It has been called the foundation of Western Civilization. Thomas Jefferson famously wrote that its tree “must be watered with the blood of tyrants and patriots.” It is synonymous with the word “freedom.” But what is liberty, and where is it derived? Is it something worth killing and dying for as Jefferson suggested?
Let us start with the first question. What is liberty? Derived from the Latin libertas, liberty is usually defined as “freedom from arbitrary or despotic government or control.” Many of us would agree to this definition, especially those of us who espouse the individualist ideal. To us liberty means that we are able to live our lives as we see fit as long as our actions do not infringe upon the liberty others. It is a simple concept, one that on first glance is accepted by most. But if were that simple, the world wouldn’t be the quagmire it is.
Within the field of philosophy, two types of liberty exist: negative liberty and positive liberty. This concept has roots all the way back to Immanuel Kant, but was greatly expounded upon by Isaiah Berlin in his famous 1958 essay “Two Concepts of Liberty.”
Negative liberty is what many in the libertarian tradition would consider as liberty. It is the absence of an oppressing force. Negative liberty has its foundation in self-determination, or as we libertarians call it, “self-ownership.” It is the belief that we as the individual are the arbiter of our actions to the extent that these actions do not infringe upon another’s negative liberty. Common right attributed as negative liberty include freedom of speech, religion, association, and defense. This concept has been put forth by such philosophers as economist F.A. Hayek and political theorist Felix Oppenheim.
Positive liberty, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. It is built out of the collective, and has been pushed in theory by the likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx. The concept has been used for interventionist policies in order to create a “better man.” To enact policies that are congruent with positive liberty, many negative liberties must be infringed. One such policy is the universal basic income. For the UBI to exist, an entity, usually a government, must infringe upon one’s ability to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor, i.e. take some of their money. Positive liberty is used to justify the welfare state and various other redistributionist policies.
Because of these distinctions, one must be wary of the use of the word “liberty” when coming from the collectivist camps. They will use it as a way to infringe upon the negative liberty of an individual, and it is the negative liberty of an individual that makes man free.
Originally printed in the April edition of the The Voluntaryist