Preserving Negative Liberty

A Defense of the Strict Limitation of Government to the Preservation of Negative Liberty

Lorien D. Johnson
01 May, 2006

PLS 565: Contemporary Political Ideologies – Dr. Denise Dutton
Missouri State University

Governments are established to meet three central values: liberty, equality, and order. Individuals prefer these values to differing degrees. The values of government are shaped by the value preferences of the individuals who conduct its establishment. The different preferences held by each individual require that government cannot suit each individual to an equal degree according to their value preferences. History has exhibited a common preference for a government that is self-conscious in that it is established and functions according to the value demands of the governed. The subsequent challenge for a self-conscious government is to meet the most value demands with the least violations of value demands. The challenge of a self-conscious government is best met by strictly limiting its function according to a common set of methods that preserve a maximum state of negative liberty.

Concise articulation of the common principles of governance and human interaction is requires a clear understanding of the terms used. To this end, the terms most oft-used in this articulation will be briefly defined. The following terms will, at times, be used to excess in order to preserve a consistent presentation of the ideas included within this essay.

a. Individual: Adult human in possession of natural rights. Can be used to include unspoken reference to a group.

b. Group: Group of individuals. The group does not possess natural rights.

c. Freedom: The natural rights of self and access to those rights.

d. Negative Liberty: Access to freedom, unmitigated by other individuals.

e. Positive Liberty: Control of one’s own use of freedom.

f. Order: Structure of functionality.

g. Harm: Violation of an individual’s or group’s negative liberty.

h. Commensurate: Exactly divisible by the same unit an integral number of times.

  1. Government must be strictly limited from attempting to preserve and/or provide positive liberty. The introduction of a public pursuit of positive liberty initiates a public pursuit of an ideal social order. Such a order cannot exist to the contentment of all governed individuals. The inevitable discontent is due to three points: the incompatibility of the primary values of liberty, equality, and order; the impossibility of a universal ideal; and the incommensurate liberty that the pursuit of an ideal distributes.
    1. Isaiah Berlin clarified the notion that full liberty and full equality are inherently incompatible. In describing the limitations of pursing an ideal order, Berlin explained that the values of liberty and equality will collide. He provided an example in that, “total liberty for the wolves is death to the lamb […] [and] Equality may demand the restraint of liberty”. :”(Berlin, Isaiah. “The Pursuit of the Ideal”. 146.)”:
    2. If the primary values themselves cannot coexist to completion, then a government cannot ensure each of the values to completion and reach an ideal. Similarly, each governed individual will differ as to their preferred balance of the values. If each governed individual is not content with the government, then the government is not providing an ideal order. Berlin argued that in government, we “are all doomed to choose, and every choice may entail an irreparable loss.” :”(Ibid.)”: The very act of choosing between values will create the discontent that prevents an ideal order.
    3. When government acts in pursuit of positive liberty, it by necessity chooses an act of force to incommensurately distribute liberty. Example follows: Government recognizes that person A’s positive liberty is restricted due to uncomfortably low financial ability. Government recognizes that person B possesses excess financial ability. Government uses force to shift a portion of person B’s excess financial ability to lessen person A’s discomfort. Person A is then in possession of more positive liberty than previously held, but Person B is in possession of less negative liberty. Liberty has been incommensurately distributed. Government has unequally distributed negative liberty in pursuit of a more equal distribution of positive liberty. In so doing, government creates discontent and cannot achieve an ideal order.
  2. The preservation of negative liberty is the only pursuit that government can secure efficiently and commensurately. The inability to commensurately distribute liberty proves the inefficiency of public positive liberty pursuits, but this concept will be expanded in the discussion of Friedrich A. Hayek’s method securing negative liberty. Negative liberty is inherently commensurate. Each governed individual can be kept free of interference to the same degree that they do not interfere with other individuals.
  3. The differing, and thus competing, value preferences of the governed must be met to an adequate degree in order to prevent the inevitable discontent from overwhelming the government. Michael Oakeshott adeptly described this appeal in his essay, “On Being Conservative”, as being the prevention of a “collision of interests”. :”(Oakeshott, Michael. “On Being Conservative”. 146.)”: Governing is a “specific and limiting activity […] the rule of those engaged in a great diversity of self-chosen enterprises.” :”(Ibid.)”: Furthermore, “a government that which does not sustain the loyalty of its subjects is worthless.” :”(Ibid.)”: Oakeshott described these principles in the context of government serving as arbiter of the competing interests, which can include value-preferences.

    To this end, government can use a carefully selected assortment of methods to function within its limited range of pursuit. Such methods are selected according to two provisions: that they are espoused by individuals of differing value preferences, and that they are complimentary to one another in form and function. In this way, government can appeal to the most possible value preferences of the governed. The following presentation of methods will proceed in the order of their increasing amounts of order.

