The Ideology Behind the Continental Divide

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By Cannon Brooke

After reading Paul Jacob’s post on the Continental Divide, I thought it would be fitting to comment on it and give the perspective/analysis from someone a little younger.


Jacob’s juxtaposition of liberal and progressive ideology was spot on, however, it lacked the background needed for greater discussion. After reading his article, he missed an important element to the dialogue – positive vs. negative liberty.

True, today’s ideological impasse is not well understood and, more than likely, is the primary reason for a lot of the vitriolic debate we have on government.  But after a little unpacking, it really boils down to different means to the same end.

The differentiation between positive and negative liberty to the untrained eye seems to be understood as freedom is freedom – pretty simple. But it is the variation that is salient to the discussion. I use the term liberal in the classical sense, since the word has been unjustly appropriated by the left and used in lieu of progressive.

Essentially, positive liberty is the liberty guaranteed to you by law, an unconditional right that no one can take this away from you. In most democratic countries, an example of positive liberty is the freedom of speech. Further, inherent in this conception, is the ability of citizens to participate in government with centralized structure and agency. In other words, positive liberty can be defined as the resources to act and the power to fulfill societies potential. Most progressives believe that the agency [the state] is justified in protecting the structure [social arrangements]. For instance, when the state uses positive liberty by addressing economic conditions that make some less free than others, the economy can be inimical to liberty for progressives.

Negative liberty, on the other hand, is the freedom from interference by other people or agencies. Negative liberty is based off the concept of individualism, but in order for this to work, a line must sharply delineate where individuals can act unconstrained. Similar to positive liberty, negative liberty acknowledges a legitimate use of force by an agency, however, limits the power and role of that agency considerably. Another way to view negative liberty is that the particular liberty is the individual’s because no law has restricted their exercise of it. This is where liberals sharply contrast with progressives. Liberals believe that the state hinders liberty.

Understandably, the topic of negative vs. positive liberty seems like an academic debate, however; the implications in reality can turn out disastrous.

The problem is that perceptions of “justice” and “fairness” are too arbitrary, and they can easily be veiled as tyranny and restraint. I agree with Paul Jacob’s view that government is a force that is institutionalized and needs to be constrained by law and the people. Indeed, there seems to be quixotic sentiments towards government acquiring more power in the name of fairness. I find certain unease in the notion of positive liberty; this concept seems to carry with it an uncomfortably close danger of authoritarianism. What I find confusing is how progressives are confortable with the moral hazard that the paradox of positive liberty evokes.

There is an agreement between liberals [libertarians] and progressives—the understanding of the social contract theory—that acknowledges that in order to obtain protection from those who prey on the weak, we all enter into the social contract by submitting to the rule of law.

Nevertheless, the difference between liberals and progressive that is that liberals have a watchful eye on government and progressives are more willing to acquiesce liberties.

After all, constraint is the antithesis of liberty…

What do you think? Please comment!

Cannon Brooke is the policy analyst summer intern at the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.

Cannon is from Seattle, Washington, and holds a Master of Arts in Political Science and a Bachelor of Arts in History and Political Science from Western Washington University. Much of his research is on policy and qualitative analysis, concentrating on American government, the legislative process and demographic trends.