by Yiftah Elazar and Efraim Podoksik
When liberals and libertarians speak of liberty today, they often think of it as ‘negative’, in the sense of being left to our own devices, especially by the government. The distinction between ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ liberty was popularised by Isaiah Berlin, the twentieth century British historian of ideas and philosopher, whose 1958 lecture ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ has made it into a staple of late modern political thought.
Berlin portrayed negative liberty as a liberal political ideal, but he was no libertarian in the American sense of minimal government and anti-welfare state. Some of his libertarian followers have taken the argument further. They have advocated the maximisation of negative liberty and the corresponding minimisation of the state. In popular political discourse, the idealisation of negative liberty has produced a belief, famously articulated by United States President Ronald Reagan, that ‘government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem’.
Surprisingly, however, when the concept of negative liberty first emerged in early modern political thought, it was not conceived as a political ideal. It was more like an anti-ideal. Thomas Hobbes and Jeremy Bentham, the two most important theorists of negative liberty in early modern political thought, both used the negative definition of liberty as a deflationary device, in order to deflate democratic political language.
Hobbes argued that democratic writers were conceptually confused about the meaning of liberty, which led them, in turn, to democratic excess. The Hobbesian definition of liberty as the absence of external impediments was supposed to pour a bucket of cold water on their excessive demands for freedom. Bentham, who popularised the claim that the idea of liberty is ‘negative’, used his negative definition of liberty as an ideological weapon. Writing on the concept of liberty during the American Revolution, he expressed his wish, intended to ‘cut the throat’ of what he believed to be a false and dangerous rhetoric of liberty and rights serving the cause of pro-American ‘democratic fanaticism’. He thought that the pro-American democrats had confused notion of liberty as something ‘positive’ (in the sense of being something real and desirable), and he wanted to rid them of their illusions.
On its road from Bentham to contemporary libertarianism, then, the negative idea of liberty has undergone a curious transformation. It has turned from a deflationary device to a central ideal. How did this happen? This is the historical puzzle that has caught our imagination. We are making the task of addressing it more manageable by revisiting Berlin’s account and fleshing out some of the ideological history underlying it. Two themes in particular, that Berlin’s piece had obscured, deserve examining.
First, the theme of negative liberty and democracy. Negative liberty has served, in different historical moments, as an ideological weapon against radical democracy. But it also points to an important shift in the manner in which the negative conception of liberty has been deployed against radical democracy. Hobbes and Bentham used it as deflationary device against what they saw as the confused demand for excessive freedom from restraint. But from the eighteenth century onwards, Whigs and liberals shifted towards the endorsement of liberty as a moderate liberal ideal, which must be protected from democratic despotism or, in a later phrasing, from ‘totalitarian democracy’.
Second, the late and contingent association of the liberal conception of liberty with the idea of negativity. The liberal tradition was slow to adopt the classical utilitarian argument that the idea of liberty is ‘negative’. It is only towards the mid-twentieth century that several historical contingencies—the disentanglement of liberty from democracy, the rise of ‘positive’ liberty and its association with totalitarianism, and what we describe as ‘the fashion of negativity’ in the twentieth-century interwar years—combined to create ‘negative liberty’ as a central liberal ideal.
Let’s take this a bit more slowly. One way of tracing the history of the negative idea of liberty is to keep our eye on a tradition of Whig and liberal political thought that advocated individual liberty as a moderate ideal. Prior to this tradition, demands for liberty were often associated with radical democratic politics. But in the work of Montesquieu, and in the debates that took place in the context of the American Revolution, liberty was disengaged from democracy and associated with moderation.
The French Revolution exerted crucial influence on the development of an antagonism between individual liberty and democracy. The peculiar circumstance that the Jacobins employed the slogans of liberty while conducting a campaign of systematic violence gave birth to a discourse that placed liberty squarely at the centre of the political map, threatened by both the political left and right. Thus emerged nineteenth-century French liberalism as the centrist ideology of the post-Revolutionary era.
