Conceptions of Freedom

Who is against freedom? This word having been commandeered by the right serves as the most prominent principle upon which they plant their banner. Unfortunately, they have turned a beautiful idea into a demented concept. Freedom have become a puppet for the rich and powerful. You can’t argue against freedom or you lose. Indeed you don’t need to nor would you want to. It just so happens that Freedom means something entirely different than the Right thinks it does.

If you want to be articulate in political debate you’re going to have to have a battery of arguments ranging from the empirical, to the economically demonstrable, to the philosophical. Few ideas will be more important than how to articulate a positive conception of Freedom.

Negative Freedom vs Positive Freedom

Clearly, what is at issue here is not a belief in freedom or a commitment to liberty as a desirable value but rather some very consequential differences in the definition of freedom. One of the most important distinctions was made by philosopher Isaiah Berlin with his lectures entitled “Two Concepts of Liberty.”

Berlin defined negative liberty (as the term “liberty” was used by Thomas Hobbes [3]) as the absence of coercion or interference with agents’ possible private actions, by an exterior social-body. Positive liberty may be understood as self-mastery, and includes one’s having a role in choosing who governs the society of which one is a part. Positive liberty is the freedom of empowerment – the ability to act. Without positive liberty, you can’t do anything. If you can’t do anything, you are not free.

Do NOT let Libertarians and Republicans define Freedom. Doing so results in arguing on their terms. It results in a loss at worst and a stalemate at best. You must take back the conception of Liberty to be successful in articulating a Progressive vision of Freedom.

One way to sort through the competing conceptualizations of freedom is to distinguish between negative freedom and positive freedom. Most of us think of freedom as the ability to do whatever we desire without the interference of someone else. For example, if someone locks you in a prison or threatens to kill you for speaking your mind, you are not free. If a government forces you to practice a particular religious faith or makes it illegal to obtain a formal education, you are not free. And we would all agree that someone who is bought and sold as a slave or who is otherwise restricted from participating in the political system is not free. We call this particular understanding of freedom negative because it focuses on the negative barriers that must be removed before a person is able to do what they want or be whatever they desire. This is the understanding of freedom that Governor George Wallace of Alabama was using when he argued against the new civil rights legislation that outlawed racial segregation in his state. It is also the definition of freedom that motivated Ted Kaczynski to physically isolate himself in rural Montana and to write in his “manifesto” that “one does not have freedom if anyone else (especially a large organization) has power over one, no matter how benevolently, tolerantly and permissively that power may be exercised.” The problem with negative freedom, however, is that it is based on the myth of individualism and is therefore incomplete and unbalanced. Positive freedom, in contrast, begins with the assumption that human action is inherently social and that real liberty requires more than the removal of barriers. Under positive freedom there is the additional focus on providing the resources that enable people to achieve or realize their full potential. For example, can we say that people are truly free to vote if there is no polling station within one hundred miles of their home? Are children truly free to receive a formal education if attendance requires unaffordable tuition? Does someone actually have free political speech if they have no access to a media platform? And can we say there is a right to life when health care necessary for survival is denied? Positive freedom emphasizes both the removal of barriers and the creation of a social context necessary for free action. This is the view of freedom that Martin Luther King Jr. was advocating when he criticized communism for its excessive social barriers and critiqued capitalism for its excessive individualism. “Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both.”[19] Positive freedom reminds us that our individual autonomy is wrapped up with the freedom and autonomy of others. One person’s freedom to smoke can limit another person’s freedom to breathe clean air and live a healthy life. One person’s freedom to sell their house to anyone they please can limit another person’s freedom to live wherever they please. And one person’s right to hire and fire employees can limit someone else’s freedom to work and earn a living.

-Myth of Individualism.

If you are successful at articulating a positive conception of Freedom, you control the board and succeed and presenting a Liberal conception of public empowerment and civil action as a means to true freedom, the ability to act. Health Care, Education, job training programs, worker rights and consumer protection become pathways to freedom. Not merely tyranny by plutocracy.

Freedom for Everyone

In order for freedom to have meaning, freedom must be available to everyone. Without the ability to own property and capital to profit from, you are not free in a capitalistic society. Without safety from attack and security from threat you are not free. Without the ability to keep from starving or dying from lack of resource, without access to health care, each circumstance resulting in death – you are not free. The dead aren’t free. For freedom to have meaning you must actually be able to do something.

If rights are only available via purchasing power, your freedom is certainly not absolute and intrinsic as the Libertarians would have you believe. It is available only to people with private purchasing power. You are free to the extent that you can buy freedom. Freedom is not a commodity. A system of private courts and police removes freedom from everyone as an absolute turns it into a product. For those with lack of purchasing power, nothing could be more free. A liberal, progressive system of government ensuring security is available to everyone is freedom. To Rothdardists and “Voyenterists” nothing could really be less free.

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