05 February 2009


In political philosophy, a rather interesting distinction came up today. It's one that, at some level, I had recognized, but I'd never seen it put into words before. It's the distinction between "freedom to" and "freedom from."

"Freedom to" is often described as "positive freedom," yet it is the more problematic of the two. Jean Jacques Rousseau devised a (theoretical) societal system full of "freedom to" but lacking in "freedom from." Citizens had the freedom to vote, and the freedom to follow the laws, and the freedom to follow the required civil religion, but had no freedom from interference by the government in every aspect of life. There could be no dissent from the "general will," decided by consensus during voting. Once the general will was known, citizens were free to follow the general will, but not free to express dissent in any fashion.

"Freedom from", similarly, is described as "negative freedom," yet, of the two, it is to be preferred in most cases. It is more difficult to restrict freedom in the very granting of it using "freedom from." Examples:

One can be free from governmental restrictions on religion ... or one can be free to join the Christian church of one's choice. One can be free from governmental restrictions on marriage ... or one can be free to marry someone of the opposite gender. One can be free from restrictions about which schools and university one can attend ... or one can be free to attend a school to be designated by some authority. Note how the granting of freedom in the "to" construction is so easily used to restrict it at the same time.

All of the "freedom from" phrases can be reworded as "freedom to", with no significant change in meaning. "Free to join any church, or abstain from church." "Free to marry the person of one's own choosing without interference." "Free to attend any school." But how would we reconstruct the above "freedom to" phrases as "freedom from"? It's a bit convoluted, but here are my attempts: "Freedom from tolerating non-Christian creeds and attitudes." "Freedom from respecting another's choice to marry someone who offends my church's antiquated sensibilities." "Freedom from tolerating certain classes of individuals at my university." Notice how much more obvious the bigotry becomes with this phrasing?

Thus I have now become very suspicious of "freedom to." When in doubt, try to turn it into "freedom from," and see if the freedom really applies to everyone.

Incidentally, we don't actually have a party in the U.S. that's rooted in "freedom from." The Democrats tend to advocate "freedom from" on the social front, but not on the economic front, while the Republicans are just the opposite. Good or bad? I think an entire system based solely on "freedom from" would collapse fairly quickly; some restrictions on freedom are required for society even to function, imo. Yet, a bit more "freedom from" might do both sides good.

EDIT: I can think of one place where using "to" might be better. "Freedom to express one's opinions" vs. "Freedom from exposure to dissenting opinions." But that seems to be an exception to the general pattern. And the first, while awkward, can be worded as "Freedom from interference with expressing one's opinions." The second...is problematic to express as a "freedom to." Maybe, "Freedom to disallow dissenting opinions"? There are probably other exceptions, but this one occurred to me about five minutes after posting.

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