The Meaning and Uses of the word Freedom in Current Public Discourse
Robert Skidelsky
Bilderberg Conference | Friday, May 06, 2005

I.
 
Freedom has become the most potent word in today’s political lexicon. George W Bush used it forty times in his second inaugural address. A Chechen doctor, Khassan Baiev, writes ‘Like everyone, we want to live in freedom’. They were using the same words, but they seem to mean different things. President Bush, I feel sure, was talking about the freedom of individuals, Khassan Baiev about the freedom of nations, his own especially, as might a Palestinian or Basque ‘freedom fighter’.
 
These, I think, are the two dominant senses in which people use, and understand, the term freedom today. They have a common origin, but point in two opposite directions. For the believer in individual freedom, it is dictatorship which is the enemy; for the believer in national freedom, it is the rule of foreigners. The demand for national freedom is not at the same time a demand for individual freedom, though it is often promoted as a means to it. It can go together with a profoundly illiberal attitude to individual rights eg the rights of women, of gays, and so on.(cf Sharansky’s ‘fear’ societies). And it tends to do so in Muslim countries.
 
Superficially, the distinction between individual and collective freedom resembles Isaiah Berlin’s celebrated distinction between the ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ concepts of liberty. The ‘negative’ concept tries to define an area within which a person is free to do what he wants; the ‘positive’ concept asserts the right of the individual to be his own master, to realize his potential. In Peter Gay’s summary: ‘Negative freedom…aims at the removal of obstructions; positive freedom, at the realisation of ideals’.
 
The difference seems slight, a mere semantic quibble, but its political implications are profound. In both cases, the source of freedom is the individual self, but the idea of self being appealed to is very different in the two cases. In the negative concept it is the actual, or empirical, self which seeks freedom from restraint; in the positive concept it is the rational or metaphysical self . What Isaiah Berlin calls ‘this monstrous impersonation’ opens the door to imposing unwanted forms of government by leaders who claim to have discerned individuals’ ‘rational’ as opposed to their actual desires. ‘Enough manipulation with the definitions of man’, writes Berlin, ‘and freedom can be made to mean whatever the manipulator wishes’.(p. 19)
 
Americans believe in the ‘negative’ concept of liberty; but they show signs of wanting to force others to be free. This is the paradox of current US foreign policy: in Berlin’s terms –negative liberty for ourselves, positive liberty for others.
 
                                     The Foreigners will succeed
 
Paul Wolfowitz has said that ‘we are not trying to graft our system of government on to people who are different from us. We are trying to remove shackles that keep them from having what they want’ It can hardly be wrong to help people achieve what they want. But how do we know what the Iraqis, for example, want? If, as President Bush believes, ‘all men desire to be free’, that the flame of freedom burns in every soul, one has a great deal of history to explain that does not obviously point to this conclusion. In fact, the remarks of Bush and Wolfowitz are not empirical statements about people, but metaphysical propositions about the nature of human beings. By means of this barely understood substitution it is easy to slip from wanting to help people achieve what they want to wanting to help them achieve what they would want were they not prisoners of ‘false consciousness’.
 
US foreign policy is being driven less by an empirical calculation of American interests, and more by a secular teleology , whose purpose is to help bring about the ends to which the historical process beckons - the triumph of peace, democracy, and free markets. This teleology is explicit in Francis Fukuyama’s famous 1989 essay ‘The End of History’, as is its Hegelian inspiration. It licenses much more meddling in the affairs of other countries than does old-fashioned Realism. Ex-Marxists never quite escape the teleological temptation. This explains the paradox of converts to classical liberalism espousing a highly illiberal conception of history.
 
However, this is hardly a new dilemma. The shift to a positive concept of liberty for ‘those abroad’ was how 19th century British liberals reconciled themselves to British imperialism. But suppose Muslims today do not actually want liberty in the ‘negative’ sense, or at least not want it above all else, or not want it at all on Western terms. Suppose it is not an ideal actually present in Islam, or even worse, is antithetical to it. How prolonged in that case will the occupation of Iraq have to be, how extensive will be the sociological and political re-engineering required to fit alien cultures to receive the blessings of freedom? And how long will it be before the demand for freedom in my second sense –the freedom of the nation from foreign rule –becomes irresistible?
 
