Isaiah Berlin on Negative Freedom
One of the best-known and most influential present-day treatments of liberty is that of Sir Isaiah Berlin. In his Two Concepts of Liberty, Berlin upheld the concept of “negative liberty”—absence of interference with a person’s sphere of action—as against “positive liberty,” which refers not to liberty at all but to an individual’s effective power or mastery over himself or his environment.
Superficially Berlin’s concept of negative liberty seems similar to the thesis of the present volume: that liberty is the absence of physically coercive interference or invasion of an individual’s person and property. Unfortunately, however, the vagueness of Berlin’s concepts led to confusion and to the absence of a systematic and valid libertarian creed.
One of Berlin’s fallacies and confusions he himself recognized in a later essay and edition of his original volume. In his Two Concepts of Liberty, he had written that “I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no human being interferes with my activity. Political liberty in this sense is simply the area within which a man can do what he wants.”1 Or, as Berlin later phrased it, “In the original version of Two Concepts of Liberty I speak of liberty as the absence of obstacles to the fulfillment of a man’s desires.”2 But, as he later realized, one grave problem with this formulation is that a man can be held to be “free” in proportion as his wants and desires are extinguished, for example by external conditioning. As Berlin states in his corrective essay,
If degrees of freedom were a function of the satisfaction of desires, I could increase freedom as effectively by eliminating desires as by satisfying them; I could render men (including myself) free by conditioning them into losing the original desires which I have decided not to satisfy.3
In his later (1969) version, Berlin has expunged the offending passage, altering the first statement above to read: “Political liberty in this sense is simply the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others.”4
But grave problems still remain with Berlin’s later approach. For Berlin now explains that what he means by freedom is “the absence of obstacles to possible choices and activities,” obstacles, that is, put there by “alterable human practices.”5
But this comes close, as Professor Parent observes, to confusing “freedom” with “opportunity” in short to scuttling Berlin’s own concept of negative freedom and replacing it with the illegitimate concept of “positive freedom.” Thus, as Parent indicates, suppose that X refuses to hire Y because Y is a redhead and X dislikes redheads; X is surely reducing Y’s range of opportunity, but he can scarcely be said to be invading Y’s “freedom.”6
Indeed, Parent goes on to point out a repeated confusion in the later Berlin of freedom with opportunity; thus Berlin writes that “the freedom of which I speak is opportunity for action” (xlii), and identifies increases in liberty with the “maximization of opportunities” (xlviii). As Parent points out, “The terms ‘liberty’ and ‘opportunity’ have distinct meanings”; someone, for example, may lack the opportunity to buy a ticket to a concert for numerous reasons (e.g., he is too busy) and yet he was still in any meaningful sense “free” to buy such a ticket.7
Thus, Berlin’s fundamental flaw was his failure to define negative liberty as the absence of physical interference wi
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