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Towards a New Definition of Liberty

Neo-Roman liberty: beyond positive and negative freedom

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

Delacroix-La liberté guidant le peuple. Credit: Wikipedia

Delacroix-La liberté guidant le peuple. Credit: Wikipedia

One of the most influential essays in the political tradition of classical liberalism is without a doubt Two Concepts of Liberty (1969) by Sir Isaiah Berlin. In it, the brilliant Berlin presents a positive and a negative understanding of the idea of liberty. These two different conceptualizations of freedom, says the author, have informed the philosophies of influential thinkers as well as the policies of many governments. Even to this day they remain very influential, and are at the core of the ideologies of the left and right respectively.

In this essay I argue that the positive and negative definitions are not exhaustive of the concept of liberty. Moreover, accepting Berlin’s dichotomy is limiting and excludes alternative conceptualizations of a vital concept at the heart of democratic theory. By presenting the research of Professor Quentin Skinner I will propose a different idea of liberty: a novel definition which may greatly contribute to our political discussions. But first let us turn back to Isaiah Berlin.

Put in very generalizing terms, positive liberty involves the right of an individual to participate in the collective decisions which influence his or her life. In positive liberty, government is a natural expression of the popular will to the point where the individual’s interest and the government’s coincide. Negative freedom, contrarily, is manifest when an individual is not constrained by external impediments, particularly from laws imposed on him or her by the political apparatus.

Berlin states that governments which have adopted a positive understanding of freedom have most often exhibited authoritarian tendencies, inevitably sacrificing the individual’s private rights for the good of “the people”. Expressions of positive liberty are Jacobin France and Rousseau’s volonte generale. Berlin concludes that negative liberty is a safer understanding of freedom because, in the end, the natural rights of individuals (those to life and private property chiefly) remain sacrosanct and inviolable.

It is safe to say that within the field of political theory these two understandings are the most commonly accepted definitions of liberty to date. So pervasive are Berlin’s definitions that the ends of the political spectrum still identify with them. The left has generally embraced positive freedom, expressing it through a prominent role of government in the individual’s life. While the right has usually given prominence to free enterprise and free markets, allowing individuals to be free of governmental intervention. An alternative way of thinking about the concept of liberty may help us break this conceptual impasse.

The Statue of Liberty. Credit: Wikipedia

The Statue of Liberty. Credit: Wikipedia

The intellectual historian Quentin Skinner does not embrace the negative and positive dichotomy. Through a meticulous historical analysis, Skinner recovered a third understanding of liberty referred to as civic republican or neo-roman liberty. This formulation of liberty has roots in ancient Greece, expresses itself in Republican Rome, resurfaces in the Italian renaissance republics of Florence and Venice, forms the ideological backbone of the English Revolution, and influenced the language of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution.

Skinner states that neo-roman liberty does not express freedom through government as the positive articulation has it. Nor does it embrace a negative position whereby the individual is free only if there are no constraints put on him by other actors. Neo-roman liberty is best described as the condition of the absence of dependence, where human agency is not dependent on the will of another individual.

This idea of freedom emerged historically in reaction to absolutist and aristocratic claims to power. Its proponents asked the question: how can I be free if my actions must be sanctioned by an arbitrary higher will? Civic republican freedom exists when an individual is not subject to the power of anyone else. It ceases to exist when an individual finds him or herself in a condition of dependence. An individual need not be directly constrained by another actor: it is the mere possibility of one’s actions depending on the will of someone else that engenders the loss of freedom.

Skinner concedes that neo-roman liberty is indeed a strand of negative liberty. But what distinguishes it from Berlin’s definition is how the condition of dependence is to be avoided. In neo-roman liberty, removing the dependence on greater powers requires massive doses of participation in civic life. Maintaining liberty from powerful interests –be them governments or private agents- is to constantly check, balance, control and limit their influence through participation in the political process. For Skinner, the lesson that the civic republicans teach us is that “if we wish to maximise our personal liberty, we must not place our trust in princes; we must instead take charge of the political arena ourselves”[1].

Positive liberty tends to place too much trust in the guidance of governments. Negative liberty lends itself to ideologies based on the infallibility of free markets. Neo-roman liberty, contrarily, does not trust either. The ancient Romans, the English Revolutionaries and the American Founding Fathers all new that power corrupts -be it public or private. Their answer, however, was not to retreat to a negative conception of liberty limiting itself solely to the obsessive guardianship of liberal natural rights (as Berlin might seem to suggest). They knew that power must be controlled through political means. They knew that popular participation in the political process was absolutely central to balance the influence of powerful interests.

What conditions of dependence are we in today? Well, for one, our whole economic system seems to be inextricably tied to the fate of unaccountable and far-removed financial institutions such as the Fed, investment banks, the WTO, credit rating agencies, the IMF, and the European Central Bank. If Wall Street fares well, all is good (or so says the trickle-down theory). If Wall Street has a bad day, or worse, experiences a financial meltdown, our economy plummets. This, dear reader, is thralldom. And the only way to reverse this condition of dependence, as the civic republicans taught us, is to subject those powerful interests to democratic control, making them accountable to citizens and forcing their decisions to be taken in the public sphere in an open and transparent fashion. The same can be said for the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which allows powerful private interests to unduly influence the democratic process. It puts the citizen in a condition of dependence vis-à-vis those interests. The examples are endless.

Neo-roman liberty is grounded in a profound suspicion of all power and in the wisdom that powerful interests must be always made accountable to the public at large. Above all, it teaches us that if we wish to maintain our liberty we must take charge of the political arena ourselves, as free and equal citizens.

For more information on the subject consult the following:

  • Berlin, I. 1969 “Two Concepts of Liberty” in Isaiah Berlin Four Essays on Liberty. Oxford University Press: Oxford
  • Pocock, J.G.A. 1975. The Machiavellian Moment, Princeton University Press: Princeton
  • Skinner, Q. 1998, Liberty Before Liberalism, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

[1] Skinner, Q. 1992, “On Justice, the Common Good and Liberty” in Mouffe, C.Dimensions of Radical Democracy, Verso: London

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