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Freedom to do stuff vs. freedom from stuff


As our children grow up we typically give them more freedom and discretion over the activities they will pursue, and increasing freedom of choice when it comes to who they will associate with and the type of education they want. It's commonly accepted that freedom from tyranny, oppression, and control is a hallmark of a democratic society; we should be free to lead and build a life of our choosing. Leading and guiding one another to a life of freedom is a great privilege that many communities are still fighting and striving towards. 

However, when our children are young, we're a bit more directive. When I wake up my daughters in the morning, whether they get dressed, eat breakfast, and get ready for school is not up for discussion or deliberation. At first, commanding them when to put on their shoes might seem to contravene their freedom of choice. Am I restraining their liberty? Obstructing their progress as free individuals? In directing them through these activities, it is quite easy to feel and act like a dictator. 

From a different perspective, I am empowering them with the freedom to participate fully and effectively in the world around us by equipping them with basic skills and habits. The freedom from tyranny and oppression is quite different, and distinct, from the freedom to participate in society. Isaiah Berlin made this important distinction in his 1958 essay Two Concepts of Liberty. Freedom to participate with one another, and to contribute as an active community member in a manner of one's choosing, is called positive liberty. Freedom from interference is negative liberty. 

Democratic participation, as political equals, requires positive freedom. It is not enough that we are free from interference in our political lives, we must have the freedom to participate in decisions about our communities, and about our lives. This must be factored in during the design of democratic exercises: are all participants empowered and enabled to participate effectively? Do they have the tools, habits, skills, and language required? It is no use extending someone the opportunity to speak freely at a meeting, without interruption or direction, if they do not speak the same language as everyone else. Have they seen the agenda in advance? Has everyone had an opportunity to learn and understand the issues being discussed? 

It is incumbent upon community groups, public agencies, and governments to design decision-making processes that equip participants with the tools to contribute in a meaningful way. To ensure positive liberty is a regular and consistent feature in community governance, through practices such as extending each other the opportunity to control and shape the agenda (as outlined in this previous post). 

How does your community equip residents with positive liberty? How does positive liberty show up in your workplace? Or at home? 

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