A Distinct Concepts Of Liberty

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Berlin argued that there were two very distinct concepts of liberty competing in the history of political philosophy. Negative liberty describes the freedom not to be interfered with. It is the common and common sense understanding of freedom. Liberal societies (small-l) try to arrange government to give individuals the largest sphere of liberty concerning important human values – speech, worship, property and so forth -- compatible with the maximum liberty of others.

Positive liberty is more complicated and not so common-sensical. It is the freedom to do something. It describes the capacity to exercise liberty, not just the absence of interference. What good is the freedom to own property, for example, if you have no money? Liberty without capacity, in the positive conception, is meaningless.

Negative liberty is the first political value among many in the political philosophies in the English liberal tradition and in the liberal democracies they have shaped. In theocratic societies and in the European political philosophies of the counter-Enlightenment, negative liberty is trivial; their ultimate political values vary by ideology – from salvation to sharia to equality – and liberty means having the conditions and capacity for the right values to flourish. Positive liberty always entails a concept of the good life; negative liberty assumes there are many good lives.

What gave Berlin’s ideas such sway was not the brilliance and novelty of the distinction between
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