Isaiah Berlin’s ‘Two Concepts’ was a Cold War document: its guns were aimed at Marxism. ’National liberation’ movements received only a passing reference, though what Berlin has to say about them is interesting. At the heart of the concept of national freedom is a sociological concept of identity: my sense of identity is intelligible only in terms of my social ethnic, or linguistic context.(The German philosopher Herder was the first to see that language binds some and separates them from others.) Lack of freedom is then lack of proper recognition of attributes which are integral to my identity. ‘What oppressed classes or nationalities as a rule demand…’ writes Berlin ‘is simply recognition (of their class or nation or colour or race as an independent source of human activity, as an entity with a will of its own…and not to be ruled, educated, guided, with however light a hand’ by others. (41-2) Berlin notes that ‘I may , in my bitter longing for status, prefer to be bullied and misgoverned by some member of my own race or social class…to being well or tolerantly treated by someone from some higher and remoter group’. Tolerance for the gross misrule of a Saddam, or Mugabe, or Arafat in preference to acceptance of ‘negative’ liberty from foreign hands can readily be explained in these terms.
 
Berlin denies that the demand for national independence is a desire for either negative or positive liberty: it is more related to the desire for solidarity or fraternity. Berlin’s point is logical: the demand for freedom, whether positive or negative, is grounded in the moral equality of all individuals, and is therefore blind to religion, colour, or race. The demand for collective freedom, on the other hand, is invariably advanced in the name of a specific ‘nation’ or ‘group’, however defined. ‘It is not the demand for Lebensraum for each individual that has stimulated the…wars of Liberation’, Berlin argues. It is the right to be governed by themselves, whether in freedom or not. (p.47)
 
II.
 
This leads to my second theme, the connection between freedom and democracy. (At this point, I want to drop further consideration of ‘positive’ freedom, and concentrate on the antithesis between the negative concept of freedom and collective or national freedom). In current rhetoric, freedom and democracy are nearly always paired (eg ‘the world has seen an explosion of freedom and democracy’), and indeed treated as synonyms. In fact, they are different, and the relationship between them differs according to whether the goal is individual or national freedom.
 
.In the ‘negative’ liberty case, democracy serves as a check on government’s ability to interfere with individual freedom; its value is that of a means, not an end. It is part of a ‘constitution of liberty’ whose other elements are rule of law, separation of powers, devolution, and a rich texture of intermediate bodies (‘civil society’). In practice,19th century liberals were highly suspicious of democracy. They saw a contradiction between democracy and settled law, since in democratic theory ‘the people’ must always be free to repudiate the past. John Stuart Mill’s fear of the ‘tyranny of the majority’ is well-known. In this tradition, democracy had to be made safe for liberalism.
 
The function of democracy when national freedom is the goal is very different. National freedom means self-government. A people is free when it governs itself. Democracy is not the means to anything; it is the end itself – the activity in which the individual finds his identity as citizen. Democracy is concerned with the source of political authority, not with limits to its exercise. Following the French Revolution, multi-national forms of rule gradually fell into disrepute, largely because of their historical association with dynasty and empire. The nation became the only source of political legitimacy.
 
The identification of democracy with nationalism has frequently had noxious results. For it has justified national self-assertion and suppression of individual (and minority) rights ‘in the name of the people’. Moreover, it was essentially this hybrid that the Europeans exported to the rest of the world, after it had done immense damage in Europe itself. When President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed ‘national self-determination’ as the goal of US policy in 1918 he did not consider that it might lead to illiberal forms of democracy based on ethnic self-assertion. Dictatorship of the people leads in practice to dictatorship over the people, when the leader claims to embody the people’s struggle for freedom. This has happened extensively in Africa. The recent rise of intolerant religious democracies in the Islamic world owes as much to European influence as to Islamic precedent.
 
