Conceptions of Freedom

There is a widespread myth about the word ‘liberty,’ a myth propagated by philosophers from the “left” and “right,” by conservatives, radicals, modern liberals, and classical liberals.

The myth begins with a distinction: Liberty takes two basic forms: negative and positive. Negative liberty concerns the absence of constraints, impediments, or interference. For instance, a person has freedom of property—understood as a negative liberty—if others may not take her property or interfere with her use of it. In contrast, positive liberty concerns the power or capacity to do as one chooses, or the power to act autonomously. A person has freedom of property—understood as a positive liberty—if she actually owns and controls some property. Bill Gates and I both have the negative liberty to own a yacht, but only Gates can afford a yacht. He has the power to do something I cannot, and in that respect, he is more free.