Freedom From and Freedom To
ie negative and positive freedom
Negative freedom (ie freedom from) is freedom from obstacles. It's called negative because it's about something that's absent - ie obstacles.
Positive freedom is the freedom to do something; eat, learn, travel etc.
So the negative/positive dimension is about the absence or presence of something - it's not necessarily a moral dimension.
This distinction has been significant since Isiah Berlin explored in the 1950s but glimmerings of it have been around for a while.
It is seen as what divides conservatives seem to be more interested in negative freedom while progressives seem to be more interested in positive freedom.
(Label alert - when you read the literature on this what I'm calling conservatives are called liberals - sometimes classic liberals. So, philosophically liberals are right wing, not left wing as in popular discourse).
(And it's kind of interesting - in the SEP article I read about this they had a label for the liberals but not one for those who favoured positive freedom - found here:
(For clarity in the present context I'm going to use the current label for classic liberals - libertarians. I'm using the term in the sense of the mainstream in American politics. And like all labels so much is covered by that we need to be careful.)
Berlin's distinction seems fairly clear and even intuitive but when we look into the details we run into a snarl.
Libertarians want minimal restriction and consider taxation to support programs they don't want to voluntarily support to be an unacceptable invasion of their freedom to not be constrained. The idea is that everyone be free to do whatever they want as long as they don't infringe on anybody else's freedom to do what they want.
But libertarians also need an important positive freedom - they need to be able to enter into and enforce contracts. And contracts themselves represent severe constraints. A contract is basically agreement among people to constrain their behavior in future in certain ways in return for certain benefits. Negative freedom concentrates on the various interactions that people engage in and is one of the bases of western democracies. When we talk about free speech and free press and freedom to assemble and freedom to dress as you please etc you are talking about negative freedom. Negative freedom is associated with the values of an individualistic society where all citizens are expected to be able to look after themselves.
It's also a part of the set of values needed for our concept of private property.
The paradox of course is that libertarian society evolves into a more and more oligarchic one because the logic of the creation of surplus value means that the wealth and power of the oligarchs grows exponentially. A point is reached where the oligarchs are the main source of constraint.
Positive freedom is what the welfare state is based on.
It's the idea that not being constrained is meaningless if you don't have the ability to do something.
For instance - it's meaningless to be 'free' to eat if you have no food. Positive freedom is often associated with charity where good hearted people provide for others that which they think the others need.
And of course the danger of charity is an oppressive paternalism where people get forced to do things 'for their own good'. One of the sources of the welfare state was the realization that charity was not a good way of providing for the unfortunate - without direct oversight by democratic governments watched by a free press charity gets Dickensian real fast.
A sickening episode of that happened in Canada within my own lifetime. Thousands of aboriginal children were shipped to church schools for their own good. The stories of the abuse they faced are horrifying.
And that observation about charities got transferred willy nilly to all conceptions of positive freedom - but is the connection necessary?
I know smokers feel the state is being paternalistic in restricting their habit. And the rest of us think that the state needs to provide us with freedom from second hand smoke.
Armatya Sen talks about providing the capabilities that people need to be able to live a good life. The good life is fairly clearly defined; everyone able to participate in their society as they want because they have the skills, opportunities, and resources to do that. There is no need in a democracy for that to turn into an oppressive system - but given you experience with charity it's hard for us even now to resist the temptation to make social assistance paternalistic.
But does this dichotomy proposed by Berlin really cut the issue at it's joints?
Gerald MacCallum thought not.
". . . there is in fact only one basic concept of freedom, on which both sides in the debate converge. What the so-called negative and positive theorists disagree about is how this single concept of freedom should be interpreted."
Indeed, in MacCallum's view, there are a great many different possible interpretations of freedom, and it is only Berlin's artificial dichotomy that has led us to think in terms of there being two.
MacCallum defines the basic concept of freedom - the concept on which everyone agrees - as follows: a subject, or agent, is free from certain constraints, or preventing conditions, to do or become certain things.
The discussion of freedom can get complex.
If you have been renting someplace for decades what are the implications for freedom if you get evicted so your landlord's son can take it over?
On the one hand - as long as contracts are being enforced then there is no implication for freedom. On the other hand one person is being forced to move in the interests of another.
And this can be very unjust. Imagine that in the decades of renting the renter's payments had actually paid off the entire mortgage on the house at no expense to the landlord. Something about evicting somebody in that sort of situation just seems to me to fly in the very face of the idea of freedom. You've paid your way and should be entitled to be left alone.
What do you think?