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Positive liberty, essentially identical with the concept of positive right, an idea that was first expressed and analyzed as a separate conception of liberty by John Stuart Mill but most notably described by Isaiah Berlin, refers to the ability to act to fulfill one's own potential, as opposed to negative liberty, which refers to freedom from the interference of others in one's affairs.
Positive liberty is often described as freedom to achieve certain ends, while negative liberty is described as freedom from external coercion. The idea of positive liberty is often emphasized by those on the left-wing of the political spectrum, such as Marxists, whereas negative liberty is most important for those who lean towards right-wing libertarianism. Conservatives also embrace some forms of positive liberty. Most notably, Puritans such as Cotton Mather often referred to liberty in their writings, but focused on the liberty from sin (e.g. sexual urges) even at the expense of liberty from the government. Many anarchists, and others considered to be on the left-wing, see the two concepts of positive and negative liberty as interdependent and thus inseparable. Since positive liberty (or positive right) more or less signifies entitlement to something, and not so much any sort of basic freedom, it should be preferable to use the term positive right when referring to this idea. (With negative rights, or negative liberties, however, the term "liberty" could be preferable.)
Berlin himself was deeply suspicious of the concept of positive liberty, noting that totalitarian ideologies such as Stalinist Communism claimed to be the true deliverers of self-mastery or self-realization, even though the individual was by no means free. Berlin argued that the concept of positive liberty could lead to a situation where the state forced upon people a certain way of life, because the state judged that it was the most rational course of action, and therefore, was what a person should desire, whether or not people actually did desire it. Berlin said:
- Once I take this view, I am in a position to ignore the actual wishes of men or societies, to bully, oppress, torture in the name, and on behalf, of their "real" selves, in the secure knowledge that whatever is the true goal of man ... must be identical with his freedom.
Defenders of positive liberty say that there is no need for it to have such totalitarian undertones, and that there is a great difference between a government providing positive liberty to its citizens and a government presuming to make their decisions for them. For example, they argue that any democratic government upholding positive liberty would not suffer from the problems Berlin described, because such a government would not be in a position to ignore the wishes of people or societies. Also, many on the left see positive liberty as guaranteeing equal rights to certain things like education and employment, and an important defense against discrimination—here, positive liberty could be the right of (for example) a woman to be considered on equal terms with a man in a job interview.
Positive liberty can also be seen as the ability to participate in the process of government, though this idea is also open to criticism, since minorities may (for example) have as much right to vote as anyone else, and therefore have this positive liberty.
- Isaiah Berlin: Four Essays on Liberty (especially Two Concepts of Liberty)
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