Negative liberty
Negative liberty is defined as freedom from interference by other people, and is set in contrast to positive liberty
Positive liberty
Positive liberty is defined as having the power and resources to fulfill one's own potential ; as opposed to negative liberty, which is freedom from external restraint...

, which is defined as an individual's freedom from inhibitions of the social structure
Social structure
Social structure is a term used in the social sciences to refer to patterned social arrangements in society that are both emergent from and determinant of the actions of the individuals. The usage of the term "social structure" has changed over time and may reflect the various levels of analysis...

 within the society such as classism
Classism is prejudice or discrimination on the basis of social class. It includes individual attitudes and behaviors, systems of policies and practices that are set up to benefit the upper classes at the expense of the lower classes...

, sexism
Sexism, also known as gender discrimination or sex discrimination, is the application of the belief or attitude that there are characteristics implicit to one's gender that indirectly affect one's abilities in unrelated areas...

 or racism
Racism is the belief that inherent different traits in human racial groups justify discrimination. In the modern English language, the term "racism" is used predominantly as a pejorative epithet. It is applied especially to the practice or advocacy of racial discrimination of a pernicious nature...

 and is primarily concerned with the possession of sociological agency
Agency (sociology)
In the social sciences, agency refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. By contrast, "Structure" refers to the factors of influence that determine or limit an agent and his or her decisions...

. According to Thomas Hobbes
Thomas Hobbes
Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury , in some older texts Thomas Hobbs of Malmsbury, was an English philosopher, best known today for his work on political philosophy...

, "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 hath the will to do" (Leviathan
Leviathan (book)
Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil — commonly called simply Leviathan — is a book written by Thomas Hobbes and published in 1651. Its name derives from the biblical Leviathan...

, Ch. XXI, [2], thus alluding to liberty in its negative sense).

The distinction between negative and positive liberty
Positive liberty
Positive liberty is defined as having the power and resources to fulfill one's own potential ; as opposed to negative liberty, which is freedom from external restraint...

 was drawn originally by Hegel, but most famous in the anglophone tradition by Isaiah Berlin
Isaiah Berlin
Sir Isaiah Berlin OM, FBA was a British social and political theorist, philosopher and historian of ideas of Russian-Jewish origin, regarded as one of the leading thinkers of the twentieth century and a dominant liberal scholar of his generation...

 in his 1958 lecture "Two Concepts of Liberty
Two Concepts of Liberty
Two Concepts of Liberty was the inaugural lecture delivered by the liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin before the University of Oxford on 31 October 1958. It was subsequently published as a 57-page pamphlet by Oxford at the Clarendon Press...

." According to Berlin, the distinction is deeply embedded in the political tradition. In Berlin's words, "liberty in the negative sense involves an answer to 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 is able to do or be, without interference by other persons'." Restrictions on negative liberty are imposed by a person, not by natural causes or incapacity. Helvetius
Claude Adrien Helvétius
Claude Adrien Helvétius was a French philosopher and littérateur.-Life:...

 expresses the point 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."

Frankfurt School
Frankfurt School
The Frankfurt School refers to a school of neo-Marxist interdisciplinary social theory, particularly associated with the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt am Main...

 psychoanalyst and humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm
Erich Fromm
Erich Seligmann Fromm was a Jewish German-American social psychologist, psychoanalyst, sociologist, humanistic philosopher, and democratic socialist. He was associated with what became known as the Frankfurt School of critical theory.-Life:Erich Fromm was born on March 23, 1900, at Frankfurt am...

 drew a similar distinction between negative and positive freedom in his 1941 work, The Fear of Freedom, that predates Berlin's essay by more than a decade. Fromm sees the distinction between the two types of freedom emerging alongside humanity's evolution away from the instinctual activity that characterizes lower animal forms. This aspect of freedom, he argues, "is here used not in its positive sense of 'freedom to' but in its negative sense of 'freedom from', namely freedom from instinctual determination of his actions." For Fromm, then, negative freedom marks the beginning of humanity as a species conscious of its own existence free from base instinct.

The distinction between positive and negative liberty is considered specious by socialist
Socialism is an economic system characterized by social ownership of the means of production and cooperative management of the economy; or a political philosophy advocating such a system. "Social ownership" may refer to any one of, or a combination of, the following: cooperative enterprises,...

 and Marxist
Marxism is an economic and sociopolitical worldview and method of socioeconomic inquiry that centers upon a materialist interpretation of history, a dialectical view of social change, and an analysis and critique of the development of capitalism. Marxism was pioneered in the early to mid 19th...

 political philosophers, who argue that positive and negative liberty are indistinguishable in practice, or that one cannot exist without the other. Although he is not a Socialist nor a Marxist, Berlin argues:
"It follows that a frontier must be drawn between the area of private life and that of public authority. Where it is to be drawn is a matter of argument, indeed of haggling. Men are largely interdependent, and no man's activity is so completely private as never to obstruct the lives of others in any way. 'Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows'; the liberty of some must depend on the restraint of others."


Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a freely-accessible online encyclopedia of philosophy maintained by Stanford University. Each entry is written and maintained by an expert in the field, including professors from over 65 academic institutions worldwide...

 describes negative liberty:
"The negative concept of freedom ... is most commonly assumed in liberal defences of the constitutional liberties typical of liberal-democratic societies, such as freedom of movement, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech, and in arguments against paternalist or moralist state intervention. It is also often invoked in defences of the right to private property, although some have contested the claim that private property necessarily enhances negative liberty."

Negative liberty and authority: Hobbes and Locke

One might ask, "How is men's desire for liberty to be reconciled with the assumed need for authority?" Its answer by various thinkers provides a fault line for understanding their view on liberty but also a cluster of intersecting concepts such as authority, equality, and justice.

Thomas Hobbes
Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury , in some older texts Thomas Hobbs of Malmsbury, was an English philosopher, best known today for his work on political philosophy...

 and Locke
John Locke
John Locke FRS , widely known as the Father of Liberalism, was an English philosopher and physician regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers. Considered one of the first of the British empiricists, following the tradition of Francis Bacon, he is equally important to social...

 give two influential and representative solutions to this question. As a starting point, both agree that a line must be drawn and a space sharply delineated where each individual can act unhindered according to their tastes, desires, and inclinations. This zone defines the sacrosanct space of personal liberty. But, they believe no society is possible without some authority, where the intended purpose of authority is to prevent collisions among the different ends and, thereby, to demarcate the boundaries where each person's zone of liberty begins and ends. Where Hobbes and Locke differ is the extent of the zone. Hobbes, who took a rather negative view of human nature, argued that a strong authority was needed to curb men's intrinsically wild, savage, and corrupt impulses. Only a powerful authority can keep at bay the permanent and always looming threat of anarchy. Locke believed, on the other hand, that men on the whole are more good than wicked and, accordingly, the area for individual liberty can be left rather at large.

Locke is a slightly more ambiguous case than Hobbes because although his conception of liberty was largely negative (in terms of non-interference), he differed in that he courted the "republican" (classical) tradition of liberty by rejecting the notion that an individual could be free if he was under the arbitrary power of another:

"This freedom from absolute, arbitrary power, is so necessary to, and closely joined with a man's preservation, that he cannot part with it, but by what forfeits his preservation and life together: for a man, not having the power of his own life, cannot, by compact, or his own consent, enslave himself to any one, nor put himself under the absolute, arbitrary power of another, to take away his life, when he pleases. No body can give more power than he has himself; and he that cannot take away his own life, cannot give another power over it. Indeed, having by his fault forfeited his own life, by some act that deserves death; he, to whom he has forfeited it, may (when he has him in his power) delay to take it, and make use of him to his own service, and he does him no injury by it: for, whenever he finds the hardship of his slavery outweigh the value of his life, it is in his power, by resisting the will of his master, to draw on himself the death he desires."

Negative liberty in various thinkers

John Jay
John Jay
John Jay was an American politician, statesman, revolutionary, diplomat, a Founding Father of the United States, and the first Chief Justice of the United States ....

, in Federalist Papers
Federalist Papers
The Federalist Papers are a series of 85 articles or essays promoting the ratification of the United States Constitution. Seventy-seven of the essays were published serially in The Independent Journal and The New York Packet between October 1787 and August 1788...

 No. 2, stated that: "Nothing is more certain than the indispensable necessity of Government, and it is equally undeniable, that whenever and however it is instituted, the people must cede to it some of their natural rights, in order to vest it with requisite powers." Jay's meaning would be better expressed by substituting "negative liberty" in place of "natural rights", for the argument here is that the power or authority of a legitimate government derives in part from our accepting restrictions on negative liberty.

Libertarianism, in the strictest sense, is the political philosophy that holds individual liberty as the basic moral principle of society. In the broadest sense, it is any political philosophy which approximates this view...

 thinker Tibor Machan defends negative liberty as "required for moral choice and, thus, for human flourishing," claiming that it "is secured when the rights of individual members of a human community to life, to voluntary action (or to liberty of conduct), and to property are universally respected, observed, and defended."

Concrete examples

This section outlines specific examples of governmental types which follow the concept of negative liberty.


Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan
Leviathan (book)
Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil — commonly called simply Leviathan — is a book written by Thomas Hobbes and published in 1651. Its name derives from the biblical Leviathan...

 outlines a commonwealth based upon a monarchy to whom citizens have ceded their rights. The basic reasoning for Hobbes' assertion that this system was most ideal relates more to Hobbes' value of order and simplicity in government. The monarchy provides for its subjects, and its subjects go about their day-to-day lives without interaction with the government:

The commonwealth is instituted when all agree in the following manner: I authorise and give up my right of governing myself to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition; that thou give up, thy right to him, and authorise all his actions in like manner.

