced to work in this way? In a society where resources are conceived of as commonly owned, will this inevitably lead to what has been called the tragedy of the commons”? Or, alternatively, is the self-motivation that negative liberty appears to require simply a myth? Are those who are deprived indeed capable of choosing to advance, thus moving from their deprived condition towards one where their goals can be fulfilled? Is the protection of negative liberty or rights going to favor those who are well endowed to start with so that they will necessarily be advantaged while their fellow citizens will be left deprived? Will this create a class of privileged citizens?
Both negative and positive liberty (or rights) can be defended on either deontological or utilitarian grounds. The deontological approach–or something akin to this, such as a self-perfectionist or neo-Aristotelian position–implies that what is crucial in a human community is that the dignity of persons be respected and protected and thus are allowed to guide their lives by their own decisions, for better or for worse. Thus, it doesn’t matter so much how well off members of the community are–what is crucial is whether justice, predicated on a conception of negative liberty, or rights, prevails. Some go on to argue that this is more likely than not to also secure widespread well being; but that is not their most crucial objective.
The utilitarian approach focuses on actual well being and how prevalent it is in a society that respects and protects either negative or positive liberty or rights. If, in fact, one of these approaches to community life–to the laws and public policies of the society–is most likely to produce widespread well being, over the long run, it will be deemed superior to the other.
Among those who argue for positive liberty or rights, some hold that these are the only kind that in fact exist. For example, Henry Shue, in his book Basic Rights, maintains that since negative liberty or rights are ineffective without being protected, and their protection amounts to providing a service to others, negative liberty or rights actually amount to positive ones. Everyone is owed the protection of his or her negative liberty but this protection is something positive, something that needs to be provided so as to be practically useful, even meaningful.
A similar line of reasoning has been advanced by Cass Sunstein and Stephen Holmes, in their work The Cost of Right, Why Liberty Depends on Taxation. Without being dependent on taxes, which others owe as a reflection of one’s positive right (or, in Sen’s kind of language, an enablement), no one can enjoy negative liberty–it will go unsecured, unprotected. On the other hand, supporters of the notion of negative liberty or rights argue in response that unless the negative liberty or right exists, unless individuals have them, it is conceptually odd to speak of the need to secure or protect them.
We can be sure that this discussion will continue for some time since many deem it central to the issue of whether a robust welfare state or a society of limited government is the truly just political order, at least within the framework of the Western liberal political tradition. For example, the philosopher James P. Sterba has argued in several of his books, and is indeed planning several works, in support of welfare or positive liberty or rights, while the philosophers Jan Narveson, Eric Mack, Douglas B. Rasmussen, et al., have argued, instead, for negative liberty or rights.
It is, of course, possible to argue, also, that this entire discussion rests on the mistaken notion that individuals have rights. Communitarians, among them Auguste Comte, object to this view. Comte argued, as far back as the early nineteenth century, as follows:
“…Everything we have belongs then to Humanity…Positivism never admits anything but duties, of all to all. For its social point of view cannot tolerate the notion of right, constantly based on individualism. We are born loaded with obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. Later they only grow or accumulate before we can return any service. On what human foundation then could rest the idea of right, which in reason should imply some previous efficiency? Whatever may be our efforts, the longest life well employed will never enable us to pay back but an imperceptible part of what we have received. And yet it would only be after a complete return that we should be justly authorized to require reciprocity for the new services. All human rights then are as absurd as they are immoral. This [“to live for others”], the definitive formula of human morality, gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the common source of happiness and duty. [Man must serve] Humanity, whose we are entirely.”
Contemporary communitarians, such as Charles Taylor, also hold that human beings actually belong to some community or other and their conduct, their pursuit of various goals, are contingent upon gaining the sanction of the community–they have no right to act on their own initiative unless they gained the community’s permission to do so. Any notion of individualism that takes it that people are independent agents is a false atomism.
Critics of communitarianism claim, however, that there are conceptual problems with denying some notion of individualism since in advancing their views communitarians are themselves conducting themselves individualistically. They are assuming that they have the right to voice their views, that they need no permission from the community to disagree with the community which is, at least in large portions of the West, individualistic.
Another source of support for the idea of positive liberty is a deterministic view of human behavior, which is increasingly popular. Those who do not fare well may not be regarded as having failed but more as incapable of doing what needs to be done for them to get ahead in their lives. As John Rawls puts the matter, the assertion that we “deserve the superior character that enables us to make the effort to cultivate our talents is…problematic; for such character depends in good part upon fortunate family and social circumstances in early life for which we can claim no credit.” Thus, having more or less (or a higher or lower quality) of what others have is of no moral significance but a matter of the various impersonal forces that shape a person’s life. From this it may be inferred that all who are disadvantaged are victims of circumstances and do not deserve their lot. This is a view that counters the conception of negative liberty that libertarians embrace, namely that once adult men or women are free from interference from others, their flourishing or lack thereof in life must be largely their own achievement.
In any case, despite the attempt to dismiss the debate between advocates of negative and positive liberty, the issue appears to have staying power because political philosophers will continue to affirm certain kinds of liberties or rights for human beings. Which of those are the proper kind is something that will remain both theoretically and practically significant.
Libertarians are supporters only of negative liberty as a feature of a legal system, believing as they do that the goals of positive liberty advocates are attainable without involving government, without mandating what libertarians deem to amount to involuntary servitude from others so that people may flourish. Their position is supported from a variety of perspectives, of course, but it is central to all that individual human beings are sovereign and must not be used against their will by others, including the government.

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