The Difference

Yes another draft with some semantic, grammar and stylistic flaws I’ll address!

A recent article in the New York Times discusses the French challenge between “personal freedom and government oversight”. I prefer stating it as a balance between negative liberty and positive liberty, where negative liberty is viewed as a lack of constraints and positive liberty as the requirements society must facilitate towards self-realization.

This isn’t to say that the descriptor “negative” in liberty translates to this freedom being “bad”. It isn’t. It’s a necessity in the overall constellation of liberties. However, negative freedom, taken to an extreme, infringes on other, positive freedoms.

Strong proponents of negative liberty, (think libertarians, especially) almost always either disagree that there is such a definition of positive freedom, or at best, strive to make positive liberty subservient to negative liberty. They have a fear of positive liberty taken to an extreme, which they define as a paternalistic state that infringes on their negative liberties. They fear, and are fueled by the teachings of Hegal, Von Mises, and others, that a state empowered to guard negative liberties can turn into tyranny, citing the totalitarian states of the 20th century as examples of states supporting positive liberties gone awry.

Proponents of positive liberty-the concept of which which, by nature, is a much more complex subject, cite the absolute requirement that our society strive to facilitate its citizens towards self-realization, and to do so, work to ensure that its citizens have access to the core requirements of life so as to enable that quest. These requirements translate to health care for all, unemployment assistance as a compensation for society not making jobs available, and a whole plethora of enablers, ranging from a living wage standard to ensuring quality educational opportunities are available to all classes, regardless of income. This is where concepts such as solidarity become essential.

It used to be, say from about 1940 to about 1980, that both sides of the American political aisle paid heed to both positive and negative liberties, the difference being one of emphasis. Think of Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms”:

1. Freedom of speech (a negative liberty- a lack of constraint on free expression)
2. Freedom of worship (another negative liberty – a lack of constraint on religious expression or lack thereof)
3. Freedom from want (absolutely a positive liberty – health care, enough to eat, a living wage, etc.)
4. Freedom from fear (a positive liberty where the state is responsible for maintaining safety at many levels, including a responsibility by the state itself to not impose fear on its own citizens)

There is nothing there that Eisenhower or Nixon, for example would disagree with. For that matter, as the two most recent popes, for example, stated respectively that universal health care is an “inalienable right”, as are such concepts as a living wage and freedom from hunger, that there is a recognition across the spectrum that positive liberties are essential to true freedom.

But something has changed in America, and really only in the USA, and changed very radically in the last thirty years, accelerating to the radical Right of today, especially as exemplified by the growth of libertarianism and such “Know Nothing” movements as the Tea Party. Such movements are dead set against the establishment of positive liberties with an emotionalism that challenges the very name of “Objectivism” that many of these folks espouse.

In a way, this is no surprise. The political party that most closely espouses the goals of for-profit enterprises promotes negative liberty (lack of constraints), often at the expense of positive liberty, as positive liberties are forced at times to impose constraints to protect other, more precious freedoms. Think of environmental regulations. They impose constraints on corporate “negative liberties” so as to make sure that we have clean water, clean air, and clean food to eat.

These corporations have little to no interest in positive freedom. In fact, generally speaking, they view positive freedoms as getting in the way of their profits. Hence they promote a “negative liberty” worldview that fits nicely with libertarianism. The result? A political party that dispenses with positive liberties.

This dichotomy, I believe, is the very definition of the debate between the American Left and Right today. The Right has fallen into a self-defeating paradigm of recognizing negative liberties only as true liberty, and *can’t* break out of this paradigm because it is so deeply in thrall to forces that reject notions of positive liberty.

The Left has a much more balanced view – that, yes, of course negative liberty is important, but so is positive liberty, and a society that does not safeguard positive liberty in and of itself becomes one of tyranny.

My point is that those proponents of a negative liberty-only world view, in their mad race to break free of every societal constraint possible, are in and of themselves trampling on our ancient, positive freedoms.

And because they trample on those ancient freedoms, they become tyrants themselves, no matter how loudly they shout “Liberty and Freedom!”