The Core of Liberalism: Negative Freedom
What, then, are the core values of liberalism? Although there is no easy answer, one can probably safely say that liberals believe individuals should be able to make choices, and that the state should be impartial to these choices. Thus liberalism requires an area of noninterference for the individual, or freedom from interference. Isaiah Berlin has called this the sphere of negative freedom and his discussion can help elucidate the essence of the liberal state.4 Berlin notes that there are two senses of freedom in political discussion. They are as follows:
The first of these political senses of freedom ... which I shall call the negative sense, is involved in the question, "What is the area within which the subject—a person or group of persons—is or should be left to do or be what
he wants to do or be without interference by other persons?" The second, which I shall call the positive sense, is involved with the answer to the question, "What or who is the source of control of interference, that can determine someone to do or be, one thing rather than another?"5
Berlin thus constructs two opposing senses of the word freedom. One centers on the individual's sphere of action. This sphere is to be quite large and the individual is to be left, to a large extent, unbridled. The other type of freedom, the positive type, is totally different. It involves the use of power or coercion by some in society, or the state itself, to help perfect or improve other individuals. The purpose of this coercion is to allow the citizen to live in accordance with his true self.
Negative freedom operates on the assumption that personal choice affirms one's humanity. Individual action possesses a value incommensurable with other types of action:
There ought to exist a certain minimum area of personal freedom which can on no account be violated, for, if it is overstepped, the individual will find himself in an area too narrow for even that minimum development of his natural faculties which alone makes it possible to pursue, and even to conceive, the various ends which mankind holds good or right or sacred.6
These views reflect what I will call "classic liberalism." The classic liberal sense of freedom demands that the individual be left alone with her own projects. The exercise of free choice and pursuit of individual projects are what give life meaning, according to the liberal. Berlin here is echoing John Stuart Mill's conception of society and individual good. As Mill stated, this conception is embodied in "one very simple principle: That principle is that the sole end for which mankind are warranted individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty, of action of any of their number, is self-protection."7 Of course, this negative freedom, or liberty, is protected by one's political rights.
Mill himself justified the liberal emphasis on negative freedom protected by rights on the bedrock of utilitarianism. His assertion that individual freedom guarantees the maximization of utility rested on his ultimate belief in the greatest good of individual thought. Mill was quite sure that the good of individual thought and action is a far more important consideration than the reasons for limiting individual freedom.
Berlin's rendition of negative freedom certainly concurs with this. Berlin and others do, nonetheless, take a step beyond Mill in their
refusal to treat negative freedom and rights as instrumental values, simply justified by the ends served.8 They argue instead that rights and the liberty or negative freedom that rights preserve are intrinsically good. The individual's liberty cannot be weighed against other goods. Thus liberal philosophers oppose positive freedom, or any form of coercion of the individual in an obdurate fashion. The nature of this opposition further illuminates the content of the liberal state.
According to Berlin, positive freedom issues from a different set of assumptions about what is valuable in society. The adherent of positive freedom sees herself and other human beings as imperfect, yet perfectible. Some human action must therefore be curtailed in order that more perfect arrangements and attitudes can come about in the future. Positive freedom asserts that in order that all may advance, some must be bridled.
Berlin, as a classic liberal, will not accept this. He is a proponent of negative freedom, which he believes is the only true freedom. He argues that societal decisions about the common good are given to misinterpretation and are fraught with the potential for tyranny of the majority, or even dictatorship by a few: "For it is this—the positive concept of liberty: not freedom from, but freedom to, which adherents of the 'negative' notion represent as being, at times, no better than a specious disguise for brutal tyranny."9 Berlin thus fears positive freedom and seeks to contain it with the concept of personal liberty, or negative freedom.
In medicine today, we are often reminded of the negative freedom of the patient. The patient's freedom from interference comes through most strongly in situations in which patients request that their care be limited. The courts, including the Supreme Court in the recent case of Cruzan v. Missouri Department of Human Services, have consistently reiterated that when a patient decides that he does not want heroic or lifesaving measures, and the patient is competent, then physicians cannot insist on further therapy. In the courts' analysis, a physician's insistence on therapy would be a violation of the patient's negative freedom, a freedom to refuse further invasive care. Physicians who argue that competent patients cannot understand the importance of their decision to limit their care are seeking, perhaps, to impose their own conception of what is good and to force the patient to accept further care. The courts usually reject this physician assertion of power and reiterate that the patient's negative freedom, or liberty, should be sacrosanct.
Negative freedom can provide the basis for a theory of justice when one links it to an unfettered right to property, the freedom to dispose of what is one's own. Classic liberal philosophy entails that one is free to do whatever one wants with one's possessions. One is free to paint one's own car. One has a right to paint it. One does not lose the freedom to paint one's own car simply because one has no paint. No paint does not mean no rights. Rights are characterized here as formal guarantees, not as material benefits of some sort.
