The space between positive and negative liberty

Negative liberty sounds like the ideal way to realize liberty for each individual. Taking away any interference would mean a person could do whatever he or she wants.

The reality is that too much negative liberty means either isolating yourself or taking away the liberty of others.
For instance, what if that ‘interference’ becomes the other individual’s liberty? Whose negative liberty would be more important, yours or the other’s? Negative liberty alone does not offer solutions for inter-individual conflicts, other than severing communication between those individuals. But that would mean taking away the (social) liberty for those individuals to be able to interact. So in the end, if everyone gets all the negative liberty they want, everyone loses, or ends up alone.

Too much positive liberty is not good either. That would mean liberty would be a prescription, rather than a preexisting condition, which means liberty would be artificial and liberty would not be authentic and therefore not free.

However, offering negative liberty exclusively as the gospel of all liberalism (or should I say a specific branch of liberalism) would mean the deconstruction of society itself, isolating everyone from each other or either letting one steal the liberty of the other, instead of realizing the presumption that differences would find their place if everyone would have as much negative liberty as possible. There will always be the need for some positive liberty to ease conflicts between the liberty of two or more individuals and offer a solution for the paradox that an individual with all the negative liberty in the world would not have individual liberty, but individual dictatorship, and take away all his or her own social liberty, as individuals could not have the opportunity to socially develop themselves. Then, not the state would be a threat to liberty, but the individual itself.

Too much negative liberty for one individual would mean less liberty for other individuals. Without realizing this, liberalism would be the enemy of itself. It works like magnets; having both a negative pole means the magnets push each other away, and both having a positive pole means the magnets push each other away again. Having one with some of the negative and one with some of the positive causes them to attract each other and the magnetism is complete. Without having the power and the resources, the liberty of an individual would be limited to his or her predisposition. Without having a defense against interference, the liberty of an individual would be endangered by external influences. However, with the power and resources to be free and ways to deal with interference, the net result would be even more liberty.

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The Value of Liberty: how much liberty is worth without responsibility, how much power is worth without accountability

Of all concepts, liberals value liberty the most. Whether a person identifies him- or herself as a social liberal, or as a libertarian, or any other branch of liberalism. But there is a difference in how liberty is valued, and specifically which concept of liberty. Before expanding this, I will give some definitions of the terms I will use.

  • Individual Liberty
    The freedom of an individual to make his or her own decisions, without external interference.
    The freedom of speech.
    The freedom of religion.
  • Social Liberty
    The freedom of an individual to make decisions that involve other individuals, without interference of the other individual or a social construct.
    The freedom not to be excluded from a group.
    The freedom to communicate with another individual.
  • Negative Liberty
    The freedom from general interference.
    A free market.
    No requirement of a visa to cross a border.
  • Positive Liberty
    The power and resources to be free.
    Education to provide an individual with intellectual freedom.
    Social security to relieve an individual that does not have enough resources to participate in a free market.

Varying between personal views and ideological views, one may choose to value one concept of liberty more than the other. However, whatever concept of liberty one may prefer, when power comes into play, all concepts have one thing in common: liberty is worthless without responsibility.

A free individual can only live in a free society if each individual takes proper responsibility for his or her actions. For each concept of liberty, there is a concept of responsibility.

  • Personal Responsibility / Individual Liberty
    The responsibility for a person’s individual liberty.
    An individual admits he or she lied about something.
    An individual admits he or she stole something from someone else.
  • Social Responsibility / Social Liberty
    The responsibility of an individual towards the liberty of other individuals.
    An individual within a group involves another individual who is excluded from the group.
    An individual within a group decides to help out another individual who is in some kind of trouble.
  • Negative Responsibility / Negative Liberty
    The responsibility not to interfere with another individual.
    An individual does not force another individual to involuntary action.
    An individual only takes a decision that involves another individual with the consent of the other individual.
  • Positive Responsibility / Positive Liberty
    The responsibility to give power or resources to another individual.
    An individual needs something to be free and another individual decides to provide it.
    An individual is not able to freely take a decision due to his or her condition, so another individual decides for him, or her.

As I point out in the examples, a liberty can not exist if there is no responsibility for it. For one individual to be free, another individual has to take responsibility to secure that liberty. If one individual does not respect the liberty, whether individual or social, negative or positive, of another individual, that liberty is devalued. That liberty can not exist, because it is taken away by the absence of responsibility.

If every individual would do what he or she wants, without taking responsibility for his or her actions, the liberty of other individuals will inevitably be taken away, for a society, by definition, consists of more than one individual. Disregarding the role of any kind of authority, each individual must consider his or her actions and the consequences of his or her actions before enjoying his or her liberty to take that action. Otherwise, that liberty will be in vain, as it will probably have taken away the liberty of another individual.

This also has consequences for governance, where responsibility translates to accountability. Accountability, to me, is an advanced form of responsibility. It should include the possibility to reclaim power from one who has power and does not use it responsibly. This means the person or body that has that power has even more responsibility than an individual who does not have the same power. This puts some restrictions on what that person or body could and could not do without having to face the consequences for it. And again, as responsibility does for liberty, accountability determines the value of power. Power is worthless without accountability for it.

Accountability has stronger adversaries than responsibility. Whereas responsibility can be omitted by sheer negligence, selfishness, foolishness or any other kind of conscientious absence, accountability has to face corruption, power play, opportunity and similar ways of obscuring abuse of power. It can even be uglier when individual liberty of an individual in power over multiple other individuals is considered to be more important than the liberty of the individuals who are subdued by that power. That individual in power might have even more liberty than the individual would without being in power, but at the cost of the liberty of all the individuals being subdues by that power. But dictatorship is not considered liberal, is it?

This is why any individual who has some power, will have to take more responsibility for it. Each action with power has stronger consequences compared to the same action without power. One could even say that power exceeds the domain of liberty of one individual and involves the liberty of many individuals. This is why accountability is immensely important, and it is also the responsibility of the individuals who are directly or indirectly involved with that power to secure accountability.

This includes oversight, prosecution, transparency, proper laws and independent political instruments to ensure that there will be accountability for those individuals that have any degree or form of power. There will be no political justice if these are not implemented, as there is always the possibility of an individual that regards his or her liberty to be superior to the liberty of others and will not hesitate to use power to enact this view. Any criminal course of action needs a motive, an opportunity and a situation for the crime to be committed. Abusing power over many individuals for the benefit of one individual is a crime in itself.

Corruption and the abuse of power should therefore be treated as such. Civil society should always be on guard for this. That is why it is the responsibility of each and every individual in civil society to be aware of the possibility of corruption and abuse of power, and enforce accountability on those who involve themselves in these practices.

As there is no justice when a crime is committed and the criminal can continue without consequences, there is no justice when power is abused and the person who abused that power can walk away without consequences.

Once a person has the opportunity to obscure a criminal action, it comes down to whether that person regards his or her personal gain to be more important than the wellbeing of those who are under the influence of this action.

The motivation to look for power should therefore not be personal gain, but to make a difference in the lives of other individuals. Each and everyone should therefore consider for each person who looks for power that this person truly wishes to make a difference and does not aim for personal gain. And even when in power, one should not take the power lightly and distinguish any personal relationship from political relationships.

What is that power still worth, when it is consumed for the extended liberty of one individual, at the cost of the liberty of many other individuals?

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Libertas sit omnibus, omnes sint libertati.

“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.

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