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Sarah Palin and Negative and Positive Liberty



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Sarah Palin has lately been in the news extolling Second Amendment rights (the Constitutional right for individuals, at least as she sees matters, to bear arms) as virtually absolute, while decrying what she has termed the federal government’s imperial desire to jam a “so-called right to health care” down the collective citizenry’s throat. At least at first blush, the innocent observer might be forgiven a bit of whiplash. How is it the one- time governor of Alaska can at once embrace a call on government to ensure an absolute right even as she pillories those who seek to use that same government to give others a right to health care insurance?

The apparent paradox can be reconciled when one recalls that in the United States, not one but two conceptions of liberty are at play, as political theorist Isaiah Berlin argued in the 1950s and 1960s. Palin’s call for absolute personal rights to own guns echoes the prevailing concept of negative liberty, which the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines as “the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints. One has negative liberty to the extent that actions are available to one in this negative sense.” Palin’s argument for unfettered gun rights is a classic brief for a liberal and negative conception of liberty in which agency, or the capacity to make a choice, resides with the individual. A citizen alone chooses how many guns and what sorts to own, based solely on his/her preferences. In this view, government must ensure that free space for choice is honored and left open. So, one might infer Palin is an advocate of negative liberty. And she surely is, but one must also be mindful that negative liberty is guaranteed in this view by a government’s choice not to act so as to facilitate personal agency. Government must forbear, but acknowledged or not, government paradoxically is still key to the desired outcome.

Meanwhile, the nation’s health care law, which Palin finds so odious, was clearly born of another prevailing conception of freedom in the United States, positive liberty, which, as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy observes, is “the possibility of acting — or the fact of acting — in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realize one’s fundamental purposes. While negative liberty is usually attributed to individual agents, positive liberty is sometimes attributed to collectivities, or to individuals considered primarily as members of given collectivities.” The national health care effort grew out of a desire that the collectivity help the 40 million individuals in its midst attain care they otherwise could not access. It was and is an exercise in positive liberty.

Ms. Palin’s objections to efforts to ensure health care access are framed as an attack on positive liberty. This view is obviously consistent in its celebration of negative liberty. In this way, and apart from any discussion of the exigencies that prevent the poor, those of modest means and many disabled from accessing health care, she appears to argue for individuals enjoying maximal personal freedom while saying nothing about the capacity of those so “empowered” to act on that supposed right, the purport of positive liberty claims.

That is, what is not clear in this framing is how those so affected will use their nominal freedom to obtain care. And that, of course, is the point. Palin is uninterested in conceptions of liberty that imply that individuals may realize full agency only in community, as that requires a view of governance as a guarantor of positive liberty, and that stance appears to be ideologically repugnant to her.

More broadly, Palin’s stance concerning these issues starkly reveals three fundamental characteristics of American politics today. First, it underscores the continuing relevance of conceptions of positive and negative liberty as frames for policy actions more than 50 years after Berlin first described their salience. Second, it suggests that as now widely understood, negative liberty portends a view of society in which community claims exist only to unleash personal efficacy. Whether actual exercise of that agency must be predicated on the existence of specific prior conditions or capacities goes unremarked and unexplored by its advocates in the public square. Finally, rhetoric notwithstanding, negative liberty demands an active government stance, in the health care case, for example, of not acting to provide aid, if it is to be realized. That is, neither negative liberty nor positive liberty is “government-free.” Indeed, quite the reverse must be true for either to be realized and protected. The more interesting concern is, rather, that age- old question of political theory: Are human beings most fully human in community or best conceived instead as individual agents acting autonomously to realize their preferences? Striking, how this 2,000-year old controversy continues to shape our politics.

Publication Date

December 5, 2010