As might be expected, the classic liberal thinks little of positive freedom, which he characterizes as an end-state theory. In this view, although the liberal values a certain, usually egalitarian, pattern of the distribution of goods in society, he also believes that "any distributional patterns with any egalitarian component is overturnable by the voluntary actions of individual people over time."10 Thus inequality is the natural outcome of rights that guarantee liberties, and the classic liberal accepts this outcome. His belief is that as long as one respects others' rights, then we have no reason to blame him or her for getting wealthier.
Consider Robert Nozick's example of Wilt Chamberlain's ascendancy to fame and fortune. Nozick argues that Chamberlain is not to blame for his own abilities and resultant wealth and that those who would deny him his salary would be constantly trespassing on the personal life of the basketball player. In effect, this means that one can have liberty or equality but not both. Nozick would opt for the former, and he would use the rhetoric of rights to buttress his position. From this argument, it follows that institutions are just only insofar as they promote no interference. In the liberal view, the Internal Revenue Service's interest in Chamberlain's salary, or even the salary caps negotiated by the National Basketball Association with the Player's Association, are unjust.
This position itself represents an evolution of classic liberalism. I will call it "conservatism." A conservative like Nozick or Bertrand de Jouvenal11 believes that redistribution is ethically wrong because it undermines and weakens notions of personal responsibility. Moreover, conservatives cast doubt on the ability of redistributionist policies to produce the good they intend. In essence, they deny that a central authority can possibly bring about a better pattern of distribution than will free citizens in the market.12
The conservative position has been questioned, especially by socialists, but even by other liberals. For instance, some argue that it ignores
the impediments that stand in the way of some members of society simply because of the situation into which they were born.13 Certain members of society will be unable to exercise those liberties granted them because they were born into a deprived setting. While admitting that each citizen may be granted a formal set of liberties outlining a sphere of activity, within which he or she can operate, those opposed to conservatism point out that this set remains merely formal so long as people lack the substantive means to realize the potential of their own autonomy and humanity. The idea that formal liberty often fails to become substantive is the outstanding criticism of both classic liberalism and its progeny, conservatism.
There are several other grounds on which to challenge the conservative. Countering his assumption that inequality just happens, that it should be viewed as a natural occurrence, like the weather or volcanic eruptions, some would maintain that it is impossible to generate large amounts of inequality between individuals unless there are significant inequalities of power in a society. This argument is in turn supported by two other propositions. First, people are not all that different in the basic, or if you like, natural, level of talents they have and can offer. Second, inequality is not a result of freedom of choice, but rather of some taking advantage of others. Thus inequality only occurs when some take advantage of inequity of power to use others as means to ends. In this view, liberty and the impartiality of liberalism simply support the appropriation of the means of production by the powerful and the resulting subversion of others.
One need not go to Marxist extremes, however, to fault the conservative for failing to take into account the value of equality, and for overvaluing pure liberty. The conservative statement that rights exist, that they are good, that they should be defended by just institutions, and that the outcome of such a polity is not a concern of justice cannot be logically sustained. It is, quite simply, wrong. Inequality is a result of the set of rights that are allowed in a society, and the inequality is in effect condoned by that set of rights.
The conservative's failure is his lack of consideration for the ways that economic or contractual claims that may legitimately be made by favored individuals in the type of society he values are not available to all its citizens, given a heritage of unequal wealth, education, and health care. This inequality is unjust, and the state must deal with it, not dismiss it as natural. As Albert Jonsen and Andre Hellegers have stated:
When benefits and burdens can be so distributed, the problem of justice arises. Some who will benefit will not bear costs; some who will bear costs will not benefit. When the situation depends not on chance, but on planned and conscious decisions about the structure of the institution, it is necessary, to ask, "Why should anyone benefit at the apparent cost to another?" These are the questions at the heart of ... justice.14
Consider, for instance, the newborn child of a mother who has no health insurance and is not eligible for government relief programs. This mother, as a result of her exclusion from such programs, might have received substandard prenatal care for herself and her unborn child. Say that because of this lack of care, the child has suffered some intrauterine growth retardation, resulting in the sort of neurological deficits that good prenatal care is designed to avoid. Thus the existence of inequalities in society has created a situation in which one individual will be unable to take advantage of opportunities theoretically available to every member of the society because he was born with certain neurological problems. An advocate of egalitarianism would argue that this child represents a failure of conservatism, for the enshrinement of negative freedom has failed to guarantee him the enjoyment of life, at least from the point of view of classic liberalism.
While conservativism is a natural evolution of classic liberalism, there are other offshoots. The most prominent is what I will call "modern liberalism," so as to distinguish it from classic liberalism and conservatism. Modern liberals recognize the arguments made by those who point out the importance of egalitarian programs. They realize equality must be balanced with liberty in the modern liberal state. It can be said that conservatives see themselves as defenders of liberty, while modern liberals are more concerned with equality.
The modern liberal realizes that granting greater liberty by placing an emphasis on rights allows for more inequality within a society and also realizes that liberty can bring rewards only if the material means to pursue that liberty are available. Modern liberals, while still valuing liberty, envision a society that can establish greater equality. In pursuit of this end, they would not balk at interference with certain individual liberties if a larger proportion of the society would benefit as a result.