The historical divorce of liberty from radical democratic politics and its transformation into a liberal ideal reached its apex in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution. If previously many radical currents felt themselves generally at ease with the promotion of ‘bourgeois’ freedoms, now under the influence of the Soviet regime the very idea of these freedoms became more and more suspect. This allowed the critics of the leftist regimes to forge the notion of totalitarian democracy and identify it with the revolutionary left. This term—‘totalitarian democracy’—was thus adopted by centrist liberals to describe regimes emerging out of the radical democratic rhetoric of the Bolsheviks. The historical divorce of liberty from radical politics was completed. Liberty was now firmly situated in the sphere of non-revolutionary bourgeois politics.
This schematic account clarifies the historical context for the tendency of Cold War liberals like Berlin to depict liberty as an ideal that faces hostility both from the radical left and from the reactionary right, depicting both extremes as versions of totalitarianism. But it does not explain how the supposed clash between Western democracy and totalitarianism came to be perceived in terms of an opposition between negative and positive liberty.
To understand that part, we looked, first, to the legacy of German Idealist philosophy and its relation to the twentieth-century debates on totalitarianism. It is in Kant and Hegel that we find the idea of ‘positive’ liberty as a conceptually valid and normatively superior idea of freedom. This new understanding of liberty greatly influenced the British Idealists, such as T.H. Green and Bernard Bosanquet, who brought the dialectic of negative and positive liberty into the British philosophical scene.
In the work of some of the younger theorists of new liberalism, such as J.A. Hobson and L.T. Hobhouse, the idea of positive liberty was used in order assign the state the task of removing via social reforms obstacles to the mutual cooperation of harmonious individuals, thus liberating rather than suppressing the spontaneous energies of individuals. But in the work of German romantics such as Adam Müller, liberty was taken to contain a strong conservative element. It espoused the ideal of devotion to a national collective and advocated an increased role of the state in the life of the society and culture.
When this German ‘conservative’ tradition, as Karl Mannheim described it, was supplanted by a movement of conservative revolution, and, in turn, by Nazi totalitarianism, its ‘qualitative’ or ‘ethical’ conception of liberty was coloured in a much more sinister light. Liberal critics such as Karl Popper accused German advocates of positive liberty of substituting the true meaning of liberty with its exact opposite. At the same time, liberal critics began to blur differences between the anti-liberal right and left, so that qualitative liberty began to be ascribed to both. Thinkers such as Rousseau and Marx, whose radical and emancipationist credentials had formerly been beyond doubt, were now associated with the reactionary rejection of liberty.
The critique of positive liberty opened the possibility of a complementary movement: the transformation of negative liberty into a positive ideal. But to complete this latter part of the story, we need one more component, which we have described as ‘the fashion of negativity’.
Philosophically, the interwar years were the period in which the logical positivists and the British realists successfully demolished the influence of philosophical Idealism, and advocated, instead, sceptical modesty. Culturally, the worldview of the post-World War I generation was marked by anxiety, alarm, and even despair. ‘Negative’ carried a tone of sophistication and superiority over pre-War naïveté. In this context, to prefer ‘negative’ over ‘positive’, even while admitting the philosophical power of the ‘positive’, would not appear as rhetorically self-defeating. On the contrary, opponents of ‘negative liberty’ were faulted for sinning against a commonsensical, modest idea of liberty.
This brief account suggests that the tortuous history of negative liberty has led not only to its transformation into a central liberal ideal, but also to an ironic reversal of its original purpose. Hobbes and Bentham defined liberty in negative terms not in order to turn it into an object of ideological worship. On the contrary, they wanted to diffuse the passions aroused by the language of liberty. Ironically, shifting ideological contexts have turned this act of rhetorical diffusion into a magnet for new political passions.
 On this, see Yiftah Elazar, ‘Liberty as a Caricature: Bentham’s Antidote to Republicanism’, Journal of the History of Ideas 76(3) (2015), 417–39.