THE NATURE AND
VALUE OF LIBERTY
Philosophers say there are two major kinds of liberty: negative liberty and positive liberty.
We often use the words “liberty” or “freedom” to refer to an absence of obstacles, impediments, or constraints. Philosophers call this negative liberty. So, for instance, a person enjoys freedom of speech—understood as a negative liberty— when others do not stop her from speaking her mind. Free speech is the absence of interference with one’s speech.
In contrast, positive liberty is the power or capacity to do as one chooses. For instance, when we talk about being “free as a bird,” we mean that the bird has the power or ability to fly. We do not mean to say that people rarely interfere with birds.
Negative liberty is the absence of obstacles; positive liberty is the presence of powers or abilities.
A person has freedom of property—understood as a positive liberty—if she actually owns and controls some property. John Kerry and the average Democratic voter both have the negative liberty to own yachts—no one would try to stop them from buying one—but only Kerry can actually afford a yacht. He thus has the power to do something most of his