John Locke

This post is part of a series summarising some of the arguments in my new book Why Progressives Need God.

We all like to be free. The Liberal tradition in modern politics is so called because of its commitment to freedom. Yet recent theories have adapted it so that some versions actually take freedom away.

Christianity, like most faith traditions, describes freedom as a gift from God. Our creator is in principle all-powerful, but withdraws from complete power in a measured way to give humans the power to make our own choices. Evolutionary psychologists describe how the capacity to make free choices evolved.

We are thereby free to act contrary to God’s intentions for us, and when we do we make things worse for ourselves and other people.

On this faith-based account, we are given freedom. We have enough of it to choose between good and bad actions. We are even free to deprive other people – or ourselves – of freedom. Lack of freedom is therefore the result of other people misusing their freedom.

The secular Liberal political tradition traces its origins to around 1700 with the writings of John Locke and others. Locke believed in God, but in the aftermath of the wars of religion he proposed a political settlement that left God out.

When God was left out what remained – and is still all that remains in secular theory – is that the only source of value is the individual human’s valuing. The only things of value, therefore, are whatever each person values.

So the Liberal political tradition has characteristically argued that all objectives should be based on each person’s freedom to achieve their own goals. Nothing else.

In this way the individual’s freedom becomes a supreme value. It ceases to be a resource for other uses and instead becomes an objective in its own right. Political debate then becomes less about how to use our freedom and more about how to maximise it.

Positive and negative freedom

This Liberal political tradition has divided between positive and negative theories of freedom.

Negative freedom has a long history. It argues that, because the only legitimate preferences are those of individuals, the state should avoid making judgements about what individuals should do. Instead it should limit itself to protecting their freedom to do whatever they want, and only intervene when their freedom is threatened. They define freedom as the absence of coercion by other people. From this it follows that if poverty leaves a person with no choices at all, he or she is still free.

Positive liberals argue that to be truly free we need power over our circumstances. Many factors, like inequalities of wealth and power, limit our freedom. We need to ensure that everybody has the basic necessities of life and limit the constraints imposed by other people.

Whereas negative liberals argue that what the individual wants is the basic starting-point for deciding what the state should do, positive liberals argue that what the individual wants is not basic. People can want things because they are misinformed. Political and commercial forces manipulate preferences to suit their own interests. Impoverished people often give up wanting things they know they cannot have. People in desperately unhappy circumstances develop desires for things like hard drugs which they would not otherwise have wanted. Governments should ensure that as far as possible everybody has enough money, health and education to be truly free. As William Beveridge, the architect of the British Welfare State put it,

Putting first things first, bread and health for all before cake and circuses for anybody.

Negative liberals reply that this is the nanny state imposing its own values and thus betraying the basic principles of liberalism.

Negative liberalism in practice

Negative liberalism has been driving economic policy for the last forty years. It tells people they do not need to care about the effects of their actions on other people, provided that they do not positively constrain them or intend to harm them. Thus it abolishes the idea that we have any moral responsibility to care for other people. Freedom gets diluted to the point at which the only people who are not free are the ones intentionally constrained by someone else.

Christianity offers a better account of the value and uses of freedom. God has given us as much freedom as we need. The only people who need to increase their freedom are the ones whose freedom has been taken away by other people’s misuse of freedom.

The greatest threat to our freedom, therefore, is the freedom of other people more powerful than ourselves. We could vote for a government that restricts the power of the powerful in order to protect the freedom of others.