Freedom and Equality: Is the positive concept of liberty undermined by its seemingly “totalitarian” implications?

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““They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

– Benjamin Franklin- 

This article will examine to what extent does “totalitarian” – as a result of the dangerous effect on positive liberty – implications has undermined the idea of positive liberty. Positive liberty gives an idea of the totalitarian regime, but it is not the only aspect that brings the establishment of totalitarian. In addition, there is not strong evidence that totalitarian get affected by positive liberty. This concluded that positive liberty does not undermine by totalitarian implication

As positive liberty is the idea of “freedom to” – it is associated with autonomy (self – rules) because each individual has the right to rule or govern her/himself. This statement is important because each individual is responsible for maintaining their own destiny – the failure of this could lead them to the leak of freedom (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2016). According to positive liberty, as long as people could govern themselves, they are free to do anything. However, the idea of autonomy itself is still incoherent, because there is no clear boundary to what extent people are subjected to their own rule or law. There is no clear understanding of how people are free to make a law but then subjected to their own law. There is also no boundaries on to what extent people have freedom to interference others – as if people are free to do whatever they want to do – then nothing is stopping them to interference others, because of their freedom.

In contrast with positive liberty, negative liberty is “freedom from”. According to Berlin (1958), people are free when there is no interference from others. This is what he argued as negative liberty. As long as people could live their life without obligations to do things from others – they are free – as in they could make their own decisions without any other aspects interference their decisions. This statement is the opposite of positive freedom. Negative freedom focuses more on external interference, while positive freedom is more considerate to the internal interference – to what extent people act autonomously (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2016).

Furthermore, people are free when there is no interference from others, however, it does not necessarily mean that people are free even they do not have interference from others. There is an internal obstacle that people should face in order to be free (Gaus, 2000). This internal obstacle is strongly related to human capability to act autonomously to them. For positive freedom, people are free when they are able to govern themselves and act rationally (Gaus, 2000). Freedom to do something does not necessarily mean each person is truly free. To some extent, people are not free even they can do whatever they want – because they might not capable of governing themselves. This situation according to Berlin is called “Divided Self” of autonomy – which a condition when people get divided from themselves (Berlin, 1958).

Therefore, according to this theory, freedom is also based on whether people are able to think rationally or not. As an example, when people make their decision based on their emotional thinking, it is more likely for them to feel regret in the future. Within this, it could be argued that the people are not free when they could not think rationally because they were under control of something else (in this situation is their emotional feelings). This emotion that has higher authority over this specific individuals – makes them in the future when they are capable of thinking rationally feel regrets for what they did.

Another example when people are not able to think rationally is when they get addicted to something. According to Green, people are not free because of their addiction (Gaus, 2000) This addiction could be over particular things such as drugs or games, and even over other human beings. Take an example, when people get addicted to drugs – they are capable of doing things that normal human being would not do – that could be dangerous for themselves and others around them. This could happen because their minds are under control over something – which in this situation is drugs. If the person is not under drugs, they would not do the thing that will put them in danger, because of human nature – it is not anyone desire to hurt themselves if they are capable of thinking rationally. The drugs have taken their freedom and take over their minds. Therefore, maintaining rational thinking is very crucial in order to be free so then people could decide what they want to do without getting affected by both internal factors (Gaus, 2000).

According to Berlin, positive liberty has several weaknesses. Some other philosophers have also concern on the idea of positive liberty, particularly on the power of positive liberty that could lead to totalitarian implications. One of the dangerous of positive liberty is that there are no boundaries for people to do their freedom. Which means in this situation, it depends on whether the people are a good kind human being or not. If the people are the kind of human described by Thomas Hobbes – animal and always seek powers (Rogers, 1994) – then positive liberty could be very dangerous. Positive liberty is the kind of freedom that could lead to power – because having the rights to do something could lead into having a power. Thus, if Thomas Hobbes is true that human is selfish and always seek power, then positive liberty could be a tool for them to gain the power. As having power to do something is closely related to having power over something (Gaus, 2000). For instance, the statement could examine capitalism theory by Karl Marx. In his theory, Marx argued that capitalism has exploits the workers life (Bottomore, 1985) – because the workers do not give enough time to rest, the routine of the working class is to work from morning until night. This condition is related to the dangerous of positive liberty is because the workers are in chains while the owning classes have power over them (Gaus, 2000). As the owning class has a freedom to do anything to satisfy their needs – thus they have the rights to take over someone else freedom, in this case, is the working class – by having a power over them.

On the other hand, the workers are having ‘false consciousness’. Under this false consciousness conditions, the workers having a thought that what they are doing is right – and did not know or did not realized that it was not right for them to live their life that way. This ‘false consciousness’ have prevented the workers from being able to think rationally – because their rational thinking was created by the ruling class. What they think was right or wrong – is the definition that was made by the ruling class. Furthermore, having a freedom to do anything to satisfy people needs could disadvantages other human beings – as in this example, the ruling class ‘freedom to’ do something have interference the worker’s freedom. Even worse than the situation of capitalism, positive liberty could lead to totalitarianism. Totalitarianism is a situation when one specific person or group gets power to control every aspect of other people or individuals life (Schapiro, 1972). Under totalitarianism, people do not have freedom of speech either or freedom to do what they want – as the government control what people could do or not. If the citizens do not act accordingly to the government order, the people life might be at risk.

