1. Liberty for the many, not for the few

The first step to renewing politics is to free the imagination from the mental habits that have got us where we are, and nowhere is this truer than in thinking about liberty. What follows is not a definitive theory of political liberty, but simply an attempt to open up the imagination to the possibilities of an idea which has been distorted by decades of ideology.

Isaiah Berlin, a Russian-born British philosopher writing in the 1950s, made a famous distinction between negative and positive liberty. Negative liberty is “the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others”. I am free if no-one stops me doing what I want to do. This intuitive idea is at the core of classical liberalism and has given us freedom of speech and association, freedom from religious persecution etc. These vital protections of the human person are under threat from nationalist populism and must be safeguarded. A narrower, purely economic version (neoliberalism) has dominated recently: the idea that corporations and individuals should be free from taxes and regulations in order to contribute to a growing economy and (it was said) benefit all. This dimension of liberty has dominated in recent decades, indeed it has been presented as liberty itself, and any who question it have been labelled the “enemies of liberty”.

On the other hand, said Berlin, there was positive liberty, which exists when I am “moved by reasons, by conscious purposes, which are my own, not by causes which affect me…from outside”. I am free if I am rationally autonomous. Whereas liberal liberty was external, this was an internal capacity. Berlin thought however that the idea of positive liberty carried a risk: that those in power might take themselves to be more rational than ordinary folk, and force citizens to do what they would do, if only they could see what was in their real interests. People need sometimes, as Rousseau had put it back in 1762, to be “forced to be free”. Examples of this danger range from the “Terror” period of the French Revolution to Maoist “reeducation” camps in 20th Century China. As a good liberal, Berlin thought it was safer, in politics at least, to limit ourselves to the pursuit of negative liberty.

Let me pause a moment to point out two problems with Berlin’s ideas. Firstly, his definition of positive liberty is too narrow: it is limited to intellectual capacities, in particular “reason”. Real individuals’ capacity for action depends however on a much wider range of physical, intellectual and emotional abilities: physical strength, manual skills, qualities of character such as self-confidence and resilience, and so on. Secondly, Berlin only saw the dangers of positive liberty. He ignored the massive potential of positive liberty: empowering citizens to think and act for themselves, by helping them develop precisely the kind of physical, emotional and intellectual capabilities mentioned above. Berlin threw out the baby with the bathwater, as liberals so often do. There is no reason we can’t have basic rights and help individuals to realise their full potential.

Berlin left the analysis there, with negative, external liberty on one hand, and positive, internal liberty on the other. But positive and negative liberty can exist both internally and externally. Consider negative, internal liberty: obstacles to free action can very well be internal as well as external. Agoraphobia is every bit as powerful as a physical barrier in preventing someone who suffers from it from venturing outside. Even mild emotions can curb free action: as when a moderate shyness prevents me speaking out in public. Isn’t it just bad luck if I suffer from such “internal tyranny” resulting from my own “demons”? To a degree, yes, but society can do much to prevent this tyranny arising in the first place and support those who suffer from it.

What about an external but nevertheless positive liberty? We might take this to mean having a wide range of (educational, social, professional, cultural, natural etc.) opportunities open to me – having a meaningful choice. Adam and Eve were free not only because they possessed free will, but also because they had a range of options set before them. In a desert they might have been considered free in one sense, but freedom is not meaningful if it cannot be exercised.

  Negative Positive
External Absence of external coercion – “liberal liberty” Presence of natural, social, educational etc. opportunities
Internal Absence of internal barriers – fears, phobias, “mutilated” ideas etc. Presence of physical, intellectual, and emotional capacities.

So there are four dimensions of liberty, rather than just one or two. Negative liberty is the “natural” philosophy of the privileged elite. Those who are lucky enough to possess some of the ingredients of liberty in the wider sense: natural and/or social advantages like excellent physical and health, parents who were able to give strong emotional support or pay for tutoring, an expensive private education, a wide range of useful social contacts and so on, tend to wonder what the rest of us are whining on about, bewail the slightest tax rise as an attack on their precious liberty, and tell us to “pull up our socks” or “get on our bike”. It’s liberty for the few.

“Liberty for the many” would mean bearing all four dimensions of liberty in mind, helping all to enjoy some of the benefits that a privileged minority take for granted, and thus levelling the playing field in line with the philosophy of radical democracy. Concretely, it would mean things such as a public education system that produced confident, creative individuals and critical thinkers, rather than exam hoop-jumpers and “obedient workers“, provided greater support for early childhood parenting and lifelong mental healthcare, and a rich environment of cultural and natural opportunities (reopening the closed youth clubs and libraries, and giving greater access to our common – but confiscated – natural heritage). Can we afford such a programme? If we can afford to bail out the banks, tolerate massive tax avoidance by the wealthy and corporations, and fund unnecessary wars, then “yes we can”!

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