Positive Freedom and Developmental Individualism

Modern liberals believe that negative freedom is necessary but not sufficient for a good society. It can amount to little more than 'freedom to starve' for those facing disadvantages over which they have no control — for example, working in an occupation prone to periods of unemployment, or suffering an industrial accident. These people need assistance to live truly free and fulfilling lives.

This is why modern liberals support the idea of positive freedom. This defines freedom as self-mastery or self-realisation. Freedom can be expanded by qualified state intervention in the economy and society, to widen individual opportunity and liberate citizens from social evils such as poverty. Modern liberals favour developmental individualism — enabling individuals to enjoy personal growth and empowerment. ie personal development.

This means welfare and health support from the state and education systems which aim to give students with greater need more help. A positive freedom is therefore the freedom to have a good education since this frees individuals from ignorance, just as freedom to have health care frees individuals from ill health- positive freedom is seen as freedom 'from' the effects of misfortune and bad luck. These are contrasted with freedoms 'to' exercise activities such as speech, travel or worship.

While classical liberalism was strongly associated with the idea of minimal government — one that was closely linked to a belief in ‘negative’ liberty. By contrast, modern liberalism had no qualms about claiming that only a larger state could repel the new, socio-economic threats to freedom and individualism.

Consequently, modern liberals like John Rawls (1921–2002) found themselves justifying a substantial extension of the state in the name of individual liberty: more laws, more state spending, more taxation and more state bureaucracy. In short, this brand of liberalism became strongly linked to collectivism,

Examples of modern liberal Policies of Collectivism

■ Liberal government 1906–1910: in the UK, it was a Liberal government, led by Herbert Asquith (1852–1928) and his chancellor David Lloyd-George (1863–1945), that provided one of the earliest instances of modern liberalism in action. The most important illustration of this was the ‘people’s budget’ of 1908, which introduced a state pension, designed to liberate people from the financial problems of old age and funded by increased taxation of property owners.

■ The most influential liberal economist of the twentieth century, John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946), was a professed liberal, committed to the maintenance of a capitalist economy. But the economic depression of the 1920s and 1930s convinced him that neither individual freedom nor the survival of capitalist economies and constitutional states was served by the cyclical nature of laissez-faire capitalism. Mass unemployment, he feared, not only deprived millions of their individual freedom; it also paved the way for utterly illiberal doctrines such as fascism and communism.

■ In his key work, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936), Keynes therefore argued that the state must constantly ‘steer’ the economy and manage demand so as to secure full employment, without which (according to Keynes) individual liberty would be difficult. Keynes’s brand of dirigisme, or state-directed capitalism, duly influenced a series of western governments in the mid-twentieth century, shaping President F.D. Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ in the USA in the 1930s and the economic strategy of every UK government between 1945 and 1979.

■ The Beveridge Report: William Beveridge (1879–1963) was a liberal social scientist whose 1942 report, ‘Social Insurance and Allied Services’, proved the bedrock of Britain’s post-war ‘welfare state’. Developing the ideas first mooted by T.H. Green, Beveridge predicted that individuals in the post-war world faced ‘five giants’ threatening their freedom and individual potential: poverty, unemployment, poor education, poor housing and poor health care. In a powerful statement of modern liberal thinking, Beveridge argued that these threats could be overcome only through a major extension of state provision (such as a national health service.

Having embraced collectivism, modern liberalism faced the charge (from liberal critics like Friedrich von Hayek) that it had betrayed the fundamental principles of classical liberalism and had seriously blurred the distinction between liberalism and socialism. Later modern liberals, notably John Rawls, resisted such a suggestion, arguing that only an enlarged state could guarantee the equality of opportunity necessary to enable individual freedom.

Rawls insisted, however, that while an enlarged state would require some individuals to sacrifice more of their earnings to the state in the form of progressive taxation, those same individuals could still be persuaded that this was a good and necessary thing . That being so, Rawls argued, the enabling state was perfectly consistent with the liberal principle of government by consent. Rawls also pointed out that, while modern liberalism wished to improve the lot of society’s least fortunate (via extensive state intervention), it remained indifferent to inequality of outcome. For modern liberals, this was the inevitable side effect of individual freedom and was the key difference with socialism. The priority, Rawls insisted, was to improve the social and economic condition of society’s most deprived members and thus enable them to exploit their individual potential and achieve control of their lives. As long as this occurred, Rawls contested, the gap between society’s poorest and most prosperous elements was of secondary concern (a claim most socialists would vigorously refute).