What is more valuable in a liberal democracy: positive or negative liberty? Essay

October 14, 2020 by Essay Writer


Democracy is one of the topics, which have received tremendous coverage and audience throughout human history. This essay critically analyzes liberal democracy by focusing on two major schools of thought, which have been the epicenter of most discussions, surrounding this topic. Throughout this analysis, positive democracy will be the most preferred; it allows the involvement of citizens, empowers them, promotes values and allows rational thinking.

Liberal democracy

Liberal democracy is commonly referred to as constitutional democracy, since it supports equal representation of people, including those from minority groups. Under this form of leadership, elected representatives do not exercise power within their own limits, but are limited by the constitution (Chan 2002, p. 10).

Under such limitation, they are required to uphold certain principles to protect different liberties and promote equality of all citizens before the country’s constitution. There are several liberties, which have to be further protected by these representatives, including but not limited to freedom of speech, private property, religion and the due process as stipulated by the constitution (Rosen & Wolff 1999).

Importantly, societies, which observe liberal democracy, ensure that such liberties are guaranteed through well-established institutions (Constant 2010, p. 122). Most of these systems also discourage majoritarian rule, which aims at promoting the rights of majority without paying attention to minorities in the society.

As observed in most liberal societies around the world, representatives of these democracies are usually elected through fair and free elections. Even though this is the dominant case, it is worth noting that there are federal republics and constitutional monarchies, which equally embrace liberal democracy (Berlin 1958, p. 124).

In the understanding of the concept of liberty, it is equally important to underscore the fact that it promotes freedom within a society. Nevertheless, this ought not to be mistaken for one’s free will. The latter is independent of the ruling system while the former is pegged on societal governance.

It follows that there are numerous ways in which politicians view the existence of liberty, which have resulted into an array of ways in which the relationship between a government and individuals can be understood, without undermining any group or individuals in the society (Carter 2012). Under liberal democracy, it suffices to mention that there exist positive and negative liberties, recognized by different countries around the world.

Based on these two major classes of democracy, it has been found that most societies prefer positive liberty as compared to negative democracy (Heywood 2004, p. 253). The following segments of the essay focus on the understanding of the two types, existing differences, and supporting reasons why countries need to be encouraged to promote positive liberties in the society.

Positive and negative liberty

Among the people who did exhaustive coverage on the issue of positive and negative freedom is Isaiah Berlin, who believed that each interpretation of the two different types was fit to answer a set of unique questions (Berlin 1969, p. 121).

In general, Berlin posited that negative liberty focuses on what can be done by members of a given society, without being interfered by other people or the government. On the other hand, positive liberty is well understood, by identifying the source of control or interference, which determines what to do or become at any given moment in life (Crocker 1980, p. 5). In other words, one makes a final decision as a result of certain interference from the existing authority to avoid contravening the law.

From this description, it can be viewed that negative liberty is simply freedom from interference, while positive liberty advocates being in control of something, which has been done (Miller 1991, p. 1). Notably, the two sides can seem to be so close, especially in cases where there is no any form of interference, and when one is in full control of the situation, through gaining autonomy.

This however is not always the case since autonomy requires one to make and execute actions, which have to be endorsed by the ruling system. As a result, the society may suffer from an internal conflict since one may choose to act on something they want, with full understanding that the course is morally wrong (Christman 2005, p. 80).

It has also been argued in other cases that one can only be autonomous by making choices and acting in accordance with individual “higher rational self.” Based on this analogy, it can be argued that people can be forced to be free since they can be influenced to act rationally in life.

In other words, the system imposes what it considers to be rational (Crocker 1988, p. 121). Still on the same note, positive liberty can be increased and guaranteed when negative liberty among people is restricted through established mechanisms. Berlin notes that this is concerned with increasing the freedom of the people being ruled (Berlin 1958, p. 7).

