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Entry on Positive and Negative Liberty in the Standard Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Isaiah Berlin's essay, Two Concepts of Liberty

Monetary Freedom

Almost fifty years ago, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote an essay describing two concepts of freedom or liberty, that can best be described with an example.

While we sit here sipping our tea, we may watch a man strutting down the street. You might think he is free since he has the choice of deciding which street he walks down and the manner of how he struts his stuff.

However, he may not actually be free at all in his choices. For may have an addiction, and his choice of where to walk is actually being controlled by this internal force, that is, his addiction, in his quest for the liquor store. Berlin's two concepts of liberty:

  • Negative Freedom is the freedom associated with not being coerced or forced or controlled in any way. Essentially the absence of something. You might look at this as the absence of external control.

  • Positive Freedom is the freedom to to be self-determined and in control of one's self. This is the concept's most basic level, but at its highest level, it describes the freedom to realize or perfect one's self and the fulfillment of one's own nature. You might look at this as the absence of internal control.

Sounds pretty simple, eh? Well, order another cup of tea, for there is a bit more to discuss about this subject.

First, what are these internal forces? As the example illustrates, addiction would be one. But what about biological makeup? That is, the way that man walks may really be the dictates of his genes… or jeans if the he bought them two sizes too small.

These internal forces may just be a form of limitation. Am I free to fly? Not with my own, unmodified self, for my body, unlike the body of a bird, is limited to non-flight. Humans think they are special in that they can overcome many of these biological limitations.

A second item for discussion: Berlin, and many others, were actually wary of this positive freedom in any political manifestation since isn't it the goal of totalitarian societies to perfect of the individual? That's what they claim, but this quest for positive freedom ends up looping back around to take negative freedom from behind.

None of us are actually completely free in even the negative sense. I may be free to sit in any room of my house, but I'm not free to sit in any room of my neighbor's house. I am actually forbidden not by my neighbor's frail frame, but by society, and its police force that enforces societies desire. In a way, the difference between a free and a totalitarian society is one of quantitative, not qualitative.

Of course, this doesn't bother me or you too much, as I don't have much of a desire to sit in my neighbor's house that is full of cat hair and her sour grapes and all. I also don't have the liberty of sitting behind the desk of the Oval Office, however, I think would be a grand lark.

You better order a third cup of tea, for this next idea will take some time to explain.

Many years ago, I had a friend who gave me an idea for a third case of freedom. She said that money is essentially liberty-- the freedom to do what you want, because you can afford to do what you want. The more money, the more freedom. I've thought about it ever since, and I think she was on to something.

Much later, I found that one of Berlin's students, G. A. Cohen, discussed this very idea in his paper, Freedom and Money†If that web link goes down, you can read a copy here . He stated at the beginning:

My principal contention… is that lack of money, poverty, carries with it lack of freedom. I regard that as an overwhelmingly obvious truth.

This monetary freedom seems to sit somewhere in the middle between the positive and negative freedom. For the poor beggar may choose which corner of the street to panhandle, but that isn't much of a choice now is it? He can't choose to sit in the office building, nor can he choose to warm his buns on a Hawaiian beach sipping margaritas.

Some may feel that this monetary freedom is really positive freedom. That poor man would be free to sit in the office building if he just cleaned himself up and taught himself some valuable skills. And, if he worked every day like that, he would then be free to take a week off and sit on that beach.

Maybe so, but if poverty was so easily solved with such statements and attitudes, I would venture to say that we'd have no poor among us. My point in this thought is actually not to discuss the nature of poverty,‡‡For while that would be interesting to discuss, it would require a fourth cup of tea, and then we'd have to pee and forget where we were, so we'll talk about that another day but the way to tie these three concepts of liberty together.

While we are here in this downtown cafe, let's point out another example. Here are a couple of kids panhandling with a sign that says, "Spare some change for beer." They may look the part of the vagabond, but they lack the authentic odor. And their sign, not only exhibits their pretentiousness, it also exposes their confidence. Clearly, this is a choice for them.

Who could blame them? I mean, they are out when the weather is good, and the sun is shining. Out of school and not sweating in the kitchen of some restaurant, hangin' with their friends. Sure the choices they make now may restrict the choices available to them later, but let's not pee on their parade.

Everyone knows someone who couldn't work up the stamina to finish college or to start a particular career in their twenties. It wasn't so bad back then. But then the thirties kissed them with a baseball bat, and introduced them to his ugly sister, desire.

The desire for more freedom. The freedom to drive a car with air-conditioning. The freedom to sleep on a comfortable bed. The freedom to treat themselves of cancer. In other words, money.

Some, with prophetic foresight, shuffled off to college, and then voluntarily chained themselves to a gray cubical in corporatia, with the hopes and dreams of the kind of freedom only money can buy. What happens to most of them, is desire urges them to try out that freedom a little faster than what might be prudent. They trade in their old, but still running car, for a nicer, red car. They buy a big house and then have to hire a maid to keep it clean.

I love that "loan service" commercial where a man is gloating over his prestige and position (or "counting his blessings" if you want to put a positive spin on it). He talks about his beautiful family, his big house in a nice neighborhood, a pool in the backyard, and a new SUV. He smugly tells us that he belongs to the local golf club.

"How do I do it?", he asks the TV monitor, "I'm in debt up to my eyeballs."

So the desire for freedom, often ends up limiting us. The CEO of Faceless Corporation may be free to drive a Hummer, but he also isn't free to not work 14 hour days, nor to take a vacation without a cell phone and constant email checking. He isn't free of the stress associated with such freedom.

You should be able to see my point, but just in case, let's rewind. Money may give you freedom to acquire some really cool shit, but it was desire that drove you to the store. I realize that contentedness may destroy our economy and civilization as we know it, but it may actually be the key to getting us some of that positive liberty.

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