Liberty is defined as the quality individuals have to control their actions. In a political framework, liberty can be understood in two ways: 1) positive liberty and 2) negative liberty. Positive liberty is the possession of the power to fulfill one’s own potential and freedom from internal constraint as opposed to negative liberty, which is freedom from external restraint.
The government grants positive liberties in the creation and maintenance of an equal and just society, giving all citizens the agency to pursue their own happiness. The United States bill of rights is an illustration of positive liberties and positive liberty is enhanced by the right of citizens to participate in government and be recognized. The idea of ‘taxation and representation’ is reminiscent of positive liberties. A tax paying citizen is represented in congress and trusts the government to use that money to improve their lives through infrastructure, social programs and education.
Negative liberty in a political framework can be understood as freedom from government intervention and tyranny. Right wing ideologists who believe in small government and privatization typically argue that the United States government violates negative liberties by government overreach. Some believe that government should play lesser or no roles in education, business, corrections and that these are better off privatized. Government restraints restrict individuals from pursuing the full potential of their happiness.
In terms of the United States, the battle between positive and negative liberties is exemplified best in the Civil War. The Confederates believed that the government overreach in slave regulation was violating their negative liberties. Union states believed that slavery must be abolished because it violates positive liberties of African Americans and other minorities.
Positive and negative liberty can be understood in the statements “I am my own master,” versus “I am slave to no man,” respectively.