On Freedom and Democracy


            Democracy is the most important progression in the modern world. Advancement in democracy in the world results from social pressures that are exerted the existing governance mechanisms where political ideas morph into intelligible and practical democracy models that would otherwise “blind and undirected” if they should they fail to be implemented (Christiano 77). The modern doctrines of democracy, as we know it, can be traced from the times of Plato and Democritus to the times of classical philosophies and the Age of Enlightenment when most of the monarchical Empires in Europe were replaced with democratic systems. As can be seen from the evidence presented by history, new ideas are not always readily accepted in the society although they may be potent of change that might have far-reaching consequences that can benefits many generations hundreds of years after. For example, according to Isaiah Berlin posits that the ideas presented by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason heralded the decline of German deism. The distinctions between negative and positive trace their origin to Kant, whose examination and defense was provided by Isaiah Berlin in the 50s and 60s in the last century (Warrender 204). This paper discusses the connection that exists between freedom and democracy, and how it is impossible for people to be free unless they live and conduct their welfares within a democracy.

The difference between negative and positive liberty is that the latter refers to one’s acting in a manner that shows that they are in total control of their life and that they are in full realization of their essential purpose in life. On the other hand, negative liberty is the situation where one lacks barriers in achievement of their goals and life purposes and is normally attributed to individuals. On the other hand, positive liberty is attributable to a collectivity within the society, or to individual agents within such a collectivity. There are two key senses of freedom or liberty (the two terms are hereafter used interchangeably) namely negative and positive democracy. In negative democracy freedom is opposed to coercion or interference. Human beings are coerced in situations where they are deliberately interfered with in the circumstances in which, if left to act on their own, they could still progress appropriately in their own decisions. Berlin further explains this as follows: “You lack political liberty or freedom only if you are prevented from attaining a goal by human beings” (Berlin 173). Therefore, in negative liberty people lack constraints, barriers, or obstacles in their endeavors. In negative democracy, mere incapacity does not count as lack of freedom. This means that one is only free to accomplish only that which they could otherwise accomplish without outside interference. For example, although one might not be able to free, they are thusly neither unfree nor free to do so. Moreover, in negative liberty only violations caused by other human beings count and not circumstances that are naturally unfavorable.

However, as critics posit that the meaning of negative liberty remains to be incomplete since it solely depends on the critical analysis of coercion or interference of the individuals or groups involved. Nevertheless, the ‘width’ of liberty can be determined through the measurement of ‘non-interference’. According to Charles Taylor (1979), negative liberty takes the shape of an “opportunity-concept” where individuals have negative freedom if they are not enslaved as a result of external forces and, at the same time have equal access to the resources at the disposal of the society in which they exist, irrespective of the factors of time. The silver lining provided by Taylor’s criticism is that his arguments recognize that there exists a dynamic set of interactions between disparate ways of life among different people or collectivities. In his argument, Taylor further emphasizes that dialoguing is the most effective way in which interactions can be kept progressive and peaceful over both short and extended periods of time. On the contrary, Taylor fails to show how people may attain a way of life where people can be more capable and willing to indulge in engagements and dialogues that are productive among themselves as would be required in an ideal democratic society. It is imperative that such citizens must have negative liberty as a precursor to such freedom as articulated by Taylor, which would lead to their attainment of the much needed pluralistic knowledge and deliberative virtues (Taylor 204).

The notion of negative liberty can be used in the understanding of the different implications of economic freedom under democracy. He explains, by use of an example, that a worker who experiences poverty to the extent that he cannot afford to purchase bread can only be considered as one who lacks freedom if his or her lack of ability to do so is “due to the fact that other human beings have made arrangements” that make it impossible for him or her to accomplish that aim. Therefore, there exist gray areas in an attempt to differentiate the role of social and natural obstacles (Harrison 24). As illustrated by the example above, barriers to liberty may be as a result of economic forces that are impersonal by nature. This begs the question of the extent to which economic constraints such as unemployment, poverty, and recession cause incapacitation among individuals, and also whether such factors cause people to lack freedom. Egalitarians and libertarians have offered disparate solutions to this question through their application of differing ideation of the limiting factors herewith mentioned. Thusly, one of the ways in which this challenge can be addressed is through the employment of more effectively defined constraints that determine the extent of one’s freedom. This would mean that only a selected set of barriers that are caused by other people would only be regarded as restrictive to freedom. That is, those obstacles that are brought about as a result of one’s own intentions.