 
The marriage we should be seeking is between democracy and individual freedom, not between democracy and national freedom. We dreadfully confuse the issue by not making it clear what kind of freedom we want democracy to serve.
 
III.
 
What sort of constitution can produce the hybrid of popular control and limited government which Western liberals seek? Larry Siedentop’s answer is: federalism. In the European context, federalism is a way of creating an element of democracy within a larger political unit, itself immune from the excesses of nationalism. It recognises the value of collective identity, but rejects its identification with state power.
 
‘We need’, Siedentop writes, ‘ a notion of citizenship which acknowledges the importance and legitimacy of the private sphere…while at the same time insisting that the form of the state is such that it can mobilize our consent by engaging us actively as citizens at some level….Federalism, more than any other form of the state, makes it possible in principle to adjust the claims of both citizenship and civil society, of the public and private spaces…We want a share in power, but we also want to be left alone’.
 
This intriguing idea points the way to which the European Union might become the model of the post-modern state, which at the same time reaches back into a pre-modern past, not just in Europe, but over much of the rest of the world. We have not yet overcome the idea that the world should be divided into national units, each exercising its sovereign right of self-determination. Yet these are not the only, or necessarily the highest, forms of political life. Empires at their best stood for multiracialism and religious tolerance. They also allowed a great deal of devolution in practice. The eras of ‘proto-globalization’ identified by the historians were associated with the flourishing of these loose empires across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. They foundered in the end because no way could be found of making their rule legitimate. Their successor, the nation-state, solved the problem of political legitimacy, but not the problem of individual rights or international organisation. Today the nation-state itself is itself in retreat before the pressures of gobalization, new threats to security, and the world-wide attention to human rights. So the challenge is to devise forms of political community that combine the scale of the cosmopolitan empires of the past with the legitimacy which democracy confers. This offers the best hope of overcoming the conflict between the two concepts of freedom which contend for the world’s allegiance.
 
I.
 
 
Freedom has become the most potent word in today’s political lexicon. George W Bush used it forty times in his second inaugural address. A Chechen doctor, Khassan Baiev, writes ‘Like everyone, we want to live in freedom’. They were using the same words, but they seem to mean different things. President Bush, I feel sure, was talking about the freedom of individuals, Khassan Baiev about the freedom of nations, his own especially, as might a Palestinian or Basque ‘freedom fighter’.
 
These, I think, are the two dominant senses in which people use, and understand, the term freedom today. They have a common origin, but point in two opposite directions. For the believer in individual freedom, it is dictatorship which is the enemy; for the believer in national freedom, it is the rule of foreigners. The demand for national freedom is not at the same time a demand for individual freedom, though it is often promoted as a means to it. It can go together with a profoundly illiberal attitude to individual rights eg the rights of women, of gays, and so on.(cf Sharansky’s ‘fear’ societies). And it tends to do so in Muslim countries.
 
Superficially, the distinction between individual and collective freedom resembles Isaiah Berlin’s celebrated distinction between the ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ concepts of liberty. The ‘negative’ concept tries to define an area within which a person is free to do what he wants; the ‘positive’ concept asserts the right of the individual to be his own master, to realize his potential. In Peter Gay’s summary: ‘Negative freedom…aims at the removal of obstructions; positive freedom, at the realisation of ideals’.
 
The difference seems slight, a mere semantic quibble, but its political implications are profound. In both cases, the source of freedom is the individual self, but the idea of self being appealed to is very different in the two cases. In the negative concept it is the actual, or empirical, self which seeks freedom from restraint; in the positive concept it is the rational or metaphysical self . What Isaiah Berlin calls ‘this monstrous impersonation’ opens the door to imposing unwanted forms of government by leaders who claim to have discerned individuals’ ‘rational’ as opposed to their actual desires. ‘Enough manipulation with the definitions of man’, writes Berlin, ‘and freedom can be made to mean whatever the manipulator wishes’.(p. 19)
 
Americans believe in the ‘negative’ concept of liberty; but they show signs of wanting to force others to be free. This is the paradox of current US foreign policy: in Berlin’s terms –negative liberty for ourselves, positive liberty for others.
 
