Negative freedom is defined as an absence of restrictions upon an individual’s liberty, with the individual being free from interference. Positive freedom is the ability to be one’s own master; in other words, to be autonomous.
Negative freedom is defined as an absence of restrictions upon an individual’s liberty, with the individual being free from interference. These restrictions usually take the form of coercion from other individuals or the state. Classical liberals have advocated negative freedom because it allows people to act freely and independently. Negative freedom is upheld by enforcing the ‘rule of law’, whereby all individuals are equal before the law. Such a view is based upon a belief in foundational equality, where all humans are considered to be born equal. For example, Thomas Jefferson advocated a form of rights-based negative freedom in which everyone is entitled to the inalienable rights of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. For John Locke, negative freedom thus implied that a minimalist state should exist, acting as a ‘nightwatchman’, in order to prevent people from abusing the freedom of others.
Other liberals have seen freedom differently; with T.H. Green proposing that freedom should be understood in ‘positive’ terms. Positive freedom was defined by Isaiah Berlin as the ability to be one’s own master; in other words, to be autonomous. This line of though is can be seen in the way in which modern liberals advocate developmental individualism. J.S. Mill emphasised human flourishing over the crude satisfaction of interests, proclaiming that he would rather be ‘Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied’. Skills and talents should be developed, understanding should be broadened and fulfillment should be gained. This will then lead to self-realisation. Humans are prohibited from reaching their potential by social disadvantages and injustices, so therefore the state has a responsibility to reduce or remove these disadvantages so that equal, or at least more equal, life chances can be created. Thus, positive freedom advocates the idea of equality of opportunity. This can be achieved through welfarism, which can get rid of the so-called ‘five giants’ – want, disease, squalor, ignorance and idleness. Therefore, by getting rid of these disadvantages, citizens can then achieve positive freedom through self-realisation.