Political Morality

‘Fables about Freedom’

Richard Vernon begins his opening chapter with a short historical analysis of the concepts of liberalism and democracy. He identifies Isaiah Berlin‘s two questions as indicative of the concepts’ dualism:

1) ‘What is the area within which the subject…is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons?’;

2)’What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?’

Adherents of the former question are called theorists of negative freedom. They [liberals] are characterised by: a desire for the ability to act without obstruction; seeking protection against all authorities, including democratic ones; resisting deliberate obstruction by states. The British generally fall under this concept of freedom.

Adherents of the latter question are theorists of positive freedom. They [democrats] are characterised by: a desire for the capacity of a person or group to be self-determining; rejection of the restraints on government which prevent individuals or groups from exercising their self-determining power; pursuing a more metaphysical path. Continental thinkers generally fall under this concept.

But is there really any ‘great logical distance’ (Berlin) between the two concepts? Are they merely semantic devices, around which traits and ideologies have developed?

Benjamin Constant formulated a distinction between the ‘Liberty of the Moderns’ and the ‘Liberty of the Ancients’; he explained their relationship in terms of the supersession of one by the other: ‘the liberty of self-determination, or of “exercising collectively, but directly, several parts of the complete sovereignty”, was “what the ancients called liberty” – the complete subjection of the individual (“Thus among the ancients the individual, almost always sovereign in public affairs, was a slave in his private relations”). Modern liberty, though, ‘resides in freedom from arbitrary arrest, freedom of expression, freedom to choose a profession and to dispose of property, freedom of conscience…’ (Vernon)… “Our freedom must consist of peaceful enjoyment and private independence” (Constant)

Vernon outlines another perspective, from C.B. Macpherson.

Democracy, in its modern from, proceeded after liberalism, however the pre-existing liberal character of Western societies has so far prevented the full realisation of the democratic ideal: “before democracy came in the Western world, there came the society and the politics of choice, the society and politics of competition, the society and politics of the market” (Macpherson, 1965). Freedom in the liberal sense is forced upon people via the compulsion to adopt market behaviour.

Macpherson recognises that commercial society wanted and needed a certain kind of responsive politics that would head off tyranny and ensure that important interests were taken into account. The achievements of democracy may have been only to provide a maturing capitalist economy with the welfare provisions ad regulatory mechanisms that it needed anyway. Democrats have not, therefore, altered in any fundamental way the exploitative logic of capitalism: until that is accomplished, democratic egalitarian principles will remain unfulfilled.

Self-development [rather than self-determination]: the idea of self-development provides a link between the ideals of democracy and another side of liberalism, a humanistic side which, however, is overshadowed by the dominant market model (Macpherson).