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Study notes

Negative & Positive Freedom (Liberalism)

  • Levels: A Level, IB
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel, IB

In regard to the two main strands of liberal thought, classical liberals advocate negative freedom whereas social liberals favour positive freedom

Negative freedom (or negative liberty) consists of freedom from something whereas positive freedom (or positive liberty) consists of the ability to do something. Negative freedom therefore consists of laws to combat discrimination whereas positive freedom enables those on limited incomes to lead a more fulfilled and meaningful existence. .

The distinction between positive and negative freedom is a significant one in terms of the proper role of the state. The goal of negative freedom demands a limited role for the state, whereas positive freedom results in a larger role for the state. Following on from this, the role of the state is an absolutely key dividing line within liberal thought between those on the right of the libertarian axis and those on the left.

In the realm of economic policy, classical liberals such as the Austrian school of economists extol the virtues of laissez-faire economies. The role of the state must therefore be limited to that of a night-watchman (e.g. to ensure that legal contracts are upheld and the marketplace runs smoothly). In contrast, social liberals such as the founder of the modern welfare state William Beveridge (1942) believe that the most vulnerable within society require a degree of state assistance. Frankly, it is difficult to disagree with his assertion that “a starving man is not free.”

Extension material:

In later work on the concept of freedom, Isaiah Berlin (1969) argued that positive liberty enables the individual to take control of their life. Positive liberty can therefore be understood to mean the freedom to perform an action of some description. As such, positive liberty facilitates the creation of a welfare state. Negative liberty however reflects the absence of barriers and constraints. We thereby possess negative liberty to the extent that actions are available to us. Of the two, Berlin actually favoured negative freedom because it means we are the masters of our own destiny. Negative freedom upholds the notion of the unencumbered self, whereas despotism is made possible when the state decides what is in our best interests. A state that provides for our welfare needs from cradle to grave ultimately has the ability to take liberty away from us.

The distinction between negative and positive freedom was developed further by the liberal theorist T.H. Green. He fully recognised that laws alone cannot make people good, but they can at least enable individuals to make themselves good. T.H. Green thereby reflects a non-utopian view as to what legislation can achieve (in contrast to utopian socialists such as Robert Owen). He also believed that our ego is constrained by a degree of altruism.

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