From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The concept of negative liberty refers to freedom from interference by other people. According to Thomas Hobbes, "a free man is he that in those things which by his strength and wit he is able to do is not hindered to do what he hath the will to do." (Leviathan, Ch. XXI, )
The distinction between negative and positive liberty was drawn by Isaiah Berlin in his lecture "Two Concepts of Liberty." According to Berlin, the distinction is deeply embedded in the political tradition. The notion of negative liberty is associated with British philosophers such as Locke, Hobbes, and Adam Smith, and positive liberty with continental thinkers, such as Hegel, Rousseau, Herder, and Marx.
In Berlin's words, "liberty in the negative sense involves an answer to the question: 'What is the area within which the subject — a person or group of persons — is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons'." Restrictions on negative liberty are imposed by a person, not by natural causes or incapacity. Helvetius expresses the point clearly: "The free man is the man who is not in irons, nor imprisoned in a gaol, nor terrorized like a slave by the fear of punishment ... it is not lack of freedom not to fly like an eagle or swim like a whale."
Frankfurt School psychoanalyst and humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm drew a similar distinction between negative and positive freedom in his 1941 work, The Fear of Freedom, that predates Berlin's essay by more than a decade. Fromm sees the distinction between the two types of freedom emerging alongside humanity's evolution away from the instinctual activity that characterizes lower animal forms. This aspect of freedom, he argues, "is here used not in its positive sense of 'freedom to' but in its negative sense of 'freedom from', namely freedom from instinctual determination of his actions." For Fromm, then, negative freedom marks the beginning of humanity as a species conscious of its own existence free from base instinct.
The distinction between positive and negative liberty is considered specious by socialist and Marxist political philosophers, who argue that positive and negative liberty are indistinguishable in practice, or that one cannot exist without the other.