Academic journal article Independent Review

Human Freedom: From Pericles to Measurement

Academic journal article Independent Review

Human Freedom: From Pericles to Measurement

Article excerpt

Although people have been seeking freedom for millennia, it has not been freedom for all--excluded were slaves, serfs, women, outsiders, the defeated, and so on. That changed in the past few centuries as the circle of those considered deserving of freedom expanded. Along the way, a rigorous debate on freedom and what it is took root, blossoming during the Enlightenment when the great freedom philosophers explored both the nature of freedom and what came to be viewed as a universal right to it. They also identified the relationship between economic freedom, including property rights, and other freedoms.

It seems undeniable that the circle of freedom has expanded, but the very concept is one of the most contested ideas in political and philosophical discourse as well as one of the most vital. The contests run along several fronts, which can be transposed to the following questions: What is freedom? Who has freedom? Is freedom always good? Is more freedom always better? What are the consequences of freedom in different areas of human endeavor? How is freedom achieved? How is it made stable and secure? How is it smothered and ultimately extinguished?

All subsequent questions depend on the answer to that first question: What is freedom? Without an objective measure, it is impossible to determine whether action X leads to increases or decreases in freedom, whether it lends stability to freedom or causes instability, or whether freedom leads to superior outcomes. Efforts to measure freedom have emerged only in the last quarter-century or so. Unfortunately, these efforts have been flawed, blurring various definitions of freedom, confusing "other good things" with freedom, using subjective rather than objective measures, and either failing to account for economic freedom or focusing exclusively on it (See Sidebar 2).

The Human Freedom Index (HFI) project--a joint venture of the Fraser Institute in Canada, the Fiberales Institut in Germany, and the Cato Institute in the United States--aims to provide a durable, comprehensive, and objective measure of freedom. This article begins with Isaiah Berlin's 1958 essay "Two Concepts of Liberty" and then examines earlier influential views of freedom--detailing the philosophical underpinnings of the HFI, which we hope will become an important contribution to the canon of liberty.

Berlin's Concepts of "Positive" and "Negative" Freedom

Berlin's essay examines two concepts: "negative" freedom and "positive" freedom. The concept of negative freedom, which Berlin favors, concerns lack of humanly imposed barriers to action. "By being free in this sense I mean not being interfered with by others. The wider the area of non-interference, the wider my freedom" ([1958] 2002, 170). In Berlin's view, this concept of freedom, which he traces to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, is the only one having empirically determinate meaning. By contrast, the concept of positive freedom is metaphysical. Positive freedom involves freeing oneself from whatever constraints one imposes on oneself. This enables the person to find his or her true self. It implies some sort of higher and lower plane of being, with the higher plane freeing itself from constraints imposed by the lower plane. For example, Communists would have perceived class consciousness as part of a lower self, blocking the real freedom one experiences under the higher form of "socialist liberty."

As Berlin explains, "positive freedom" is also called "autonomy," meaning self-control or control by reason rather than control by one's personal passions. In short, it is the freedom to govern oneself autonomously and is different from the freedom to do as one wishes because individuals may wish to do what their ideally rational self would disapprove of. The definition of positive freedom depends on a metaphysical theory of the self--conceived as divided into will, reason, and desire. Berlin distinguishes between two variations of positive freedom. …

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