Negative and positive liberty are best understood as distinct values within Berlin’s own scheme of value pluralism. While an increase in either is desirable, ceteris paribus, attempting to maximize any single idea of liberty without regard to any other values necessarily entails absurd and clearly undesirable conclusions; any sensible idea of jointly maximizing freedom in general, therefore, must acknowledge the tradeoffs inherent in increasing one aspect of freedom or another. The tension here is akin to the familiar tradeoff between equity and efficiency concerns in economics; negative and positive freedom are not diametrically opposed, but the two ideals may not be individually maximized at the same time.
Berlin defines an individual’s negative liberty as the extent of the sphere in which he is “left to do what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons” (169 ). By tying liberty fundamentally to the absence of (“freedom from”) coercion, proponents of negative liberty generally maintain that the defining characteristic of an infringement on liberty is the “deliberate interference of other human beings” (169). (However, Berlin seems to concede that relaxing the deliberateness of the interfering agents’ actions does not substantially alter this concept of freedom.) Negative freedom by Berlin’s definition, then, plainly does not constitute the affirmation of human potential in any sense. We are free if and only if we are unimpeded in the pursuit of that which is doable; if we take Berlin at face value here, whether and to what degree we actualize our capabilities in reality is entirely irrelevant to the question of liberty in the negative sense.
The most pertinent of Berlin’s immediate conclusions is that a proper endorsement of negative liberty necessarily entails that “a frontier must be drawn between … private life and … public authority” (171). Any meaningful acknowledgement of the merits of negative liberty requires that some minimal area of control be left to private, individual actors.
On the other hand, Berlin claims that negative freedom is not, in any logically prior sense, “connected with democracy or self-government” (177). While acknowledging that self-government may happen to best preserve negative liberty in practice when compared to alternative regimes, Berlin notes that there exists no a priori reason to believe this should necessarily be the case. In other words, even if we explicitly grant that society’s goal should be to maximize negative liberty, the optimality of democracy is not guaranteed by any sound line of reasoning. Thus, selection of the most befitting governance structure is subject to scrutiny as an empirical issue.
By contrast, “the ‘positive’ sense of the word ‘liberty’ derives from the [individual’s] wish … to be his own master” (178). Exponents of positive liberty focus on internal factors rather than external actors by painting the self as essentially divided, typically into a higher...