Philosophers describe two types of liberty: negative and positive. The nation’s political divide suggests that Americans hold differing views on which is more important.
A recent column in The Washington Post by E.J. Dionne explored the difference, suggesting that Republicans tend to emphasize the importance of negative liberty while Democrats emphasize positive liberty.
Negative liberty is freedom from — freedom from oppression, from regulation, from interference by government. Freedom of thought and religion is a negative freedom in that an absence of government interference is the condition that allows it to flourish. Economic freedom and the pursuit of happiness may also be seen as negative freedoms, in that we may enjoy them most thoroughly when government stays out of our business.
Positive freedom is the freedom to pursue one’s course in life, freedom to obtain an education, to take advantage of the opportunities presented to us by society, freedom to seek out the health care we need or to live free of economic insecurity.
These liberties are described in what President Franklin Roosevelt viewed as the Second Bill of Rights. The first Bill of Rights comprised the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, guaranteeing our rights to be free of oppression. Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights, which were never acted on, were meant to guarantee our positive freedoms.
It was Roosevelt’s view that our freedom of speech, religion and thought mean little if we lack the fundamental needs of life. Thus, a homeless man in need of medical care is free to say or think what he wants, but without economic security he can hardly be called free. “Necessitous men are not free men,” Roosevelt said. The rights that make people free are several, he said. They include:
n The right to a useful job.
n The right to earn enough to pay for food, clothing and recreation.
n The right of farmers to raise and sell farm products for a decent price.
n The right of business people to trade free from unfair competition or monopolies.
n The right to a decent home.
n The right to adequate health care.
n The right to protection from the economic dangers of old age, sickness, injury or unemployment.
n The right to a good education.
It is argued that none of these benefits constitute a right; rather, it is up to us to earn them. And yet without government intervention in the economy, we know from experience that a decent society where these basic needs are generally shared will never happen. People who are hungry or jobless, Roosevelt said, “are the stuff out of which dictatorships are made.”
A thriving middle class that shares in the advantages of a decent life is a good guarantor of a free society.
Our society has accepted an obligation to recognize some of these needs. We don’t let people starve; thus, we have food stamps. We understand that all children have the right to an education, and we pay for it. We protect the living standard of farmers through farm subsidies. We try to make housing available through a variety of affordable housing programs. Through Social Security and Medicare, we protect the security of the elderly and disabled.
A life of freedom begins with the negative rights that are the foundation of a free life and proceeds to the positive rights that allow us actually to live a free life. Those who reject the Affordable Care Act reject the responsibility of government to secure health care for all. Those who support it see that the burden of an unequal and inadequate health-care system weighs heavily on a significant portion of the population, who, to be truly free, require a basic foundation of health-care security.
If Obamacare is made to work, we will have brought to fruition the vision of Franklin Roosevelt, who had hoped to help lift people out of the Depression to secure and productive lives.
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