Ideological Dispositions on Freedom

By Craig Knoche

A quick review – You are free from any external barriers, constraint, coercion, or compelling force. This is a negative conception of freedom in the sense that the emphasis is on an absence of something and for this reason it is sometimes called ‘negative freedom’. On the other hand, you are not free, in the sense that you are being compelled by your passions to do things, so you are not free from your own passions and free to do the right things. To be free in this latter sense requires the presence of some internal capacities, e.g., reason, self-control, character and self-determination, to resist or suppress passions that may not be in your best interest. For this reason, it is sometimes called ‘positive freedom’. This reasoned self-control enables freedom to make decisions for the right reasons.

There are two approaches to circumscribing ‘freedom from’ (external constraint) liberty. One consists in defining a set of permissible actions within which external authorities, e.g., governments, are forbidden to interfere. The second involves identifying other ‘goods’ that may supersede liberty on occasion.

Regarding the first approach, libertarians define the noninterference scope broadly, as evidenced by their permissive attitudes toward gambling, prostitution, private drug and alcohol consumption, drug decriminalization and the Second Amendment; and resistance to compulsory governmental action such as taxation and government schooling. The libertarian sentiment is captured succinctly in the assertion “It is my birthright to use substances in my pursuit of happiness.”

Progressives circumscribe the sphere[1] of personal liberty expansively in some areas, e.g., government should protect choices related to sexual preferences and practices, drug use, reproduction and abortion, while narrowly in others because they believe that individuals often fail to act in their own best interest. Consequently they advocate government paternalism in the form of restraints on individual smoking, consumption of sugared drinks and fatty foods, and the mandating of social security savings and health insurance.

Traditional liberals and conservatives tend to be somewhere in between the libertarians and progressives. For example, while they favor such things as government protection of property, gun rights, free speech, and open markets, they may regard behavior such as prostitution, drug abuse, and abortion as subject to governmental constraint because they cause both individual and public harm. They are also more supportive of compulsory primary education as promoting individual and public good. These are justified by the belief that constraining or promoting such things will further individual human flourishing as well as the betterment of society.

“To avoid glaring inequality or widespread misery I am ready to sacrifice some, or all of my freedom: I may do so willingly or freely: but it is freedom that I am giving up for the sake of justice or equality or the love of my fellow man . . . a sacrifice is not an increase in what is being sacrificed . . . Everything is what it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture.” – Isaiah Berlin

Regarding identifying other ‘goods’, whether individual or collective, that may supersede liberty either sometimes or always, libertarians regard ‘freedom from’ liberty as the ultimate ‘good’ that should not be superseded by any other. However even they will acknowledge that there are occasions when other individual or social ‘goods’, e.g., war/national security, may trump liberty. Nevertheless, libertarians are warry of authority justifications for constraining liberty in the interest of “the moral equivalent of war”.

Freedom from internal constraint (aka ‘freedom to’) liberty is associated with the following questions: How do reason, spiritedness and passion interact?, What are good/honorable and bad/shameful passions?, How are passions inculcated and shaped?, How is reasoning developed?, and Who gets to decide what passions are good/bad and how reasoning is learned?

Libertarians believe that individuals are responsible for choosing their own ends. Passions are a subject of control only in so far as they impede on the liberty of others and are subject to interactions in free markets. Government has no role in dictating ends or in shaping, modifying or suppressing passions.

Progressives are somewhat schizophrenic about ‘freedom to’ liberty, on the one hand, they tend to be libertine regarding sexual passions and regard talk of virtue as being too pious, while on the other hand they place greater faith in the wisdom of governmental experts to shape and channel individual passions towards community ends through education and government programs

“The essential characteristic of all government, whatever its form, is authority. . . . And the authority of governors, directly or indirectly, rest in all cases ultimately on FORCE. Government, in its last analysis, is organized force. Not necessarily or invariably organized, armed force, but the will of a few men, of many men, or of a community prepared by organization to realize its own purposes with reference to the common affairs of the community. Organized, that is, to rule, to dominate.” – Woodrow Wilson

Traditional liberals and conservatives believe that parents and civic institutions have the lead role in inculcating moral virtue. And following Hayek, they, along with libertarians, are skeptical of the wisdom of government experts’ abilities to identify anything other than broad societal goals. Consequently, they tend to oppose most progressive initiatives.

“If you are truly convinced that there is some solution to all human problems, that one can conceive an ideal society which men can reach if only they do what is necessary to attain it, then you and your followers must believe that no price can be too high to pay in order to open the gates of such a paradise. Only the stupid and malevolent will resist once certain simple truths are put to them. Those who resist must be persuaded; if they cannot be persuaded, laws must be passed to restrain them; if that does not work, then coercion, if need be violence, will inevitably have to be used—if necessary, terror, slaughter.” – Isaiah Berlin

In summary, there are two quite distinct conceptions of liberty only one of which is commonly understood and emphasized. Differing political and ethical ideologies circumscribe liberty in different manners, identifying alternative and competing ‘goods’, and take very different positions on the central questions about the moral education necessary for ‘freedom to’.

Liberty not only means that the individual has both the opportunity and the burden of choice; it also means that he must bear the consequences of his actions and will receive praise or blame for them. Liberty and responsibility are inseparable.” – Friedrich Hayek

Suggested further reading:

Berlin, I, Two Concepts of Liberty

Pope Leo 13, On the Nature of Human Liberty

Friedman, M, Free to Choose

Hayek, FA, Law, Legislation, and Liberty

Hayek, FA, The Constitution of Liberty

Mill, JS, On Liberty

[1] Carl Hart, Drug Use for Grown-Ups

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