This notion of liberty was attached to the US settler-colonists’ myth, an idea that granted freedom to pry away the lands and resources of the original peoples of North America. It was this notion that sustained the Westward expansion and migration, mythologized as the so-called pioneering spirit, allowing restless settlers to find places where they could “do as they please,” heedless of the interests of others already occupying the ever-shifting “frontier.”
The original US myth of “doing as one pleases” clashed with another version of liberty in a great Civil War that emancipated-- liberated-- the slaves of the Confederacy. The Southern states stood on a similar very selective concept of liberty-- State’s Rights-- that allowed the enslavement of an entire race. An entirely different view of liberty, freedom from oppression-- a concept dating back to antiquity-- clashed with slaveholders’ freedom to hold humans as property. It is seldom noted by those intoxicated with the founding lore of the US republic that much of US history is, in fact, the clash of different concepts of liberty or freedom.
Popular movies, television shows, and novels create a fantasized Old West, with fearless individuals nobly fighting Native Americans for free access to their homeland or fighting each other for the liberty to breed cattle, grow crops, or raise sheep. Similarly, cultural images of unfettered free spirits driving their convertibles or motorcycles toward a distant horizon define a popular, romantic idea of liberty or freedom. Never mind the consequences for friends, family, safety, security, the environment, etc.
These are all part of today’s cultural legacy based upon liberty, broadly conceived as “doing what one wants to do.” Nowhere has the idea of the liberty (or license) of “doing what one wants to do” taken as deep roots as in the US; nowhere does it seem as irresponsible today as in a US racked with a death-dealing pandemic.
The Western notions of liberty, freedom, and rights have been shaped by the rise of capitalism and carry with them the class perspective dominant in the age of capitalism. By and large, they have become individual and not collective; they locate the boundaries of permissible actions and institutions well beyond the activity and structures that will allow capital to flourish; and they serve to legitimize the socio-economic institutions and worldview that accompany capitalism.
The twentieth-century competition between capitalism and socialism saw the most advanced capitalist countries attempt to appropriate the ideas of liberty, freedom, and rights, interpreting them in a particular way that glorified capitalism, while diminishing the values of socialism.
This conflict of interpretation became most embarrassing to the West in the period after World War II when the core socialist concept of liberty-- self-determination or collective liberation-- served as a consistent moral foundation for the decolonization of much of the world. At the same time, the Western imperialist countries, including one of the newer members of the club, the US, either rabidly clung to their colonial possessions or desperately sought to establish new neo-colonial relations of subjugation. The West showed little taste for this flavor of liberty, resisting national liberation movements to this day.
At the same time, the socialist community and its international friends pressed for the acceptance of a broad-based concept of freedom that transcended the “do as I please” logic of the capitalist worldview, advocating for freedom from want, from exploitation, from racism, from lack of the basic material equalities that guarantee a safe, productive life.
The battle over liberties took place in the early crafting of United Nations’ charters on human rights. Thanks to the post-war liberation of the former colonial empires, the newly emerged nations-- quickly the majority of the world’s population-- sided with the more robust concept of liberty advocated by the socialist countries. That concept remains alive in the UN Universal Declarations of Human Rights of 1948, though diminished by the US and its allies. Thanks to subsequent de-colonization, the UN commitment was strengthened in 1976 with the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.
But capitalism never reconciled to the substantive rights-- the liberties promising equality and social justice. Instead, the Western canon of freedom, liberty, and human rights as crafted by the capitalists, their apologists, hired intellectuals, and NGOs is limited to the well-known, celebrated conditional rights: rights that are only of use when the right-holder has sufficient means to exercise them. Such rights as free speech, travel, property, education, or legal process are beneficial if, and only if, their bearer has sufficient means to take advantage of them. Otherwise, they are meaningless to their bearer. The liberty to speak freely is of no value to a worker denied a rudimentary education. The right to travel is irrelevant to a poverty-stricken peasant. The freedom to own a home is a taunt to a deeply indebted college graduate.
That is why the Western view of liberty would be more attractive to, say, a well-to-do Oxford don. And that is why an Oxford don, Isaiah Berlin, published a 57-page essay in 1958 that remains the cornerstone of the capitalist vision of liberty, freedom, and rights.
The social guarantees achieved in the socialist countries proved a formidable attraction to the newly independent states during the Cold War. The capitalist countries desperately needed a staunch defense of their vision of liberty. More importantly, they wanted a vigorous attack on the Cold War alternative-- substantive liberty, as advocated by Communists, many socialists, and some (New Deal) liberals. They found both in Berlin’s essay: Two Concepts of Liberty.
At the time, few knew or exposed Berlin’s profound, deep-seated anti-Communism or his engagement with covert propaganda work for the UK government. Instead, he was portrayed simply as a reflective Oxford professor sharing his measured thoughts on a key concept in Western political philosophy. To this day, few of his academic counterparts have challenged his work.
Two Concepts of Liberty is neither carefully written, nor tightly argued; it meanders over a select history of Western political philosophy, but seldom connects with the actual history of the lives of flesh-and-blood humans. Central to Berlin’s case is the distinction between what he calls negative and positive liberty. Negative liberty, in his view, is the protective bubble that surrounds the citizen from the inference of others and, especially, the caprice of the state. It is the guarantee that someone “can do as he or she pleases.” Paradoxically, the state, the same government that Berlin fears, is to be the guarantor of negative liberty.
