Rather oddly for British politicians Mr Blair and his New Labour associates have heard of libertarianism. This is known because Mr Blair and co often sneer at and attack libertarianism. This is logical enough. After all the present government (like so many governments) has increased taxes and state spending, produced endless new regulations and shows contempt for the principles of law (or ‘civil liberties’ as the modern way of saying this goes).
However, Mr Blair and the rest of New Labour also talk about their support for ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’. This would seem to show a contradiction in that New Labour attacks freedom and shows contempt for libertarianism (i.e. the non aggression principle which seeks to limit the threat of violence to the defence of persons and their possessions) and yet claims to stand for freedom.
Normally at this point I might be expected to examine, in detail, the dispute in political philosophy between ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ freedom. But I think only a brief examination is needed. ‘Negative’ freedom is basically ‘hands off’, and ‘positive’ freedom has mutated from an old belief (going back to Classical times) that true freedom was control of the passions by reason (i.e. freedom as moral self improvement), to a belief that “positive” freedom is material possessions – in short the more money someone has or the more services that are open to him the more free he is.
I would then carefully explain that it is a false choice, as the state can not develop the moral responsibility of individuals by imposing lots of regulations (indeed such a state undermines the moral development of people) and nor can statism (more regulations, higher taxes and so on) promote prosperity or reduce poverty (again statism undermines prosperity and, in the long run, increases poverty over the level it would have otherwise have been). In short the way to advance ‘positive’ freedom (however one defines it) is to advance ‘negative’ freedom.
However, as I said above, I do not believe that a detailed examination is needed here (although I admit that the ‘positive’ freedom people have much more to say, and ‘negative’ liberty, on its own, may not be enough to advance the control of reason over the passions).
The reason that I do not think a detailed examination is needed is that I do not believe that Mr Blair is thinking of “positive liberty” as an alternative when he is sneering at libertarianism. Shocking as it may sound I believe that Mr Blair, when he uses the word ‘freedom’, just means the freedom of the government to do as it likes. Certainly he means a democratically elected government (a nondemocratic government will not do).
But a democratic government should do what it likes as long as it does not undermine the democratic process itself – that is “politics is freedom” as the political philosopher Bernard Crick (much admired by Mr Blair) said in his In Defence of Politics (first published back in 1962, but many editions).
It is the political process that is freedom to Mr Blair, not the freedom (‘negative’ or ‘positive’) of individuals.