John Stuart Mill and Rousseau
Mill also argues that by trying to suppress opinions that you are convinced are false, you run the risk of overlooking the fact that even false opinions can contain elements of truth. Basically, in order to silence a view a person must be completely sure of their infallibility, but since no one has that complete confidence, no one has the right to suppress any opinion. According to Berlin, too much freedom leads to the freedom of others being restricted in one form or another. Negative liberty has been used as an excuse to restrict liberty and create tyranny says Berlin.
For example, Stalin and others committed acts of tyranny in the name of negative liberty for the proletariat. A liberal in the modern political sense, Berlin also believes in government intervention as a positive. Another important criticism of Mill’s account of freedom with reference to both Isaiah Berlin and Jean Jaques Rousseau is that by concentrating on freedom from interference (What Berlin calls a Negative Right) and by making the case for tolerance, he missed a more important sense of the term “freedom”.
What Mill is missing (according to some of his critics) is an account for positive freedom, or Freedom to (as opposed to Freedom From) Those, like Rousseau who defend positive freedom argue that since society is imperfect, simply allowing people space to get on with their lives isn’t enough to guarantee them freedom. There are several obstacles to achieving freedom, ranging from lack of material and educational resources to psychological obstacles to success.
Those who argue for the positive sense of freedom believe that in order to fulfill your potential as a human being and thereby be genuinely free, all kinds of state intervention may be necessary, and at times this may result in individuals having their range of activity curtailed, even though it does not directly harm anyone else. Some of the more extreme defenders of Positive Freedom or “coercionists” (such as Jean Jaques Rousseau) even believe that it is acceptable to force people to be free, and that there is no contradiction in this notion.
In Mill’s terminology, if you are forced to do something then you cannot, by definition have done it freely. But for a better understanding of “Positive Freedom” it is necessary to examine Rousseau a little more closely. “Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains”. This is the opening line of Jean Jaques Rousseau’s “The Social Contract”. This thought however is balanced against the more disconcerting thought that those who fail to act for the general good of the State should be “forced to be free”. This idea can sound like a license for oppression given the difficulty of deciding what is genuinely good for the State.
But nevertheless, both views convey the uncompromising nature of Rousseau’s philosophy. Rousseau’s central aim in “The Social Contract” is to explain the sources and limits of legitimate authority. He believes that our duties towards the state stem from a social contract, by means of which groups of individuals are transformed into a body politic, a whole which has its own general will which is not necessarily simply the sum of the individual wills of the people of which it is composed. The basic agreement made by members of a state is that they shall unite for the common good.
Rousseau claims that there is a great deal to be gained by cooperating as part of society rather than living alone. Society can provide protection from property. So individuals have a strong incentive to collaborate and form a state. Rousseau both praises the freedom that all humans have, even outside society, and emphasizes the great benefits of life within society. This may at first glance seem paradoxical, but Rousseau explains how our natural freedom is a necessary part of our humanity: if we give up freedom entirely, or become slaves, then we cease to be fully human.
Rousseau sets himself the task of explaining how we can form a state without sacrificing freedom. Once individuals have been transformed into a state by means of a social contract, they are united by common goals. The general will is the wish of the State as a whole: the general will pursues the common good. Rousseau’s philosophy draws a sharp distinction between individuals with their personal interests and desires, which are largely self serving, and those same individuals as parts of the State.
In the latter public role, there is no scope for dissent from the general will (because that would be like turning against your own better self). The general will, says Rousseau, is for the common good, and the continued existence of the state depends upon its members setting aside their private interests where they conflict with the State’s interests. If you have to sacrifice your personal desires for the greater good of the state, then it seems that your freedom to act will often be limited. Rousseau, however, maintains that far from diminishing freedom, this organization of the state provides it.
Acting in accordance of general will is the most important form of freedom according to him. Rousseau is of course referring to civil freedom as opposed to the mere desire satisfaction permissible outside society. Therefore, for Rousseau, there is nothing whatsoever paradoxical about achieving such freedom by force. Rousseau also says that the success of a State depends on the nature of its constitution. Good and appropriate laws are needed for its continues survival. Rousseau suggests that these laws should be created by the legislator.
A legislator’s only function should be to write the laws because a legislator who is also a sovereign might be tempted to bend the laws in his favor. Also, the legislator must take into account the nature of the people and land for whom he is working. The Government’s role in Rousseau’s opinion should be purely executive. Rousseau’s ideal state is composed of every citizen. Rousseau was thoroughly opposed to the idea that sovereign power should rest with the monarch, in Rousseau’s “The Social Contract” the sovereign is a word interchangeable to the State when it is pursuing general will.
