In a famous essay from 1969, the Anglo-Jewish liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin distinguished between “two concepts of liberty.” The first concept, negative liberty, implies freedom from external coercion. “By being free in this sense, I mean not being interfered with by others,” Berlin wrote. The second concept, positive liberty, is more prescriptive. It asserts that freedom lies in self-direction and self-mastery.
These two concepts of liberty correspond to two types of liberalism: negative and positive. Negative liberalism, championed by Berlin, is value-neutral, maintaining that all forms of human endeavor are equally worthy and that people should be free to pursue them so long as they don’t interfere with others’ rights. Positive liberalism, on the other hand, asserts there are nobler and baser human values. For advocates of positive liberalism, such as John Stuart Mill, individual autonomy and freedom from tradition are themselves noble values, and people should use their liberty to pursue them. The implication here is that what is new and different is in some sense morally superior to what is familiar and comforting.
Many of the political fault lines in the West today—including Brexit, the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, the rise of Europe’s far right, and ongoing controversies over campus political correctness—are bringing the contradictions between these two types of liberalism into the open. Broadly speaking, populist right voters are negative liberals, whereas libertarians and those on the intellectual left are positive liberals. Right-wing populists are motivated by a desire for white ethnic community and want to freely express that sentiment, which they feel is taboo—even if they themselves often fail to respect the identity claims of minorities. But for positive liberals, diversity is a good in itself and populist opposition to it is immoral. Each side approaches politics with a log in its eye, rendering dialogue impossible.
Why are the contradictions of liberalism only bubbling up now? Secularization, the decline of warfare, and the collapse of communism are all part of
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