Freedom - liberty - is a fundamental ideal of the United States, and indeed of most modern democracies. Philosophically, this reflects the considerable influence of the 17th Century English political philosopher John Locke, whose natural law arguments stemmed from the axiomatic assertion that Man in Nature is free. The preamble of the U.S. Constitution explicitly references this “self-evident” truth, and many of us today would accept it readily enough. We know, of course, that people don’t enjoy perfect freedom in the real world; but - and this is important - most of us consider this to be the result of unfair practices: discrimination, oppression, and so forth. Most of us can also readily identify persons whose liberties we feel properly ought to be infringed upon; the concept of social justice spares us the burden of hypocrisy in doing so. Locke and later social contract theorists defined social justice variously, but in each case the function of social justice is to delineate the circumstances under which freedoms can be compromised and the nature of that compromise.
One of the major philosophical divisions regarding the proper limits of the social contract hinges on the definition of liberty. One camp focuses primarily on positive liberty - that is, the “freedom to” perform some action. Another emphasizes negative liberty - the “freedom from” restrictive influences. Both aspects were represented in the famous “Four Freedoms” enunciated by Franklin D. Roosevelt: “freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear, freedom from want.” It can be seen that the positive liberties thus identified are far more modest than the negative liberties. The positive freedoms are limited to what people can say and believe, liberties that prove in practice very difficult to infringe upon in any case - easier, perhaps, to criminalize and punish after the fact, although in practice such an approach generally only draws attention to its own inadequacy, as with the fatwa declared against Salman Rushdie for his authorship of The Satanic Verses. By contrast, the negative freedoms outstrip the scope of those freedoms guaranteed U.S. citizens under the Bill of Rights, and purport to promise the supply of every human need - an aim that could fairly be described “ambitious,” and one which led to the drafting of a far more sweeping assertion of rights: the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) that was Eleanor Roosevelt’s lasting contribution to global society. Whether the existence of UDHR makes the negative liberties invoked as rights more achievable or reasonable is, perhaps, a valid question. Regardless, the emphasis on negative liberty is a hallmark of modern liberal political philosophy - the focus on positive liberty, by contrast, is the cornerstone of libertarianism and associated with the minarchist tendencies of the political Right.
My own approach to the question is along libertarian lines, and takes a lead from Locke’s own emphasis on property rights - the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution slightly bowdlerizes Locke’s original triad of “life, liberty, and property,” perhaps unsurprisingly given the sensitivity of the slavery issue as evidenced by the abhorrent “three-fifths compromise.” I’m also much influenced, here as elsewhere, by the pragmaticism of Charles Peirce: in the context of personal freedom, this manifests as a requirement that any freedom I claim be a freedom I can actually meaningfully enjoy in the context of my everyday life. Along these lines, I define freedom to be, specifically, the freedom to dispose of property according to my own will. The implication of free will is another nod to Peirce: if everything I do is predetermined, then I have no freedom in practice; I can only do what I am ordained to do, and whatever property I have is an accident and no more mine than I am mine own. I find this a miserable as well as an unnecessary philosophy, and have besides several reasons for believing that I, as a rational actor, make praxeological choices with my life.
Freedom should not be something that is given to me by somebody else: if I am free on sufferance only, then I am not free at all. Therefore, freedom must start within me - within my own willed actions. The first thing I am able to influence by my own will is my own body: thus, the beginning of property is the physical self, and all other property is obtained and secured through that self. Everybody who has a physical self that they can subject to their will is thereby made free to that extent; insofar as there are variations in the amount and security of property in each individual’s possession, there are also degrees of freedom individuals can enjoy. The person who controls most property - by which I mean, a person whose willed interactions with the world influence the most material entities in that world - is, by this measure, the most free. I’ll explore the implications of that argument, particularly in the context of the conflicting views of property expressed by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Karl Marx, in a future blog.
This conception of positive liberty sets the stage for a vision of society compatible with the one laid out by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan - bella omnium contra omnes, a “war of all against all,” in which each individual strives against his fellows for a greater share of finite resources in the pursuit of greater personal liberty. Hobbes’ gloomier perspective on the natural state of Man, compared with that of Locke, provides a different rationale for the social contract: rather than being a natural expression of freedoms that Man enjoys with or without that contract, for Hobbes the social contract is an essential tool for protecting the individual from his society. In this way, it can be seen how unchecked positive liberty creates a need for negative liberty; there is, in fact, a dynamic between the two. At one extreme, positive liberty is unfettered by any structural constraint: de facto anarchy obtains, and the strongest thrive - a scenario Darwinians should find familiar. At the other extreme, the totalitarian state protects the citizen so thoroughly from the expression of their neighbor’s willed desire to curtail her freedom that she is left with no freedom to curtail. Neither extreme is stable - the powerful establish order out of anarchy, and the totalitarian state destroys its own legitimacy as it disempowers its citizenry. Each state of affairs - each thesis - creates an opposing condition - an antithesis. The tension between positive and negative liberty thus constitutes a Hegelian dialectic, in which the embrace of one idea cultivates a contrarian embrace of the other.
Equilibria can be envisaged, and indeed examples of such can be found in the real world, wherein either positive or negative liberty has the ascendancy. It is in the nature of a Hegelian dialectic that no equilibrium remains in perpetuity; the balance is constantly, if gradually, shifting. Giambattista Vico proposed a view of history as cyclical that is consistent with Hegel’s dialectical materialism, and consistent with a view of liberty as the product of competition between evenly-matched actors for finite resources.
Where exactly the equilibrium is now; where it is trending, and how fast; and what this might mean for us as citizens, are all questions worth considering.