Isaiah Berlin and the Vexing Issue of Liberty

When Isaiah Berlin died in 1997, his conceptions of liberty and value pluralism were to be read within the dying tradition of totalitarian politics, as implemented by Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany. For the Russian-born thinker whose family escaped to England in 1921, Rousseau, Hegel and Marx were directly responsible for a warped interpretation of freedom enabling the state to force its citizens to conform to its own needs and ethereal collective aspirations. 

His answer was a more realistic solution that did not pretend to solve this perennial issue of all political theories  but primarily aimed at minimising the human cost of grand ideological projects while maximising individuals’ opportunities of self-realisation. ‘Negative liberty’ averted the pitfalls of universal, essentialist definitions and proposed, instead, a flexible approach in which ‘liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness, or justice or human happiness or a quiet conscience.’ 

By defusing the dangerous potential attached to a strict and narrow definition of such an all-encompassing concept, Berlin inevitably opened a new Pandora’s Box. His insistence upon the necessity for humans to cooperate and take into account everyone’s interests and wishes is at the very core of the late liberal tradition as traceable in theories of justice such as John Rawls. Our contemporary ‘global village’ has only intensified the growing merging of social and political demand for freedom as private concerns, once confined to the private sphere, have become the bread and butter of social media discourse. 

The resurgence of new forms of populism can be found in the daily outpouring of extreme, unexpurgated views, freely expressed and instantly disseminated worldwide. How can the general public, seemingly keen on half-baked information, be protected from such dangerous propaganda? In order to free citizens ‘from’ such insidious ‘news’, would Berlin have recommended the curbing on individual  ‘positive’ freedom to act in the name of society’s long-term stability and welfare? By focusing on the actual opportunities or restraints facing individuals’ right to choose their own line of conduct, Berlin was prepared to label a society ‘free’ inasmuch as its members enjoyed a low degree of state interference and minded their own business away from its prying eyes. 

In this particular instance, could such a regime still be regarded as the epitome of good government when it appears to have abdicated its very mission of arbitrator between the strongest and the weakest members of society? Berlin was fully aware that theories of ‘positive’, unrestrained freedom were responsible for historical tragedies. Yet, caught between a rock and a hard place, he admitted that ‘negative liberty must be curtailed if positive liberty is to be sufficiently realised: there must be a balance between the two, about which no clear principles can be enunciated.’

Far from simplifying the issue, present times have dramatically multiplied the number of world views and made the necessity of working compromises even more pressing as individuals vie to promote what they regard, rightly or wrongly, as their absolute legitimate rights. Holding on to a tolerant interpretation of the uses of freedom, Berlin openly acknowledged that no moral principle could claim priority over any other. From such a conclusion, it follows that no ideal vantage point can, indeed, be determined from which social and political controversies could ever be decided satisfactorily for all parties concerned. In the final analysis, if Berlin is right, it would appear that freedom, far from being the driving force of History is reduced to the status of a mere by-product of human affairs.

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