From George Monbiot: ‘How Freedom Became Tyranny’

Full piece here.

The old liberal vs libertarian battle rehashed…link sent in by a reader:

Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts Of Liberty” found here.

According to Monbiot, libertarian conservatives in Britain (and I presume America) have turned “freedom into tyranny.”  He uses Isaiah Berlin’s definition of “negative liberty” to accuse said libertarians of not living up to it, and thus apparently, becoming tyrannous:

‘As Berlin noted, “no man’s activity is so completely private as never to obstruct the lives of others in any way. ‘Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows’”. So, he argued, some people’s freedom must sometimes be curtailed “to secure the freedom of others.” In other words, your freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. The negative freedom not to have our noses punched is the freedom that green and social justice campaigns, exemplified by the Occupy movement, exist to defend.’

Yes, some people’s freedoms must sometimes be curtailed to ‘secure the freedoms of others.’  This is why we have laws.  No man is an island.  Most libertarians, I think, would agree that one fundamental freedom is the freedom from violence, whatever his/her moral reasoning.

I would also admit that greed (and unreflected pursuit of self-interest in a twisted system of incentives), in part, led to the bundling of bad debt and its sale to hapless investors that’s occurred on Wall Street.  A good libertarian, however, would also argue that those incentives were helped to be skewed by people seeking social justice, increased home-ownership, an expanded middle-class, and also political self-interest and money.  In this case, the very people standing up for liberty (rights based liberty…justice…a piece of the pie), also have arguably posed threats to negative freedom and contributed to the mess we’re in.

Regardless, it’s not clear to me that the recession impinges upon an individual’s negative freedom.


Instead of focusing on social justice nor the negative freedoms of the greens (for which Monbiot, as many greens do, uses a Romantic poet’s conception of Nature as central), there are the Occupy protestors.

The negative freedom of protesters, to my knowledge, was not impinged upon very much nor very often.  They exercised both freedom of speech and freedom of assembly within legal limits (and they can’t rebuild at Zuccotti Park again, lawfully).  Eventually, many protestors impinged upon other citizen’s negative freedom by taking over public and private spaces for themselves, making those spaces unclean and unsafe, and even criminally dangerous.  It turns out the State (through the police force) had to eventually intervene and protect many of the protestors from one another.

Monbiot continues:

‘Claire Fox is a feared interrogator on the BBC show The Moral Maze. Yet when I asked her a simple question – “do you accept that some people’s freedoms intrude upon other people’s freedoms?” – I saw an ideology shatter like a windscreen. I used the example of a Romanian lead smelting plant I had visited in 2000, whose freedom to pollute is shortening the lives of its neighbours(7). Surely the plant should be regulated in order to enhance the negative freedoms – freedom from pollution, freedom from poisoning – of its neighbours? ‘

I can’t speak for Ms. Fox, but yes, people’s health can be negatively impacted by industrial activity, and I don’t imagine it’s hard to find such injustice near a smelting plant, nor people who worked with asbestos, nor say Chernobyl, nor even in, say, rapidly industrializing, old Communist China.   But this particular plant is in Romania (and I will take Monbiot’s one cited study as valid).  Politics is best done locally and I should hope the people so affected have legal recourse in Romania.  It’s not clear how effective Monbiot’s definition of liberty, narrowed to fit a global green ideology, would be in practically helping Romanian villagers to be negatively free.

He continues:

‘Modern libertarianism is the disguise adopted by those who wish to exploit without restraint. It pretends that only the state intrudes on our liberties. It ignores the role of banks, corporations and the rich in making us less free. It denies the need for the state to curb them in order to protect the freedoms of weaker people. This bastardised, one-eyed philosophy is a con trick, whose promoters attempt to wrongfoot justice by pitching it against liberty. By this means they have turned “freedom” into an instrument of oppression.’

Now that Monbiot has his definition of freedom, he draws a small circle around it and proceeds to demonize the opposition (with a lot of heated rhetoric and political posturing).   Of course, this is actually quite an illiberal stance to take.

No, the State isn’t the only entity (made up of people) which intrudes upon our liberties.  We need to be protected from one another, and from public and private groups of people pursuing their own interests and from the tyranny of the mob.  The U.S., at least, is a nation of laws.

