Negative vs. Positive Liberty

By Rick Kelo

Libertarians trace much of their intellectual history back to Classic Liberalism… known at the time simply as “Liberalism.”  Liberalism wouldn’t diverge into Classic Liberalism vs. Social Liberalism until the late 1800s, but the hijacking of the word “liberty” by social liberals would become a central part of that divergence.  So in looking at positive vs. negative liberty I’m going to include quotes from both good, ahem… rather… Classic Liberals and some of the foundational thinkers in social liberalism.

“[A Liberal’s] “polar star is liberty – who deems those things right in politics which, taken all round, promote, increase, perpetuate freedom, and those things wrong which impede it.”

~ Lord Acton


Negative liberty (or negative freedom) requires the absence of something, positive freedom requires the presence of something.  This particular topic has been at the core of almost every discussion of political philosophy in the last 300 years.

A “negative freedom” means to be free from outside restraint.  The idea of a negative freedom is that it introduces on someone else only the obligation to not interfere with the equal freedom of their fellow man.  Consider the old polemic that your right to swing your fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.

Conversely, a positive freedom means that one is supplied certain minimum items necessary to be free to act out their desires.  Many groups seek to achieve positive freedom through political action; through lobbying government to grant special privilege or political preference on their group.


The notion of positive freedom originated with a man named T. H. Green:

“Modern legislation then with reference to labor, and education, and health, involving as it does manifold interference with freedom of contract, is justified on the grounds that it is the business of the state, not indeed directly to promote moral goodness.”

T.H. Green, “Liberalism and Positive Freedom,” 1880.

It was further expounded upon by other Progressive Era philosophers who followed Green.  Another common definition came from Richard Tawney, in his book “Equality” who described positive freedom as the “ability to act.”  FA Hayek would later agree with this definition and remark that positive liberty was not a form of liberty, but really another word for power:

Neither of these confusions of individual liberty with different concepts denoted by the same word is as dangerous as its confusion with a third use of the word to which we have already briefly referred: the use of “liberty” to describe the physical “ability to do what I want,” the power to satisfy our wishes.

Once this identification of freedom with power is admitted, there is no limit to the sophisms by which the attractions of the word “liberty” can be used to support measures which destroy individual liberty.

~ FA Hayek, “The Constitution of Liberty,” 1960, p. 16


Negative freedom has always been the central belief of Liberalism, and is a point upon which Social Liberals would later diverge from the 200 years of Liberal tradition up to that time: the idea that coercion should play the smallest role possible in social relationships.  Liberalism’s belief on negative freedom stems from a concept called “liberty of conscience.”  The idea that man cannot be told what to think or believe by another, and therefore when you are truly free you can act on your own judgement, pursue your own goals, do whatever you’d like with your own property, associate with whoever you desire, and enter into peaceful transactions with your fellow man.  However, according to Liberalism, your freedom to do those things is constrained by the fact you must respect the equal freedom of your fellow man to do the same.

“A free Government interferes with nothing except what it must. A despotic Government tries to make everybody do what it wishes, a Liberal Government tries, so far as the safety of society will permit, to allow everybody to do what he wishes.”

~ Sir William Harcourt, speech at Oxford University, 1873


Liberalism teaches that people should not try and dictate, by force, the actions of other people because doing so reduces the range through which that person remains free.  This is known as the presumption of liberty.  To Liberals anyone advocating infringing upon the liberty of their fellow man had the burden of proof to prove why the presumption of liberty should be violated.  John Stuart Mill remarked about this that:

“Even in those portions of conduct which do affect the interests of others, the onus of making out a case always likes on the defenders of legal prohibitions.”

~ John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, p. 280, Book V, Chapter XI

Liberalism teaches that such an imposition is, by default unless proven otherwise, immoral because it restricts other people’s liberty of conscience.  This is the concept of negative liberty, over which there have been considerable disagreements about which is more proper.  Berlin’s examination of the subject is considered the first major examination of the distinctions between positive and negative liberty.  Berlin concluded that:

Confounding liberty with her sisters, equality and fraternity, leads to similarly illiberal conclusions.

~ Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” p. 22

Negative Liberty is opposed to the view that originated in Conservatism (more specifically Toryism at the time), that a positive freedom should exist whereby the State imposed forcible paternalism and intervened against voluntary relationships on the basis that it had a parent-like duty to do so.  Or, as T.H. Green said to use positive freedom to “promote moral goodness.”

Our closing thought comes from a philosopher named L.T. Hobhouse:

Government had to maintain order, to restrain men from violence and fraud, to hold them secure in person and property against foreign and domestic enemies, to give them redress against injury, that so they may rely on reaping where they have sown, may enjoy the fruits of their industry, may enter unimpeded into what arrangements they will with one another for their mutual benefit.

The liberty which is good is not the liberty of one gained at the expense of others, but the liberty which can be enjoyed by all who dwell together.

L.T. Hobhouse, Liberalism, 1911