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06 April 2009

Liberty vs. Liberty - The Final Showdown!

For the past 400 years we have been trapped between two competing concepts of freedom, which have had serious effects on the history of national and international policy. These were identified by Isaiah Berlin in his 1958 essay titled "Two Concepts of Liberty."
On the one hand is "negative liberty," which is idealized as a space free from external influence where any individual can do what they like as long as it doesn't interfere with another person's freedom. This concept of liberty was founded on the philosophies of John Locke and John Stuart Mill. It is the ultimate basis for the Neoliberal economics that has dominated the World for the past 30 years, and brought us the current economic crisis.
On the other hand we have "positive liberty," which seeks to make every person their own master. This concept, according to Berlin, grew out of the philosophies of Rousseau, Kant and ultimately Marx, and, through a metaphorical turn, became the basis for totalitarian ideologies. This was made possible by the recognition that, while a person should be master of him or herself, individuals could be "subject" to their passions. There is, therefore, a "higher self" which knows what is best, which most people do not have access too. This "higher self" is, ideally, embodied in the state, and the state is allowed to make the rational decisions of which we are incapable. In the words of Berlin,

"...[W]hat gives such plausibility as it has to this kind of language is that we recognize that it is possible, and at times justifiable, to coerce men in the name of some goal ... which they would, if they were more enlightened, themselves pursue, but do not, because they are blind or ignorant or corrupt" (Berlin, 204, Italics mine).

"The reason within me, if it is to triumph, must eliminate and suppress my 'lower' instincts, my passions and desires, which render me a slave; similarly (the fatal transition from individutal to social concepts is almost imperceptible) the higher elements in society - the better educated, the more rational, those who 'possess the highest insight of their time and people' - may exercise compulsion to rationalise the irrational section of society" (221).

We have been living under a regime of negative liberty for the last 30 years, and are now feeling the worst of its harmful effects. Now, the Obama administration is reviving positive liberty in the form of "Behavioral Economics."

Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those people who believe that Obama is trying to impose socialism on the U.S. I don't believe that that is his agenda, and, if it were, I wouldn't necessarily object. Rather, my uneasiness is based on the underlying assumptions about humans that are being made by the Behavioral Economists - that people are, for various reasons, incapable of making sound decisions on their own, and must be manipulated into the making the "right" choices. It removes the current crisis from its historical and political economic roots, as well as making broad claims about human nature that are not justified by cross-cultural analyses.

Ultimately either of these ideologies, taken to its extreme, can lead to qualtitatively different forms of totalitarianism. Berlin recognized this, but preferred the negative form as manifested in the ideology of 'pluralism,' "because it does, at least, recognise the fact that human goals are many, not all of them commensurable, and in perpetual rivalry with one another" (241). The way I see it, as long as the competition between these two concepts of liberty persists, the best we can hope for is some kind of balance between the two, with neither one ever being allowed to dominate fully.
Instead of accepting this false dichotomy between positive and negative liberty, and striving for some kind of middle ground, I think it's time we tried something different. If Obama had consulted Anthropologists instead of economists, he might have received a different answer. One that doesn't make any assumptions or generalizations about human nature and one that is based on historical and cross-cultural analysis rather than Western ideology.
I think the answer lies in alternatives based on the concepts of Counter-Power and Reciprocity, both of which are ignored by modern Political and Economic theories, but which, nevertheless, persist even in modern societies. By applying these ideas to the more abstract sectors of our society, I believe we can finally free ourselves from the trap of Positive and Negative Liberty.

Berlin, Isaiah. "Two Concepts of Liberty." Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. 191-242.

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