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Concepts of Liberty

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Concepts of Liberty:

In his famous essay, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, first published in 1958, Isaiah Berlin has discussed about Negative and Positive liberty. Positive liberty emerged from modern liberalism, whereas, negative liberty emerged from classical and neoclassical liberalism. Isaiah Berlin believed that liberty is unrestrained.

Classical liberalism is based on a belief of ‘minimum government’. In such a system, the role of the state is limited to the maintenance of law and order along with personal security.

Neoliberalism has a strong belief in free market economies and individualism. Key neoliberal policies include privatisation, spending cuts in welfare schemes, tax cuts for corporate among others.

Negative liberty:

It opposes all restraints on liberty. It believes that the State should not interfere in the life of an individual. Non interference of the State in the social and economic life of an individual is a characteristic of negative liberty. Any restriction on the freedom of an individual endangers liberty. Therefore, Negative liberty opposes force, terror, coercion and the interference of the State.

Similarly, J.S.Mill also spoke of negative liberty in his book ‘On Liberty’. He supported non interference of socio-political system for the protection of liberty. Mill also pointed out the correlation between the freedom of thought and the freedom of action. He promoted freedom of thought for the development of an individual as negative liberty. But he also calculated the impact of any action on society. He argued that if any action can qualitatively impact on the society rather than an individual; then in such a situation Mill rejects the idea of negative liberty. Therefore Mill’s concept of negative liberty is different from Isaiah Berlin.

Negative liberty opposes all restraints on liberty. It believes that the State should not interfere in the life of an individual. Non interference of the State in the social and economic life of an individual is a characteristic of negative liberty. Any restriction on the freedom of an individual endangers liberty. Therefore, Negative liberty opposes force, terror, coercion and the interference of the State.

Similarly, J.S.Mill also spoke of negative liberty in his book ‘On Liberty’. He supported non interference of socio-political system for the protection of liberty. Mill also pointed out the correlation between the freedom of thought and the freedom of action. He promoted freedom of thought for the development of an individual as negative liberty. But he also calculated the impact of any action on society. He argued that if any action can qualitatively impact on the society rather than an individual; then in such a situation Mill rejects the idea of negative liberty. Therefore Mill’s concept of negative liberty is different from Isaiah Berlin.Critics, however, have objected that the ideal described by Humboldt and Mill looks much more like a positive concept of liberty than a negative one. Positive liberty consists, they say, in exactly this growth of the individual: the free individual is one that develops, determines and changes her own desires and interests autonomously and from within. This is not liberty as the mere absence of obstacles, but liberty as autonomy or self-realization. Why should the mere absence of state interference be thought to guarantee such growth?

Isaiah Berlin has mentioned the following features of negative liberty.

  • Individual should have complete freedom of choice. He should not have restraints on choice of alternatives. Opposition to such restraints is a feature of negative liberty.
  • Negative Liberty is based on Neo liberalism.

Positive liberty:

Positive liberty is advocated by Rousseau and Herbert Marcuse. The concept of positive liberty has emerged from modern liberalism. The concept of negative liberty cannot appropriately explain the idea of liberty. Modern liberals have advocated that there is a correlation between liberty, equality, justice, fraternity and collective interest. They also state that liberty affects equality and justice.

Modern liberalism propounds the importance of the state. State intervention through welfare policies can therefore enlarge liberty by safeguarding individuals from the social evils.

Rousseau has put forth the concept of Positive liberty because he believed that the obedience to moral laws will enhance liberty. He accepted rational collective interest of the society. State is a sovereign power which represents the ‘General Will’ hence he supports the idea of state control over individual.

General will, in political theory, a collectively held will that aims at the common good or common interest. The general will is central to the political philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and an important concept in modern republican thought. Rousseau distinguished the general will from the particular and often contradictory wills of individuals and groups. In Du Contrat social (1762; The Social Contract), Rousseau argued that freedom and authority are not contradictory, since legitimate laws are founded on the general will of the citizens. In obeying the law, the individual citizen is thus only obeying himself as a member of the political community.

Marcuse has explained his thoughts about positive liberty in his books, ‘One Dimensional Man’ and ‘Eros and Civilisation’. He said, “Scientific and technological development, has increased standard of living but has not reduced inequality in society”. This has obstructed cultural development of the society. According to him, American society has lost individual liberty and self-esteem. He argues about positive liberty that an individual is like a bird in a golden cage; who has lost the ability to fly high in the sky. He does not even think of rebelling as he has not experienced the joy of freedom. He advocates collective control as essential in community life, as a principle of positive liberty and hence supports State interference. For example, in order to maintain a pollution free environment, collective action for community good is required. Use of force is justified for community well-being.

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