by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Ben Franklin’s famous remonstrance that “those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety” is cited regularly by critics of pandemic mandates. As is the case with most pithy quotables, this is a bit simplistic; conservatives, after all, know that order is a prerequisite to political liberty. But Franklin’s central observation gets at the serious, long-standing tension between freedom and security that has been accentuated by the politics of lockdowns, vaccine passports, and mask mandates.
In jarringly Orwellian terms, some enterprising progressives have attempted to argue that security is freedom. Recall this piece, from the ACLU, which argued that “vaccine mandates actually further civil liberties” by protecting “the most vulnerable among us” and offering “the promise of restoring to all of us our most basic liberties, eventually allowing us to return safely to life as we knew it.” Others have maintained that objecting to pandemic diktats on liberty- or rights-related grounds is illegitimate: “Masks are mandatory,” Andrew Cuomo insisted last year. “You don’t have the right to infect another person.”
If we squint, these debates could be seen as an interesting example of the interplay between “positive” and “negative” freedom. That concept, popularized by Isaiah Berlin’s famous work, Two Concepts of Liberty, offers a useful framework for thinking about some of the core differences in the way that the modern Left and Right think about first principles. Negative freedom is freedom from outside coercion — what Berlin describes as “the area within which the subject . . . should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons.” Positive freedom, however, is freedom to a set of enabling conditions or provisions, defined as “the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that.”