Paul Wolfowitz has said that ‘we are not trying to graft our system of government on to people who are different from us. We are trying to remove shackles that keep them from having what they want’ It can hardly be wrong to help people achieve what they want. But how do we know what the Iraqis, for example, want? If, as President Bush believes, ‘all men desire to be free’, that the flame of freedom burns in every soul, one has a great deal of history to explain that does not obviously point to this conclusion. In fact, the remarks of Bush and Wolfowitz are not empirical statements about people, but metaphysical propositions about the nature of human beings. By means of this barely understood substitution it is easy to slip from wanting to help people achieve what they want to wanting to help them achieve what they would want were they not prisoners of ‘false consciousness’.
 
US foreign policy is being driven less by an empirical calculation of American interests, and more by a secular teleology , whose purpose is to help bring about the ends to which the historical process beckons - the triumph of peace, democracy, and free markets. This teleology is explicit in Francis Fukuyama’s famous 1989 essay ‘The End of History’, as is its Hegelian inspiration. It licenses much more meddling in the affairs of other countries than does old-fashioned Realism. Ex-Marxists never quite escape the teleological temptation. This explains the paradox of converts to classical liberalism espousing a highly illiberal conception of history.
 
However, this is hardly a new dilemma. The shift to a positive concept of liberty for ‘those abroad’ was how 19th century British liberals reconciled themselves to British imperialism. But suppose Muslims today do not actually want liberty in the ‘negative’ sense, or at least not want it above all else, or not want it at all on Western terms. Suppose it is not an ideal actually present in Islam, or even worse, is antithetical to it. How prolonged in that case will the occupation of Iraq have to be, how extensive will be the sociological and political re-engineering required to fit alien cultures to receive the blessings of freedom? And how long will it be before the demand for freedom in my second sense –the freedom of the nation from foreign rule –becomes irresistible?
 
Isaiah Berlin’s ‘Two Concepts’ was a Cold War document: its guns were aimed at Marxism. ’National liberation’ movements received only a passing reference, though what Berlin has to say about them is interesting. At the heart of the concept of national freedom is a sociological concept of identity: my sense of identity is intelligible only in terms of my social ethnic, or linguistic context.(The German philosopher Herder was the first to see that language binds some and separates them from others.) Lack of freedom is then lack of proper recognition of attributes which are integral to my identity. ‘What oppressed classes or nationalities as a rule demand…’ writes Berlin ‘is simply recognition (of their class or nation or colour or race as an independent source of human activity, as an entity with a will of its own…and not to be ruled, educated, guided, with however light a hand’ by others. (41-2) Berlin notes that ‘I may , in my bitter longing for status, prefer to be bullied and misgoverned by some member of my own race or social class…to being well or tolerantly treated by someone from some higher and remoter group’. Tolerance for the gross misrule of a Saddam, or Mugabe, or Arafat in preference to acceptance of ‘negative’ liberty from foreign hands can readily be explained in these terms.
 
Berlin denies that the demand for national independence is a desire for either negative or positive liberty: it is more related to the desire for solidarity or fraternity. Berlin’s point is logical: the demand for freedom, whether positive or negative, is grounded in the moral equality of all individuals, and is therefore blind to religion, colour, or race. The demand for collective freedom, on the other hand, is invariably advanced in the name of a specific ‘nation’ or ‘group’, however defined. ‘It is not the demand for Lebensraum for each individual that has stimulated the…wars of Liberation’, Berlin argues. It is the right to be governed by themselves, whether in freedom or not. (p.47)
 
II.
 
