This post is part of a series on liberalism. Past posts have included an overview of John Rawls’ Theory of Justice, Robert Nozick’s Entitlement Theory, and F.A. Hayek’s refutation of social justice.

Isaiah Berlin was a historian of ideas and a political theorist who outlined the differences between positive and negative liberty.

The last few posts in this series have largely dealt with abstractions and lofty discussions of social justice. In this post, on the other hand, I am addressing something that many young libertarians have been faced with. As Students For Liberty, we are exactly that — students for liberty. Despite this obvious pronouncement of our beliefs, many of us have been asked before exactly what it is that we believe. Indeed, I have been asked on my campus what it is that Penn For Liberty stands for. While I could easily answer, “Liberty, of course! It is right there in the name,” this would not be likely to succeed in informing the questioner what it is that we stand for. What does it mean to be “for liberty” for different people? After all, isn’t proclaiming that you are “for liberty” like saying you are “for justice,” or “for life”? How many people would you reasonably run into who would proudly declare that they are “against justice,” “against life,” or “against liberty”? It is great to say that one is for liberty, but it is also useful to take a step back and realize what one’s ideological and intellectual opponents may think of using those phrases. Many libertarians seem to forget that few people are openly against liberty, at least broadly speaking in western liberal democracies. Both leftists and conservatives support liberty, they just support different conceptions of liberty than libertarians do.

Competing Conceptions of Liberty

This confusion stems from a confusion over competing conceptions. The struggle for liberty for libertarians is not really a black-and-white struggle of liberty versus statism, but it is rather a large, multi-faceted interlocking of various competing conceptions of the same concept — liberty — with some relying on state power to achieve that liberty. High liberals, classical liberals & libertarians, and [American] conservatives all support some conception of liberty in the broad sense.  Liberals of all colors, including Rawlsian high liberals and Hayekian classical liberals, support liberty and equality as their primary motivating political value, but they differ in which conceptions of liberty and equality they support.

For many, conflicts arise when positive liberty and negative liberty begin to compete with each other. These two competing rights claims may be seen as valid by individuals on both sides. Some libertarians claim that positive liberties do not even exist, and they should be redefined out of our language. Even if this is so, many of our intellectual opponents believe they do exist, and dismissing them outright makes building a conversation impossible. As Jason Brennan has recently pointed out at the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog, there is a distinction between positive liberty and negative liberty and both relate to legitimate conceptions of liberty. Positive liberty and positive rights are those liberties and rights which are, broadly put, guaranteed by somebody else. Isaiah Berlin, the 20th Century liberal political theorist, notes that they are related, but distinct ideas and that positive liberty is a valid goal for many:

Positive liberty… is a valid universal goal. I do not know why I should have been held to doubt this, or, for that matter, the further proposition, that democratic self-government is a fundamental human need, something valuable in itself, whether or not it clashes with the claims of negative liberty or of any other goal… What I am mainly concerned to establish is that, whatever may be the common ground between them, and whatever is liable to graver distortion, negative and positive liberty are not the same thing.

— “Five Essays on Liberty”

Marxists and stricter liberal egalitarians find negative liberty to be rather toothless. To them, it does include the classical liberal idea of the right to be left alone, but it also includes the right to be poor, the right to die from a disease, the right to starve, the right to make nothing of one’s life. Without positive liberty’s guarantees of basic sustenance and the resources necessary for opportunity, then negative liberties, which many leftists do believe carry value, would not be possible. This can be seen in today’s modern political dialog in the United States when those on the left argue that health insurance is necessary in order to protect some people’s ability to make something of themselves. Take, for example, Mike Godwin’s defense of ObamaCare on the grounds that it protects the negative liberty to choose to work where one wishes. Thus, for these members of the left, positive liberty is a necessary guarantor of negative liberties. Some on the left, even left-libertarians, would argue that positive liberties are, therefore, more important than negative liberties.

But what about conservatives and those on the right? As F.A. Hayek notes in his essay “Why I Am Not A Conservative,” conservatism, which is the adherence to tradition, just so happens to align with many classical liberal values in the United States. This coincidence makes it that much of American conservatism, at least in the traditional sense, is very similar to classical liberalism. Hayek followed in the tradition of the Old Whigs, many of whom aligned their interests with those of the American founding.

Non-liberal Political Philosophies

Some political philosophies distinctly place other values, such as justice or the community, above liberty. These philosophies come from both the left and the right, and both repudiate the individualism that liberalism embraces.

What else do [Kirkian] conservatives and libertarians profess in common? The answer to that question is simple: nothing. Nor will they ever. To talk of forming a league or coalition between these two is like advocating a union of ice and fire.

— Russell Kirk, “Libertarians: Chirping Sectaries”

However, conservatives like Russell Kirk  would view the power of the state and its enforcement of certain mores and norms to be integral to the protection of society. If certain social institutions and morals are not enforced, then society itself collapses upon itself. Kirkians reject any sort of relationship between libertarianism, finding that libertarianism is not any sort of real philosophy, but a conglomorate of competing anti-state views that go against Kirk’s devotion to Christianity and Western conservative social values which, in his view, underpinned society. Liberty, then, was simply a good consequence of these inherently good social values. Unlike conservatives of the Goldwater-era, Kirkians do not view liberty as a primary political value. In this sense, they are akin to communitarians, who find that a strong connection to the community is of higher political worth than individual liberty.

Michael Walzer is largely seen as the father of modern communitarianism, a political philosophy which emphasizes the importance of the community over that of the individual.

Like conservatives, communitarians come in many blends. One of the most prominent communitarian theorists has been Michael Walzer, who, like Robert Nozick, got his claim to fame by responding to Rawls’ Theory of Justice. Walzer’s leftist-communitarianism emphasizes the importance of the community in order to promote the many spheres of justice. Charles Taylor, a Canadian political theorist, offers a rightist-communitarianism that pulls on the conservatism of Kirk and emphasizes the role that the community plays in its relation to the individual. Without the proper societies and communities, Taylor argues, the individual’s role really is not that important. There are also less radical communitarian philosophies which tend to walk the line between liberal and communitarian, such as modern deliberative democracy, championed by Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson.

So, is anybody really not for liberty? This question is more complex than it first seems. It appears, just after an incomplete and shallow glossing of several approaches to liberty, the answer is yes and no. Those whom right libertarians accuse of not being for liberty, such as Marxists, egalitarian leftists, and Rawlsian liberals for instance, really are for liberty, just a different conception and different prioritization of it. Meanwhile, there are those who are explicitly not for liberty as a primary political value, such as Kirkian conservatives, Taylorite right-communitarians, and Walzerian left-communitarians. When we advocate for liberty, we ought to keep in mind what audiences we are speaking to. Do they agree with the concept of liberty and just have a different conception? Or do they prioritize something else first? These are questions we ought to ask ourselves as ambassadors of liberty.