What Is Negative Freedom, What Does It Mean?June 28, 2021
It can be said that the tradition of liberal thought is largely based on the understanding of negative freedom. As we will remember, the protection of the person by law from arbitrary interventions of the state or other persons is one of the basic principles of liberal thought.
The legal order that binds interpersonal relations to an order, as well as the limitation of state authority over fundamental rights and separation of powers, give the essence of liberal negative freedom. According to this, freedom is the leaving and protection of the autonomy area necessary for the rational subject who knows his own interests to be able to use this quality.
The point that draws attention here is the prominence of the market as the natural area of negative freedom. The market should not be considered purely in an economic sense. In fact, in a broad sense, the market is any place where everything personal to individuals is exchanged openly and without interference. It is a realm of autonomy. The main purpose of the legal order is to preserve this autonomous area.
For example, according to the English thinker John Stuart Mill, one of the most important names of liberal theory, civilization will not develop unless individuals are free to live as they wish “only in the way that concerns themselves”, and the truth will not come to light due to the absence of a free market in ideas; There will be no place for spontaneity, originality, genius and talent, for mental energy and moral courage. Society will be crushed by the weight of “collective mediocrity”.
The autonomous area of the person, which is the basic criterion for the liberal tradition, of course does not have an infinite freedom. In terms of the continuation of social life, it must be exposed to some limitations. The insistence of the liberal tradition on the preservation of a reasonable area of personal autonomy is burdened with some ambiguity when it comes to the practical realm. Because the balance between the inviolability of the personal autonomous area and the restrictive nature of the personal autonomous area of the social arrangements that arise depending on the needs is realized through practical legal arrangements. Therefore, liberalism has practically always existed in the balance between the protection of personal autonomy and the implementation of social regulations, and it has almost acted as an acrobat trying to walk in this balance.
One of the definitions of the concept of freedom is the absence of coercion or interference.
Intervention is when other people force you to act a certain way or prevent you from behaving a certain way. If no one is interfering with you, then in the negative sense of freedom, you are free. For example, if someone has put you in prison and is keeping you there, then you are not free. In this respect, it is not possible to be free when you cannot leave the country because your passport has been seized, or if you openly wish to have a homosexual relationship and act in such a way that you will be prosecuted.
Negative freedom is freedom from being hindered or restrained. If no one is actively stopping you from doing something, then you are free in that sense. The vast majority of governments restrict the freedom of individuals to a certain extent. The justification for this restriction is that generally all members of society need protection. If everyone were completely free to do whatever they wanted to do, then the strongest and most ruthless would probably achieve their goal by crushing the weak. However, many liberal political philosophers believe that there is a sacred and inviolable sphere of freedom of the individual that governments cannot interfere with, provided it does no harm to anyone. For example, in John Stuart Mill’s book On Liberty, he strongly argued that individuals should be allowed to continue their own life experiences without the intervention of the state, as long as no one is harmed in the process.
The negative conception of freedom leads to the economic assumption that individuals can realize their natural property rights only in the presence of a social space where they can pursue their own interests without any outside interference. The logical conclusion of this assumption shows that the more the state’s intervention in the economic field is limited, the more the individual’s freedom will increase. The insistence of liberals to get rid of all obstacles to the freedom of the individual requires the limitation of the existing state as a result of necessity.
Prepared by: Sociologist Ömer YILDIRIM
Source: Atatürk University Department of Sociology Lecture Notes for Grade 1 “Introduction to Philosophy” and Grade 3 “History of Contemporary Philosophy” (Ömer YILDIRIM); Open Education Philosophy Textbook; “Introduction to Philosophy” by Nigel Warburton