On Bad Grounds to Reject Positive Liberty

I’m going to have a few posts on liberty. In particular, I will explain why the libertarian opposition to positive liberty is misguided.

 If you’re going to philosophize about liberty, here are three questions to ask:

  1. What is liberty?
  2. What value does it have, if any?
  3. What, if anything, should government or other institutions do about it?

The most intellectually honest way to deal with these questions is to answer them in this order.

Alas, most people who are interested in politics are more concerned with defending their turf and maintaining their sense of themselves than seeking the truth. So, it seems that most people reverse the order of these questions. They start with a predetermined conception of what government ought to do, and then come up with a theory of liberty and its value to fit and reinforce this conception. People who favor strongly limited governments define liberty in the way they regard as most favorable to that ideology. People who have a fetish for democracy reverse engineer a conception of liberty to make it almost definitional that democracy promotes liberty. And so on.

Orthodox right libertarians are at least as guilty of this as anyone else. In my experience, their blood boils if you make either of the following two claims:

  1. Positive liberty—defined here as the power to achieve one’s ends*—really is a form of liberty.
  2. Positive liberty is very valuable, perhaps as valuable or even more valuable than negative liberty.

Orthodox right libertarians reject both 1 and 2.  I was once told by a right libertarian that the whole idea of positive liberty was introduced by Marxists as a calculated move to destroy people’s ability to think clearly. Many right libertarians will even assert that claims 1 and 2 are just obviously stupid. Still, I haven’t yet encountered a good argument from them against claims 1 and 2.

I think libertarians should just admit that positive liberty really is a form of liberty and really is very valuable. I’ll start explaining why tomorrow. 

*N.b.: This isn’t how Berlin used the term, but this is the most common way the term is used today.


Published on:
Author: Jason Brennan
  • bachwards

    I tend to think MacCallum had the best approach to this issue. All conceptions of freedom for MacCallum minimally involve reference to particular agents free from certain preventing conditions or constraints to perform specific actions. Disagreements between positive and negative libertarians are better understood as disputes about the ranges of these relevant agents, constraints, and actions, rather than as fundamental disputes about the true nature of liberty (though they often involve efforts to simply reduce the entire concept of liberty to issues of constraints or actions). The positive/negative discourse prevents one from seeing the full range of positions one may take on disputes about freedom, and can preclude discussion about the relevant political and contextual details that are actually at the center of the dispute.

    I also agree that the endless talk of positive vs. negative leads to exactly the kind of reverse engineering and misinformed history you identify. This is also unfortunately happening with the newer republican paradigm of liberty as non-domination, as practically every thinker in the liberal tradition aside from Hobbes and Bentham can now be characterized as a republican.

  • Bogdan Enache

    I’m not a libertarian, I’m a liberal, so here are my answers to 1 and 2.

    It’s a matter of levels of discourse.

    Power over one’s destiny, capacity for self-fulfilment, accomplishment of deep desires or supression of deep desires are moral and metaphisical questions and therefore I do believe that in a restrictive use of philosophical language one should not call all of these and other ideas liberty. But I fully agree that all of these things – i.e. “positive liberty” – can be more valuable than negative liberty.

    Liberty is an eminently a political concept and, in the modern philosophical tradition, it’s basically negative liberty. Now, this being said, it’s true that political philosophy intersects with moral philosophy (the Ancients made the later the basis for the former, while the Moderns make the distinction in favour of political philosophy). Consequently, this political liberty, i.e. negative liberty, must have a moral status, but it does not incorporates all of moral philosophy. The classical liberal philosophers, or the vast majority of them, considered political liberty a necessary condition for the achievement of all the other positive ends, which they also believe are more important. In short, negative liberty, irrespective of the justification offered for it, is a mean to an end in the classical liberal tradition. Not an end in itself.

    So basically I can accept both 1 and 2 and still consider that (negative) liberty should be the main political moral value sought (of course, in practice this doesn’t happen, but a significant number of people agree that some degree of negative liberty is indispensible even when one can enjoy a great number of positive ends).

  • I’m not convinced this is the right approach. Philosophizing about liberty presupposes that liberty is a cornerstone principle of a well-ordered society. No one has any reason to disagree with claims 1 and 2, unless we’re actually talking about how to order a society, and not just about liberty in the abstract. If intellectual honesty is in question here, it seems to me intellectually dishonest not to start with asking, “What is a well-ordered society?” That is a far different question than, say, “What do I want out of life?”

