January 23, 2013 essays

Negative and Positive Liberty: Some Historical Reflections

Smith considers the different conceptions of freedom defended by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.

In Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes set the stage for a good deal of later thinking about the nature of freedom. Freedom, according to Hobbes, signifies “the absence of opposition” or “external impediments” to motion. Such freedom applies not only to rational agents but also to “irrational and inanimate creatures.” We may say, for example, that water is not free to flow beyond the vessel that contains it.

For whatsoever is so tied, or environed, as it cannot move within a certain space, which space is determined by the opposition of some external body, we say it hath not liberty to go further. And so of all living creatures, whilst they are imprisoned, or restrained, with walls, or chains; and of the water whilst it is kept in by banks, or vessels that otherwise would spread itself into a larger space, we use to say, that they are not at liberty, to move in such manner, as without those external impediments they would.

Hobbes clearly distinguished freedom from power. When the impediments to motion are external, then an entity is said to lack freedom. But when the impediments to motion are internal, an entity is said to lack power. The fact that a stone cannot move of its own accord does not mean that it lacks the freedom to move; rather, it lacks the power (or ability) to move. Likewise, if a sick man is confined to a bed and unable to move about, he lacks not the freedom to walk (since no external impediments prevent him from walking) but the power to walk. 

Hobbes’s distinction between freedom (the absence of external impediments) and power (the internal ability to do something) is frequently cited as an early formulation of negative freedom. Moreover, since classical liberals typically defended negative freedom, Hobbes is sometimes cited as an early proponent of that tradition. 

This perspective, though fairly common, is misleading. The political absolutism of Hobbes was anathema to classical liberals, and most liberals, especially those in the Lockean tradition, did not look favorably upon his conception of negative freedom.

The notion of positive freedom – which identifies freedom with the power to do something – was a relative latecomer in political theory. It did not become a live issue until the nineteenth century, when it was mainly defended by philosophers who had been influenced by Hegel. We should therefore avoid reading too much into Hobbes’s distinction between freedom and power. Earlier philosophers who defended, say, freedom of conscience did not need Hobbes to tell them that freedom of religion means the ability to practice one’s religion without external compulsion or constraint by other people. Nor did early critics of slavery need to await the writing of Leviathan to learn that a free man, in contrast to a slave, is a person who is not under the coercive jurisdiction and control of another person. On the contrary, freedom in the negative sense – i.e., freedom viewed as the absence of coercion – is as old as political philosophy itself.

It is true that Hobbes cast his definition of freedom in negative terms, as did John Locke and other individualists. But this was only a superficial similarity. Hobbes’s definition of freedom differs fundamentally from Locke’s, but this difference has been obscured by the conventional distinction between negative and positive freedom. There is another distinction that is far more significant in this context, namely, freedom conceived as a mechanistic concept that refers to a physical relationship between things, and freedom conceived as a social concept that refers to an interpersonal relationship between human beings. Hobbes employed the mechanistic concept, defining “freedom” as the absence of physical impediments; whereas Locke employed the social concept, defining “freedom” as the absence of coercion in human affairs. 

According to Hobbes, as we have seen, when we are restrained from achieving our goals by internal impediments (e.g., by the inability to do something), then we are said to lack power. When those impediments are external, then we lack freedom to exercise our powers. The nature of such external impediments is irrelevant; freedom does not necessarily refer to a social relationship between rational agents. If I desire to travel from here to there, my freedom to act can be impeded as much by a high wall or by an impassable river as it can by another person. Any external obstacle that prevents me from exercising my power, that keeps me from getting what I want and would otherwise be able to attain, diminishes my liberty. 

For Hobbes, therefore, freedom consists of unimpeded power. In a social context, a free man “is he, that in those things, which by his strength and wit he is able to do, is not hindered to do what he has a will to do.”

