Should the State Promote Positive Liberty?

Critically discuss the argument (Isiah Berlin) that the state should not promote positive liberty.

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The term freedom has always been a difficult discussion; there are various views of freedom in different fields. According to Heywood, A, (2004), he pointed out that in philosophy, freedom is often described as an attribute of the will to observe and study. However, in economics and sociology, freedom has always been seen as a social relationship. The political theorist often viewed freedom as a liberal ethic or normative principles. Among many definitions of freedom, Isiah Berlin subdivided freedom into positive and negative liberty. On the basis of this distinction, Berlin not only declared that positive liberty concept is the theoretical basis of totalitarianism, but also aggressively criticized the concept of positive freedom. He believed that the state should not promote positive freedom. In this essay, we will discuss the theoretical structure from Berlin’s concepts of liberty and pros or cons respectively. Also discussion about whether the state should not advocate positive liberty will be included.

According to the Berlin (1958) in the “Two Concepts of Liberty” i??the concepts of “negative liberty” and “positive liberty ” were clearly distinguished. The “negative liberty” was defined as a personal action without interference from others. For instance, the individual has the freedom that others do not have right to attack him. The “positive liberty ” means that the choices of individuals living pattern were decided by themselves rather than any other factors, or simply known as everyone has the freedom to pursuit happiness. In other words, the purpose of negative freedom is the protection of individual rights and resistance of collective rights, which serves for the implementation of various individual rights. For the positive freedom, its main purpose is to obtain certain interests or achieve contain goals. Mostly it displays in the social rights of various participatory. Therefore, it is often expressed as social rights.

Isiah Berlin indicated in his theory of freedom that positive freedom always lead to despotism and society should focus on negative freedom. Pursuing positive freedom may lead to no freedom. For instance, we asked for the right of education, which is a positive freedom. It will require government intervention; hence the power of government will increase accordingly. It may result in a violation of individual freedom. As comparison, the negative freedom is less risky. The freedom of not suffering from invasion by external forces is a fine illustration of such point. If people want to enhance the negative freedom, we only need to change regulations. However to promote the positive liberty, not only we need to change the distribution system, but also the ability of mankind. More importantly it is related to the desire of people. Therefore, compare with negative freedom, positive freedom has more opportunities for people to abuse.

Criticism of positive freedom from Berlin was very critical. He warned us that dangers come with positive freedom, which are restriction and compulsion. Berlin thought that positive freedom has a generally applicable correct mode, rationale for instance, and we should do everything in accordance with this model. However, in reality, people are affected by various factors including level of understanding, which leads to diffident opinions about right model. Therefore, they need an authority to define what the right model is and force people to comply such rule. Eventually, people will follow the rules under the power of authority, but meanwhile it has changed freedom to restriction. Berlin called the procedure of turning positive freedom into not restriction as strange conversion. After such change, the reversal of positive liberty becomes deprival of freedom. However, in fact such phenomenon is unlikely to happen. Berlin was not completely certain about positive freedom will move toward to constraint and inevitable fetter. He only recognized that the possibility was extremely high. Based on that, Fromm,E (1941) refuted the view of Berlin. He thought that positive freedom has a generally applicable correct mode. This mode implies that people can only act in accordance with this model without other choices. He analyzed through German history to understand the reason of Nazi successful controlling their power. He believed despotism of Nazi could be achieved based on the two premises. The first one is that with the development of society, people have the negative liberty, which appeared before the rise of capitalism. The second one is that people obtained the negative liberty, but not the positive freedom. He also indicated that freedom will become constraint even tyranny, if and only if society does not have positive freedom. Fromm’ opinion was consistent with other members from Frankfurt school. They all thought that fascism and capitalism had a close relationship. The tyranny of Nazi will become a powerful weapon to deny Berlin’ view, as no matters what negative freedom will always stay the same. In Fromm,E ‘s opinion, state should promote positive liberty due to it will promote development of society. Although in Berlin’ view, the positive freedom is always connected with rationalism and through the rationalism, it can turn into constraint or autocracy. However, negative liberty will also face such problem. For example, when people do not have any restrictions, they will do anything just based on their desires, and this will lead to conflict inevitably. Therefore, as a result, we need the law to limit the people’ freedom. Based on that, positive and negative freedom face the same issue as law is required to restrain both of them.

The negative freedom and positive freedom must be considered as equally important factors when people discuss the problem of freedom. However, because of positive freedom is very easy to be used by the autocratic government. It always associated with a very poor reputation, which makes people embarrassing to advocate positive liberty. Taylor, (1985) pointed out, contemporary liberalism paid too much attention to the negative freedom and rejected positive freedom. This behavior was inappropriate. The negative freedom and positive freedom are indispensable parts of the liberty. In order to achieve real freedom, it is necessary to link both of them. Secondly, in the real practice, positive freedom is one of the most essential freedoms in any society. Negative freedom alone can never constitute freedom completely. If there is no positive freedom, negative freedom cannot exist by itself. For example, the right to vote is recognized in all free societies. Such freedom is an essential condition for guaranteeing various freedoms. However, this freedom itself is not a negative freedom, but a positive freedom. According to this, positive freedom is always the condition of guaranteeing and completing negative freedom. So the negative liberty could not be understood and implemented alone. Apart from voting right, we can cite many other apparent examples, which also belongs to the positive freedom and also very important that we cannot understate it. For example, it includes obtaining the basic right of survival; the rights of freedom of speech, press freedom; the right of education; the right of obtaining medical support and healthy environment; the right of obtaining healthy food; and the right of enjoying the sunshine, clean air and water. Everyone has to admit that these rights are critically important, but they are all positive freedom. Therefore, it is incorrect that Berlin suggested that state should not promote the positive freedom and only keep the negative freedom. He ignored the importance of positive freedom, as the freedom that people wanted to obtain it directly is always a positive freedom, these freedoms help people to carry their life. Negative freedom should only be used to guarantee or protect the positive freedom. If there is no positive freedom, negative freedom will lose its meaning. The goal of freedom is the positive freedom; negative freedom is just a rational agreement, which provides a limit upon positive liberty. It can be seen that the negative freedom itself is hollow; its only content is to guarantee rational strategy of positive freedom.

In the conclusion, Berlin’s theory was against positive freedom, and mainly it was directly against the positive freedom of Marxism. He stated that the positive freedom of Marxism will lead to a totalitarian society, which will vanish individual freedom. However, we cannot just focus on negative liberty and ignore positive liberty, and vice versa .We need to link them together, use the negative freedom as the premise, then we could carry out various positive measures to protect the negative freedom. Therefore, if the positive freedom implemented without negative freedom, it will fall into compulsion or tyranny as Berlin said. However if the negative freedom does not involve positive freedom, it will become weak and fragile, as such freedom cannot maintain a long time by itself. So if a state wants to achieve a good level of development, only negative freedom is inadequacy. Hence the state needs to promote the positive freedom, as it has its own unique value, which also made a certain contribution to the society.


Heywood,A.,(2004).Political Theory: An Introduction .3rd Edition
Berlin, I., (1969). Four Essays on Liberty,Oxford: Oxford University Press
Matravers, D., & Pike, J., & Warburton, N. (2000). Reading Political Philosophy: Machiavelli to Mill.P231
Fromm,E.,(1941). Escape from Freedom. Inc., New York
Fromm,E., (1942). The Fear of Freedom. Inc., Great Britain
Taylor, C., (1979). What’s wrong with Negative Liberty, in D. Miller (ed.) (1991), Liberty. P141-162