Yes, banks, incorporated entities and “the rich” can by Berlin’s definition, intrude upon the negative freedoms of individuals (eminent domain, abuse or manipulations of law, crony capitalism, lawful but ethically challenged business practices).  But consistent libertarians stand up for such causes every day (see Reason Magazine).  Non-libertarians and a plurality, if not a majority, of Americans recognize that such activites are the price of having a both free and open society, and of being equal under the law.


Additionally, I take Berlin’s point about positive freedom to mean that for each of us it’s necessary to maintain our moral lights enough to also protect us from ourselves and our passions.  One way people choose to do this is through the moral doctrines of the Church (God is free and thus so is Man, cast as he is in God’s image…with free will to choose).  Religious zeal, righteous certainty, passionate conviction and blind belief are threats to liberty of course, but they are not merely the province of religion.

Related On This Site:  A Few Thoughts On Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts Of Liberty”From The Boston Review: ‘Libertarianism And Liberty: How Not To Argue For Limited Government And Lower Taxes’From Slate: ‘The Liberty Scam-Why Even Robert Nozick, The Philosophical Father Of Libertarianism, Gave Up On The Movement He Inspired.’

Is it actual Nature, or a deep debate about civilization and morality, man and nature that fuels this Western debate: ….Roger Sandall At The New Criterion Via The A & L Daily: ‘Aboriginal Sin’Roger Sandall At The American Interest: ‘Tribal Realism’Karl Popper’s metaphysical theory: Falsifiability

Did Jared Diamond get attacked for not being romantic enough…or just for potential hubris?:  Was he acting as a journalist in Papua New-Guinea?:  From The Chronicle Of Higher Education: Jared Diamond’s Lawsuit

Instead of global green governance, what about a World Leviathan…food for thought, and a little frightening: At Bloggingheads Steven Pinker Discusses War And Thomas Hobbes

Ronald Bailey At Reason: ‘Delusional in Durban’A Few Links On Environmentalism And Liberty

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2 thoughts on “From George Monbiot: ‘How Freedom Became Tyranny’

  1. In the context of economic activity, problems (negative market externalities) such as those at the Romanian smelting plant, can be dealt with by regulatory mechanisms. These build the costs of the negative impacts into the cost to the smelter of doing business without preempting the competitive market. Of course, this requires a robust regulatory apparatus, which Monbiot complains that libertarians oppose. Regulation may require remediation or less harmful means of production. Of course, it is to be expected that the polluter will attempt to block such regulation, and sometimes successfully, as in contemporary America, by regulatory capture-the polluter’s undue influence over the regulatory process.

  2. Charlie, thanks for commenting:

    You said: “problems (negative market externalities) such as those at the Romanian smelting plant, can be dealt with by regulatory mechanisms”

    They can, and such mechanisms would have to be drafted into law. The harm done the plaintiffs would have to be proven according to Romanian legal standards and burdens of proof in Romanian courts, ideally. If the industry is too regulated, it could be driven elsewhere (somewhere with cheaper labor, lower regulations, lower start-up costs, lower cost of doing business…). There’s probably also a lot of cronyism and political/social obstacles to making good laws, so it’s not a given you’d get “justice” but maybe some freedom from harm (though the workers at the smelting likely entered into a contract of employment)

    Industries aren’t merely “polluters” of course, as they are providing a good or service that can makes the overall quality of life for consumers, producers. They certainly aren’t all saints.

    The negative definition of liberty that Monbiot uses, belongs to Isaiah Berlin, whose value pluralism Berlin thought of as his most important work. It is, in a way, closer to classical liberalism (John Rawls was a friend of Berlin’s).

    The liberal/libertarian divide is wide, and while sharing some common definitions of liberty, libertarians tend to eschew positive definitions that lead to Statism (free minds and free markets, as they say). There are some “liberaltarians” out there, and some Catholic libertarians as it’s quite a spectrum.

    I still think there’s a lurking question of justice, here, that I don’t know if ever gets solved, and leads me away from Statism and the kind of liberty for which Monbiot advocates (especially the green crusade, which is often tied with many illiberal, Statist, redistributive and troubling philosophical strands of thought as related to individuals and the collective.

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