Sir Isaiah Berlin

On The Fetishization Of Freedom

The West has long fetishized the concept of freedom in the name of its, often questionable, crusades. The most recent chapter of it taking place in the Middle East, leaving behind a path of destruction and disillusionment. That is not to say that free societies are not something worth striving for, but the very concept that these societies are fighting for is not well understood by its citizenry.

For millennia the ideal of freedom has been debated by philosophers and politicians – from Plato in Ancient Greece, John Stuart Mill in 19th century England, to Isaiah Berlin in the second half of the 20th century –, yet every year there appears to be a segment of society that believes they have uncovered something new about it. A free society starts with some level of understanding of what is Free Will, and eventually moves into how the state should govern its citizens to maximize their personal freedoms without leading society to total apocalyptic anarchism. There is a large terrain that must be navigated between these two extremes, and in politics this balancing act takes place by the pulling of two levers: negative liberty and positive liberty.

Negative liberty is the lever Canadian truckers appear to be fighting for – to what extent are we comfortable with the government reaching into our personal freedoms. These freedoms can be further segmented into moral, economic and political freedoms; so, when one is boiling down such a complex issue into freedom in the singular sense, we need to stop and clarify that the concept of freedom needs to be debated plurally – which segment of personal freedoms do we feel the government may have overreached. This is a tricky lever to pull because, contrary to what libertarians believe, having no government imposition into its citizenry’s freedoms will lead to complete chaos. 

John Stuart Mill, in one of his most famous works called On Liberty, said that it is not a crime to harm oneself as long as the person doing so is not harming others. This is what philosophers describe as the harm principle, which seeks to justify the rightful purpose of power over any member of society to prevent harm to others – and for this purpose, even libertarians agree with. The earlier forms of this concept being baked into a society’s organization took place in France’s 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, where, verbatim, it states: “Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law”.

The other form of liberty known as positive liberty, can be best described as the freedoms the state creates by the passing of laws. The most famous contemporary example of this took place during the Civil Rights Movement, when the American government eventually banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. However, positive liberty isn’t always connected with good developments in history as the example forementioned – excessive positive liberty can encroach on negative liberties.

The Russian-British philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin, in the Four Essays on Liberty published in 1969, examined in further depth the two concepts of liberty where he warned of the potential abuses of positive freedoms. Historically, this lever had been used to defend nationalism, social engineering and collective rational control over human destiny, which paradoxically fulfilled a society’s rational desire of self-mastery and self-determination while inadvertently justifying political totalitarianism. The clearest example of this took place in Nazi Germany when the state coerced its citizens to believe in their version of “true freedom” by enacting anti-Semitic legislation limiting the participation of Jews in German public life (and eventually far worse atrocities). 

As we can see with the examples above, there is a balancing act that a society must engage in to move their vision of a free country forward. Excessive amounts in either direction – negative or positive – lead to unwanted outcomes. As Berlin once said, “unlimited liberty for capitalists destroys the liberty of the workers, unlimited liberty for factory-owners or parents will allow children to be employed in the coal-mines”, whereas unlimited liberty for workers destroys the benefits of capitalism and the fruits it generates. So, as one continues to fulfill their democratic duties in a free society, they must always ask themselves to what extent they’re comfortable with pulling either lever and if imposing such ideals on societies without the appropriate institutions in place to manage this balancing act will in fact emancipate them. In the end of the day, one cannot be completely free if they are to co-exist with other human beings – they can only be autonomous insofar as their autonomy doesn’t break with their civil responsibilities.

As the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner once said in advocacy for ethical individualism, “People who merely preach ethical codes without being able to put them into a plan of action, are morally unproductive”.