This leads to my second theme, the connection between freedom and democracy. (At this point, I want to drop further consideration of ‘positive’ freedom, and concentrate on the antithesis between the negative concept of freedom and collective or national freedom). In current rhetoric, freedom and democracy are nearly always paired (eg ‘the world has seen an explosion of freedom and democracy’), and indeed treated as synonyms. In fact, they are different, and the relationship between them differs according to whether the goal is individual or national freedom.
 
.In the ‘negative’ liberty case, democracy serves as a check on government’s ability to interfere with individual freedom; its value is that of a means, not an end. It is part of a ‘constitution of liberty’ whose other elements are rule of law, separation of powers, devolution, and a rich texture of intermediate bodies (‘civil society’). In practice,19th century liberals were highly suspicious of democracy. They saw a contradiction between democracy and settled law, since in democratic theory ‘the people’ must always be free to repudiate the past. John Stuart Mill’s fear of the ‘tyranny of the majority’ is well-known. In this tradition, democracy had to be made safe for liberalism.
 
The function of democracy when national freedom is the goal is very different. National freedom means self-government. A people is free when it governs itself. Democracy is not the means to anything; it is the end itself – the activity in which the individual finds his identity as citizen. Democracy is concerned with the source of political authority, not with limits to its exercise. Following the French Revolution, multi-national forms of rule gradually fell into disrepute, largely because of their historical association with dynasty and empire. The nation became the only source of political legitimacy.
 
The identification of democracy with nationalism has frequently had noxious results. For it has justified national self-assertion and suppression of individual (and minority) rights ‘in the name of the people’. Moreover, it was essentially this hybrid that the Europeans exported to the rest of the world, after it had done immense damage in Europe itself. When President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed ‘national self-determination’ as the goal of US policy in 1918 he did not consider that it might lead to illiberal forms of democracy based on ethnic self-assertion. Dictatorship of the people leads in practice to dictatorship over the people, when the leader claims to embody the people’s struggle for freedom. This has happened extensively in Africa. The recent rise of intolerant religious democracies in the Islamic world owes as much to European influence as to Islamic precedent.
 
 
The marriage we should be seeking is between democracy and individual freedom, not between democracy and national freedom. We dreadfully confuse the issue by not making it clear what kind of freedom we want democracy to serve.
 
III.
 
What sort of constitution can produce the hybrid of popular control and limited government which Western liberals seek? Larry Siedentop’s answer is: federalism. In the European context, federalism is a way of creating an element of democracy within a larger political unit, itself immune from the excesses of nationalism. It recognises the value of collective identity, but rejects its identification with state power.
 
‘We need’, Siedentop writes, ‘ a notion of citizenship which acknowledges the importance and legitimacy of the private sphere…while at the same time insisting that the form of the state is such that it can mobilize our consent by engaging us actively as citizens at some level….Federalism, more than any other form of the state, makes it possible in principle to adjust the claims of both citizenship and civil society, of the public and private spaces…We want a share in power, but we also want to be left alone’.
 
This intriguing idea points the way to which the European Union might become the model of the post-modern state, which at the same time reaches back into a pre-modern past, not just in Europe, but over much of the rest of the world. We have not yet overcome the idea that the world should be divided into national units, each exercising its sovereign right of self-determination. Yet these are not the only, or necessarily the highest, forms of political life. Empires at their best stood for multiracialism and religious tolerance. They also allowed a great deal of devolution in practice. The eras of ‘proto-globalization’ identified by the historians were associated with the flourishing of these loose empires across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. They foundered in the end because no way could be found of making their rule legitimate. Their successor, the nation-state, solved the problem of political legitimacy, but not the problem of individual rights or international organisation. Today the nation-state itself is itself in retreat before the pressures of gobalization, new threats to security, and the world-wide attention to human rights. So the challenge is to devise forms of political community that combine the scale of the cosmopolitan empires of the past with the legitimacy which democracy confers. This offers the best hope of overcoming the conflict between the two concepts of freedom which contend for the world’s allegiance.