An Affirmative Defense of the Liberal Tradition by Mark Blitz

Mark Blitz, "An Affirmative Defense of the Liberal Tradition," Library of Law and Liberty, February 23, 2015.

Mark Blitz reviews and discusses Isaiah Berlin’s thought in this essay at Library of Law and Liberty.


Freedom and Its Betrayal consists of reconstructions from transcripts and drafts of six lectures that Isaiah Berlin broadcast in 1952 on the BBC, and, new in this second edition, three early drafts of Two Concepts of Liberty. The broadcasts discuss six thinkers; the issues on which Berlin concentrates are the ones that motivate Two Concepts.

That Berlin believes a significant difference exists between positive and negative liberty is well known. But the substance of his view is not well understood. To possess negative liberty is to be unobstructed by others, to not be hindered by them in one’s actual and potential choices. Positive liberty is self-direction, a view connected to Rousseau, the Stoics, and ascetics, each of whom purveys some notion of a higher self whose dominance constitutes freedom. Berlin, in contrast, considers negative freedom to reduce barriers to the varied ends and purposes people actually have.

Berlin does not give us a formula by which to judge the proper amount of negative liberty. Such mock precision would violate his view of what is possible and desirable. Equality, justice, love, and love of truth, moreover, are values just as liberty is. None is completely compatible with any other. Liberty requires conditions, furthermore, and advancing it for some will restrict it for others: liberty’s conditions differ from liberty itself. (Parents should not be free to fail to educate their children.) We should not confuse liberty as the unhindered conduct of our actual selves with its conditions or with other values.

Berlin’s worry about positive freedom is not with the bare sense of self-direction but with the belief in a higher or truer self. This tends to become a view that the higher self should direct us, and that it is identical in all of us. If we cannot live up to it, others can make choices for us. Moreover, this authoritative self often becomes identified with a national or group self of which I am a part, or with a single “creative” self for whom the rest of us are mere material.

The potential difficulties with positive liberty are legion. The most obvious is that its exponents easily become bullies and tyrants, often to horrible excess. They believe themselves to be altogether correct and others to be fortunate recipients of the perfection to which we are being delivered. Their actions therefore know no limits.  Communist and Fascist tyrannies are current reprehensible examples.

Berlin would worry about the dominance of a higher self even if one could demonstrate that there is a self all should serve, because we would lose the actual choices and freedom that help constitute our own humanity. But, in fact, no such demonstration exists. Others’ control in the name of one’s high or national self is almost inevitably a false justification or a mere cover for tyranny.

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