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Positive Liberty

Positive Liberty, an idea that was first expressed as a separate form of liberty by Isaiah Berlin, is the ability to fulfil one's own potential, as opposed to Negative Liberty, which is protection from the interference of the government in one's affairs.

The idea of Positive Liberty is usually held by those on the left-wing of the political spectrum, such as Marxists, whereas Negative Liberty is most important for those that lean towards libertarianism. Positive Liberty is often described as freedom to achieve certain ends (or sometimes: freedom to participate in the decision making process), while Negative Liberty is described as freedom from external coercion.

Berlin was deeply suspicious of the concept of Positive Liberty, noting that totalitarian regimes such as Stalinist Communism claimed to be the true deliverers of self-mastery or self-realization, even though the individual was by no means free. Berlin argued that the concept of Positive Liberty could lead to a situation where the state forced upon people a certain way of life, because the state judged that it was the most rational course of action, and therefore, was what a person should desire, whether or not people actually did desire it. Berlin said:

Once I take this view, I am in a position to ignore the actual wishes of men or societies, to bully, oppress, torture in the name, and on behalf, of their "real" selves, in the secure knowledge that whatever is the true goal of man ... must be identical with his freedom.

Defenders of Positive Liberty say that there is no need for it to have such totalitarian undertones. Instead, those on the left see Positive Liberty as guaranteeing equal rights to certain things like education and employment, and an important defense against discrimination - here, Positive Liberty is the right of (for example) a woman to be considered on equal terms with a man in a job interview.

Positive Liberty can also be seen as the ability to participate in the process of government, though this idea is also open to criticism, since oppressed minorities may (for example) have as much right to vote as anyone else, and therefore have this Positive Liberty, but not the more common-sense kind.


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