The sovereign has twelve principal rights:
  1. because a successive covenant cannot override a prior one, the subjects cannot (lawfully) change the form of government.
  2. because the covenant forming the commonwealth is the subjects giving to the sovereign the right to act for them, the sovereign cannot possibly breach the covenant; and therefore the subjects can never argue to be freed from the covenant because of the actions of the sovereign.
  3. the selection of sovereign is (in theory) by majority vote; the minority have agreed to abide by this.
  4. every subject is author of the acts of the sovereign: hence the sovereign cannot injure any of his subjects, and cannot be accused of injustice.
  5. following this, the sovereign cannot justly be put to death by the subjects.
  6. because the purpose of the commonwealth is peace, and the sovereign has the right to do whatever he thinks necessary for the preserving of peace and security and prevention of discord, therefore the sovereign may judge what opinions and doctrines are averse; who shall be allowed to speak to multitudes; and who shall examine the doctrines of all books before they are published.
  7. to prescribe the rules of civil law and property.
  8. to be judge in all cases.
  9. to make war and peace as he sees fit; and to command the army.
  10. to choose counsellors, ministers, magistrates and officers.
  11. to reward with riches and honour; or to punish with corporal or pecuniary punishment or ignominy.
  12. to establish laws of honour and a scale of worth.

Hobbes explicitly rejects the idea of Separation of Powers, in particular the form that would later become the separation of powers
Separation of powers
The separation of powers, often imprecisely used interchangeably with the trias politica principle, is a model for the governance of a state. The model was first developed in ancient Greece and came into widespread use by the Roman Republic as part of the unmodified Constitution of the Roman Republic...

 under the United States Constitution
United States Constitution
The Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the United States of America. It is the framework for the organization of the United States government and for the relationship of the federal government with the states, citizens, and all people within the United States.The first three...

. Part 6 is a perhaps under-emphasised feature of Hobbes's argument: his is explicitly in favour of censorship of the press and restrictions on the rights of free speech, should they be considered desirable by the sovereign in order to promote order.

Upon closer inspection of Hobbes' Leviathan
Leviathan (book)
Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil — commonly called simply Leviathan — is a book written by Thomas Hobbes and published in 1651. Its name derives from the biblical Leviathan...

, it becomes clear that Hobbes believed individual people in society must give up liberty to a sovereign. Whether that sovereign is an absolute monarch or other form was left open to debate, however Hobbes himself viewed the absolute monarch as the best of all options. Hobbes himself said,

For as amongst masterless men, there is perpetual war, of every man against his neighbour; no inheritance, to transmit to the son, nor to expect from the father; no propriety of goods, or lands; no security; but a full and absolute liberty in every particular man: so in states, and commonwealths not dependent on one another, every commonwealth, not every man, has an absolute liberty, to do what it shall judge, that is to say, what that man, or assembly that representeth it, shall judge most conducing to their benefit.

From this quote it is clear that Hobbes contended that people in a state of nature
State of nature
State of nature is a term in political philosophy used in social contract theories to describe the hypothetical condition that preceded governments...

 ceded their individual rights
Natural rights
Natural and legal rights are two types of rights theoretically distinct according to philosophers and political scientists. Natural rights are rights not contingent upon the laws, customs, or beliefs of any particular culture or government, and therefore universal and inalienable...

 to create sovereignty
Sovereignty is the quality of having supreme, independent authority over a geographic area, such as a territory. It can be found in a power to rule and make law that rests on a political fact for which no purely legal explanation can be provided...

, retained by the state, in return for their protection and a more functional society. In essence, a social contract between the sovereign and citizens evolves out of pragmatic self-interest. Hobbes named the state Leviathan
Leviathan (book)
Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil — commonly called simply Leviathan — is a book written by Thomas Hobbes and published in 1651. Its name derives from the biblical Leviathan...

, thus pointing to the artifice involved in the social contract. In this vein, Hobbes' concept of negative liberty was built upon the notion that the state would not act upon its subjects because its subjects had willingly relinquished their liberties.

See also

  • Positive liberty
    Positive liberty
    Positive liberty is defined as having the power and resources to fulfill one's own potential ; as opposed to negative liberty, which is freedom from external restraint...

  • Real freedom
    Real freedom
    Real freedom is a term coined by the political philosopher and economist Philippe Van Parijs. It expands upon notions of negative freedom by incorporating not simply institutional or other constraints on a person's choices, but also the requirements of physical reality, resources and personal...

  • Negative and positive rights
    Negative and positive rights
    Philosophers and political scientists make a distinction between negative and positive rights . According to this view, positive rights permit or oblige action, whereas negative rights permit or oblige inaction. These permissions or obligations may be of either a legal or moral character...

  • Mutual Liberty
    Mutual liberty
    Mutual liberty is an idea first coined by Alexis de Tocqueville in his 1835 work Democracy in America. In effect, Tocqueville was referring to the general nature of American society during the 19th century. It appeared to him, at least on the surface, that every citizen in the United States had the...

External links

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