Today, the Left controls government, academia, and America’s treasured institutions, trampling our individual and Constitutional norms. How did we get here? The cautionary roadmap was laid out decades ago by the great British philosopher Isaiah Berlin. The path is best understood by Berlin’s two dueling concepts of liberty: negative liberty and positive liberty.
Berlin’s essay on the two competing types of liberty was delivered in a lecture at Oxford in 1958.
Negative liberty is the absence of obstacles, barriers, or constraints external to the individual. The person is free to choose their own way for their own good without obstruction from others. The individual is not dictated to and is left alone.
Positive liberty is someone or something acting to take control of the individual’s life and to help realize the individual’s purpose.
Positive liberty often justifies external agents, such as government, to impose conditions to assist the individual in making good choices.
The ideal society will look to maximize the amount of negative liberty and apply only the minimum amount of positive liberty to address the most pressing issues or emergencies. That was the foundational premise of the United States.
Our Constitution was designed to permanently safeguard individual rights through negative liberty principles to keep them safe from the changing whims of the majority or the inevitable temptations of those in government.
Americans today experience a host of symptoms that betray the prevalence of the Left, big government, and the hollow promises of positive liberty. Three particularly troubling symptoms stand out.
First, the Left’s doctrine of equal outcomes has supplanted equal opportunity in public education, crippling student proficiency and limiting an entire generation’s potential.
Government negates individual achievement at every stage of the educational journey, from preschool through university.
Entrance proficiency exams to determine admission into magnet schools are scrapped for lotteries. Homework and grades are dropped in high schools in exchange for the camouflage of sky-high matriculation and graduation rates. SAT scores are no longer accepted or considered for college admissions. GPA inflation rages at universities while class rankings are no longer tabulated. The ivory towers, which began as marketplaces of ideas and nurturers of free thought, have become the minarets of the intolerant religion of the Left.
The government and the Left tell us such educational approaches are fairer to all and erase institutional systemic biases that keep individuals from reaching their potential. Yet the result is the cheating of individual achievement, meritocracy, and standards. Every student is brought down to the same substandard experience and outcome. Ultimately, society’s capacity is diminished when it can no longer effectively educate its incoming workforce.
Second, government used the false promise of knowing what course was best to keep individuals healthy and society safe from the Covid pandemic to justify the imposition of drastic policies that severely reduced individual rights and the free economy.
The past three years of big government’s management of the pandemic through coercion has led to economy-wide shutdowns, skyrocketing inflation, supply chain asphyxiation, record national debt, stunted educational development of our children, and reduced wellness of wide demographics. Individuals lost nearly complete control of what they did each day, week, month, and year; from their economic livelihood to their freedom of movement to what goes into their bodies.
The exchange for this surrendering of free will has been grossly disappointing: over 800,000 American Covid deaths and climbing, endless reactionary flip-flopping on policies, and the clear sense that government leaders are not following science to protect citizens but instead are imposing political ideology to control citizens. The pandemic provided an epic opportunity for the Left to institute positive liberty policy across every facet of American life.
If you like being in control of your own destiny … if you believe in science and reason, and if you love your country, then heed Berlin’s teachings on the endearing promise of negative liberty and the false hope of positive liberty.
Third, positive liberty doctrine has been applied lavishly to justify the field of climate change policies.
Climate change ideology is the ideal long-term opportunity for the Left to permanently impose positive liberty doctrine across society and to squelch negative liberty. That’s because energy is used by everyone and impacts everything. Control energy and you control the individual, the economy, and society.
Just listen to the common rhetorical climate musings from the Left and their implied messages:
“Climate change is the existential threat facing the world today.” Translation: we must place society on the right track.
“Climate change is a code red for humanity.” Translation: we must adjust quickly to reduce the risk.
“The time to act is now.” Translation: we must impose drastic policies immediately.
The evil genius of the Left is evident with climate change zealotry: convincing a large portion of the population that what atmospheric trace concentrations of carbon dioxide will do in fifty years warrants an immediate surrendering of negative liberty and individual rights.
Berlin’s warning from the Cold War is just as timely today.
If you like being in control of your own destiny, if you own a business, if you want a promising future for your kids, if you believe in science and reason, and if you love your country, then heed Berlin’s teachings on the endearing promise of negative liberty and the false hope of positive liberty. Steadfastly protect the former and be on constant guard against those promoting the latter. More than you think may be riding on your willingness to do so.
Nick Deiuliis is a professional engineer and lawyer and serves as CEO of CNX Resources Corporation. Connect with Nick at nickdeiuliis.com and follow him on Twitter at @NickDeiuliis.