The concept of negative freedom centres on freedom from interference. This type of account of freedom is usually put forward in response to the following sort of question: What is the area within which the subject – a person or group of persons – is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons? (Berlin) Or, more simply, ‘Over what area am I master? ’ Theories of negative freedom spell out the acceptable limits of interference in individuals’ lives. You restrict my negative freedom when you restrict the number of choices I can make about my life.
The extent of my negative freedom is determined by how many possible choices lie open to me, or, to use one of Berlin’s metaphors, how many doors are unlocked. It is also determined by the types of choices that are available. Clearly not every sort of choice should be given equal status: some choices are of greater importance than others. For most of us having freedom of speech, even if we don’t take advantage of this opportunity, is a more important freedom than the freedom to choose between ten different sorts of washing powder.
It doesn’t matter whether or not I actually take advantage of the opportunities open to me: I am still free to the extent that I could, if I chose, take advantage of them: The freedom of which I speak is opportunity for action, rather than action itself. If, although I enjoy the right to walk through open doors, I prefer not to do so, but to sit still and vegetate, I am not thereby rendered less free. Freedom is the opportunity to act, not action itself.
So, if you park your car across my drive, thereby preventing me from getting my car out, you restrict my freedom; and this is true even if I choose to stay in bed listening to my CDs all day, and would have done so even if you hadn’t parked there. Or, if the state prevents me from going on strike by making my actions illegal, even if I don’t have anything to strike about, and even if I don’t ever intend to strike, my freedom is still curtailed. Negative freedom is a matter of the doors open to me, not of whether I happen to choose to go through them.
However, not all restrictions on my possible choices are infringements of my negative freedom. Berlin states that only restrictions imposed by other people affect my freedom. Colloquially, we might say that because we are human we aren’t free to jump ten feet in the air or free to understand what an obscure passage in a difficult book by Hegel means. But when discussing political freedom, the sort we are interested in here, these sorts of restrictions on what we can do, aren’t counted as obstacles to freedom, however distressing they may be. Other people limit our freedom by what they do.
Limitations on our action brought about by the nature of the universe or the human body aren’t relevant to the discussion of political freedom. Political freedom is a matter of the relations of power which hold between individuals and between individuals and the state. The clearest cases in which freedom is restricted are when someone forces you to do something. You might be forced to join the army, for instance, if you live in a country which has compulsory military service. The law might force you to wear a crash helmet every time you ride your motorcycle.
Your partner might force you to stay in rather than go out to the cinema, or to tidy up the kitchen rather than do another hour’s study. It might have seemed to follow from Berlin’s account of negative freedom that poverty couldn’t count as a limitation on individual freedom. True, poverty effectively locks many doors. But these doors aren’t necessarily locked by other people’s actions; poverty may have other, nonhuman, causes. It may be due to the effects of freak weather conditions leading to famine; or perhaps to sudden illness or accident. Whether or not poverty is to count as a limitation of negative freedom depends entirely on your view of the causes of the poverty in question.