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Two Concepts of Liberty
(in the Republican Party)
Peter Meilaender

Just over fifty years ago, Isaiah Berlin delivered his famous lecture on “Two Concepts of Liberty.” Berlin distinguished between two different ways of understanding liberty, which he labeled “negative” and “positive” liberty. Negative liberty was the liberty of classical liberalism, the right to non-interference by others. On this view, I am free when other persons do not prevent me from doing as I wish. My freedom decreases to the extent that others can coerce me. In Berlin’s words, this is “liberty from, absence of interference.” Positive liberty, by contrast, Berlin describes as an ideal of self-mastery. It is (again Berlin’s words) “not freedom from, but freedom to”—freedom to lead a truly ­self-determining life. Insofar as we perceive ourselves to be rational beings, capable of developing and acting upon our own plans for our own lives, we are dissatisfied whenever we feel ourselves shaped or constrained by factors other than our own rational discernment of our true needs and desires. Such factors can be within us, such as ignorance and passion. Or they can be external, such as political, economic, and educational systems that, while not literally coercing us, nevertheless shape and mold us in ways that prevent our developing and expressing our true inner selves. In either case, these influences must be overcome if we are truly to be self-determining rather than externally determined. In overcoming them, we express our positive liberty. If Locke is the progenitor of negative liberty, Rousseau is the prophet of positive.

While the two forms of liberty bear some relation to each other—clearly I cannot be master of myself if coerced by others—they are nevertheless conceptually distinct. It is possible to enjoy considerable negative liberty under the rule of a benevolent despot or enlightened monarch. Similarly, a democratic majority can readily express its positive liberty in ways that severely curtail the sphere of non-coerced human action. For Berlin, the distinction between negative and positive liberty was, among other things, a way of explaining the ideological clash of the Cold War. Western liberal democracies represented the tradition of negative liberty. Soviet communism, by contrast, originated in the theory of positive liberty. Although positive liberty, like negative, was initially an individual ideal, it readily evolved into collective forms. Those who believe they have understood the true nature of human beings also believe they know how the rest of us, our self-understanding distorted by external influences (such as the power of capital), would live if only we were aware of our own true selves (as we would be in the classless society). They may thus coerce us for our own good, enabling us to exercise the self-mastery for which we truly long, even if we are unaware of our own enslavement. They may, to borrow Rousseau’s infelicitous phrase, force us to be free.

Although the poles of the contrast are different from Berlin’s, Americans are currently being treated to an intriguing contest between two concepts of liberty. That contest is playing out in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. It appeared on the scene rather suddenly, with the unexpected emergence of Rick Santorum in the Iowa caucuses as the leading “non-­Romney” contender for the nomination. Santorum’s counterpart in this contrast is not Romney, the front-runner, but rather another of Romney’s challengers, a now-familiar face in this quadrennial process: Ron Paul, America’s most prominent spokesman for libertarianism. Both Paul and Santorum speak often about liberty or freedom (words which I use here interchangeably, as did Berlin), but they mean different things, and the contrast is instructive.


Ron Paul, in promoting libertarianism, fits nicely into Berlin’s dichotomy, standing as he does for a pure form of negative liberty. Paul, more than any other figure in American politics today, has built a following on the basis of his opposition to the growth and extension of government power. On taxes, defense, health care, right down the line of issues, Paul consistently argues for limited government in the name of protecting individual rights and defending personal liberty against government coercion—Berlin’s negative “liberty from” interference. This emphasis on negative liberty was on display in the speech Paul gave after coming in a strong second in the New Hampshire primary. After calling his second-place finish “a victory for the cause of liberty,” Paul repeatedly hammered home the theme of freedom, conceived as a sphere of personal privacy. He described himself as at the head of “an individual liberty movement.” The “role of government... in a free society,” he proclaimed, “should be very simple: the protection of liberty!” He elaborated on the meaning of the Constitution: “It was not designed to restrain the individual—not to restrain you—it was to protect your liberties and to restrain the federal government.” Over time, however, America has drifted away from a proper understanding of liberty. We need to regain an understanding that “liberty means you have a right to your life and your privacy and the way you want to live your life, as long as you don’t hurt people, and you have a right to keep and spend your money as you want to.” And finally, in a somewhat less elegant but similar formulation: “[F]reedom, if you understand it, you should all fight for freedom because you want to exert your freedom the way you want.”

Rick Santorum also talks frequently about liberty. His version of liberty does not map precisely onto Berlin’s positive liberty; to the contrary, it is also a version of negative liberty. But if we have here two variations on the same theme, they nevertheless differ in significant and interesting ways. As a contrast to Paul’s rhetoric, consider the speech that Santorum had given just a week earlier, after his surprising tie for first in the Iowa caucuses. Santorum also highlighted the theme of liberty, putting it front-and-center at the very outset of his remarks. Telling the story of his grandfather, who fled fascist Italy to seek freedom in the Pennsylvania coal fields, Santorum recounted standing by his grandfather’s coffin, looking at his “enormous hands,” and thinking, “[T]hose hands dug freedom for me.” He went on to claim that “the essential issue in this race is freedom.” His initial explanation of this was in terms in negative liberty and would have been at home in a Paul speech. Santorum asked “whether we will be a country that believes that government can do things for us better than we can do for ourselves, or whether we believe, as our founders did, that rights come to us from God and, when he gave us those rights, he gave us the freedom to go out and... live those rights out.”


