Negative Freedom and Egoistical Individualism

Early classical liberals, such as Voltaire (1694–1778) and Charles- Louis Montesquieu (1689–1755), were conscious that individual liberty — a crucial ‘natural right’ — was vital to self-determination and self-reliance, as well as being the condition of government by consent. In England, early ‘liberal-feminists’, like Wollstonecraft, also tried to relate such ideas to the individual liberty of women.

However, early classical liberals were also conscious that ‘liberty’ was a somewhat vague term, which needed clarification if individualism were to be protected. So what was meant by ‘liberty’?

The definition that emerged from classical liberal thinking would later be termed negative liberty, one which saw freedom as the absence of restraint. Individuals should therefore assume that they were ‘naturally’ free until something or someone put a brake on their actions. According to this definition, therefore, a man alone on a desert island might be lonely, but he could still exercise a high degree of personal freedom: an assumption complementing one of liberalism’s core beliefs that individuals were potentially autonomous, atomistic and self-reliant. For early classical liberals, this definition would have consequences for both the size of the state and the emerging ‘science’ of economics.