Liberty, Concept of

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LIBERTY, CONCEPT OF. "Give me liberty, or give me death!" cried Patrick Henry in 1775. His words still resound, warning potential tyrants at home and abroad of liberty's place in the hearts of Americans. Nothing

is as dear to them as liberty—not even equality. But what does liberty entail, who is entitled to it, and what is the proper role of government in securing it? Broadly speaking, the answers to these questions cluster around the concepts of negative and positive liberty. The tension between the two has been central to debates surrounding ratification of the Constitution, the abolition of slavery, the "second revolution" in civil rights after World War II, and other turning points in American politics.

Negative liberty is freedom from unwarranted restrictions on belief, action, or movement. "Unwarranted" is the operative word here. Without some restrictions there is no liberty for anyone; anarchy reigns. Without additional restrictions, liberty would not be universal; only the strong would enjoy it. Yet every restriction, no matter how necessary or desirable it may be, is also a limit on freedom and forecloses opportunities that may be important or even essential for the pursuit of happiness as some individuals understand it. Therefore, those who value negative liberty insist that restrictions be minimized so as not to undermine freedom.

Positive liberty is the right to pursue happiness as a person thinks best. This right involves guarantees that ensure no person is denied opportunities on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, or creed. Such guarantees are political in origin and presume the existence of another guarantee: the right to participate in political decisions that shape the structure of opportunities in American society. But the exercise of liberty depends on more than guaranteed opportunities: it also requires some capacity for using these opportunities to full advantage. Advocates of positive liberty argue that the development of this capacity is what enables individuals to enjoy the benefits of freedom. The two senses of liberty obviously give rise to competing notions of government and its proper role in social and economic life. Those who emphasize freedom from unwarranted restrictions believe with Jefferson "that government is best which governs least." Government ought to provide for the common defense and maintain law and order, thereby protecting us from each other. Beyond this, government cannot function without diminishing the liberty of some, if not all, citizens. This is true even, or perhaps especially, when governments pursue the public good or the general welfare, which may be so broadly defined as to require massive amounts of regulation and proscription.

Proponents of positive liberty take a more expansive view of government. For them, government exists not only to protect liberty, but also to promote freedom by empowering individuals. Hence, government is much more than a "night watchman"; it is also the provider of goods and services essential for the realization of success, such as public education. In the twentieth century, the list of goods and services has grown to include unemployment insurance, social security, health services, and environ-mental protection. Some would expand it still further, adding affirmative action and similar policies intended to overcome the legacy of previous discriminations and abridgements of liberty.

Reconciling these opposing views of liberty is the principal problem of constitutional government. As James Madison noted: "It is a melancholy reflection that liberty should be equally exposed to danger whether Government have too much or too little power." Efforts to strike the right balance between too much and too little government define the history of liberty in the United States.


Berlin, Isaiah. Four Essays on Liberty. London: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Foner, Eric. The Story of American Freedom. New York: Norton, 1999.

Kammen, Michael G. Spheres of Liberty: Changing Perceptions of Liberty in American Culture. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. 1986.

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. New York: Viking Press. 1983.

Russell L.Hanson

See alsoAntislavery ; Personal Liberty Laws ; Religious Liberty .