Saturday, 16 March 2019

On Isaiah Berlin’s Essay on Two Concepts of Liberty

Isaiah Berlin
The two concepts of liberty that Isaiah Berlin describes in his essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” (Liberty: Incorporating Four Essays on Liberty by Isaiah Berlin; Edited by Henry Hardy) are “positive” and “negative.”

Liberty in the negative sense, he says, is involved in 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?” Liberty in the positive sense is involved in the answer to the question: “What, or who, is the source of control or interference, that can determine someone to do, or be, one thing rather than another?”

All this is fine, but I think that several of the points that Berlin makes in his essay are not clear. He does not offer enough historical evidence and analysis to prove his assertions.

For instance, he says, “Freedom in this sense is not, at any rate logically, connected with democracy or self-government. Self-government may, on the whole, provide a better guarantee of the preservation of civil liberties than other regimes, and has been defended as such by libertarians. But there is no necessary connection between individual liberty and democratic rule. The answer to the question ‘Who governs me?’ is logically distinct from the question ‘How far does government interfere with me?’”

This might be correct in a certain context, but what is the evidence from history? I think the case can be made that several of the liberties that people enjoy in a society are being safeguarded by the courts and not by the democratically elected governments. But Berlin does not clarify this point in his essay. On liberty in a ‘positive’ sense, Berlin says, “It is that liberty in this sense is not incompatible with some kinds of autocracy, or at any rate with the absence of self-government.” This is again a confusing statement.

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