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Isaiah Berlin

.. what they need of each political philosophy to make a government. Marx, Plato and Nietzsche made their philosophies too narrow to be practiced in the world with any real success. They also as Berlin suggests failed to take into account the differences in people and their ideas. Also much of their philosophy comes from a very euro centric perspective.

In the realm of political philosophy Berlins most important contribution came in the form of a lecture called “Two Concepts of Liberty.” Later released in a book called Four Essays on Liberty, it represented his interpretation on how liberty is divided up. The two concepts of liberty he discusses in his lecture are positive and negative liberty. Negative liberty is the freedom to do, not the freedom from doing something (Berlin 16). Positive liberty is the freedom from”restrictions” seen in government (Berlin 22). Berlin feels that a balance between the two must be achieved to have to a “maximum” amount of liberty. Too much freedom leads to others freedom being restricted in one form or another.

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Negative liberty has been used as an excuse to restrict liberty and create tyranny according to Berlin (Berger). Stalin and others committed acts of tyranny in the name of negative liberty for the proletariat. A liberal in the modern political sense he believes in government intervention as a positive. Looking to the history of our country we can see the validity of positive and negative liberty. The history of the United States using Berlins perspective can be divided into two time periods.

The era in the United States before reconstruction can be seen as an era of negative liberty in the constitution and after that it became predominately positive in its liberty to balance with the negative. This move towards positive liberty after reconstruction is what Berlin would consider the proper balance between the two types of liberty so that in a utilitarian sense the most people have the most liberty. Since Mill was a major influence for Berlin we can see this utilitarian view of liberty as logical. The Constitution in its first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, grants the citizens of the United States negative liberty. One has the freedom to speak, petition, practice religion, etc. with out restriction.

This concept of absolute freedom is no doubt good but as Berlin and history would tell it has many drawbacks. One of the obvious ones is regarding slavery, which isnt restricted. This is an example of how too much negative liberty actually affects other individuals liberty. This is why positive liberty is good and not simply a form of tyranny. When the United States enacted the thirteenth amendment to the constitution it granted others a liberty at the cost of others, but in the case it was a fair and just trade off.

The delicate part of positive liberty is making sure its used in the right places to achieve a proper balance for society. Another example of how positive liberty was used properly in achieving balance in our country was the control of industry, especially the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1905, by the Progressives in the early part of our century. This moved the negative liberty held by corporations from freely doing whatever they wanted to a safer one for the consumer. American History is filled with many more examples like these some clearly for the better like those two and others that are debatable if they are too positive in liberty. All most all of the amendments dealing with Liberty starting with Reconstruction and beyond are positive in nature. Berlin would argue this is the US trying to achieve the proper balance in the two types of liberty.

Balance is key with regards to positive and negative liberty for liberty to be truly had by all. “If you have maximum liberty, then the strong can destroy the weak, and if you absolute equality, you can not have absolute liberty, because you have to coerce the powerful..if they are not to devour the poor and the meek..Total liberty can be dreadful, total equality can be equally frightful (Berger).” Our country started out with too much freedom and the strong could destroy the weak. Unregulated business and financial systems and the Southern aristocracy are examples of how the powerful as Berlin mentioned subjugated the week to their power. Since the almost absolute freedom had in the beginning of our country the laws have been changed to try to add more positive liberty to achieve a balance. All of the aforementioned things have lost their power through law along with many other institutions of negative liberty. Today the move has occurred for the most part acheiving balance, the strong are not destroying the week.

Berlin makes no decision on what the balance should be instead leaving it up to the personal discretion of the society. Today much of the conflict over political issues can be seen it terms of positive and negative liberty. Abortion, gun control, right to life, and many other issues are just splits over positive and negative liberty. The battle between positive and negative liberty appears to have shifted to these issues. Slavery and other major issues along the same magnitude already being decided the battle has turned to them. Abortion would be seen by Berlin as a classic battle between positive and negative liberty.

The pro-choice would fall on the side of negative liberty since they desire the freedom to choose. The pro-life side would fall on the positive liberty side since the want the freedom to choose restricted. To take from Berlin they would argue that terminating a pregnancy would be a case of the strong dominating the weak. This argument is of course just in terms of liberty. Many other social issues dont deal with the strong dominating the weak but yet still deal with positive and negative liberty. Berlin might not have developed a specific political philosophy but regardless he had as much impact on the twentieth century as any other political philosopher.

He made numerous contributions to the idea of liberalism in an era where totalitarianism rained. His notions of utopias where wiped away in the bloody snow of Petrograd of his youth. He didnt try and preach that one system was better than another instead he made comments on what he saw. Berlin was less concerned with his legacy and was hoping that liberalism and liberty would survive and age of horror and totalitarianism.


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