Hobbes may have been the first to present an unequivocally negative concept of freedom. Hobbes defined liberty as the absence of external impediments to motion, and as 'a silence of the laws.’ However, the classic formulation of the doctrine may be found in Berlin’s ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’. Berlin defined negative freedom as ‘an area within which a man can act unobstructed by others.’ In Berlins words ‘Liberty in the negative sense involves an answer to the question: ‘What is the area in which the subject – a person or groups of persons – should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be?’ . For Berlin, the answer to this question is that there should be a private zone that is marked out or set aside, and in which a person can exercise personal liberty and individual autonomy. The individual is to be left alone to exercise his own desires and choices without external coercion. Thus, in Berlin’s conception, freedom is a property of individuals and consists of a realm of unimpeded action. A person is free to the extent that he is able to do things as he wishes – speak, worship, travel, marry – without these activities being blocked by other people. For Berlin, an individual is unfree if he ‘is prevented by others from doing what he would otherwise do.’
One major justification for minimising intervention into the lives of individuals, for liberals, may be a fear of a possible ‘tyranny of the majority’, including a majority religious or moral view. Mill, for example, was conscious of the damage that could be done by an over mighty state. Public power, for Mill, had to be limited by absolute natural rights, which pre-dated any particular consensus or majority view. Here, rights may be defined as a ‘protective buffer or shield’, that operates between the private zone of individualism and free choice, and the public zone of state intervention, which is often seen as a source of intrusive, arbitrary and bureaucratic actions.
In his essay ‘On Liberty’, Mill listed three major objections to government intervention. Firstly, that generally speaking, those people personally interested in any business were the best people to manage it. Secondly, that even where something could not be handled better by individuals than by the government, it was preferable that it should be done by the individual, as a means to their own mental education. And thirdly that, ‘every function superadded to those already exercised by the government causes its influence over hopes and fears to be more widely diffused, and converts the active and ambitious part of the public into hangers-on of the government.’ For Mill, therefore, the state should not impose on its citizens a preferred way of life, even for their own good, because doing so will reduce the sum of human happiness.
Mill’s arguments suggest that the case for minimal intervention is based very firmly upon faith in the human individual and, in particular, in human rationality. Free from...