Liberty can be interpreted as meaning the freedom to do something without restrictions. The principal interpretations of liberty are ‘negative liberty’, which can be understood as freedom from restrictions; ‘positive liberty’, which can be understood as freedom to do things; and the view that there is such a small difference between these two interpretations that a distinction is unwarranted, as the ability to do something necessarily involves a lack of restrictions. The differences between the two interpretations regard the way in which people wish to treat liberty. Those who view liberty in the ‘negative’ sense, for example liberals and anarchists, generally feel that the role of law should be as limited as possible, whereas those who view it in the ‘positive’ sense generally feel that laws are needed so as to help people to achieve their full potential liberty. In this essay I will consider liberal, conservative and anarchist (the end result of the Marxist dialectics is anarchism, and as such Marxism will be treated as a form of anarchism) interpretations of liberty.
Most conservatives believe that human nature is intrinsically irrational and thus conservative interpretations of liberty are complex. Conservatives focus on some aspects of positive liberty and some aspects of negative liberty. For example law enforcement is an important institution to make sure people are safe and secure, but free market capitalism is important as it gives businesses the freedom to grow and provides the best service for consumers.
This interpretation of the importance of different forms of liberty is based upon the idea that a hierarchy of individuals will always exist in society and that it is impossible to change. However, this idea can be contested with the use of contemporary examples of ‘collectives’, ‘free cultural spaces’ and ‘autonomous zones’, where people seem to show that it is possible to live in a society that is not hierarchical. The way that conservatives ‘pick and choose’ between positive and negative interpretations of liberty is also questionable. Free market capitalism can be seen as incredibly dangerous, as for example first world wishes to buy cheap goods and the willing of companies to make them causes poor pay and working conditions in the third world, and this abuse of liberty will arguably not be rectified without the use of law.
Liberals believe that liberty is an important value, and view the ‘negative’ interpretation of liberty as the more important one. A classic liberal approach to liberty is that a state must exist so as to put into place laws that protect people’s negative liberties. Locke saw humanity in its natural state as a collection of autonomous, rational, moral beings. The role of law, so as to allow humanity to act in this way, must be that of an objective adjudicator, limiting one person’s liberty only in order to allow another’s. This is perhaps best measured by Mill’s ‘harm principle’, where he states that ‘the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others’. A government would ideally enforce laws based upon a similar principle, be elected democratically and be as limited as possible, so to avoid a ‘tyranny of the majority’ or tyranny by any other group.
The disadvantages of the liberal approach can mainly be seen as being in this last area. It is possible for a government to create laws based on such a principle, especially in a democracy? Is it possible for government to exist without tyranny? These questions are closely related. If democracy is not possible then the incorrect use of their position by those individuals that hold power and authority is possible. If democracy is possible and in this democracy people voted for laws based upon a principle of harm, what use would the laws be at all, as they would be dictated by already existing social pressures? If it is unrealistic to expect people to throw aside their prejudices and to vote for laws based upon the harm principle, would a government need the power to enforce them regardless? Is it possible for a government to have such power without in some way abusing it, impeding upon people’s liberties? Liberals feel that the state should be limited so as to not be able to impede upon citizens’ liberties, but if this is not possible then the liberal position is undermined.
Even if it is possible, the probability of achieving a state in which a near perfect group of leaders come to power and set up a governmental system which is impossible to manipulate seems incredibly unlikely. Because of this some believe that any governmental system is open to abuses of liberty; a bully with a gang behind him is not as powerful as a politician with an army behind him, thus to stop there from being a tyranny of the minority the structure of society must be changed so that one individual or a small group cannot have authority over others. Anarchists tend to believe that the most important value is liberty, or that the greatest possible liberty leads to the fulfilment of other important values such as happiness. In order for maximum liberty to be achieved the state and government must be abolished, as government is inherently open to corruption and this leaves people open to exploitation. Other ‘liberties’ that many take for granted in a capitalist state, for example the ability to own private property, must, most anarchists argue, also be abolished, as private property leads to an unequal distribution of wealth. This would involve community ownership of the means of production.
The disadvantages of the anarchist position are also practical ones; many people argue that anarchism is impossible or at the very least undesirable, as it paints too rosy a picture of human nature. The idea of all governments being magically overthrown and people being organised enough to live together without them seems ridiculous. However, this is viewing the future through the lens of the present. How many people in the time of Feudalism foresaw industrial revolutions that would lead to almost worldwide Capitalism? Most anarchists are very realistic in their interpretation of human nature; they see the fact that some humans are greedy and bullying as the exact reason why anarchism is necessary to protect people’s liberties. It cannot be said, either, that the anarchist position focuses only on the distant future; most anarchists take an approach that is fairly close to the classical liberal approach to everyday situations.