  • I think the “orthodox” libertarian view would be that “positive liberty” can conflict with “negative liberty”.

    i.e. the power to achieve your ends can conflict with respecting that others may not be compelled to assist you in achieving your ends.

    In that way, the positive liberty concept may be valuable to discuss as a concept and even to strive for increasing by the use of negative liberty definitions of power, BUT it’s more like the opposite of “liberty” as it is traditionally defined.

    Most libertarians would thus prefer that it was described using a term that wouldn’t tend to confuse an opposite with the thing.

  • Jason Brennan


    You claim, “Philosophizing about liberty presupposes that liberty is a cornerstone principle of a well-ordered society.”

    I don’t see why. We don’t want to beg any questions by assuming liberty is a good thing and a fundamental political value. It could also turn out that there are different kinds of liberty, some of which should be protected through politics, and others of which should not be.

    “No one has any reason to disagree about [what liberty is and how valuable it is unless we’re talking about how to order society…]”

    That’s not entirely unreasonable, but I disagree. Suppose you say, “A person is free if and only if he has chicken nuggets for dinner at least once in his life, but don’t worry, I’m not discussing politics,” I still have reason to think you have a crazy definition of ‘liberty’, though your view isn’t politically threatening. We have reasons to disagree about the proper analysis of words and what things are valuable even if we aren’t talking about what governments should do. Or, at least, we philosophers do, since that’s our job. Maybe you don’t, because maybe that just doesn’t interest you. That’s fine if it doesn’t.

  • Mark

    I think the whole distinction between positive and negative liberties is ill-founded in the first place. So-called negative liberties are, in fact, positive liberties which derive from the existence of a law enforcement and criminal justice system. If there are no police to arrest my assailant, and no prosecutors or judges to convict them, and no prisons in which to keep them, then what is my right not to be assaulted worth? Not very much.

    Anarcho-capitalism (perhaps unwittingly) exposes the meaninglessness of the distinction between positive and negative liberties. If I secure the protection of my body and my property by contracting with a private protection agency, then isn’t the safety of my body and my property just another good that I buy in the marketplace, just like food or health care?

  • Jason Brennan


    Thanks for you post, it’s pretty clearly fallacious. You seem to be making the same mistake Sunstein and Holmes make in the Cost of Rights.

    Suppose I claim that I have a right to free speech, understood as a negative liberty. What this means is that other people have an enforceable obligation not to interfere with my speaking or to stop me from speaking in certain ways. (There’s a question here about the scope of this right, but let’s put that aside, since it’s not the issue.) To say the obligation is enforceable is just to say that it would be morally permissible for people to use force to make the duty-holders comply with their duty.

    All it takes for me to have this right is that other people owe me a certain kind of duty. Even if no government or enforcement agency exists, even if everyone in the world treats me like dirt and continually interferes with me, I still have the right. It’s just that people violate it continually. Jews being burned in a concentration camp still had negative rights to life. (Indeed, that’s part of what concentration camps were so morally awful–they were places where Jews’ and others’ negative rights to life were violated.)

    What you really mean to say, or what you, Sunstein and Holmes should say, is this:
    1. Negative rights and positive rights really are conceptually distinct. Negative rights are satisfied, by definition, when people refrain from doing certain things. Positive rights are satisfied, by definition, when people do certain things.
    2. However, most negative rights would be worthless to people, and would not be respected, unless they are conjoined with (legal) positive rights to government enforcement.

    Or, more simply, make sure to distinguish between:
    A. The kind of duty a right imposes on others. (Negative rights impose duties of omission. Positive rights impose duties of commission.)
    B. The worth of a right in any particular situation. (Different rights might have different values in different contexts. The rights of a political prisoner in a gulag don’t do him much good.)
    C. What legal institutions are needed to make it probable that rights will be respected.

  • Mike Wernecke

    I think I’m with Jameson here, although I may be describing a different view, I don’t know.

    I’m not sure we can distinguish question #1 so easily from the other questions. Just as defining a ‘bank’ as a financial institution doesn’t help us with the concept of a ‘river bank’, we can’t define the word liberty outside a context of use. And one of the obvious things about liberty is that competent English speakers seem to think that it’s somehow important… In other words, if we came up with a definition in which liberty didn’t seem to be valuable, that would be evidence that we’re defining liberty incorrectly. In fact, this is often one of the arguments used against the idea that ‘liberty’ is best defined as ‘negative liberty’ — if all the meaningful options in life are closed to a particular person because he does not have any money, and we determine that the person is nevertheless at complete liberty, that seems to be strong evidence that we’ve mis-defined liberty.

