Can freedom last forever? Is America doomed to failure, like all other great civilizations of the world? How does the current perception of freedom change the forecast of America’s future?
These are the questions Dr. Os Guinness attempted to answer in a talk aired a few months ago on Ravi Zacharias International Ministry’s weekend radio broadcast – Let My People Think (part 1, part 2). I missed the broadcasts when they aired but listened to them recently at the recommendation of a friend. Dr. Guinness raised a number of provocative questions and made several statements that I thought were worth responding to.
According to Dr. Guinness, there is a crisis of freedom in America today. He spends the majority of his lecture setting up his case, examining at great length various causes for the decline of freedom in America. While both parts are worth listening to in their entirety, his arguments can be boiled down to a discussion of the merits of negative and positive freedom, and this is where I would like to park today.
Negative freedom, according to Dr. Guinness – whose definition falls in line with the popular understanding of the term – is freedom from something: oppression, slavery, chains, etc. It is the absence of obstacles.
Positive freedom, on the other hand (again referring to Dr. Guinness’ definition) is a freedom for, a freedom to be, to do. It is the active capacity and ability to do something, which would include having any necessary skills and materials required to take a certain action, if such were required.
Furthermore, Dr. Guinness goes on to say, negative freedom cannot last on its own without the restraint of positive freedom.
Dr. Guinness’ notion is not an unfamiliar or uncommon one. Most people are uncomfortable with the idea that negative freedom could – and perhaps should – exist independent of positive freedom. But when we dare to scratch beneath the surface of our own cognitive dissonance, something interesting emerges. Let us look again at Dr. Guinness’ ideas and see what we find.
Positive freedoms must be granted by someone…or a group of someones (in this day and age, and throughout all of history, the government). The establishment controls who has what freedoms. Positive freedoms are doled out as the establishment sees fit and can thus be retracted at any time if the establishment changes hands or changes its mind or the wind changes directions.
But what is negative freedom…truly? Is it, as Dr. Guinness proposes, “only half of freedom”? Can it exist independent of positive freedom?
Negative freedom is a lack of constraint, the absence of obstacles. It is the freedom to do as each of us pleases without someone breathing down our necks telling us otherwise. Doesn’t this sound, well, freeing? And since we are now free from all impediments, the freedom to act – the freedom labeled “positive freedom” – will surely follow.
Let me give you an example. In my state it is illegal to cut hair and charge for the service without a license. The positive freedom to charge for a haircut has only been granted to those whom the state has licensed. But, if my state were built upon negative freedom, the constraint of having to have a license to charge for cutting hair would not exist. Therefore, anyone with a pair of scissors would be free to cut hair and make a profit.
In conclusion, positive liberty is actually negative – it relies upon a third party to give us permission to live or act in a certain way. We are only free to do something if that third party says we may. And this is no freedom at all…only a thinly disguised form of slavery.
Negative freedom is also a misnomer. Rather than being bad or only “half” of freedom, as Dr. Guinness and many others would have us believe, negative freedom removes constraints. Free from impediment, each of us is free to take action and live our best life as we envision it…not as someone else thinks it should be lived.
Patrick Henry, the great orator of the American War for Independence, once commented on the importance and preciousness of liberty. During the Virginia Convention to ratify the new constitution, he took the floor:
Liberty, the greatest of all earthly blessing — give us that precious jewel, and you may take every thing else!
But what is left for others to take when once we, the people, have secured the freedom and liberty to do as we please? Nothing.
And that was precisely Patrick Henry’s point.