The idea of totalitarianism could be argue came from positive liberty. As in the “Divided Self” theory, if the person has failed to maintain to think rationally – it could be argued as the government duty to intervene. This perception of this is what leads into political ideology such as totalitarianism. Totalitarianism is a political ideology lack of any freedom because it is created to control the social life of the people in order to create a better human being (Curtis, 1979). The citizens have to behave corresponding to government order. Under totalitarianism, the citizens could be seen as a slave to the government. Every slave freedom has been taken away – even they do not realize it – because their rational thinking is based on what the specific person or group (as in this case the government) want.

However, the people that lived under totalitarian regime does not necessarily mean they are not happy. They might enjoy what they are doing as a “Happy Slave”. As positive freedom argue that a person is free as long as she can do what she desires to do (Christman, 1991) – if the “slave” get to do what they desires to do – even though for the majority of people is not right – but if the slave think it is the right thing to do then there is nothing wrong with that. But, this situation is debatable – because the slave is actually free – as they can do what they desire to do – but what they desire to do was created by other people – which then might conclude the slave are actually not capable of thinking rationally. If the people are not capable of thinking rationally then from positive liberty perspectives, the slave is not free. Seen from negative liberty theory – this situation is completely not right because the slave is not free as in they got interference from others. Thus, the arguments by Gerald MacCallum that there are not differences between ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’ (Swift, 2001) could be right. As in the end, freedom is a conception from more than two actors, it is something that involves more than one reaction. Furthermore, if Gerald MacCallum statement is right – that it is no different between ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’ – it is possible that positive liberty is not the only factor that could lead to totalitarianism.

In addition, even though positive liberty could lead to totalitarianism, it also could end totalitarianism. Having a power to do something that will affect other human beings – does not necessarily mean that it will have a power over them (Gaus, 2000). The government might have the power that affects the citizen’s life, but it does not mean they have power over them – because if everyone has a freedom to do something, it means that the citizens also have freedom to do what they want to do. The government has the power to affect the citizen’s life, but it does also mean that the citizens have the power to affect the government life. It goes the same with social-contract theory by Locke – that people give up some of their personal freedom to the government, if the government does not behave accordingly – the people could withdraw their consent (Lessnoff, 1986).

Furthermore, positive liberty is not the reason why the totalitarian government was established. Totalitarian came because of a particular individual desire of something. Having a freedom to do something is not dangerous, it only could be dangerous if the person desires on something that is not nice. It goes back to the traditional philosopher’s theory – it depends on the individuals, whether they are a person that was described by John Locke or Hobbes. Thus, blaming positive liberty on any totalitarianism regime that was applied in a particular country is not completely right. Moreover, interference of a state to the individual might be for the benefit of the people (Swift, 2001) as if people could not think rationally, the state might lead the people into the right way. Which concludes it does not necessarily establish totalitarianism.

In conclusion, positive liberty is associated with the idea of “freedom to” – which lead to people rights to achieve their goal. In contrary with negative liberty that is freedom from outside interference, positive liberty could be argued as an active freedom. This activation of freedom to some extent could be dangerous because there are not clear boundaries on how far people could achieve their goal. There will always be a sacrifice from others – in order to achieve one individual needs. One of the most dangerous effects that could happen from the idea of positive liberty is the application of totalitarianism regime. Positive liberty does give an influence on the application of totalitarian regime. However, it does not necessarily weaken the idea of positive liberty. Having the power to do something does not mean having power over something. Totalitarian could happen based on what type of human being the person is or any other reason. In addition, if MacCallum theory is right – that there is not any different between ‘freedom to’ and ‘freedom from’ – thus, positive liberty is not the only aspect that influences the application of totalitarian regime. Although the statement is still debatable, to some extent positive liberty does not imply to the idea of totalitarianism. This concluded that positive liberty does not undermine by totalitarian implication.


Berlin, I. (1958) “Two Concepts of Liberty.” In Isaiah Berlin (1969) Four Essays on Liberty. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Bottomore, T (1985). Theories of Modern Capitalism. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd

Christman, J. (1991). Liberalism and Individual Positive Freedom. Chicago Universal. 101 (2), 343 – 359

Curtis, M (1979). Totalitarianism. New Jersey: Transaction, Inc

Gaus, G (2000). Political Concepts and Political Theories. United States of America: Westview Press

Hobbes, T. (1994). Human Nature & De Corpore Politico. Bristol: Thoemmes Press

Lessnoff, M (1986). Social Contract. Basingstoke; London: Macmillan Education Ltd

Schapiro, L (1972). Totalitarianism. London: The Pall Mall Press

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2016). Positive and Negative Liberty. Available at <> [Accessed 22 February 2017]

Swift, A (2001). Political Philosophy. Cambridge; Oxford; Malden: Polity Press

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“People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.”

– Søren Kierkegaard –

Author: Valentina Laura

A dreamer & a lover.

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