In capitalist society, the individual is sovereign. Except when individual interests collide, the liberty of the individual trumps every other interest, including group or collective interests. Karl Marx saw this concept of liberty as embodied by “the rights of egoistic man, of man separated from other men and from the community.” Negative liberty embodies this separation, establishing the barest minimum of constraint upon behavior (limited only by conflict with other people’s negative liberty and the authority necessary to protect and enforce it).
Berlin is at pains to point out that possessing negative liberty is a good unto itself; it does not matter whether it is exercised for good or evil. That is to say, reckless speech, obscene monopoly of property, exploitation of the labor of others, refusal to wear a protective mask, nonetheless, increase liberty, even if they have awful consequences: “Such acts may be unjust, they may also involve violence, cruelty, the enslavement of others, but it can scarcely be denied that thereby the agent is able in the most literal sense to increase his own freedom.”
In contrast to this concept of extremely personal negative liberty, Berlin warns of the danger lurking with positive liberty. His characterization of positive liberty is murky, defying any explicit definition. Nonetheless, he flags some features that trouble him.
Unlike negative liberty, positive liberty measures the worthiness of actions by their moral or political consequences. Positive liberty is the freedom that comes from escaping the bonds that hold people from enjoying a better life, the bonds of exploitation, debt, poverty, ignorance, etc.1 The danger of positive liberty, as Berlin sees it, lies in the question of who decides what constitutes a better life and how to achieve it.
He fears that imposing positive liberty will strip individuals of their inestimable negative liberty. His fears of interlopers are rather broad, stretching from social movements, intellectual elites, and Marxists to reason itself. Those committed to reform or revolution should not be allowed to challenge the sovereignty of the man or woman in the protective bubble of negative liberty. No one should seek to weigh an individual’s freedom against that of the greater good:
This [intervention] is the positive doctrine of liberation by reason. Socialized forms of it, widely disparate and opposed to each other as they are, are at the heart of many of the nationalist, communist, authoritarian, and totalitarian creeds of our day.
The idea of positive liberation is an idea that anthropologists tell us stretches back four millennia. We first find “liberty” mentioned in the debt cancellations of King Enmetena, where “...he instituted freedom (amargi) in Lagash [Sumeria]. He restored the child to its mother, and the mother to her child; he cancelled all interest due.”2 Such an act of freedom, Berlin warns us, is a dangerous idea, should it impinge on the King’s autonomy.
After all, Berlin asserts, what “oppressed classes or nationalities” want is not “equality of social or economic opportunity” or the other benefits of positive liberty. “What they want is… simply recognition (of their class or nation, or colour or race)... as an entity with a will of its own… and not to be ruled, educated, guided, without however light a hand…” [my emphasis]
So our distinguished professor, later to be rewarded with a knighthood for his service to the established order, professes to know what oppressed classes or nationalities really want. The son of a wealthy timber trader who never left the company of the better classes, after much deliberation, concludes that the less fortunate are not in search of material benefits, but status and recognition. They must have their dignity over everything else. They, too, want to share the kind of liberty treasured by the Oxford don.
What snobbish nonsense.
Some 60 years later, it is hard to believe that Berlin’s essay remains the wellspring of Western, capitalist thinking on the meaning of liberty-- the ideological infrastructure for Western human rights organizations and NGOs.
The people’s liberty-- the substantive liberty that has roots in the concept of liberation from oppression, exploitation, slavery, feudalism, and, yes, capitalism-- is the fundamental concept of liberty or freedom. It traces its roots back to antiquity and marches through history in the struggles of Roman slaves, French Jacquerie, German peasants, English serfs, Indigenous North American and Australian peoples, African slaves, colonial subjects, wage slaves and every other group denied social justice. This is the kind of liberty understood and sought by most of humanity. Thus, To be free from want-- readily dismissed by Berlin and his latter-day followers-- resonates with the billions lacking adequate housing, food, sanitation, education, etc.
In an important sense, the positive liberties are the true preconditions for the worth of Berlin’s negative liberties. If being free to do what one wants is to have any meaning for most people, a just and equitable world must empower people with the means to fully enjoy freedom of speech, of legal redress, of personal belief, of travel, of education, etc.
Without realizing the positive freedom from poverty, hunger, ignorance, and oppression, the liberty to do as one wants is merely a privilege for the few, a promissory note for the rest of us. Berlin’s negative liberties were weaponized in the Cold War to attack countries more committed to creating material conditions for all citizens to enjoy the full panoply of rights and liberties that are possible with prosperity for all. Cynically, their progress was measured in the West by the rights available only to the few, the elites in capitalist society.
Sadly, the mythology of a fundamental liberty to do as one wants takes deep roots in a society of ultra-individualism, crazed consumerism, and celebrity worship. Where the collision of interests is made apparent to all-- such as with a raging pandemic-- the fetish that everyone is at liberty to do as they please becomes a disgusting obscenity.