    I don’t see the above as particularly about liberty, more as a philosophy of language sort of point. Which of course is why it seems particularly objectionable to say that attacking multiple questions in the 1-3 list at the same time or in an unusual order is dishonest! We can have differences of opinion about, say, Quine, or coherentism, or philosophical methodology without impugning anyone’s honesty in the least (which is why I’d assume that that’s not what you meant, but it seemed worth stating).

    Commenting because I think this blog looks brilliant. It’s in my feed reader, and I can’t wait to start seeing what arguments you present for your views.

  • todd

    Under the definition you propose, is there any difference between liberty and ability?

  • Jason Brennan


    Nope, there isn’t. Positive liberty, so defined, just is ability or capacity.

    To foreshadow my next post a bit, here is a list of some the ways people–both laypeople speaking casually and philosophers writing technical work–use the word ‘liberty’:

    1. Liberty as non-interference: A person is free to X if and only if she is not interfered with or prevented from doing X.
    2. Liberty as capacity: A person is free to X if and only she has the ability, capacity, or power to do X.
    3. Liberty as psychological autonomy: A person is free to X only if she exhibits sufficient deliberative self-control, such that she is authentically the author of her actions.
    4. Liberty as non-domination: A person is free to X if and only if she is is not subject to another’s arbitrary will when deciding to X.
    5. Liberty as moral righteousness: A person is free if and only if she has the power and will to do what is right.

    And so on. This is only a partial list. People use the words ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ in all sorts of ways. When asked to describe a time they were or felt free, people are as likely to cite taking a warm bath (“I felt suddenly free of stress”) as they are to discuss exercising a right to free speech or to the capacity to do something (“Once I learned how to play guitar, I was free to rock out!’)

    I’m inclined to think everything on this list genuinely is a species of freedom, but not every instance of freedom is valuable, and not everything should be promoted or protected by government.

  • “I think libertarians should just admit that positive liberty really is a form of liberty and really is very valuable.”

    Yep. And they should also point out that, perhaps counter-intuitively, oftentimes the best way to secure positive liberty is through negative rights.

    @Mark: I think you need to distinguish between normative rights, the claims that ought to be enforced, and descriptive rights, the claims that are enforced and respected in practice.

  • Jason Brennan

    “Yep. And they should also point out that, perhaps counter-intuitively, oftentimes the best way to secure positive liberty is through negative rights.”

    Michael, I totally agree. This was one of the main theses of my book on liberty with Dave Schmidtz:

  • Dan Kervick

    I don’t see how one can think that the *absence* of either impediments to or interference with the achievement of some end is any kind of good at all for some person unless one also believes that the achievement of the end would be a good for that person. And in that case, how could it not be the case that the *presence* of conditions conducive to the achievement of the end are also a good for that person?

    Another way of putting it is that *both* positive and negative liberty are constituents of power, and are goods only to the extent that the possession of that power is a good. And the possession of the power to achieve some end is a good only if the possession of that end itself would be a good. Actuality precedes potentiality as a principle of value.

  • Jason Brennan


    What do you think of this idea: Some liberties or rights might be bad for particular people, but they are owed them anyways? So, for instance, imagine that John keeps making dumb choices about (where to work/whom to sleep with/what to eat/what hobbies to pursue/etc.) and ends up very unhappy as a result. Suppose that Superman realize John is making these bad choices, and that overall John’s life would go much better if John were prevented from being able to make these choices. Still, even though Superman knows better, who made him boss? It might still be that Superman owes it to John to respect his freedom, even though John’s freedom hasn’t been very good for him.

  • Jason, I almost 100% sure I can add a layer you’ll accept.

    If you wish to assert that there is a positive liberty, then morally you’ll certainly grant there is an obvious requirement to achieve that positive liberty with the least harm done to negative rights.

    This isn’t “first do no harm,” this is much more reflective – the more gingerly you step on the others property rights, the more respect you pay them.

  • Dan Kervick


    I suppose what I was addressing was the question you posed about whether positive and negative liberties are valuable, and if so, what makes them valuable. I admit it is an important further question whether someone can be owed a liberty that is not valuable for them. And yes, I suppose that can be true. One can be owed all kinds of things that aren’t valuable for one.

    So then the next question to raise is about the source of such obligations or owings. I personally don’t believe in any “natural” rights or obligations, and tend to evaluate proposed systems of positive regulation according to their consequences. And certainly, it can be valuable to establish through positive law some general system of rights or liberties for a given population, even if the possession of those liberties is not uniformly good, in all circumstances, for each member of that population. Under any such regime of established liberties, there will likely be circumstances in which one of the liberties in question will be owed some person even when it is not valuable for that person.

