The need for liberty lies deep within the very essence of the human entity. It seems that only in a state of freedom can the human being be provided with the propitious premises for a harmonious evolution. Even if the cultivation of high spiritual values and a number of great cultural, social and scientific achievements were also possible in freedom-lacking environments, we must understand that those cases were only the exceptions to the rule and stood as testimony for the will and determination of the humanity to surpass any obstacles put in its way.
Given its overwhelming importance, the connotations of liberty have been deeply and almost exhaustively studied by philosophers, sociologists and last but not least by politicians. First of all, what does liberty mean It means acting in whatever way you see fit for satisfying your own interests, desires and expectations to the extent that you dont infringe upon the very same liberties of the others. There can be no freedom without compromise, or, in other words, you cannot dispose of absolute freedom, for the others, at their turn, would no longer be bound to respecting your own and will therefore deprive you of it.
So the only way liberty can be achieved is through consensus among its bearers. Politically speaking, liberty is only possible in societies lead by a legitimate government, as Karl Jaspers accurately remarked. Legitimacy of government is a term that can comprise various meanings, out of which the most important are the legitimacy of heredity and the legitimacy of free universal vote. Both forms can be contested and are subject to well-founded doubt: while heredity can legitimate both the idiot and the vulgar, vote is partially conditioned by error and sheer occurrence, and very often it is the result of temporary mass suggestion.
But given the fact that there can be only one choice between despotism and legitimacy, we must make do with any wants the latter might encompass. In our times, the most suited form of legitimacy is considered to be free universal voting. As I stated before, the freedom of the individual is possible only to the extent it coexists with the freedom of the others. Therefore, in order to maintain his own liberty, one has to permanently respect in his own actions the liberties of the people surrounding him.
But from the juridical point of view, the individual is also entitled to a very own and intimate area of action, area in which he can act in whichever way he desires without any kind of concern regarding the others and which cannot be violated by any means or by anyone. This is what we call negative liberty. The intimate life of the individual is his concern only. No one is allowed to interfere, not even the state or the ruling authority. Negative liberty is a natural right of each person and it is not provided by any kind of authority whatsoever.
Through negative liberty the individual can isolate himself for a certain period of time from the rest of the society and the society is unable of contesting his decision. No one can exert any sort of control upon what you think, upon the manner in which you choose to live your private life, etc. The problem is that negative liberty could be wrongly comprehended and used by certain people, leading to their actual detachment from the society in which they live in, to a more permanent isolation than it should normally be.
In any case, the infringement upon negative liberty is totally unacceptable in a democratic society, especially if it is done by the state. For the sake of fully respecting human rights and the principle of equity, state intervention should be diminished in all aspects of social, economic and political life, not only in the sacred area delimited by the negative liberty. But when a government violates the very natural rights of the individual, we can no longer discuss of democracy, but of tyranny.
Except these basic rights, which we were given by nature alone (the right to be born, the right to live, the right for nourishment, the right to procreate, and so on), there is a great number of rights and liberties which we were given by the state and which we wouldnt normally enjoy: the right to medical care, the right for free education, the right to actively participate in the political life of the community, etc. The liberties assured by these rights can be generically called positive liberty.
As the state is responsible for the positive liberty of the individual, this is the aspect of life where it probably involves most, seeking nothing but the welfare of the individual. Despite all that, numerous voices fervently contested even this sort of intervention, asserting that the involvement, in any manner, in the life of the individual is malefic. Moreover, they argued the most present and efficient form of state intervention, social welfare, lies at the foundation of any totalitarian system.
Its hilarious how much the Americans hate communists, but their welfare system is one of the worlds most developed, risking even to make the North Koreans jealous! Positive liberty also presupposes the moral duty of opening yourself to the others instead of seeking isolation from them as in the case of negative liberty. You cannot beneficiate of positive liberty without coming in contact with your fellow citizens, without sharing, without being willing to understand and help the other. This is the reason why positive liberty often has an ethical connotation. Est modus in rebus said the Latin.
One should always choose the middle path and Im afraid our case makes no exception. Summing up, one should keep his intimacy sacred and unviolated, but he should also be able to open up to the others when needed. The state shouldnt intervene to the extent that it ends up disregarding rights instead of protecting them, but neither should it carelessly allow a human being to starve to death in the streets in front of its very eyes.. So positive and negative liberty are two fundamentally different elements which have to find a way of coexisting in order to form their harmonious and long coveted result: Freedom.