The IPA has released its 100 Great Books of Liberty publication, edited by Chris Berg, John Roskam and Andrew Kemp. I wrote 2% of this book – short essays on Mill’s On Liberty and John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration.
If I’d known it was going to take two years to get this compilation out – contributions were due early in 2008 – I’d have volunteered to contribute 3%, and written on Isaiah Berlin’s Four Essays on Liberty (the key essays have been more recently published in a book simply called Liberty).
There is a Berlin book(let) here – his The Hedgehog and the Fox, covered by Tom Quirk. Quirk’s summary does refer to a key Berlin idea, about the pluralism and incommensurability of values. It isn’t possible, Berlin argues, to find one key idea that allows us to rationally choose between any seemingly conflicting choices.
But while this is Berlin’s big idea (the fox of the essay’s title knows many things, the hedgehog one big thing), his ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ essay belongs in any list of 20th century liberal classics. That it is still in print more than 50 years after it was first published, and has spawned a huge secondary literature, including part of the discussion in the latest issue of Cato Unbound, testifies to its enduring interest.
‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ revived/popularised a 19th century distinction between ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ liberty. (The best known 19th century version of this argument, Benjamin Constant’s The Liberty of the Ancients Compared to the Moderns, is discussed by Greg Melleuish in the IPA book.)
Broadly speaking, ‘negative’ liberty is the absence of interference – freedom of speech, freedom of association, and freedom of religion are all negative liberties where the freedom consists of nobody stopping us from speaking, associating or practising a religion.
‘Positive’ liberty is the presence of some capacity to act, and in Berlin’s words ‘derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master’. Often positive and negative freedoms have been seen as left and right versions of the idea of of liberty; as Berlin comments, to offer ‘safeguards against intervention by the state to men who are half-naked, illiterate, underfed, and diseased is to mock their condition.’
Berlin’s essay is particularly interesting on the psychology of what it is to be free. Can we be unfree without external coercion? Various emotions and weaknesses can cause us to act in ways our ‘higher’ selves would rather we did not. We can be imprisoned by our own ignorance of how to live a better life. These ideas seem plausible, but they can easily slide into justifying paternalism, as others seek to ‘liberate’ us from our shortcomings.
The most important version of this idea when Berlin was writing in the 1950s was still Marxist ‘false consciousness’. These days thinkers like Clive Hamilton claim to know what is in our own best interests; though they are often short on policy detail the authoritarian implications of this approach to policy are not hard to discern. The threat to negative liberty comes from the nanny state trying to force us to be free of our desires to eat too much, drink too heavily, and take too many risks.
Berlin has tended to be sidelined in contemporary classical liberalism. He had no interest in economics, and his work is about ideas more than institutions, and so lacks policy ‘relevance’. I suspect he saw the rise of libertarianism as too hedgehog-like, too much of an ideology with one big idea and too little room for nuance – better than the socialist alternative, but still too ‘monist’ for a committed intellectual pluralist.
Nevertheless I think Berlin very much deserves to be an author found on any list of great books of liberty. ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ is a superb intellectual history of different ideas of liberty, and one that recognises and explains the dangers of the people who want to liberate us from ourselves.