Monday, 21 March 2011

The dafodils of freedom...

Various folk have commented on the case of the daffodils – or rather the picking of daffodils.

Sienna Marengo was picking flowers with her sister India, 10, and step-sister Olivia, six, when they were spotted by a passing councillor who reported the incident to the police.

Two officers then warned the girls’ mother, Jane Errington, 35, that she and her partner Marc Marengo, 49, could be arrested for theft and criminal damage before moving them on.

Now much of this is about the pettiness of this act, the waste of police time and the impact on the two small children involved in the terrible picking incident! But in one comment – essentially a defence of the busybody – from Deborah Orr an important philosophical term was purloined and misused:

Yet there is one aspect of this case that does pinpoint a distinctive feature of contemporary British life, and that is a widespread and powerful attachment to "negative liberty", in which people want very much to be able to get on with their own business without do-gooders or agents of the state interfering, yet tend to engage little with the concept of freedom and how it works at a societal level.

The term – as the eagle-eyed reader will have spotted – is “negative liberty”. What Ms Orr implies – pretty strongly – is that such an attitude is a mere bagatelle next to how freedom works “at a societal level”. I’m sure there will be dissenters but the initiator of the idea of “negative and positive liberty” was Isaiah Berlin and his use of the words “negative” and “positive” was not intended to reflect “good” or “bad”. Berlin, by using “negative” meant the absence of controls, restrictions or bans – the idea that we are free to act.

The problem for Ms Orr is, of course, that Berlin wasn’t especially keen on “positive liberty” – on liberty at the “societal level”:

Berlin says, the defender of positive freedom will take an additional step that consists in conceiving of the self as wider than the individual and as represented by an organic social whole — “a tribe, a race, a church, a state, the great society of the living and the dead and the yet unborn”. The true interests of the individual are to be identified with the interests of this whole, and individuals can and should be coerced into fulfilling these interests, for they would not resist coercion if they were as rational and wise as their coercers. “Once I take this view”, Berlin says, “I am in a position to ignore the actual wishes of men or societies, to bully, oppress, torture in the name, and on behalf, of their ‘real’ selves, in the secure knowledge that whatever is the true goal of man ... must be identical with his freedom” (Berlin 1969, pp. 132-33).

The point here is that “negative liberty” is, indeed, what we understand by freedom. The “concept of freedom and how it works at a societal level” sounds like Berlin’s idea of “positive” freedom to me – and that is a precursor to illiberal acts, totalitarianism and the arresting of four-year-olds for picking a couple of daffs.


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