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Freedom’s Two-Sided Coin

In our understanding of liberty, it is important to revisit an important debate dating all the way back to the Middle Ages. Freedom, according to the ancient argument, can be defined in two different, yet equally important, ways.

To use the analogy of a common coin, whether you call heads or tails, it’s still the same coin. The coin of freedom can be defined positively or negatively. Negative freedom is freedom FROM. This side of freedom’s coin emphasizes the freedom from restraint, constraint or interference.

Positive freedom, on the other hand, is freedom FOR. We must have freedom to pursue whatever ideals, goals or visions we have before us.

While our founders understood the inherent tension between these two sides of the coin, they realized that both are necessary if freedom is to be preserved. Neither is complete without the other. A freedom from, without a freedom for, is a freedom without a point of reference. In other words, what is the whole point of freedom if we have no overarching vision? We may be free, but free for WHAT?

When we overemphasize negative freedom, we end up with a very individualistic, private hybrid which exalts personal expression (freedom from) to the neglect of public responsibility. We see this imbalance in our American republic today. Freedom often means, “Stay out of my business” or “Leave me alone.”

The problem with this imbalance, as Guinness points out, is that “unconstrained negative freedom can easily degenerate into apathy and moral callousness, for what begins as freedom from interference easily slides into the freedom of indifference.” My plea to stay out of my business often leads to an attitude where I could care less about your business. The result is a callous indifference for others ending in the death of true community.

  1. Paul Rothbard
    December 5th, 2012 at 16:31 | #1

    The term, “public responsibility,” concerns me. Could you please explain how you mean that so that it doesn’t get misinterpreted?

  2. Paul Rothbard
    December 5th, 2012 at 16:32 | #2

    It is true that many assume that freedom lovers would prefer to isolate themselves, rather than want the full ability to associate, trade and worship without intrusion. While some may still prefer to be completely left alone in a life of solitude, the healthier phrase for negative freedom is, “Don’t tread on me.”

  3. Ron Johnson
    December 5th, 2012 at 22:34 | #3

    By public responsibility, I mean the call we have to obey the great commandment – to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

  4. Ron Johnson
    December 5th, 2012 at 22:37 | #4

    Amen! “Don’t tread on me” is an admonition against oppressive governmental intrusion. It is not a license to withdraw into self-centered isolation from the community in which you live.@Paul Rothbard

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