Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty”

In his article “Two Concepts of Liberty”, Isaiah Berlin identifies and contrasts the two components of freedom: negative and positive liberty. While the author’s voice is often confused amidst the frequent references to other political philosophies from Platonic to Millian theories, Berlin successfully argues that both of these notions can be misconstrued to the point where liberty itself is sacrificed. Although reasonable, Berlin’s assessment of the two concepts seems artificial and effortlessly simple, as if freedom could be defined according to a rubric; one can, however, agree with his statement that absolute freedom for one individual undoubtedly limit’s the freedom of another.

Positive liberty, in the simplest sense, is freedom to, answering the question “Who governs me?”; it is the liberty of self-government. Negative liberty, on the other hand, is freedom from, and answers the question “How far does government interfere with me?”; it is the liberty of limited control by government.

According to Berlin, negative liberty is freedom from interference from others; the larger the range of non-interference, the greater one’s negative liberty. As no individual’s actions are committed in a vacuum and will always indirectly affect others, this liberty must be reasonably restricted for the sake of other values, such as equality and justice. As an extension in one’s negative liberty reduces that of another, Berlin states that negative liberty ought to be restricted by law in order for every individual to enjoy it at a minimum. The author reasons that maximum negative liberty could only be feasible in a utopia where all individuals are wholly rational, and where the wishes of all such people are in complete harmony; however, Berlin reasonably determines that such a society is impractical.

As it is not concerned with who governs, but rather the extent of interference by those who do, the author assesses how negative liberty, perhaps unexpectedly, is not directly related to democracy. As long as one can access a private sphere of individual rights, even autocracy or totalitarian states can be welcomed.

Berlin strongly distances such a concept from positive liberty, in which the “self” masters and governs. Thus the application of positive liberty is malleable according to the definition of “self”. This “self” can be defined as the rational part of the individual that remains after suppressing irrational aspects, or as of the social compact of which it is a part. The latter sense redistributes governing power to the state, ethnic group or other social entities with which one identifies, while the former leaves room to interpret what such a “rational self” is and how it can be realized. Here Berlin sanctions the use of coercion as a tool to guide one in his or her best interests in that case that one is not wise or learned enough to realize it for him or herself. The author likens coercion in this sense to young children being forced to attend school: although the parents do, the children are unable to understand the necessity of education. Thus Berlin argues it is easy to confuse coercion with liberty; one might argue that a coerced individual is only acting what he or she had the fully rational and wise capacity.

Berlin also highlights how the search for individual liberty may lead to conformity to another’s will. If one is ruled by a despot and allowed little negative liberty, adjusting one’s wishes to those of the despot may seem like freeing oneself from oppression. In the case that one is not free as his or her wishes are impractical, one can simply desert such wishes; for if one does not desire something, he or she will not be influenced having it taken away. As Berlin articulates, “If I find that I am able to do little or nothing of what I wish, I need only contract or extinguish my wishes, and I am made free.” One is able to deny oneself in order to prevent others from doing the same.

Unfortunately the author never presents a wholly sound distinction between negative and positive liberty, as each negative liberty can logically render itself a positive one. Berlin’s final arguments suggest pluralism, highlighting that there is no single compatible goal or ideal uniform to all individuals; Berlin is clear that a strict minimum of negative liberty is necessary. His estimations of such implications of liberty are both logical and convincing: that an intrusion on the rights of others will always occur in the case of one’s heightened liberty, and that any endeavour to broaden one’s liberty would require the restructuring of the definition of freedom itself. Liberty, according to Berlin, is not committed to democracy; thus, just as authority must be limited for liberty to subsist, so must liberty be restrained for it to be of any significance.

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