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Two concepts of freedom
Two concepts of freedom

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3.2 Negative freedom

The concept of negative freedom centres on freedom from interference. This type of account of freedom is usually put forward in response to the following sort of 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 is able to do or be, without interference by other persons?

(Berlin (1969), pp. 121–2; see, p. 155)

Or, more simply, ‘Over what area am I master?’ (ibid., p. xliii). Theories of negative freedom spell out the acceptable limits of interference in individuals’ lives. You restrict my negative freedom when you restrict the number of choices I can make about my life. The extent of my negative freedom is determined by how many possible choices lie open to me, or, to use one of Berlin's metaphors, how many doors are unlocked. It is also determined by the types of choices that are available. Clearly not every sort of choice should be given equal status: some choices are of greater importance than others. For most of us having freedom of speech, even if we don't take advantage of this opportunity, is a more important freedom than the freedom to choose between ten different sorts of washing powder. This is how Berlin puts it:

The extent of a man's negative liberty is, as it were, a function of what doors, and how many are open to him; upon what prospects they open; and how open they are.

(Ibid., p.xlviii)

(It is worth bearing in mind when reading extracts from Berlin's article that it was written in the late 1950s when there was little concern about the apparent sexism of using the word ‘man’ to mean ‘human’, i.e. man or woman. He certainly does not intend to imply that only men can be free, or that only men can limit another's freedom. For ‘man’ read ‘human being’ or ‘person’.)

It doesn't matter whether or not I actually take advantage of the opportunities open to me: I am still free to the extent that I could, if I chose, take advantage of them:

The freedom of which I speak is opportunity for action, rather than action itself. If, although I enjoy the right to walk through open doors, I prefer not to do so, but to sit still and vegetate, I am not thereby rendered less free. Freedom is the opportunity to act, not action itself.

(Ibid, p.xlii)

So, if you park your car across my drive, thereby preventing me from getting my car out, you restrict my freedom; and this is true even if I choose to stay in bed listening to my CDs all day, and would have done so even if you hadn't parked there. Or, if the state prevents me from going on strike by making my actions illegal, even if I don't have anything to strike about, and even if I don't ever intend to strike, my freedom is still curtailed. Negative freedom is a matter of the doors open to me, not of whether I happen to choose to go through them.

However, not all restrictions on my possible choices are infringements of my negative freedom. Berlin states that only restrictions imposed by other people affect my freedom. Colloquially, we might say that because we are human we aren't free to jump ten feet in the air or free to understand what an obscure passage in a difficult book by Hegel means. (Hegel was a philosopher (1790–1831) justifiably renowned for the obscurity of most of his writing.) But when discussing political freedom, the sort we are interested in here, these sorts of restrictions on what we can do, aren't counted as obstacles to freedom, however distressing they may be. Other people limit our freedom by what they do.

Limitations on our action brought about by the nature of the universe or the human body aren't relevant to the discussion of political freedom. Political freedom is a matter of the relations of power which hold between individuals and between individuals and the state.

The clearest cases in which freedom is restricted are when someone forces you to do something. You might be forced to join the army, for instance, if you live in a country which has compulsory military service. The law might force you to wear a crash helmet every time you ride your motorcycle. Your partner might force you to stay in rather than go out to the cinema, or to tidy up the kitchen rather than do another hour's study.

Read the following extract from Berlin's article. Then do the activity below.

I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no man or body of men interferes with my activity. Political liberty in this sense is simply the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others. If I am prevented by others from doing what I could otherwise do, I am to that degree unfree; and if this area is contracted by other men beyond a certain minimum, I can be described as being coerced, or, it may be, enslaved. Coercion is not, however, a term that covers every form of inability. If I say that I am unable to jump more than ten feet in the air, or cannot read because I am blind, or cannot understand the darker pages of Hegel, it would be eccentric to say that I am to that degree enslaved or coerced. Coercion implies the deliberate interference of other human beings within the area in which I could otherwise act. You lack political liberty or freedom only if you are prevented from attaining a goal by human beings. Mere incapacity to attain a goal is not lack of political freedom.*

* Helvetius [1715–71] made this point very clearly: ‘The free man is the man who is not in irons, nor imprisoned in a gaol, nor terrorized like a slave by the fear of punishment… it is not lack of freedom not to fly like an eagle or swim like a whale.’

(Ibid., p. 122; see, p. 156)

Activity 2: Negative freedom

Which of the following involve limitations on an individual's negative freedom in the sense outlined by Berlin above? Not all the cases are clearcut.

  1. The state prevents you from purchasing certain kinds of pornography.

  2. You aren't tall enough to pick quinces from the tree in your garden.

  3. You aren't tall enough to join the police force.

  4. You aren't rich enough to buy a private island.

  5. You aren't permitted to own a handgun.

  6. The law forces you to wear a seatbelt when driving.

  7. No one has ever selected you to play football for your country.

  8. You are forced to study philosophy against your will.

  9. Someone has handcuffed you to a lamppost.

  10. You can't read because you are blind. Officers of an evil totalitarian regime blinded you to prevent you reading and writing subversive literature. You are denied access to braille books and audio tapes.

  11. You are too poor to buy a loaf of bread because you've spent all your money on champagne.

  12. You are simply too poor to buy a loaf of bread, not through any fault of your own.

Compare your answers with the answers and explanations below before reading on.


(1), (5), (6), (8), (9) and (10) are all straightforward restrictions of negative freedom. (2) almost certainly isn't (unless someone has somehow restricted your growth). (11) isn't a restriction of negative liberty. (7) probably isn't, unless you are an outstanding footballer whom someone has deliberately prevented from playing football for your country. (4) and (12) could involve restrictions on negative liberty if someone else's actions were making you poor (or at least not rich enough to do the things described).

It might have seemed to follow from Berlin's account of negative freedom that poverty couldn't count as a limitation on individual freedom. True, poverty effectively locks many doors. But these doors aren't necessarily locked by other people's actions; poverty may have other, non-human, causes. It may be due to the effects of freak weather conditions leading to famine; or perhaps to sudden illness or accident. Whether or not poverty is to count as a limitation of negative freedom depends entirely on your view of the causes of the poverty in question. This becomes clear in the following passage from Berlin's essay:

It is argued, very plausibly, that if a man is too poor to afford something on which there is no legal ban – a loaf of bread, a journey round the world, recourse to the law courts – he is as little free to have it as he would be if it were forbidden him by law. If my poverty were a kind of disease, which prevented me from buying bread, or paying for the journey round the world or getting my case heard, as lameness prevents me from running, this inability would not naturally be described as a lack of freedom, least of all political freedom. It is only because I believe that my inability to get a given thing is due to the fact that other human beings have made arrangements whereby I am, whereas others are not, prevented from having enough money with which to pay for it, that I think myself a victim of coercion or slavery.

‘The nature of things does not madden us, only ill will does’, said Rousseau. The criterion of oppression is the part that I believe to be played by other human beings, directly or indirectly with or without the intention of doing so, in frustrating my wishes. By being free in this sense I mean not being interfered with by others. The wider the area of non-interference the wider my freedom.

(Ibid., pp. 122–3; see, p. 156)

If the man described above is too poor to buy a loaf of bread as a consequence of other people's actions, then, whether these other people intended this effect or not, his freedom has been curtailed. But if his poverty is a result of non-human causes, such as a drought-induced famine, or some natural disaster, terrible as his plight might be, it would not limit his negative freedom.