Negative liberty

Negative liberty

The concept of negative liberty refers to freedom from interference by other people. According to Thomas Hobbes, "a free man is he that in those things which by his strength and wit he is able to do is not hindered to do what he hath the will to do." (Leviathan, Ch. XXI, [2])

The distinction between negative and positive liberty was drawn by Isaiah Berlin in his lecture "Two Concepts of Liberty." According to Berlin, the distinction is deeply embedded in the political tradition. The notion of negative liberty is associated with British philosophers such as Locke, Hobbes, and Adam Smith, and positive liberty with continental thinkers, such as Hegel, Rousseau, Herder, and Marx.

In Berlin's words, "liberty in the negative sense involves an answer to the question: 'What is the area within which the subject — a person or group of persons — is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons'. Restrictions on negative liberty are imposed by a person, not by natural causes or incapacity. Helvetius expresses the point clearly: "The free man is the man who is not in irons, nor imprisoned in a gaol, nor terrorized like a slave by the fear of punishment ... it is not lack of freedom not to fly like an eagle or swim like a whale."

The distinction between positive and negative liberty is considered specious by socialist and Marxist political philosophers, who argue that positive and negative liberty are indistinguishable in practice, or that one cannot exist without the other.

Interestingly enough, Frankfurt School psychoanalyst and humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm drew a similar distinction between negative and positive freedom in his 1941 work, The Fear of Freedom, that predates Berlin's essay by more than a decade. Fromm sees the distinction between the two types of freedom emerging alongside humanity's evolution away from the instinctual activity that characterizes lower animal forms. This aspect of freedom, he argues, "is here used not in its positive sense of 'freedom to' but in its negative sense of 'freedom from', namely freedom from instinctual determination of his actions. For Fromm, then, negative freedom marks the beginning of humanity as a species conscious of its own existence free from base instinct.


Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes negative liberty:
"The negative concept of freedom ... is most commonly assumed in liberal defences of the constitutional liberties typical of liberal-democratic societies, such as freedom of movement, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech, and in arguments against paternalist or moralist state intervention. It is also often invoked in defences of the right to private property, although some have contested the claim that private property necessarily enhances negative liberty.

Negative liberty and authority: Hobbes and Locke

One might ask, "How is men's desire for liberty to be reconciled with the need for authority?" Its answer by various thinkers provides a fault line for understanding their view on liberty but also a cluster of intersecting concepts such as authority, equality, and justice.

Hobbes and Locke give two influential and representative solutions to this question. As a starting point, both agree that a line must be drawn and a space sharply delineated where each individual can act unhindered according to their tastes, desires, and inclinations. This zone defines the sacrosanct space of personal liberty. But, they believe no society is possible without some authority, where the intended purpose of authority is to prevent collisions among the different ends and, thereby, to demarcate the boundaries where each person's zone of liberty begins and ends. Where Hobbes and Locke differ is the extent of the zone. Hobbes, who took a rather negative view of human nature, argued that a strong authority was needed to curb men's intrinsically wild, savage, and corrupt impulses. Only a powerful authority can keep at bay the permanent and always looming threat of anarchy. Locke believed, on the other hand, that men on the whole are more good than wicked and, accordingly, the area for individual liberty can be left rather at large.

Negative liberty in various thinkers

John Jay, in Federalist Papers No. 2, stated that: "Nothing is more certain than the indispensable necessity of Government, and it is equally undeniable, that whenever and however it is instituted, the people must cede to it some of their natural rights, in order to vest it with requisite powers." Jay's meaning would be better expressed by substituting "negative liberty" in place of "natural rights", for the argument here is that the power or authority of a legitimate government derives in part from our accepting restrictions on negative liberty.

Libertarian thinker Tibor Machan defends negative liberty as "required for moral choice and, thus, for human flourishing," claiming that it "is secured when the rights of individual members of a human community to life, to voluntary action (or to liberty of conduct), and to property are universally respected, observed, and defended."

Criticism of Hobbes

Upon closer inspection of Hobbes' Leviathan, it becomes clear that Hobbes believed individual people in society must give up liberty to a sovereign. Whether that sovereign is an absolute monarch or other form was left open to debate, however Hobbes himself viewed the absolute monarch as the best of all options. Hobbes himself said,
For as amongst masterless men, there is perpetual war, of every man against his neighbour; no inheritance, to transmit to the son, nor to expect from the father; no propriety of goods, or lands; no security; but a full and absolute liberty in every particular man: so in states, and commonwealths not dependent on one another, every commonwealth, not every man, has an absolute liberty, to do what it shall judge, that is to say, what that man, or assembly that representeth it, shall judge most conducing to their benefit.
From this quote it is clear that Hobbes contended that people in a state of nature ceded their individual rights to create sovereignty, retained by the state, in return for their protection and a more functional society, so social contract evolves out of pragmatic self-interest. Hobbes named the state Leviathan, thus pointing to the artifice involved in the social contract. In this vein, Hobbes' concept of negative liberty was built upon the notion that the state would not act upon its subjects because its subjects had willingly relinquished their liberties.

Although Hobbes may have been the one of the first to describe negative liberty (without calling by that name), his conception was not as internally consistent as some modern conceptions. Following him, many writers have portrayed it incorrectly in an effort to set up a straw man which they could easily knock down.

Criticism of negative liberty

Criticism of negative liberty usually pertains to the lack of association between liberty and autonomy. For example, thinkers like Kant and Hegel argue that there is a conflict between people's base desires and the desires of their higher, rational selves: and that one is not free unless the higher self is in control. Because of this, someone might not be 'free' unless they realized what they really wanted: this division between genuine and apparent desires takes this beyond the realm of neoclassical economics. Because all rational beings would agree on what was good, this conception of liberty can be used to defend totalitarian regimes like Soviet Russia, because the oppressed people simply did not realize their true class interests.

Another criticism of negative liberty is that it doesn't fully account for practical problems. Some critics argue that even if someone is formally free to do something, if they are unemployed they may not in practice be able to do it unless other people are forced to allow them, via a positive right. For example, it could be argued that one is not free to go on holiday if one cannot afford it. In order for the freedom to go on holiday to be universal, proponents of positive liberty argue that those who own planes and other means with which to go on holiday must be forced (placed under a obligation) to allow everyone to go on holiday, no matter what. Those who prefer negative liberty like Nozick, of course, argue that just because no-one can stop you going on holiday doesn't mean they have to help you: otherwise they would be partly enslaved.


  • Isaiah Berlin: Four Essays on Liberty (especially Two Concepts of Liberty)
  • Isaiah Berlin: Freedom and its Betrayal

See also

Notes and references

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