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Is Liberty Negative or Positive?

Contemporary debates over public policy have deep ideological roots, and these roots reach far deeper than what a pundit’s talking points will betray.  In the West, where personal freedom is often prized as the chief public value, individual liberty is a frequent measuring stick that we employ in judging the merits of a given public policy.  But vast disagreement about policy persists; our public discourse is as polarized as it has ever been in recent memory.

A major root of these policy disagreements—particularly when it comes to economic policy—lies in how we define the concept of personal freedom.  Many of us do, to a large extent, judge policies by whether or not they promote “freedom.”  The problem is that we hold vastly different visions of what freedom actually is, so we end up measuring policies very differently.  If we are to truly understand our political opponents and make progress in contemporary debates, we need to understand and appreciate the different visions of freedom that undergird and inform so many of the policies we advocate.

Two Basic Visions

The American founders adhered to the philosophical tradition now known as classical liberalism.  Classical liberalism, rooted in Locke, Montesquieu, Burke, and others, posits a view of negative political freedom.  It defines freedom primarily as freedom from external molestation, political oppression, and the like.  If we are free from these hindrances, this view says, then we are free.  This vision understands human rights as intrinsic, as God-given, and these include the rights to life, liberty, and property. (Jefferson would later replace “property” with “the pursuit of happiness,” but the original phrase belongs to Locke.)  So long as government did not intrude upon the fundamental human liberties endowed by God, men would be free.

“Negative liberty creates the conditions under which positive liberties can actually be spread.”

This view of freedom has, for centuries, stood opposite a competing view of positive freedom.  Led by thinkers like Rousseau, Godwin, and Marx, this positive vision accepts the negative vision’s criteria as necessary, but insufficient for having true freedom.  It says that freedom is not simply the freedom to be left alone, but the freedom to succeed in life.  If one is protected from violence, from theft, and can vote, that’s great—but those freedoms, they say, are empty and useless if they do not result in personal success and happiness.  This is the vision of freedom we now see dominating European social democracies like Sweden, France, Denmark and Spain.

These two visions of political freedom can be distilled thusly: one believes in the individual right to pursue happiness, and the other believes in the right to happiness.  One sees the state’s role as securing the conditions for citizens to pursue happiness; the other sees the state as the rightful means for achieving a certain level of societal happiness.

Orienting Ourselves

So, which view is right?  And how can we know?

Here is where the Christian worldview helps us out.  Christians understand that God’s created order—particularly the social order of families, churches, local communities and economic institutions—is fundamentally good.  And not only are these structures good; they preexist government and constitute the true theater for human flourishing.  Human beings most fully actualize their humanity by existing within these structures—leading families, serving as deacons at church, running businesses, coaching little league teams.  These are the stuff of true human flourishing, and they are goods that government simply cannot deliver.

While the government can’t deliver these goods, it can certainly threaten and destroy them through bad policy.  Undue taxation hurts businesses; the welfare state erodes families and disincentivizes altruism; redistributionism stifles human achievement and discourages work.  And even when government holds a true and healthy vision of social flourishing, no policy that it legislates can automatically make people flourish.  The raw materials for human flourishing preexist government; they consist in the organic social structures that God has ordained.  Good government will recognize this, and instead of seeking to engineer human flourishing, it will focus on securing the legal preconditions for flourishing—the protections of life, liberty, and property.

So how does this answer the critique brought by our Marxist friends?  Isn’t economic empowerment, as they suggest, part-and-parcel of being free?

The answer is not a simple yes or no.  Economic empowerment does make a huge difference; it does make you more free.  But the more important question to ask is, how does that kind of flourishing actually emerge and sustain itself over time?  As we just noted, it does not happen by artificial government intervention.  When government intervenes, it often ends up undermining the organic social structures that are the true soil for human flourishing—families and communities.  If economic capital is prerequisite for human flourishing, it is equally true that society’s organic social structures are prerequisite for accruing economic capital.  Both are necessary for human flourishing.  In supplying the economic side of the equation, government actually erodes the social part, and this, in turn, only hinders the lower classes from accruing wealth over time.  The redistribution of wealth turns out to be a bad trade-off rather than an economic solution.

So yes, “negative” liberty is not the fullest form of liberty—but it is the only kind of political liberty that allows other positive liberties to develop and flourish.  Understood this way—as a prerequisite for the future growth of positive liberty—negative liberty looks better and better.  It does not automatically guarantee positive liberty, but it creates the political conditions under which positive liberties can actually be spread, and where more and more people can flourish.  Such possibilities can only be realized under negative liberty—for if government seeks to secure positive liberties, it will only undermine the foundations for their attainment.

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