The concept of freedom and its relationship with democracy traces its beginnings to the classical English philosophers – from Thomas Hobbes to John Locke, then John Stuart Mill, and then to Jeremy Bentham (Petit 45). All the above named philosophers agreed upon several issues regarding the essence of liberty. Firstly (1), these philosophers were in agreement that freedom cannot be unlimited and cannot be held back for whatever ends (Berlin 173). This means that freedom cannot be limited for whatever reasons, however important those reasons might be – justice, equality, order, and so forth. Secondly (2), these philosophers agreed that there must be, in all societies, a certain threshold where there ought to be a certain level of inalienable freedom that may not be violated no matter what. In examination of the above positions (1) by these thinkers and philosophers, Berlin argues when freedom is curtailed for the purpose of, for example, order, there is need for the acknowledgement of the imminent loss of liberty. On the second (2) position, Berlin posits that even though meeting the basic needs of a people ought to be placed ahead of liberty (175). Yet, the essence of liberty is the ubiquitous fundamental feature of democracy.

Difficulties concerning negative liberty usually depend on “how wide [the area of freedom] could or should be”. It also concerns the extent to which “a minimum of personal freedom” adds up to (Berlin 175). Berlin further provides an analysis of the liberal views of John Stuart Mill as illustrations of the essentials of liberalism. Stuart Mill, in his works, argues that everyone should have entitlement to a certain level of a minimum liberty, where other people are prevented from the deprivation of others of their own freedom. However, Mill’s arguments contains a confusion about two liberal justifications of freedom namely, (1) freedom as a mandatory precondition for creating given individualistic and perfectionist values, and (2) freedom as an inalienable and intrinsic good, where there are chances of the two being inconsistent. According to Berlin, negative liberty is a relatively modern concept that came into being in the 1600s, and is impracticable without the existence of self-governance where the government does not interfere with the welfare of the citizens and therefore does not ‘encroach’ on the citizens’ negative freedom. Therefore, negative freedom would not necessarily imply existence of democratic way of life. Rather, “the answer to the question ‘Who governs me?’ is logically distinct from the question ‘How far does the government interfere with me?” (Berlin 177). Hence, it is quite challenging to determine the degree to which negative liberty extends in any given case.

Positive freedom, as briefly defined in the introduction of this paper, concerns itself with the desire by collectivities for self-direction, self-governance, or self-realization (Young 219). Therefore, positive relates with autonomy to a great extent and this can be seen in Berlin’s examination of the ideas from renowned philosophers such as Hegel, Kant, Fichte, and Rousseau. Inasmuch as negative and positive liberty has many similarities, certain understandings about positive liberty have sometimes throughout history resulted in “a specious disguise for brutal tyranny” due to the manner in which the idea of positive liberty has evolved throughout the history of mankind (Berlin 179). There are many aspects of democracy that have brought about undesirable results among peoples and nations throughout history that can be largely attributed to such misconceived understanding of freedom as highlighted by the above mentioned philosophers and by Isaiah Berlin himself. Hence, the concept of positive liberty comes with a certain danger of authoritarianism.

Positive freedom comes with certain dangers, which may limit the possibilities of having a democratic system that guarantees freedom for citizens. A good example of this is the communist nations and systems and countries during the Cold War period during the 20th century. For example, when one thinks of themselves as being their ‘own master’, they might think in terms of internal and external (the imposer) obstacles. These obstacles might in actuality be insatiable passions or desires. This therefore brings us to the need to distinguish between an authentic or ‘real’ and inauthentic or ‘unreal’ self. This perspective assumes two distinctive forms. While the first view identifies the authentic self of an individual with reason, the second perspective creates a wider gap through the identification of the authentic self with the whole society. According to Berlin, this is the method used by Hegel and Fichte. In both instances, it is just to assume a certain level of coercion or paternalism. Once one takes this view, they get themselves in a position where they can ignore the sincere wishes of people or society, which may lead to their bullying, oppression, torture of the same people “in the name of their real selves” (Berlin 180). This ultimately threatens the possibility of having a democracy that warrants the total freedom of a people.

