• Liberty means the absence of restraints on the activities of individuals. It provides opportunities to develop oneself fully. India borrowed deals of liberty, equality and fraternity from France.
  • Every citizen has a right that the state upholds, defends, and ensures their freedom or liberty. Through Fundamental Rights, which are enforceable in a court of law, the Constitution guarantees all people the freedom of opinion, speech, belief, faith, and worship.
  • In modern politics, liberty is defined as the state of being free within society from control or oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behaviour, or political views.
  • The exercise of liberty is contingent on capability and is constrained by the rights of others. Thus, liberty entails using freedom responsibly under the rule of law without depriving anyone else of their freedom
  • Liberty has two aspects, i.e., positive and negative.

Positive and Negative Liberty

  • The concepts of negative and positive liberty represent two distinct philosophical approaches to understanding the nature of freedom and liberty within a society.
  • Isaiah Berlin, in his seminal essay published in 1958 titled “Two Concepts of Liberty’, speaks of two senses of freedom. 
    • The first is what he calls “negative liberty”. This revolves around the existence of a private sphere where an individual can do as he or she pleases, free from interference of any kind, whether from other individuals, communities, the State, or by oppressive social forces. The individual is free of any external barriers or constraints. 
    • The second is what he calls “positive liberty“, which refers to the act of taking control over one’s life and realising its fundamental purposes. 
  • Negative liberty emphasizes the absence of external interference, while positive liberty emphasizes the individual’s capacity to pursue their own goals and well-being
Negative libertyPositive liberty
Negative liberty is primarily concerned with freedom from external restraint. It is the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints. It is understood as the possession of power and resources to act in an environment that overcomes the inequalities that divide us.  It is provided by institutions.  
It defines and defends the area of an individual’s life where no external authority can interfere.   It defines the area of society where an individual can be free with some constraints made by the society and the government. 
It is concerned with the conditions of individuals. It is concerned with the enabling conditions of society.   
It is concerned with explaining the idea of ‘freedom from’ interference from other people or state. It is the idea of ‘freedom/capacity to’ overcome external restraints whether imposed by the society or state. It is the ability to fullfil one’s purposes. 
Focuses on preventing government overreach and preserving individual autonomy.Concerned with enabling conditions for self-fulfilment and development.
More negative liberty leads to more freedom. More positive liberty checks excess of freedom to an individual, which could be an obstruction for social stability.   
Example: Imagine if everyone is driving their vehicles as per their will and there is no traffic control. Example: Traffic control is restraining the free will of people for building capacity for society to function properly. 
Isaiah Berlin is a notable proponent.John Stuart Mill is a prominent advocate.

How the conception of Liberty impacts government functioning?

  • While the political left has supported positive liberty for some time, the political right and libertarians support the idea of negative liberty. 
  • The notions of negative and positive liberty broadly determine how governments function. 
  • For instance, some governments may cut spending on government programmes, while others may increase spending so that the poor and marginalised can have better access to food and resources at the cost of taxation. 
  • If a Government increases spending by taxing one section of people, it means that it is cutting down on the economic freedoms of some classes in order for others to access certain goods and services. And this is where some people have a problem with positive liberty in its practical sense. 
  • Berlin also explains in his essay how positive liberty has been abused by tyrannies, especially by the Soviet Union. The regime portrayed its brutal governance as the empowerment of the people.
  • On the other hand, in a society with negative freedom, everyone is freer because no one’s freedom is compromised. But negative freedom, early English philosophers believed, could lead to social chaos.
    • Because there could be no limit to what human beings may want. And if they are allowed to achieve anything they want, the strong suppress the weak. 
    • For instance, some would argue that banks are allowed to wreck the economy in the name of freedom from regulation. This is why the area for men’s action is restricted by law. 
  • This is not to say that negative liberty is not important. Rajeev Bhargava “In conditions where powerful churches, caste organisations or the State is hell bent on controlling every aspect of a person’s life — who to marry, what kind of a family to lead, what opinions to hold and what to eat — negative freedom is a precious good….”. 

Criticisms of Berlin’s idea of liberty

  • Berlin’s ideas have been critiqued by other scholars who say he never made clear the distinction between positive and negative liberty. 
  • Also, he lived and wrote during a period of history which saw the ideas of positive freedom exploited to justify horrific atrocities, such as the Holocaust. This, they argue, is no justification for associating positive liberty with totalitarian regimes. 
  • They argue that far from being forced to adopt their ideas, proponents of positive liberty simply aspire to help others attain self-mastery. 
Liberty Freedom 
Liberty deals with the state of being ‘free to do something’. Freedom is the state of being ‘free from something’.  
Liberty is most often used in context of being free, but under a legal framework.   However, freedom is more commonly used word which describes one’s ability to act according to his or her own wish without any type of external pressure.  
Liberty is the responsible use of freedom without depriving anyone else of their freedomFreedom is the ability to do as one will and what one has the power to do.  
Granted by the authority to people in common.  Extracted from government.  

Negative Conception Case: Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India (1978)

  • In the Maneka Gandhi case, the central concern revolved around the government’s arbitrary impounding of her passport without providing any justification.
  • The Supreme Court of India asserted that the right to travel abroad constitutes a fundamental right, emphasizing that any government action curtailing this right must be reasonable and justifiable.
  • This case exemplifies the negative conception of liberty, underscoring the crucial principle that government actions should be justifiable rather than arbitrary.
  • It serves as a safeguard against unwarranted state interference, preserving an individual’s freedom from unjust restrictions.

Positive Conception Case: Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala (1973)

  • The Kesavananda Bharati case tackled the extent of Parliament’s authority to amend the Constitution.
  • The ruling implied the existence of a “basic structure” doctrine, asserting that certain foundational aspects of the Constitution are immutable through amendments.
  • This case embodies the positive conception of liberty by stressing the imperative to preserve the Constitution’s core principles, enabling individuals to pursue their goals and well-being.
  • It underscores that even the government’s power to amend the Constitution should not compromise these fundamental principles.

Challenges related to liberty

  • State vs. individual: The state occasionally tries to restrict individual freedom in the name of national security, for example, when the authorities abuse section 124A of the IPC, which is related to sedition charges.
  • State vs. religion: On occasion, the state restricts personal freedoms in the name of secularism, as when the French government outlawed the burkha. which negates the minority community’s rights.
  • Aadhar Act: Individuals give authorities access to their private information. This knowledge is pertinent to respect for individual dignity. Furthermore, this information may be misused by the authorities, which is against liberty.


  • In conclusion, the concepts of negative and positive liberty offer insightful perspectives for analyzing the nature of freedom and the state’s role in protecting and fostering it.
  • Within the Indian legal and constitutional context, these conceptions have significantly influenced discourse, reflecting the intricate balance between individual liberty and the democratic state’s responsibilities.
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