The Psychological Dangers of Positive Liberty: Reconstructing a Neglected Undercurrent in Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty”

THE REVIEW OF POLITICS 76.2 (2014): 267-291

Abstract: Berlin is often taken to have exaggerated his case against positive liberty, since contrary to what he seems to argue, several versions of it do not logically justify coercion. A more historical interpretation of his warnings may save him from this accusation, yet on the other hand suggests his message is of little relevance for contemporary liberalism. In contrast to both these approaches, this essay considers a third and largely neglected aspect of “Two Concepts of Liberty,” that speaks more directly to the challenges facing liberalism today: Berlin’s warning that positive liberty invites the specific kind of coercion that parades as liberation, and that it does so according to a psychologically predictable pattern. After reconstructing this undercurrent in Berlin’s critique of positive liberty, this essay also considers the relevance of Berlin’s warnings to contemporary European debates on banning the Muslim veil in the name of liberation.