There are a number of courses in which the two selves as highlighted above have followed in their development over time. In self-abnegation, autonomy is assumed to take precedence. Self-abnegation means self-denial. In this situation, individuals usually have certain sets of desires that they feel impelled to meet the fulfillment thereof but whose realization cannot be achieved. In that case the only option such individuals have is to eliminate their desires. For example, rather than yearning for riches, one may choose to end their desire for money. However, in many instances this is not an effective of making people to achieve meet their needs since it is premised on repressing desires. Yet, repression of desires only works to aggravate the problems that people may be facing at that particular moment in their lives. The other direction that the self takes is self-realization, which is more or less a metaphysical rationalist view where one’s freedom is equated with the depth and breadth to which they are able to use their critical reasoning in addressing different problems and challenges (Rose 54). In sum, there are different views that determine to what extent positive freedom can be applied towards the realization of a democratic system that works well for everyone.

Being free means accepting certain predetermined rational principles, which follows the assumption that all (or, at least, the majority) rational agents would, under democracy, have endorsed the same principles. In this case, freedom is considered incompatible with irrationality. Therefore, should some wicked majority possess the knowledge or means of these principles, they might end up imposing them on others. Therefore, the dangers presented by positive freedom are unfathomable. In attempt to address this dilemma presented by positive liberty, Berlin (200) argues that all mankind have one purpose that is common to all – rationality and self-direction and that the ends to the means of human beings, assuming that they possess considerable rationality, fits into a certain pattern which may be more detectable in some than in others. Yet, this is the mark of a successful democracy that secures the freedom of the people. Hence, or otherwise, all conflict among human beings arises as due to lack of rationality. This leads to the conclusion that men are wont to naturally be obedient unto their own nature if they are made rational. It is surprising that illiberal conclusions can be arrived at through liberal premises. Some of the social needs of human beings is the need for recognition and status in the society, concepts which are explicitly discoursed by political and value philosophy (Macpherson 177).

Moreover, there exists a plurality of values such as equality, liberty, justice, and so forth, that in reality impossible to instantiate fully altogether. As highlighted by the analysis provided in this paper, we see that inasmuch as freedom is of great value, it is not the ultimate value. There are times when grounds arise under which freedom needs to be curtailed since it, like all other norms and values, must be evaluated in relation to other values. It is important to remember that negative freedom is not necessarily the more civilized version when placed in comparison with positive freedom. Nonetheless, negative freedom significantly helps people in choosing between the different ultimate values. Of particular notice is that principles should not be viewed as eternal even though they hold absolutely in certain contexts. Wanting something with heightened fervor can be considered as metaphysical need, but this also signifies a certain degree of immaturity (Harrison 134; Christiano 94).

In conclusion there is freedom in democracy. This paper has discussed the importance of liberty as a precursor for democracy that warrants direct and equal participation by all members of the public in the affairs of the state or society – that is, in deliberation on political, economic and social issues. As outlined in this paper, the most importance aspect of democracy is that it grants the people the ability to freely choose their leaders in an election, where the leaders are held to account by the citizens once elected into office. Therefore, people under democracy are entitled to having the freedom to decide, argue, and discuss whatever matters are deemed necessary for the achievement of the common good among the people. In sum, it is impossible for one to be truly free unless they live under a democratic rule.



Berlin, Isaiah. “Two concepts of liberty.” (1958): 2010.

Christiano, Thomas. The rule of the many: Fundamental issues in democratic theory. Routledge,      2018.

Harrison, R. Democracy. Routledge. 1993.

Macpherson, Crawford Brough. “The political theory of possessive individualism: Hobbes to         Locke.” (2010).

Pettit, Philip. Republicanism: A theory of freedom and government. Oxford University Press. 1997.

Rose, Nikolas. Powers of freedom: Reframing political thought. Cambridge university press,   1999.

Taylor, Charles. The ethics of authenticity. Harvard University Press, 1992.

Taylor, Charles. What’s wrong with negative liberty?. na, 1979.

Warrender, Howard. “The political philosophy of Hobbes: his theory of obligation.” (1957).

Young, Robert. Personal autonomy: Beyond negative and positive liberty. Vol. 9. Taylor &             Francis, 2017.

6 thoughts on “On Freedom and Democracy

  1. On a very basic level, liberty can never be absolute. The very presence of others, whose needs may differ from one’s own, necessitates trade-offs, most of them inconsequential to one’s overall daily routine, but necessary if we are to get along.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very thought provoking, I think the meaning for me is that Liberty is the very reason why you are able to write your own thoughts in the first place, with a free pen, a freedom to live with whoever we wish, with a diverse cultural celebration, and to finish a freedom to read any book we wish.

    Liked by 1 person

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