A missing great book of liberty

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.

9 thoughts on “A missing great book of liberty

  1. So who wrote the essays on Herbert Marcuse and Abbie Hoffman?
    “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.”
    Would you like to mention how many billions and billions of dollars are spent each year by the advertising industry to manufacture desire?


  2. Russell – There are some eccentric choices in the book, but none so eccentric as Marcuse or Hoffman.

    As for advertising, that’s the point really – even innate desires are culturally mediated and subject to persuasion in their expression, and some of politics is a contest of who gets to try to form culture and try to persuade. Liberals are the people who are most sceptical of the state trying to shape culture.


  3. I’m afraid this book might be a tedious read …. if Steal This Book isn’t considered, I suppose Playpower didn’t make it either.
    Howabout The Greening of America? I recalled that one when I was thinking of the books that influenced me (you won’t be surprised).


  4. “Liberals are the people who are most sceptical of the state trying to shape culture.”
    Isn’t that ignoring power imbalances in society? Should it be only money that talks?
    The hippies and yippies weren’t that keen on state power.


  5. Russell – There is no greater imbalance of power than between the state and the rest of us. With advertising a) you ignore most of it (indeed, our brains filter out most of the evironmental information we encounter each day), and b) advertisers offer competing messages.


  6. Andrew that’s true (“There is no greater imbalance of power than between the state and the rest of us.”) but it’s also a very examined and transparent relationship, and theoretically, under democratic control.
    When the state acts it is understood that it will act in our interest (well, in the interests of ‘working families’ at least), whereas corporations will act in the interests of their owners, possibly against the best interests of the rest of society.
    Advertising: they wouldn’t spend that much if it didn’t pay dividends for them. And it’s not just advertisers, it’s those people, like food technologists, who spend all their time inventing new ways too cram even more fat, sugar and salt into everything – it’s bad for health but it makes more profit. Their advertising can drown out, by outspending, the messages put out by government.


  7. Russell – The issue isn’t whether some advertising works in persuading us to buy things, but whether (in Berlin’s framework) that persuasion constitutes oppressive control over us. In my view it does not.


  8. I agree. If you were teaching a course on liberalism or putting together a reader on liberalism, you’d want to include ‘Two concepts of liberty’.

    It’s the kind of essay that’s equally valuable for liberals who see themselves as on the left as it is for those who see themselves as on the right.

    But Berlin’s concept of ‘positive liberty’ always seems clearer and easier to understand in essays about Berlin rather than essays by him. It’s not a simple idea.

    I think Berlin’s writing on pluralism is enormously important — especially when arguing with welfare economists.


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