Negative liberty

It is mainly concerned with individual or societal liberty from any form of interference, which could be from other people or constitutional regulation by the state (Patell 2001, p. 1). In the absence of this interference, one is always free regardless of whether the other party has the capacity to do what you have decided to do or not.

It is also important to double emphasize the fact that negative freedom does not promote autonomy, instead, it allows one to act in the manner in which he or she wants. It therefore follows that a person is considered to be free if he is not coerced by anybody or even the ruling government, while doing what they want (Gray 2006, p. 508).

Negative freedom further supports that liberty is pegged on the existence of doing something without being interfered. Nevertheless, this may also depend on other factors like the nature of available options, their significance and challenges involved among other determinants (Gray & Pelczynski 1984). Many believe that correct negative freedom can only be achieved by preventing harm to others through actions.

It follows that negative freedom may not consider the rights of minorities as everybody is allowed to do what is fit, without any form of interference. On this basis, those who do not have the ability to do certain things may never get a chance in their entire lifetime due to limited capability (Holtug 2002, p. 357). As a result, positive liberty is more preferred. The following segment of the essay analyzes this aspect of freedom from a political point of view.

Positive freedom

Under positive liberty, the role of the ruling government is crucial in designing and determining what is good for its citizens. In other words, a person’s freedom to execute and act is based on the restrictions of the government (Miller 1984, p. 38). In most cases, the influence of the government is felt through the constitution.

In describing positive liberty, it is mainly based on three major components, which are effective freedom, autonomy, and political freedom and interference. All these aspects of liberty argue against the approach of negative liberty as proposed by some theorists and philosophers throughout history (Nelson 2005, p. 59).

According to positive freedom, the ability to do something is paramount for one to execute an action and not merely as a result of the absence of interference (Perry 1992, p. 155). For example, one may have the freedom to go swimming, yet there are no facilities to enable him or her act.

While this is one of the limitations of negative liberty, positive freedom increases people’s ability to do something they are limited to, through provision of relevant resources and establishment of facilities like schools, sports grounds and heath centers among others (Plaw 2005, p.138).

While negative freedom focuses on what an individual deems right to do, it is essential to attach value to any form of freedom (White 1970, p. 185). Under positive freedom, liberty does not play its meaningful role when there is no value attached to it. Besides having the freedom to act, availability of resources is equally important.

For instance, one may not be allowed to use public transport without having a ticket, which is bought with money. This means that negative freedom may not allow a person to enjoy some facilities and services regardless of their desire to do so (Cooter 1987, p. 142).

In addition, positive liberty promotes an autonomous society. Under this school of thought, an autonomous person usually has the free will to act on his or her own values (Dimova-Cookson 2003, p. 508). As a result, they may only consider following other people’s values if they accept them without being influenced by other forces. The state can therefore restrict ones freedom to allow you to realize what is universally acceptable as rational (Lacewing 2011).

Moreover, autonomy allows people to think for themselves, understand their options and make informed decisions, after considering the benefits and negative consequences of a given course of action. Of great significance is the fact that autonomy augments the need for one to uphold values, which are important in determining meaningful actions in life (Lincoln et al. 2004).

Unlike negative liberty, which may promote majoritaniasm, positive liberty allows citizens to be involved in the formulation of laws of governance. However, positive liberty can only promote majoritaniasm in cases where there is coercion and injustice. This may affect minority groups living in a positive-liberty.

Berlin (1958, p. 2) notes that “to coerce a man is to deprive him of freedom”. These laws are usually designed in a manner that covers the rights of everybody, including minorities, who may not have a voice under negative liberty due to their limitations (Rothbard & Hoppe 2003).


From the above critical analysis of liberal democracy, it suffices to mention that negative and positive liberties are important components of leadership. Of great significance is the fact that each type of leadership has pros and cons, which have to be weighed before adopting any of them.

While negative liberty has been praised for lack of interference, it may lead to majoritaniasm and denies people the ability to do certain things. I chose positive liberty because it allows the involvement of citizens, empowers them, promotes values and allows rational thinking.


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