Freedom and liberty have always been concepts with conflictions. Isaiah Berlin pointed out these tensions with his work on the two concepts of liberty; positive and negative liberty. Put simply, positive liberty is “personal ability/entitlement to achieve certain ends”, while negative liberty is “freedom from being forcibly prevented from achieving those ends”. For a long time this distinction has proved to be a deep dividing line in politics and amongst those who espouse freedom.
John Rawls, one of the greatest modern liberal philosophers had suggested that all liberties should in fact be both negative and positive. That for people to be truly free, both concepts of liberty must be fulfilled.
When many on the right speak about liberty, they speak of economic liberty. The liberty to dispose of one’s income as one wishes, to keep this income from the clutches of the state; they case it in language of negative liberty. The right correctly places a strong emphasis on the link between economic independence and freedom. But what of those who have no wealth, who are simply the victims of bad luck to put it in Rawlsian terms? If we accept that personal wealth is vital to a person’s freedom, then those who are poorest are not free. If we are to advance freedom, then it should be to those who are least economically free that we should first turn.
What then is to be done? Well, seeing as liberty is a two sided coin, confiscating people’s wealth and simply transferring it to those least well off would also be a breach of economic freedom. There are better ways to help these people. From where we are today the first might be to raise income tax thresholds, something being proposed by politicians today. Doing so lifts the poorest out of taxation and allows them to keep more of their income, increasing their ability to be economically free. We must also consider that those who are least economically free will have no job and no income, and thus getting them a job is vital to ensure their freedom. This could be done in a variety of ways e.g. lowering NI contributions, cutting corporation tax, decreasing costly regulation – any of these things would help to business to boost employment and help these people find the income they would need to be economically free.
Felix Bungay is the 2nd prize winner in the 2010 Young Writer on Liberty.