Friday, November 5, 2010

Elazar on the Invention of Negative Liberty

New from Yiftah Elazar (Ph.D. Candidate, Princeton University Department of Politics) is a paper likely to interest intellectual and legal historians, as well as those who study the American Revolution. It is titled "The American Debate and the Invention of Negative Liberty."

Here's the abstract:
The argument that the idea of liberty is “negative” first appeared in the work of three 18th century utilitarian writers – Jeremy Bentham, John Lind, and Richard Hey – who were all involved in arguing against the American Revolution. Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit have suggested that the utilitarians revived the Hobbesian notion of freedom and utilized it against the neo-classical conception of freedom that was employed in support of the American cause.

While acknowledging the similarity between the Hobbesian definition of liberty and the eighteenth century utilitarian definition of liberty, the paper argues for the uniqueness of the latter. Hobbes was arguing for an absolute monarchy, while the eighteenth century utilitarians shared with most advocates of the American cause a respect for the British mixed constitution. In contrast to Hobbes, the utilitarians had an idea of civil or political liberty that included some form of security against the arbitrary will of the government, and they shared the neo-classical idea that protecting the liberty of individuals in society requires a free constitution of government.

The paper argues that the utilitarian invention of negative liberty should be understood in the context of a debate in which neo-classical assumptions about freedom and government were, to some extent, shared, and the question at the heart of the debate was the question of democratic participation.
You can download the full version here.

Hat tip: bookforum


Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

With regard to the statement in the abstract that "Hobbes was arguing for an absolute monarchy:"

It should be noted that the "absolute" and undivided sovereignty Hobbes argued for could take three forms: monarchy, aristocracy and democracy (perhaps better: assembly). While Hobbes himself seems to have preferred the monarchical form, sovereignty in the sense he defined it could legitimately be of these other two types as well. We might disagree strongly with the reasoning behind this argument, as did the the late Perez Zagorin, but it's no less important to recognize that absolute sovereignty in the Hobbesian sense is not confined to a monarchy.

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

I wrote to Yiftah about this and other things and he assured me that he knew Hobbes conceived as absolute sovereignty as capable of taking these three forms and was simply reiterating Hobbes's preference for monarchy. He said he'd clarify matters when he revises the paper, which is being well received judged by the number of downloads to date.