Isaiah Berlin Isaiah Berlin

Liberty, federalism and the conservative statesman

Good government in a free society keeps positive and negative liberty in balance. These two forms of liberty are out-of-balance today.

Positive and negative liberty – definitions

In his 1958 lecture, “Two Concepts of Liberty”, Isaiah Berlin established the modern framework for discussions of liberty, and with it a model for federalism based on positive and negative political liberty.

According to Berlin, negative liberty describes the extent to which one is free of obstacles to one’s actions.  Negative political liberty acts inwardly and restricts “the area in which a man can act unobstructed by others.”  Conversely, positive liberty refers not to “freedom from…”, but rather “freedom to…”, for instance, freedom to be in control of one’s destiny.   Such self-actualization is an expression of positive liberty, which by its nature acts outwardly.

When assertions of positive liberty expand beyond the point where men interfere with each other, we have what Berlin called collisions between “areas of individual freedom.”  Where areas of freedom collide, our positive liberty only increases at the expense of another’s.  To prevent such collisions, we yield a measure of our freedom to an institution of laws, essentially trading positive for negative liberty.  In other words, we consent to be governed.

Can positive or negative liberty go to an extreme?

Berlin observed that unchecked positive liberty can lead to tyranny, for instance when fulfilling one’s potential requires the domination of others.  Similarly, excess negative liberty can contract areas of individual freedom to the point one feels coerced, or even enslaved.  There is a natural tension between positive and negative liberty, and an optimal balance between them.  The role of republican government is to establish a balance that permits the greatest individual freedom consistent with a lawful, orderly society.

Prior to 1787, the Articles of Confederation granted insufficient authority to the federal government, resulting in collisions between states—border conflicts and interstate tariffs, for instance—and a generally incoherent system of government.  The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was called to establish the proper balance of liberties between the states and the federal government. The Federalist debates, and the Constitution that resulted, established a boundary of negative liberties within which states would be free to act unhindered.

The central force in the American political debate has historically been the tension between positive and negative liberties, with one party seeking to expand government power and the other seeking to restrain it.  In 1787, the Federalists advocated strengthening the central government and were opposed by the Anti-Federalists, who feared the concentration of power would lead to tyranny.  As the federal government has grown beyond its constitutional limits, conservatives now oppose liberals who take power from the people and transfer it to the central government.

Liberty in balance

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If we view federalism as a system of positive and negative liberties, then it is the responsibility of each level of government to balance these liberties.  The conservative is defined by his role in establishing this balance:  pushing back against overreaches by higher levels of government (the outward-facing role), and granting as much freedom as possible to his constituents while still maintaining order (the inward-facing role.)  Failure to establish this balance comes at the expense of the individual liberties of the people, the ultimate source of government authority. Government cannot create power—it must be given by, or taken from, the governed.

Roles of federal and state governments

As an agent of negative liberties, a primary role of the federal government is to prevent collisions between the states.  The federal government is also empowered with an outward-facing role to protect our sovereignty from foreign powers. Conservative federal legislators focus on constitutionally defined functions of government, resisting the temptation to usurp state sovereignty. They also encourage the states to coöperate in solving problems that affect them severally, and exercise federal authority (i.e. impose negative liberty) only to the extent necessary to prevent collisions between the states.

State governments should work to restrain expansions of federal power, while permitting constituents as much freedom as possible (maximal areas of positive liberty.)  Failures by states to collaborate have led to massive expansions of federal authority: unsuccessful attempts to resolve railroad price-fixing led to the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, which has been used to justify further federal expansions, including government control of health care.  Therefore, conservatives in state government must promote coöperation between states to forestall federal usurpation of state sovereignty.

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Examples of conservatism at the state level are relatively uncommon. State legislators often “come up through the ranks” from municipal office.  Municipal governments are the agents of negative political liberty closest to the people, and local politicians usually understand their inward-facing roles.  Once elected to state office, however, they often do not appreciate their outward-facing roles as protectors of state sovereignty.  In other words, they continue to legislate as “mayors”, crafting hundreds of state laws regulating the internal functions of the states, but making few attempts to resist an increasingly domineering federal government.


Regardless of how the message of conservatism is articulated, whether as a call for limited government or for fiscal responsibility, its goal is to re-establish the balance of liberties designed by the Founders.  By accomplishing this, Americans will restore the Founders’ grand design for a Republic that stood so long as a “shining city on a hill.”

This article first appeared in The Trenton Times, May 2, 2011. – Ed.

Featured image: Isaiah Berlin. Photo: Lucinda Douglas-Menzies; Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust. See here for original source. This image appears here to illustrate the author of the work cited in this article. – Ed.

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[…] Liberty federalism and statesmen – Conservative News and ViewsJun 1, 2011 … Good government in a free society keeps positive and negative liberty in balance . These two forms of liberty are out-of-balance today. […]

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