This notion of freedom was scarcely original with Hobbes. Some years earlier, for example, Sir Robert Filmer (Locke’s chief target in Two Treatises of Government) had defended the view that “true liberty is for every man to do what he list, or to live as he please, and not to be tied to any laws.”

This conception of freedom was a favorite among Filmer, Hobbes, and other absolutists because it served to rebut the argument of individualists that the purpose of a just legal system should be to enhance and preserve freedom. This was arrant nonsense, according to absolutists, because all laws, of whatever type, necessarily restrict freedom. A man has no more freedom to do what he pleases in a supposedly “free society” than he does under despotism. No one, for instance, would argue that people should be free to rape, pillage, and murder, so even free societies enact laws that restrict those and other freedoms. Only under complete “anarchy,” a society with no laws whatsoever, would we find complete freedom. As Filmer put it:

But such liberty is not to be found in any commonweal, for there are more laws in popular estates than anywhere else, and so consequently less liberty; and government, many say, was invented to take away liberty, and not to give it to every man. Such liberty cannot be; if it should, there would be no government at all.

If Filmer and Hobbes were correct, if the primary purpose of government is to restrain and limit freedom, then the complaints made by individualists against absolute monarchy made little sense. True, absolute monarchies (and absolute governments generally) restrict freedom, but so do all forms of government, even those supposedly based on the consent of the governed. Complete freedom can exist only in the anarchistic state of nature – a society with no laws whatsoever – and this liberty is diminished each time a government passes or enforces a law. 

Locke rejected this conception of freedom. In a direct reply to Filmer, he wrote: ”[F]reedom is not, as we are told, A liberty for every Man to do what he lists: (For who could be free, when every other Man’s Humour might domineer over him?) But a Liberty to dispose and order, as he lists, his Persons, Actions, Possesions, and his whole Property….” In a state of perfect freedom, people can “dispose of their Possessions and Persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the Law of Nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the Will of any other man.”

Thus for Locke, “freedom” means the ability to use and dispose of that which is properly one’s own without the coercive interference of other people, including government. In this rights-based notion of freedom, I am free to the extent that I can exercise jurisdiction over my own property in the broad sense (one’s body, labor, external goods, etc.), according to my own will, without being subjected to coercion by others. (The meaning of “coercion” is a tricky topic in its own right, one that I shall consider in a future essay.) 

Some modern philosophers, such as G.A. Cohen (in Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality, Cambridge, 1995), have jumped all over this rights-based conception of freedom, and, in the process, have resurrected the old Filmerian argument that even a libertarian society would not permit unrestricted freedom, insofar as it prohibited the “freedom” to murder, rob, rape and commit other rights-violating actions. (Some of these critics of libertarianism remain blissfully unaware of how old this argument is and how classical liberals attempted to deal with it.)

Locke’s conception of social freedom, which was essentially an effort to forge a standard of equal liberty, was accepted by the vast majority of subsequent liberal and quasi-libertarian philosophers. A notable exception was Jeremy Bentham, who expressly resurrected the Filmerian (and Hobbesian) conception of freedom and concluded that all laws necessarily restrict freedom. This is why Bentham argued that the primary purpose of law is to bring about security, not freedom. 

Although modern historians stress the need to understand the historical and ideological context of earlier philosophers, they sometime fail to grant this courtesy to John Locke and other classical liberals who defended a rights-based conception of freedom. It is not as if Locke and other liberals arbitrarily introduced the value-laden notion of “rights” into discussions of freedom in order to arrive at a predetermined destination that suited their political beliefs. The notion of “rights” was an integral part of political philosophy long before liberal individualists came along. 

For centuries political philosophers had defended the right of political sovereignty, i.e., the right of rulers to compel obedience to their decrees. What liberal individualists did, beginning primarily in the seventeenth century, was to challenge the notion of state sovereignty with the notion of self-sovereignty. Why do we have an “obligation” to obey political rulers and the laws they enact? It is virtually impossible to understand the liberal conception of rights-based freedom without considering this broader problem, which I shall discuss in my next essay.