Advocates praise Bitcoin’s freedom from interference while deriding “positive” freedoms to act on free will. But Bitcoin requires both.
Negative freedom (also known as liberal freedom) is freedom from interference. There can be a master (a king, central authority, government, etc.), but as long as the master is benign and does not interfere, you are considered free.
To secure negative freedom, you need positive freedoms, but not for the same reasons as liberal thinkers have understood them. Defining freedom solely in the liberal sense brings out the traps that can be used arbitrarily. To overcome this predicament, Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit offer a third alternative conception of freedom: freedom as non-domination.
In a recent conversation with Lex Fridman, Human Rights Foundation Chief Strategy Officer Alex Gladstein defined freedom (and Bitcoin freedom) as dichotomies: negative and positive. This duality was introduced by Isaiah Berlin, following Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Benjamin Constant. Gladstein named speech, press, assembly, belief, participation in government, privacy and property as negative liberties. On the other hand, positive liberties are the rights to work, housing, water and vacation.
Because Gladstein’s definition relies on the dichotomy that Berlin proposed in his seminal essay, “Two Concepts Of Liberty,” he unfairly marked positive freedoms as entitlements, like those granted in Cuba, Venezuela and the Soviet Union. Again, similar to Berlin’s attack on positive liberties, Gladstein used an adversarial tone on positive freedoms. This argument is only valid if we endorse the binary definitions of negative and positive freedoms based on Berlin’s work.
What Is Freedom? Negative And Positive
In a nutshell, the negative conception of liberty refers to the absence of something, e.g., interference, hindrances, barriers or constraints. Negative (liberal) freedom is simply freedom as non-interference. On the other hand, the positive conception of liberty refers to the presence of something. In this sense, the presence of something refers to an outside force that can exert influence over control, self-mastery, self-determination or self-realization (Carter, 2016).
In particular, Berlin defines two conceptions of liberty by providing the questions for which answers lead to the definition of each concept. In his words, the negative conception of liberty is an answer to the question, “What is the area within which the subject — a person or group of persons — is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons?”
In contrast, the positive conception tries to answer the question of, “What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?”
However, at some point, a third alternative arose (proposed by Skinner and Pettit), which was seen as freedom from dependence or domination, and became known as the “republican” conception of freedom.
Bitcoin Freedom As Non-Domination Freedom
Bitcoin freedom has been predominantly defined as negative freedom. The most common value of Bitcoin is its freedom from a central authority. Hence, the core value of Bitcoin freedom lies on the foundation cemented by liberal freedom as non-interference.
I have argued elsewhere that Bitcoin freedom offers a more comprehensive approach than liberal freedom. Pettit and Skinner independently excavated a third conception of freedom. This “new” version traced back to the writings of ancient Republican Rome. They introduced it as the freedom from domination (Pettit) or dependence (Skinner). I believe this new conception of freedom defines Bitcoin freedom more adequately.
Freedom as non-domination is a negative concept because it offers the absence of something. While the liberal conception of freedom valued the absence of interference, Pettit claims that his approach as the absence of domination provides a broader meaning. Domination, for Pettit, is simply an interference on an arbitrary basis. So, Pettit’s definition of freedom broadens concerning the liberal conception by eliminating some forms of interference. To put it differently, if an interference is not injected on an arbitrary basis, then it is not exerting domination. Such a definition allows for freedom within a framework of non-arbitrary laws.
Freedom as non-domination is also a positive concept because it relies on active citizenship. However, the essence of active citizenship (positive freedom) differentiates it from Berlin’s demonization. Berlin refers to positive freedoms as civic humanists understand them. Republican thinkers valued active citizenship immensely due to its pivotal role in securing freedom.
Unlike defendants of civic humanists, such as Hans Baron (1955), John Greville Agard Pocock (1975), Hannah Arendt (1993) and Iseult Honohan (2002), republican thinkers regarded civic citizenship as a consequential ideal. In other words, participating in political activity was understood by republican thinkers to be instrumental in securing freedom. On the other hand, civic humanists valued political participation as an end without any additional “required” purpose. The difference between the two approaches is critical because this distinction established the new idea of non-dominating interference (non-arbitrary interference) within the concept of republican freedom.
Bitcoin freedom is not liberal freedom because it offers more than just the absence of central authority and its interference. Security and ownership of data/value by administering the mechanisms of a trustless, transparent and decentralized system are the fundamental positive freedoms of Bitcoin. Furthermore, the availability of participating in the governance of the Bitcoin blockchain without any permission is another core positive freedom of Bitcoin. If we define Bitcoin freedom just as in the liberal sense (non-interference), we leave out the other half (positive freedoms), which helps secure the former.
- Arendt, H. 1993, “What Is Freedom?” in “Between Past And Future: Eight Exercises In Political Thought,” Penguin Books, New York.
- Baron, H. 1955, “Crisis Of The Early Italian Renaissance,” Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.
- Berlin, I. 1969, “Two Concepts Of Liberty,” in “Four Essays On Liberty,” Oxford University Press, London.
- Carter, I. 2016, “Positive And Negative Liberty,” The Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy (Fall 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2016/entries/liberty-positive-negative/>.
- Honohan, I. 2002, “Civic Republicanism,” Routledge, London.
- Pettit, P. 2002, “Republicanism: A Theory Of Freedom And Government,” Oxford University Press, Oxford.
- Pocock, J. G. A. 1975, “The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought And The Atlantic Republican Tradition,” Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.
- Skinner, Q. 2002, “A Third Concept of Liberty.” Proceedings of the British Academy, 117(237): pp. 237–268.
This is a guest post by Burak Tamaç. Opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc or Bitcoin Magazine.