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Toward a Better Understanding of Liberty

Positive freedom, negative freedom, and politics as a lever to bring them.

Everyone wants freedom. And yet there’s no single best definition of what it really is. When it comes to living in society, there’s no single set of rules, laws, standards, or principles that everyone could agree on.

And yet we all want freedom. People are scared of losing their freedom, and rightfully so. There is hardly life without freedom. Psychologists have determined that “autonomy,” essentially a term for “feeling free and in control,” is the greatest predictor of health and well-being.

It’s why the political debates often revolve around freedom. Whether it’s stated outright, or just implied, freedom is usually at the core of the debate. It’s why activists are often fighting for self-determination and “civil liberties.” It’s the free world we’re fighting for. And it’s why we speak out against oppression and discrimination. These actions enslave, and it’s what we’re fighting against.

It’s strange how, if we all want freedom, different parts of the political spectrum have different concepts of freedom. The right-wing is traditionally suspicious of government infringement upon freedom: don’t tread on me, I want to be free. Believe it or not, though, the left-wing (as opposed to the political “center”) is also very wary of government infringement, and suspicious of authority. A major difference is that the Left is more quick to recognize that “government,” particularly a deeply democratic one, can also be used to enhance and secure freedom.

Neither will an absence of “government” assure liberty for all–or even for most. This is why fantasy depictions of “Anarcho-capitalist” societies, if such a thing were even possible, involve casual depictions of violence, and routine injustice–from slavery, peddling drugs to minors, all the way up to “recreational nukes.”

One way to better understand the concept of freedom, or liberty, is to break it down into two sub-sets. First, there is something called “negative” freedom. This is the traditional, decidedly-American concept of “liberty” that entails the freedom from external force and “coercion.”

Don’t tread on me. This is my liberty to be free–of you telling me what to do–or “making” me do anything in particular. From this view, if it were the extent of our view, laws are simply restrictions on freedom. “Regulations” are tyranny, at least to the ones who are being regulated, and taxes are “theft,” because they are imposed.

But we could fathom another aspect of liberty, known as “positive” freedom, in which our capacity, ability, and potential are strengthened and secured. This is the domain of any Leftist ideal of government.

If you are sick, for example, you are less free than if you are healthy. Who can deny this? Therefore, a universal healthcare system, funded and ensured by the government, may indeed be funded through taxes–which could be depicted as “theft’ and “tyranny” by the right wing–but through strengthening our individual and collective health, we become freer as individuals and as a society.

The same goes for universal public education. Education in a broad sense, which is essentially about teaching and learning, is how we become greater as people and more free as a society. That does not mean everything our school system does is correct. It means through government we can ensure that education is offered for all–and it’s up to the rest of us, by engaging in the political process and education initiatives, to improve upon the existing system.

This principle applies to many other policies and programs that are made possible through organized, planned, collective action. It means a minimum wage, workers’ rights, infrastructure projects, and so much more.

If government, policy, and public programs are ways to maximize our broad, collective freedom, then at the core of our politics must be a better definition of freedom—because freedom is ultimately our goal. A bad or simply narrow concept of freedom will translate into bad political action, and bad outcomes for liberty.

I am not biased because I’m left-wing, I’m left-wing because I’m partial to what it represents. More specifically, I’m drawn to what I believe are more sound philosophical concepts that the left-wing traditionally holds. The concept of freedom is one of those.

The American “libertarian,” on the other hand, defines freedom as the absence of “coercion”–and not just coercion, but a specific flavor of coercion–“government” or public sector coercion. However, coercion doesn’t just come from “government,” as the Left knows, and freedom is not just the ability to act now, but “to be” in general.

It’s a bit ironic, since an often-quoted idol of American libertarianism, Adam Smith understood this, writing that “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.” Here Adam Smith revealed a basic understanding of positive freedom that eludes modern-day free-market fanatics. In this principle implies programs such as universal healthcare and tuition-free education.

If you hear someone speaking of liberty from a right-wing point of view, it is likely that they are not considering positive freedom in their analysis. Otherwise, they would probably not be right wing. And so how can the right-wing be right about politics–which is largely a discussion of how to maximize freedom–if they are not correct about freedom itself?

A world without “government” is a nice thought; a utopian idea. But it’s a long ways off. In the meantime, we should strive to make government represent our will, support our communities, and maximize our freedom–not just to “avoid” coercion, but “to be” in general.

This will certainly have many implications, and will translate into many specific policies and procedures. One of these is the progressive tax. And then, it means federal and state budgets which represent the people, not the elites. The common funds should support the common good.

What this greater concept of freedom also translates into is strict regulations on the private sector, which has proven over and over again that it is tyrannical and limits the collective freedom. In the pursuit of profit, as many of us have seen and personally experienced, those with great economic power will find ever more ways to coerce our personal lives, limit our collective potential, and even destroy the planet. That is why “freedom” will often mean “regulation” in the current day.

It’s already happening. The private sector is destroying our freedom in significant ways. In the modern day, climate change is the ultimate indictment of right-wing “freedom.” It’s hard to be free when your region is unsafe for living.

For the sake of the rest of our freedom, indeed, we will have to “coerce” the oppressors to stop oppressing. And we’ll have to make them unable–through “government,” if we must–to suppress our freedom to be fully human.

Written by Sammy Kayes

Sammy Kayes

Sammy Kayes is an educator and activist in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @left_judo.

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