    But then we get another version of your original question, and ask whether the establishment of that *system* of liberties is valuable for the population as a whole, and if so, what makes it valuable. I would surmise that the value of establishing the system derives from the fact that the possession of the power to which the liberty pertains is at least *generally* advantageous for the members of that population. And so modifying the argument, it is hard for me to see how one can comfortably hold that it is valuable to establish a system that prevents impediments to the exercise of some power without accepting at the same time that it is valuable to create positive conditions conducive to the exercise of that power.

  • Mark


    Thanks for your response. It sounds to me like your rebuttal depends on the existence of natural rights, though. I’ll confess that I don’t know where the academic philosophy community stands on that issue at this point, but I am not convinced that natural rights are a well defined concept. What does it mean for someone to have a duty of omission if there are no consequences to their failure to perform that duty? I guess I’m just too much of a consequentialist.

    Suppose someone living in an an-cap state (er, non state) cannot afford a protection agency, and is robbed. We all look at the situation and say his rights were violated. So what? Do get together and decide that we need to levy a tax to fund a public police agency? If so, is the justification for violating the property rights of others in order to pay policemen somehow different then the justification we might offer for violating the property rights of others in order to pay doctors to provide public health care? There’s certainly a significant quantitative difference, but I don’t see a qualitative one.

  • Aeon J. Skoble

    I don’t think it makes sense to argue that there are no positive liberties, but the problem arises if one wants to argue that there are natural rights that claim positive liberty. The problem is that such claims won’t be compatible with the compossibilty criterion- their exercise will necessarily entail conflict with other people’s rights.

  • Not associating myself with his philosophical POV, which I find interesting but don’t share, but Thomas Szasz wrote about this a bit. I thought it was in “Myth of Mental Illness” but thumbing through it now I can’t find it.

    He discusses Rousseau’s famous quote “Man is born free yet everywhere he is in chains.” Szasz calls it “perhaps the most foolish thing Rousseau ever said” because it seems to ignore the idea of positive liberty. Obviously a newborn baby is not “free” in any obvious sense as its behavior, while unconstrained, is also impotent.

  • It strikes me as very odd, even hallucinatory, to define a positive liberty condition that almost never exists in reality.

    Assuming one’s ends are pleasing objectives, they are nearly infinite. The pursuit of any objective requires some form of power – the means to achieve it. No person has the power to achieve all of their desires, so the definition necessarily precludes the possibility of an absolute condition to be called “positive liberty”.

    We could modify the definition with some evident qualifiers, e.g. the power to achieve possible or reasonable ends. I can’t fly by flapping my arms, no matter how pleasing that might be as an objective. There is no power that would make it possible for me to fly by merely flapping my arms.

    Likewise, the definition fails to specify the nature, source, or character of that power that might allow me to achieve any of my ends. If it is solely the power with which I am endowed naturally as a human being, then I already have that power, limited only by my own mental or phsycial capacities.

    Therefore, the concept is devoid of meaning … unless it means *obtaining power* from someone else (necessarily, at their expense) in order to satisfy some desire of mine that is considered (by some other person than myself) to be both possible and reasaonble.

    Therefore, “positive liberty” is no liberty at all, but rather the power to compel others to surrender their means for my ends, if determined to be reasonable by others. This condition is not one of liberty, but rather a form of slavery.

    A simple and coherent definition of liberty, as freedom from coercion, makes it clear that it is a condition of the *absence* of malicious conduct by others against my exercise of my own powers to achieve my own ends. That is the only rational form of liberty.

  • @WWestmiller: This is a false dichotomy. You are saying that because my means to achieve my ends is not limitless, it does not exist.

    I am more free than a newborn baby, and it’s not because fewer people maliciously constrain my efforts.

  • John

    “Or, more simply, make sure to distinguish between:
    A. The kind of duty a right imposes on others. (Negative rights impose duties of omission. Positive rights impose duties of commission.)
    B. The worth of a right in any particular situation. (Different rights might have different values in different contexts. The rights of a political prisoner in a gulag don’t do him much good.)
    C. What legal institutions are needed to make it probable that rights will be respected.”

    The above seems to answer your very first question: “1. What is liberty” as “The rightful obligations others owe to me and I to them.” If that’s the case then we also need to look at what falls in that set of obligation.

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