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The Different Concepts of Freedom

In the Western world, nearly all of our political discourse revolves around the concept of freedom. Ideas like freedom, liberty and human rights all are rooted in pursuing a greater good for the individual, and by proxy for all. However, it is not often we as a society stop to ask the question, what is freedom? There are two opposing conceptions of freedom, and while they both aspire to award ‘true freedom’ to individuals, they differ in their applications. These concepts are negative freedom and positive freedom. 


Negative freedom is the absence of arbitrary coercions which prevent individuals from pursuing their aims. Negative freedom allows individuals to make their own choices without outside interference. It does not exist to empower individuals or even to provide opportunities, but rather to protect an individual's right to self-determination.


Positive freedom is the possession of a specific liberty or resource which aids in the pursuit of one's will. This perspective does not conceptualize freedom on an individual basis, as a desire for action or possession can be inspired by or interfere with another’s. Rather than an absence of coercion, positive freedom is one’s ability to pursue their will regardless of how it may interfere with others. It is the building block of ‘social justice’.


In some ways, the differences in these concepts are somewhat obscure. The best way to understand this difference is in the way these ideas interact with the material reality. For example, imagine a worker is unsatisfied with their wage from an employer. The worker sees that other employers pay more per hour for the same job and hours as they are currently working. Despite being unsatisfied with the pay, the worker enjoys the work environment and working alongside their colleagues, and this is the nearest job to their home. Negative freedom would consider this worker free, as they are not coerced to work this job, nor are they prevented from quitting and seeking employment elsewhere. Despite this, if the employer were made by the government to pay the wage the worker desired, that would be an infringement on the employer’s freedom of choice. 


However, the positive definition of freedom would not consider this worker to be free, as they are denied the same outcome as those being paid more for the same work. The worker will have to choose to either sacrifice their desired work environment or sacrifice their potential earnings. 


Positive freedom depends on the collective to function. One measures their positive freedoms in contrast to the positive freedoms of others, e.g. the worker’s desire for equal pay as others working the same job for different employers. Negative freedom can only be measured individually. As long as individuals can plan according to their will without outside interference, it exists.     

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