One of the best-known and most influential present-day treatments of liberty is that of Sir Isaiah Berlin. In his Two Concepts of Liberty, Berlin upheld the concept of “negative liberty”—absence of interference with a person’s sphere of action—as against “positive liberty,” which refers not to liberty at all but to an individual’s effective power or mastery over himself or his environment.
Superficially Berlin’s concept of negative liberty seems similar to the thesis of the present volume: that liberty is the absence of physically coercive interference or invasion of an individual’s person and property. Unfortunately, however, the vagueness of Berlin’s concepts led to confusion and to the absence of a systematic and valid libertarian creed.
One of Berlin’s fallacies and confusions he himself recognized in a later essay and edition of his original volume. In his Two Concepts of Liberty, he had written that “I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no human being interferes with my activity. Political liberty in this sense is simply the area within which a man can do what he wants.”1 Or, as Berlin later phrased it, “In the original version of Two Concepts of Liberty I speak of liberty as the absence of obstacles to the fulfillment of a man’s desires.”2 But, as he later realized, one grave problem with this formulation is that a man can be held to be “free” in proportion as his wants and desires are extinguished, for example by external conditioning. As Berlin states in his corrective essay,
If degrees of freedom were a function of the satisfaction of desires, I could increase freedom as effectively by eliminating desires as by satisfying them; I could render men (including myself) free by conditioning them into losing the original desires which I have decided not to satisfy.3
In his later (1969) version, Berlin has expunged the offending passage, altering the first statement above to read: “Political liberty in this sense is simply the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others.”4
But grave problems still remain with Berlin’s later approach. For Berlin now explains that what he means by freedom is “the absence of obstacles to possible choices and activities,” obstacles, that is, put there by “alterable human practices.”5
But this comes close, as Professor Parent observes, to confusing “freedom” with “opportunity” in short to scuttling Berlin’s own concept of negative freedom and replacing it with the illegitimate concept of “positive freedom.” Thus, as Parent indicates, suppose that X refuses to hire Y because Y is a redhead and X dislikes redheads; X is surely reducing Y’s range of opportunity, but he can scarcely be said to be invading Y’s “freedom.”6
Indeed, Parent goes on to point out a repeated confusion in the later Berlin of freedom with opportunity; thus Berlin writes that “the freedom of which I speak is opportunity for action” (xlii), and identifies increases in liberty with the “maximization of opportunities” (xlviii). As Parent points out, “The terms ‘liberty’ and ‘opportunity’ have distinct meanings”; someone, for example, may lack the opportunity to buy a ticket to a concert for numerous reasons (e.g., he is too busy) and yet he was still in any meaningful sense “free” to buy such a ticket.7
Thus, Berlin’s fundamental flaw was his failure to define negative liberty as the absence of physical interference with an individual’s person and property, with his just property rights broadly defined. Failing to hit on this definition, Berlin fell into confusion, and ended by virtually abandoning the very negative liberty he had tried to establish and to fall, willy-nilly, into the “positive liberty” camp.
More than that, Berlin, stung by his critics with the charge of upholding laissez faire, was moved into frenetic and self-contradictory assaults on laissez faire as somehow injurious to negative liberty. For example, Berlin writes that the “evils of unrestricted laissez faire … led to brutal violations of ‘negative’ liberty … including that of free expression or association.”
Since laissez faire precisely means full freedom of person and property, including of course free expression and association as a subset of private property rights, Berlin has here fallen into absurdity.
And in a similar canard, Berlin writes of
the fate of personal liberty during the reign of unfettered economic individualism—about the condition of the injured majority, principally in the towns, whose children were destroyed in mines or mills, while their parents lived in poverty, disease, and ignorance, a situation in which the enjoyment by the poor and the weak of legal rights … became an odious mockery.8
Unsurprisingly, Berlin goes on to attack such pure and consistent laissez-faire libertarians as Cobden and Spencer on behalf of such confused and inconsistent classical liberals as Mill and de Tocqueville.
There are several grave and basic problems with Berlin’s fulminations. One is a complete ignorance of the modern historians of the Industrial Revolution, such as Ashton, Hayek, Hutt, and Hartwell, who have demonstrated that the new industry alleviated the previous poverty and starvation of the workers, including the child laborers, rather than the contrary.9
But on a conceptual level, there are grave problems as well. First, that it is absurd and self-contradictory to assert that laissez-faire or economic individualism could have injured personal liberty; and, second, that Berlin is really explicitly scuttling the very concept of “negative” liberty on behalf of concepts of positive power or wealth.
Berlin reaches the height (or depth) of this approach when he attacks negative liberty directly for having been
used to … arm the strong, the brutal, and the unscrupulous against the humane and the weak…. Freedom for the wolves has often meant death to the sheep. The bloodstained story of economic individualism and unrestrained capitalist competition does not … today need stressing.10
The crucial fallacy of Berlin here is insistently to identify freedom and the free market economy with its opposite—with coercive aggression. Note his repeated use of such terms as “arm,” “brutal,” “wolves and sheep,” and “bloodstained,” all of which are applicable only to coercive aggression such as has been universally employed by the State.
Also, he then identifies such aggression with its opposite—the peaceful and voluntary processes of free exchange in the market economy. Unrestrained economic individualism led, on the contrary, to peaceful and harmonious exchange, which benefitted most precisely the “weak” and the “sheep”; it is the latter who could not survive in the statist rule of the jungle, who reap the largest share of the benefits from the freely competitive economy.
Even a slight acquaintance with economic science, and particularly with the Ricardian Law of Comparative Advantage, would have set Sir Isaiah straight on this vital point.11
This article is taken from chapter 27 of The Ethics of Liberty. The entire book is being prepared for podcast and download.
- 1. Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958), p. 7.
- 2. Isaiah Berlin, “Introduction,” Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. xxxviii.
- 3. Ibid., p. xxxviii. Also see William A. Parent, “Some Recent Work on the Concept of Liberty,” American Philosophical Quarterly (July 1974): 149–53. Professor Parent adds the criticism that Berlin neglects the cases in which men act in ways which they do not “truly” want or desire, so that Berlin would have to concede that a man’s freedom is not abridged if he is forcibly prevented from doing something he “dislikes.” Berlin may be salvaged on this point however, if we interpret “want” or “desire” in the formal sense of a person’s freely chosen goal, rather than in the sense of something he emotionally or hedonistically “likes” or enjoys doing or achieving. Ibid., pp. 150–52.
- 4. Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty, p. 122.
- 5. Ibid., pp. xxxix — xl.
- 6. Furthermore, if one were to prohibit X from refusing to hire Y because the latter is a redhead, then X has had an obstacle imposed upon his action by an alterable human practice. On Berlin’s revised definition of liberty, therefore, the removing of obstacles cannot increase liberty for it can only benefit some people’s liberty at the expense of others. I am indebted to Dr. David Gordon for this point.
- 7. Parent, “Some Recent Work,” pp. 152–53.
- 8. Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty, pp. xlv — xlvi.
- 9. See F.A. Hayek, ed., Capitalism and the Historians (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954); and R.M. Hartwell, The Industrial Revolution and Economic Growth (London: Methuen, 1971).
- 10. Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty, p. xlv.
- 11. See also Murray N. Rothbard, “Back to the Jungle?” in Power and Market, 2nd ed. (Kansas City: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1977), pp. 226–28.