“Liberty for the wolves is death to the lambs” – Isaiah Berlin
As a lifelong liberal, this made me think. I always believed liberty to be self-evident. This was, however, before I realized it is possible to, in some extent, quantify liberty. Liberty can be taken away and liberty can be given back. Liberty can manifest itself in different forms. But not only that: as Isaiah Berlin pointed out, liberty can be positive and liberty can be negative.
What did this change in my perception of liberalism? I’m still a liberal. Until some point in my life, I used to be more like a libertarian. I was very cynical about society, distrusted politics as a whole (I still do sometimes) and thus distrusted any form of government, and believed that everything would be alright as long as people would live and let live. This gradually changed as I was more frequently confronted with the fact that human beings are actually social beings. Therefore, a human society cannot function without having social constructs and without having an individual concede in some cases in his or her life as their own will will not always be in harmony with the will of other individuals. Up until this point, libertarianism still holds; an individual should be free to do what he or she wants, unless it keeps another individual from doing the same.
This attitude does not, however, take into account that individuals can also form groups. In Social Psychology, groups are viewed as entities on their own, apart from individuals. Individuals behave differently in groups (especially in those being larger than three individual members) from as they do when they are alone, and groups can have their own behaviour. This is human nature. In order to survive as a species, humans cooperate with other humans, imitate each other or even instruct each other’s behaviour in order to survive. As centuries have passed, this still occurs on a very large and complex scale.
How do we maintain liberty as liberals, if individual liberty cannot be maximized, because humans need to cooperate in order to survive? Individuals will always be dependent on other individuals, because they can not grow food on their own, while generating electricity, producing television programmes, publishing on the Internet and create their own luxury products.
A free market is a wonderful invention to solve this issue. Individuals trade goods or services in exchange for a price they can determine in coordination with the market, their needs and the demand. A free market respects the individual’s potential to deliver goods or services on his or her own terms.
However, human beings are social beings. They can make pacts, form groups, create alliances, so they can also manifest themselves as groups to serve their own interest over the interest of another individual or group. Groups can exclude specific individuals and groups can discriminate individuals from other groups. This is what I call an infringement on social liberty.
Social liberty, the big sister of individual liberty, can be observed not by looking at individuals from their own point of view, but by looking at individuals from an eagle eye’s view. By looking at individuals as part of social constructs and determining the liberty one individual has compared to another individual in the same construct.
As soon as I discovered social liberty (I could not yet find the right term for it, but I knew it was there), my perspective on liberalism started to change. Liberalism had to play a role on a social level as well as on an individual level. As for a society to be truly free, each individual has to be free. This is not the case in a laissez-faire society, wherein everyone lives and lets live. Because there will always be someone who is born in a poor family with slim opportunities. Because there will always be someone who is discriminated against because of his or her origin, sexual orientation, skin colour or even his or her genuine behaviour.
Libertarianism has always viewed liberty as the constant struggle for government to stay out of individuals’ lives and for individuals to do as they please. But what libertarianism leaves out is that there is also something called society. A society consisting of a grand richness of individuals, each living his or her own life, trying to make the best out of it. It is inevitable that one individual’s liberty is in conflict with another individual’s liberty and that social liberty does not get the chance to exist in social constructs that leave out certain individuals or rival with other social constructs. This is where positive liberty should step in to ensure that each individual has equal opportunities on both an individual and a social level.
I do welcome any removal of obstacle that prevents an individual to live to his or her fullest potential. I am suspicious of government policies and especially the socialist and conservative ones. However, if government can improve the chances of an individual, can promote and protect individual and social liberties, then there should be a liberal government to do just that. A liberal government should prevent social constructs from being hostile towards any individual. A liberal government should promote an individual’s opportunities so that each and every individual can truly live his or her life to the full potential.
“Liberty for the wolves is death to the lambs” said Isaiah Berlin. By disregarding the social nature of human beings, granting the wrong individual liberties to those who disrespect social liberties, eventually liberty will put itself out of the equation. This is why I learned that liberty is not self-evident. Liberty is something we should promote and protect at all times, and does not originate out of itself when removing obstacles from an individual’s point of view, but has to be nourished both individually and socially.