Rousseau considers three types of government: Democracy, aristocracy and monarchy. He does not prescribe one form of government for every state, however it is fairly clear that he prefers an elective aristocracy above the rest. By democracy, Rousseau meant “direct democracy”, i. e. : every citizen is entitled to vote on every issue, but he realizes that this system is impractical in large States and can only possibly work in very small states. As for aristocracy, Rousseau divides it into three separate types: natural, elective, and hereditary.
He thinks that hereditary aristocracy is the worst kind and that elective is the best. Elections minimize the risk of those who put private interests before the common good exercising their power for long. Monarchy, says Rousseau, puts the power of the government into the hands of an individual. Therefore this system is extremely dangerous. Rousseau points out that monarchs don’t usually tend to appoint competent officers but select on the basis of their making a good impression rather than their aptitude for the job. The result is a bad government.
Rousseau particularly hates hereditary monarchies which, he says, always run the risk of handing over supreme power to children, monsters or imbeciles. One of the most common criticisms of Rousseau is that it seems to legitimize oppression of an extreme kind. That far from providing the conditions for freedom, it gives totalitarian governments a justification for removing them. This view is lent support not just by the sinister phrase: “forced to be free” but also by Rousseau’s suggestion that the state should employ a censor whose responsibility be to enforce morality.
The civil freedom that Rousseau celebrates certainly didn’t include the toleration that the word “freedom” seems to hint at. Whether or not this happens depends on the nature of the general will, and that is probably being much to optimistic about general will. Berlin did not oppose positive liberty entirely. He was neither a conservative, nor a laissez-faire individualist. He accepted that poverty and ignorance were not the ideal conditions for liberty. But Berlin did urge people to recognize the contradictions between the two forms of liberty.
The conflict between negative liberty and positive liberty. For example, He would want people to recognize the fact that although the government may tax citizens in order to create opportunities, the government may still be restricting the liberty of the taxed. 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.
As for Rousseau’s coercive views, the delicate part of positive liberty is making sure it’s used in the right places to achieve a proper balance for society. 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.
Berlin points out, that “positive liberty ” is deceptively phrased which therefore has some nasty consequences. One of these consequences is that since positive liberty is unrelated to freedom as we usually understand it, then being “liberated” (and we often find this usage of the word in current liberation movements) is being forced to do something against our will because someone else thinks it is good. This encourages confusion in the discussion of freedom. To call negative liberty “freedom” and positive liberty “power” is to make a discrimination which is fundamental.
To call them both liberty, as coercionists often do when it suits their argument, leads to confusion. Libertarians (people who accept Berlin’s concept of “negative liberty,” know that not all human values may be compatible and may not be capable of being harmoniously realized in one way of life. Basically, people are inherently different so to be happy they may need a different lifestyle from the majority of their neighbors. Therefore we can also define the libertarian as a pluralist. The libertarian tolerates different communities with entirely different types of “laws”.
Libertarians realize that they cannot homogenize the differences among humans nor among the differing environments in which human beings find themselves. Conversely, the coercionist is, of necessity, a social monist and will not tolerate social differences. “Two Concepts” represented a coming-to-terms with the tragedy of liberalism. Far from an apologia for absolute libertarianism, “Two Concepts” recognized the legitimate importance of values besides negative liberty, such as equality and social justice.
Berlin even believed that equality and justice had to exist in some measure before everyone in a society could enjoy freedom. And, yet, he chastised utopian thinkers who imagined that these conditions were all reconcilable with one another. Probably Berlin’s most important contribution was to highlight the contradictions at the heart of post-war consensus. Highlighting that the values of liberty, equality and justice, can be contradictory. That is the heart of the conflict between positive and negative liberty. Berlin had great belief in pluralism.
Almost a very radical pluralism. The idea that different value systems can exist in parallel, as part of the same body politic, which in turn means that any idea of creating a perfect society becomes impossible. That in turn means that political measures which tend to promote individual freedom, are at a premium. Policies which promote choice and flexibility, should be at the forefront according to Berlin. Policies which spread power away from the centre, to communities and individuals, were what he appears to have been advocating.
The pluralism Isaiah Berlin stood for, is in some countries central to politics. What Berlin helps us to realize, with his radical pluralism, are the tensions and contradictions between positive and negative liberty, and to realize precisely when and why society and/or government may not always be true to negative liberty alone. Unlike so many liberals, Berlin appreciates the necessity of sacrifice, the inevitable losses that come with a free society. People who want to govern themselves must choose how much liberty, equality, and justice they seek and how much they can let go.
The price of a free society is that sometimes, perhaps often, we make bad choices. “Liberty is liberty,” Berlin wrote, “not equality or fairness or justice or culture or human happiness or a quiet conscience. ” To pretend otherwise, he claims, is naive and dangerous. It would lull people into believing political choices required no sacrifices, and it thus primed them for inevitable disappointment. Choice in a free society is inherently tragic because not all desirable virtues can coexist in full measure according to Berlin.