Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Negative Liberty as a Defense Against Totalitarianism

This is an interesting commentary from Dick Meyer at CBS News. He uses Isaiah Berlin's concept of "negative liberty" to discredit recent liberal attempts to turn individual self-interest into "relative self-interest." E.J. Dionne, remarks that the idea of individual interests should be identified as "self-interest, rightly understood, which according to Meyer is just another way of saying, "I know what's in your interest better than you do." Here's some flavor:

"Self-interest, rightly understood" is a fancy-pants way of saying, "I know what is in your interest better than you do." It is, in my view, a politically stupid and morally diseased position. Democrats, by temperament, are slightly more susceptible to it than Republicans. I do not mean to condemn Dionne for a phrase. But I will. It reminded me of something written on the very first page of a book that lots of Democrats think is absolutely brilliant, "What's the Matter with Kansas" by Thomas Frank. In the third paragraph of his book, Frank writes: "People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about." That, too, is a fancy-pants way of saying: "I know what is in your interest better than you do." Frank spends the rest of his book explaining why the people of Kansas go against their obvious self-interest and vote for Republicans and not Democrats. His explanations are fascinating and interesting. His premise is intellectually totalitarian. That may strike you as a rather extreme denunciation. It is, so I'll explain why, in my view, thinking that you know what is in other people's best interests is perhaps the worst political impulse that good people commonly have.
I like how Meyer has used Berlin to critique this liberal impulse toward authoritariansim:

There are two kinds of liberty, negative and positive. Negative liberty is freedom "from" things; positive liberty is freedom "to do" certain things. Berlin describes how these notions of liberty have been put to very different uses in history and how each concept attracts a different kind of political soul. Negative liberty means simply that one is free from interference by the state and others, that one has a zone of liberty and in that zone there can be no interference so long as another's liberty isn't constrained. What you do in the zone of negative liberty is your business. Positive liberty takes a dim view of simple negative liberty, arguing that it is meaningless unless a person has a real, positive freedom - the power "to do" vital things. Being left alone, in the world view, is meaningless if you don't have the power "to do" the important things, whatever they may be – get an education, earn a fair wage, live in an alienated society. Negative liberty is the ethos of classic liberalism, not 'liberalism' in the partisan sense that the word is typically used in America today. Its essence is, "I know what's best for me, leave me alone." Positive liberty, according to Berlin, is the ethos of idealism and great political dreams. Not content with "leave me alone liberalism," the positive libertarian thinks people must have the power to do and be certain things in order to be free in "meaningful" ways. What are those things? Well, they are not things you can know for yourself in your zone of liberty. They are things that were well-understood by great minds like Hegel, Rousseau and Marx. The great impulse of positive liberty is: "I know what is best for you." That impulse, in history and in personality, is elitist and, at its worst, totalitarian. It is the impulse that allows Marxists, Communists, theocrats and nationalists to curtail negative liberties and slaughter people – all in the name of their own best interests. America, of course, is the model community of negative liberty. It's a country explicitly founded on its principles. Arguments about the exact frontiers of liberty will be infinitely and ferociously debated.
Read the whole article. A hat tip goes to one of my colleagues, who posted Meyer's article on the bulletin board outside my office.

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