A Brief History of Conservatism (VII): Freedom

Before this article begins proper, to assuage any impression of inconsistency between this article and the previous article on rights, I would like to reiterate that the concept of rights, for the conservative, is the traditionally liberal conception of being a language of politics, and hence of governance. ‘Rights’ are something you claim against the State, not against one another. That being said, I believe social responsibility and duty as a product of charitable and social thinking is where the remit of this article lies.

Freedom, as a doctrine, is something conservatives reject; freedom, as a method, is something conservatives utilise. The difference lies in the perceived goal of freedom.

Isaiah Berlin's (quite amazing) essays, Two Conceptions of Liberty made explicit a tacit debate that had existed in liberalism long before he gave it voice in the 1980s. The two conceptions, in a quick summary, is that of 'freedom from' (negative freedom) and 'freedom to' (positive freedom)[1]. Berlin's argument falls quickly on the side of 'freedom from' in which he argues Locke's natural rights of life, limb and property derive from the requirement of inaction, meaning all that is required for the observance of those rights is non-interference. In other words, I have a natural right to life; all that is required for you to respect that right is to not kill me[2]. Intuitively, this right is self-evident.

The opposite is 'freedom to'; the understanding of this right is that it requires action to be respected. For example, I may declare that I have a right to the Internet, as the UN seems wont to do. This right cannot be respected by your sitting back and not acting; it has placed an imperative on your actions, that you must do something to provide me with this right. The result is that now, governments are expected to provide individuals with access to the internet, lest their human rights be violated (for a deeper explanation, please see my previous article).

Berlin's argument regarding positive freedom is that it leads to the concentration of power in a unitary government, as that government is (naïvely) expected to benignly provide more and more services, thus expanding its power and curtailing the negative freedoms of some individuals, so that the positive freedoms of other individuals may be respected.

The conservative rejects this elevation of freedom to the highest level for the simple reason that these two freedoms are not divisible. Scruton argued once that the concern of liberals is freedom, but the concern of conservatives is happiness[3]. If this is true, it explains the conservative attitude to positive and negative freedom succinctly.

Let us take the example of drug use; the negative freedom from interference requires that we sit back and allow the drug user to do so. This is part of the birth of libertarianism; that my moral framework is in no way superior to yours, and what you choose to do with your body is your prerogative. (I have explained briefly why the conservative will be troubled by this conception of ownership in my article, 'Conservatives and property'.) Conservatives, who are concerned with happiness, will reject this negative freedom to allow an individual to take drugs, because the taking of that drug will be harmful to him, and thus impair his own happiness in the future.

Utilitarianism, as espoused by Jeremy Bentham, gave a reply to this in the felicific calculus[4]. Bentham argued that, of the seven considerations for an action, two principles mattered; the amount of pleasure, and the immediacy of pleasure this action will provide us. Several problems with this calculus arise, in that the sanctification of the immediacy of pleasure undermines the virtue of discipline.

But let us draw back to a simpler argument. The right to life requires freedom from interference, as discussed above. But it rests on the axiom of self-sustainability. Take water, for example; would we say the Kenyan village that drinks dirty water, full of disease that claims many lives, is free? They may possess liberty, but they are not free to live outside of simple existence. This is not a basis for civilisation. Clearly then, the right to life requires the freedom to be healthy, rather than the freedom from disease. Disease is indiscriminate, and cannot be appealed to on a rational basis; you cannot ask disease to respect your freedom. As a result, society is called into action to provide a mechanism by which the individual can be healthy.

Where this distinguishes the conservative from the socialist, however, would be the origin of this action; the socialist, ever concerned with the State, will require the State to provide welfare systems and healthcare, much in the same way the NHS does. The conservative, however, will expect the collective empathy of society to step in, in the way volunteer hospitals and local doctors used to. Even at a basic level, the conservative will ask simply that the parents of a child will act to prevent him from taking an action that may unwittingly harm him.

I would make a quick caveat here; conservatives (and the British tradition in general) does not deny the State a role in the provision of services at all. Indeed, as McKay highlights, the role between social care (epitomised in voluntarism) and State provision is symbiotic, with the voluntary sector acting as the frontier for welfare provision which the State moves into if necessary. Consider the NHS; with the provision of voluntarism and the role that charities play in different capacities across the UK, the NHS may know for example that, if sexual health charities are used at a higher rate in one city, but mental health charities in another, they can tailor their service to the regions that need them most. The professionalisation the NHS provides streamlines these services, but it is the voluntary sector and the charities that fill it that prove these services are needed[5]. In short, the State can only follow, it cannot lead.

Returning to the question of freedom, Mill's harm principle, though couched in the liberal tradition, logically allows this paternalism with the example of a man about to walk across a rickety bridge; negative freedom requires we do not act in order to respect his liberty. However, knowing what we know - that the rickety bridge may collapse under him - we have a moral duty to ensure his right to life is respected by stopping him from walking across the bridge[6]. In this circumstance, have we followed the doctrine of negative, or positive liberty? We have acted, but did so to ensure the natural right of life was continued.

In short, the answer is irrelevant, because the question is the wrong one. The question should be, "is he happy?" Surely, being alive compared to dead, the answer is yes. He may not understand but, once we have explained our motives for acting in such a way as to prevent his acting, if he is as rational as liberals like to pretend human beings are, he will agree with our actions.

In conclusion, "freedom" is not a moral absolute to be respected in all circumstances. For the conservative, freedom matters less than happiness, and we bow to those of lived experience who possess greater knowledge over what may make us happy, to the extent that our freedom is curtailed. But there is an important line that needs to be trod; conservatives, concerned with happiness, make no substantive claim over what that happiness is, only instead what it is not, and the formal claim of happiness as the goal of life; your happiness may be different from mine, but can either be superior to the other? This is the fine line between social conservatism and social libertarianism – if neither is superior, then we have no reason to protect one another from possible harm, but if one is superior (as revealed by experience), then we should yield to the experienced to tell us so. (As said in the preface to the series, this is merely an observation of the structure of conservative philosophy – where you place yourself within it is up to you.)


I would like to end this series with one final thought. We are often told that freedom is an absolute, that it is inviolable and that any institution which threatens our liberty is an obstacle to be removed. This is not so. Institutions exist because of the fear of untrammelled freedom[7] and what the freedom of one man may do to the freedom of another. With institutions, we sail like ships down a stream, directed and driven, but safe and connected with one another. Without institutions, we drift out from the safe haven of known and established order, into the vast and open ocean of dangerous abandon.

“Liberty, too, must be limited in order to be possessed” – Edmund Burke.

This article is the seventh and final in the ‘A Brief History of Conservatism’ series by Jake Scott.


[1] See Isaiah Berlin’s essay ‘Two Conceptions of Liberty’ in The Proper Study of Mankind

[2] See Scruton’s How to be a conservative, especially chapter six

[3] See Scruton’s introduction to Conservative Thinkers: Essays from the Salisbury Review

[4] See Jeremy Bentham’s An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, especially chapter four

[5] See McKay’s essay, ‘Voluntary Politics: The Sector’s Political Function from Beveridge to Deacon’, in Beveridge and Voluntary Action for a full and detailed exploration of this important role.

[6] See Alan Ryan’s J. S. Mill

[7] See first, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, and then John Locke’s more persuasive and realistic Two treatises on government.

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