Liberty 101

When I was an undergraduate doing philosophy modules it was very clear what political liberty was and wasn’t. You had ‘negative liberty’ which meant that the state doesn’t have the right to imprison you without trial, shoot you, torture you, censor you, or do other dictatorial things. Then there was ‘positive liberty’ – the right to benefits if you lost your job, to see a doctor if you got sick. The state could leave you alone but still help you through tough times.

Freemarket ideologues claimed the banner of liberty during Thatcher’s doctrinaire capitalist experiment. The destruction of trade union power ‘liberated’ people from the right to strike against management decisions and the destruction of manufacturing industry ‘liberated’ workers from secure employment. At the same time the state was tapping trade unionists’ phones. The Tories were happy to get big government out of our pocketbooks and put big government into our bedrooms. The conventional myth is that Thatcher sacrificed positive freedom at the expense of negative freedom when in fact both were attacked during her reign.

Under New Labour things are more complicated. There has been redistribution of wealth, investment in public services and a slightly fairer tax system but also the most frightening expansion of state power in decades. Almost every day there is some shocking new infringement of basic freedoms.

Many on the left are still confused about positive and negative liberty. Even professional philosopher Julian Baggini claimed that ‘the liberty agenda of the British left has, in a fundamental way, come to resemble that of the American right.’ He cited Bush’s opposition to ID cards as evidence that Bush was a dogmatic opponent of ‘big government’ with whom the left should not agree on anything. Conor Gearty is just as foolish. He thinks that ID cards are just part of Gordon Brown’s great benevolent National Plan. He asks: ‘Why are passports and modern car licenses OK if an identity card is not?’

You could point out that a) if ID cards are the same as passports, why can’t we just keep passports and save money; and b), as Henry Porter says it’s not the card itself but the massive overarching database it would be attached to that is the problem.

But the left has historic difficulties with this sort of thing. This is not surprising when so many people who call themselves professional revolutionaries are employed by the state: in local government, in the graphic design departments of universities, in further education colleges trying to persuade scale-one cleaners that Gaza is the most important issue in their working lives. Their ideological purity does not extend to a refusal to take money from the state they presumably want to overthrow.

It’s great to have services and industries under democratic control but that doesn’t mean the workers are the same thing as the state – failure to realise this always leads to the gulag. There are others who are happy for the developing world to live under dictatorship while rightly excoriating any totalitarian strands in Western democracies. And still others who claim in prolier-than-thou rhetoric that all this civil liberties stuff is for upper-class ponces and no one gives a shit on the barricades. It’s not just the left. People can’t always handle freedom. Freedom can be scary.

I think Gearty’s problem is that he is afraid of liberalism shading into libertarianism. In his view there is good liberty and bad liberty:

One is the libertarianism we have just been discussing, the ‘Englishman’s home is his castle’ school of thought. The other is the position of the civil libertarian who sees the freedom of protest as essential to the proper running of our democratic state because he or she ultimately believes in the power of the state to do good.

It’s understandable that Gearty doesn’t want to be associated with the sillier kind of libertarianism. There have been so many self-pitying lunatics martyring themselves over the most petty and sinister ‘freedoms’, from the ‘right’ to drive at ridiculous speeds to the ‘right’ to shoot a teenager in the back. Yet libertarianism isn’t always wrong – the UK smoking ban proved that.

As Porter says, ‘[T]here can be no social justice without liberty, and no liberty without social justice.’ Again, it’s not either or: it’s both or neither.

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One Response to “Liberty 101”

  1. Sarah Franco Says:

    I find the concept of freedom in the political context as composed of negative and positive liberty very problematic. I really don’t like it, I think freedom as an abstract concept should not be divided, because there is one essence. Then, of course its reflexes in the concrete life of each of us are endless, a whole spectrum.

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