Politics in Minutes (2016)

Positive and negative freedom

The concept of liberty was extensively examined by 19th-century political philosophers, notably John Stuart Mill (see here), and its various interpretations became the basis for liberalism, laissez-faire capitalism and anarchism. If there was disagreement about how liberty was granted in practice, it was generally accepted that it entailed freedom from constraint. In the 1950s, the liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin gave a lecture titled Two Concepts of Liberty. The traditional view of liberty, he argued, is negative liberty – freedom from outside interference. It is the aim of liberal political ideologies to minimize the restrictions preventing people from doing things. There is, however, another sort of liberty – positive liberty. This is the freedom an individual has to do something, rather than simply not being prevented from doing it. Berlin believed that government should protect negative liberty and foster positive liberty, encouraging people to be in control of their own lives and fulfil their potential. This is not without risk as Berlin pointed out: ‘Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows.’

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