    1. John Stuart Mill’s harm principle is a useful tool in defining the extent of negative liberty. Mill defined his principle as, “sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” :”(Mill, John Stuart. “On Liberty”. Chapter 1.)”: Edmund Burke expressed a similar notion when he stated that “[w]hatever each man can separately do, without trespassing upon others, he has a right to do for himself.” :”(Burke, Edmund. “Reflections on the Revolution in France”. 441.)”:
      Mill allowed for the term “harm” to refer to constraints of positive liberty. The inclusion of positive liberty constraints in the definition of harm that is to be prevented by government leads to the problems previously discussed. When harm is limited to the violation of negative liberty as previously articulated, however, Mill’s harm principle is of aid as a foundational principle of a limited government.
    2. Friedrich A. Hayek and Milton Friedman emphasized the heavy reliance on a free market system to meet the needs of individuals and groups. Free markets are predisposed to preserve negative liberty. Furthermore, the use of a free market provides the maximum amount of social and economic efficiency. Hayek argued that planned orders, specifically markets and governments, suffered from a knowledge problem. :”(Hayek, Friedrich A. “The Use of Knowledge in Society”.”: That problem is as follows: no individual or group can know and account for everything. A planned order is limited to the knowledge of the individuals or group who form the plan. Therefore, no planned order can know and account for everything. Hayek’s solution was to allow for order to develop spontaneously. Individuals and groups will interact in their natural ways. The interaction will develop organic solutions to problems and internal social boundaries as needed. In this way, orders can function with the most efficiency. Friedman preferred additional structure to markets and governments. He perceived the role of government as the umpire of interactions. For Friedman, the maintenance of law and order are necessary to preserve the market. :”(Friedman, Milton. “Capitalism and Freedom”. 91.)”: Only government can “determine, arbitrate, and enforce” the structure by which the market functions. :”(Ibid., 101.)”: Efficiency is then maximized and the market system, and subsequently government, secured.
    3. Edmund Burke and James Madison articulated the use of a constitution to secure the government. Burke referred extensively to the values of a steady constitution, particularly in his “Reflections on the Revolution in France”. The constitution of Burke’s ideology was primarily unwritten, composed of centuries of tradition, edict, and assorted legal documents. Madison, however, argued for the ratification of a written constitution. In this way a structure for the preservation of liberty could best be maintained and the competing interests of society best mediated. Madison referred to the chief advantage of the creation of the “Union”, through the ratification of a written constitution, as “its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.” :”(Madison, James. “Federalist Paper No. 10”.)”: Madison rejected the option of restricting negative liberty, and he rejected the possibility of a universal ideal. The latter he dismissed due to the fallibility of reason. :”(Ibid.)”: For Madison, the establishment of a Republic through the use of a constitution would “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom […] will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” :”(Ibid.)”: In a system that provided a limited structure within which competing interests could interact, “[a]mbition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.” :”(Madison, James. “Federalist No. 51”.)”:
  4. Government must be limited to the preservation of negative liberty, but this limitation does not entail the necessary absence of positive liberty. Individuals cry out with a demand for positive liberty and the values that it provides to life. The common argument that negative liberty is worthless without provision of positive liberty holds significant moral weight. The extension of that argument, to claim that if government does not provide positive liberty then a government that provides negative liberty is worthless, is false. That claim suffers from a deep nirvana fallacy. No government that has attempted to provide positive liberty has adequately met that goal. Rather, a government structured according to the provisions previously articulated provides the optimal environment for the development of positive liberty. The secure and sacrosanct preservation of negative liberty frees private societies to pursue positive liberty.Private pursuits of positive liberty, for self and for others, must conform to the central constraint placed upon society by government: negative liberty cannot be violated. The majority of private pursuits of positive liberty conform easily to this constraint. Individuals and groups can create and maintain organizations that voluntarily strive to provide services that increase positive liberty. These services include economic charities, housing charities, educational institutions, and others.

    Individualism, as articulated by Thoreau and Emerson, is best allowed to function when given the security of negative liberty. Other methods of privately pursuing positive liberty, such as through religion and/or communism, are also freed to function by a negative-liberty government. Such deeply ideological pursuits of positive liberty exhibit a historical tendency to violate negative liberty. They can, however, successfully function within the constraints of the harm principle. The methods by which such ideologies can achieve peaceful success within a negative-liberty government warrant extensive and exclusive attention, attention which is not suitable for this essay and remain open for future consideration.

    The private provision of positive liberty will not be complete and without defect. This is not a reasonable objection to a negative-liberty government. The establishment of a universal ideal, which would include full and universal positive liberty, is an impossibility as previously addressed.

The security of negative liberty by government creates an environment that maximizes efficiency in all areas of governance. The primary values that government must address are allowed to operate to their fullest commensurate extents. Negative liberty is inherently secured, and the pursuit of positive liberty is freed for private methods. Equality is secured in multiple forms: all individuals are given equal access to negative liberty to the extent that they preserve it in others, all individuals are treated equally within the legal structure, and private measures are given optimal liberty to pursue positive forms of equality. Order is secured through a limited legal and constitutional construct, and individuals are free to spontaneously develop orders to suit their needs.

The efficient and secure development of the three primary values for government presents the differing value-preferences of individuals and groups with the opportunity to privately organize in pursuit of their preferences. Therefore, a limited government construct that secures maximum negative liberty establishes the adherence to the most possible value demands, and it creates the fewest possible violations of value demands.

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One Comment

usman October 20, 2007 Reply

please could you send me the elements of state and also i have another questionand the question is is positive and negative liberty complimentry to each other?

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