When Santorum later expanded on the theme of freedom, however, he added a new dimension not present in Paul’s account: he explicitly linked the cause of freedom to the health of American values, families, and faith. With a reference to those people whom President Obama had once derided as “cling[ing] to their guns and their Bibles,” Santorum argued that these people “share our values about faith and family.” Moreover, those values cannot be separated from our economic problems: “[W]hen the family breaks down, the economy struggles.” Finally, without strong families and the values they instill, freedom itself is in jeopardy: “[The same people] understand when families aren’t there to instill values into their children and into their neighbors as Little League coaches, as good neighbors of fathers and mothers being part of a community, that the neighborhood is not safe and they are not free.” One cannot be a consistent defender of freedom, on this view, without also cultivating the values and communities in which it flourishes. Santorum’s argument here is not about “positive” liberty, not about the exercise of self-mastery through the realization of one’s true self. Rather, it is about the cultural prerequisites of negative liberty itself. He expressed this idea succinctly at another New Hampshire campaign event, when he said, “[F]aith instills virtue, and virtue allows for freedom. The less virtuous we are as a society, the more laws [we need to have].”

Both of these conceptions of liberty are characteristically American. (It is interesting that neither of them is especially prominent in Europe. Classical liberal parties there are generally small and appear to be waning in influence. And the combination of free markets with social conservatism, so common in this country, has basically no equivalent in Europe at all.) The contrast between them, moreover, is not a new one. It largely replays an argument from the early years of post-Second World War American conservatism, when libertarians—Paul’s forebears—quarreled with traditionalists. The outcome of that quarrel, to which Santorum is also an heir, was the “fusionism” of liberty and virtue championed by Frank S. Meyer. Writing in 1960, Meyer sounded much like Santorum in New Hampshire today: “[T]he only possible basis of respect for the integrity of the individual person and for the overriding value of his freedom is belief in an organic moral order.... Political freedom, failing a broad acceptance of the personal obligation to duty and to charity, is never viable.” Meyer’s fusionism was popularized by William F. Buckley Jr., at National Review, and it ultimately brought American conservatism out of the political wilderness in the form of the Reagan coalition. It has been the reigning conservative paradigm ever since, and Santorum, in articulating it, is hewing closely to standard Reaganite orthodoxy.

Today, however, Paul’s libertarian vision seems to be on the rise. In particular, he has a devoted following among young people, not entirely unlike the wave of support that President Obama had among college students in 2008. (No, I am not predicting a Paul victory this time.) I am not entirely sure why this should be the case. It is at least somewhat puzzling that a figure like Paul—old, unprepossessing, not exactly fashionably dressed, a bit bumbling in his speech, prone to rants about the Federal Reserve and monetary policy—should become a sensation among the young. But perhaps the links Santorum draws between family values and freedom provide a hint. In an age when families and communities seem increasingly to be breaking down, we might expect young people to have more difficulty perceiving a possible link between these institutions and the preservation of liberty. Certainly this is increasingly true of the students I meet with in my own teaching. Although uniformly Christian, and by and large traditional in their tastes and way of life, my students often seem genuinely befuddled to encounter arguments like Santorum’s about the cultural roots of liberty in social institutions that nourish habits of virtue. It isn’t so much that they reject such arguments; rather, they seem to have trouble comprehending that these linkages might exist at all.

Still, Santorum’s version of liberty may be precisely what we need at the present moment. Indeed, I would argue that the linkage between morality and economics is critical for understanding our current economic crisis—especially for the young, in fact. They are the ones who will pay the price for our own lack of restraint in running up crushing burdens of debt. They, of all people, should recognize that our enormous debt is a “family values” issue if there ever was one. Ron Paul is to be applauded for having taken more seriously than any other candidate the need to reduce spending substantially, and not simply at the margins. Yet how do we produce citizens with the self-restraint, discipline, thrift, public-spiritedness, and willingness to sacrifice that would be necessary in order to carry out Paul’s own agenda? On that question, Rick Santorum’s understanding of liberty has much more to offer us.

This debate between two concepts of liberty may well fizzle out before it is resolved or even, in any serious fashion, joined. By the time this essay sees print, Santorum may be out of the race; and Paul, though he is likely to stick around until the convention, may have been reduced to a sideshow on the path to Mitt Romney’s nomination. If so, however, Paul’s popularity suggests that the contest will be re-joined at some point, probably sooner rather than later. When it is, the outcome will matter. Not only for the GOP, which will learn whether the Reagan coalition, joining free markets, traditionalism, and family values, still dominates the party. It will matter also for us all. For we all have a stake in our country’s concept of liberty.


Peter Meilaender is Professor of Political Science at Houghton College.

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