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Maximizing The Well-being of a State’s Citizens: Negative and Positive Liberties on Liberal Theory

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In this essay, I will argue that, in order to maximize the well-being of a state’s citizens, the key focus on liberal theory, liberals and their systems should value both negative and positive liberties. This is due to negative liberty’s approach towards limiting the externalities of individuals and positive liberty’s approach towards enforcing the lack of capabilities an individual may have. Once acted upon together, an individual can be said to be truly free to pursue their well-being to the fullest extent. 

Libertarians should value negative liberty’s conception of the ‘freedom from’ approach, in order to prevent the limitation of an individual’s pursuit of well-being, by external factors. In this sense, the value of negative liberty focuses on preventing external factors – for example, violence from an individual such as a robber, from depriving us of our pursuit of well-being, such as accumulating monetary wealth by stealing his car to get to work. In this sense, since liberals believe in limited state intervention within the private sphere, essentially our social life and economic endeavors become protected through police which attempt to exterminate externalities, such as the robber, from achieving our well-being, and thus if a person is free from externalities, liberals supporting negative liberty would describe the individual as being truly free.  

However, valuing negative liberty on its own would be reductionist. An individual who faces constraints from within, such as being extremely poor, which prevents him from being free to pursue their wellbeing to the full extent, but is in fact is not being stopped by an externality from achieving this, would still be considered free, even though he is not. This shows why negative liberty should not be valued on its own. 

To solve this, liberals should value the aspect of state welfare and intervention which positive liberty can address as it attempts to focus on the lack of capacities of individuals. Positive liberty focuses on answering what or who is the source of interference which has the ability to determine someone’s ability to do or be a certain thing over another. In this sense, being born with a disability or being poor, which prevents us from attaining a job and sets us back economically, would be attempted to be solved by a system of welfare which would be funded by taxes. In this sense, a positive liberty value within a state would take active steps to ensure that the individual is able to pursue his desires and have the resources available to them to do so. This has a significant strength as it produces a more just and equal society in which opportunity is not left up to those with greater economic capital who can achieve things because, as negative liberty states, only those suffering from externalities are truly unfree, which is reductionist. 

However, positive liberty liberals would state that a limitation to this argument arises as a government which enforces high levels of positive liberty, such as in Australia and Sweden, through heavy pension and welfare plans funded by tax, in itself is considered as un-liberal as it is the state stealing money from its citizens through coercion of violence if they do not pay it. In this sense, the state is acting as an externality which does not allow individuals full reign of the options of their finances, and so the state seems to take more of an authoritarian role due to its use of coercive power to achieve what it wants. However, in response, the liberal theory posits on minimal state taxes in order to secure the jobs of the police officers which guards against externalities. Simply guarding them, but not supporting those who are born into poor or disadvantaged conditions which are clearly not their choice, is simply unjust liberty as only those in privileged positions will gain it. This feature goes against the liberal paradigm of everyone being able to search for their well-being to the fullest extent. 

In conclusion, the usage of both positive and negative freedoms becomes imperative in achieving liberty for all members of society, not only through protecting people against externalities such as violence but also by enabling those born into misfortunate situations.  

What is ‘justice’, and is it ‘the first virtue of social institutions?

In response to this question, I will argue that the concept of justice connotes and implements fairness within a given society. This entails offering equal access to resources and opportunities for all members of a population in that it creates a sense of unity between them and the structures of power that govern them.

Justice as fairness is a concept set out to specify fair terms of social cooperation within societies. This concept highlights two principles which justice enforces within the social institutions: firstly, that each person has the same undeniable claim to fully adequate basic liberties which are applied to all men within that society – for example the poorest man and the richest man under this concept of justice, have the same equal basic liberties. Secondly justice, even in socially and economically unequal societies, can exist if equality of opportunity is established in offices which everyone can gain equal access to apply. However, one can argue that a key problem arises from this. Critics might say that equality of opportunity does not guarantee that, for example, a poor uneducated person will have the ability to apply for a professional occupation and beat an educated rich person, simply because there is no externality preventing him from applying. Although, having the equal opportunity to become educated as to the rich man and then be able to apply would resolve this paradox. 

Justice is the first virtue of social institutions as it seeks to pursue equal opportunity to be accessed by all members in a given society. The basic structure of society is the way through which the main social and political institutions, such as the state and the university, which bring together society under one system of social cooperation, along with assigning basic rights and roles in order to regulate the advantages that occur over time. An example of this is that some groups of people are wealthier or poorer than others as a result of the jobs that they respectively do, which are all a part of the basic structure. Justice as fairness takes the basic structure as the main subject of political justice due to the effects it can have on citizens’ aims, characters, and capabilities, along with the advantage which individuals can use to take over them and cause disadvantage to others. In a democratic society, citizens are referred to as being free and equal persons to one another, and the principle of justice is what sets out the underlying rules of cooperation between the individuals of that society in a way which does not limit the advantage of access to some and does for others. Justice as fairness is about having an appropriate unity between the individuals of that society and the structures of power within it, in order to produce the most efficient social cooperation which allows individuals to maximize their pursuit of well-being, free from state coercion.

In conclusion, I defined justice as conceptually, and in practice, aiming to implement fairness and social cooperation within a given society. Moreover, I outlined that justice is indeed to first virtue of social institutions in that it aims to provide equality of opportunity to all members of a population through society’s social and political institutions and to therefore achieve social cooperation amongst that population as well.

In this essay, I argue that the point of equality is to offer opportunities to individuals of ‘differing capabilities’, instead of recognizing them as untalented because of their brute luck and thus, to become recognized to receive welfare or care subsidized by more fortunate individuals. Moreover, I also highlight the criticism of my response.

According to Elizabeth Anderson, the point of equality is to offer all individuals access to freedom, equal distribution of resources, and respect which, in turn, allows for the full capacity to chase the pursuit of one’s own wellbeing. She suggests that, rather than eradicating the impact of luck or ensuring that individuals obtain what they deserve on the basis of morality, the point of egalitarian justice is to eliminate oppression and to “create a community in which people stand in relations of equality to others”.

In my response, the point of equality is for the state to offer opportunities to individuals of differing capabilities by recognizing them as worthy of receiving welfare and dismissing stereotypes that they are incapable and untalented. Drawing on the work of Amartya Sen, Anderson discusses the concept of well-being and how it impacts what one can achieve in life. Where some individuals are set back when it comes to core functionalities, such as being literate, mobile, and so on, they are immediately placed lower on humanity’s oppressive hierarchy. Because of this, most egalitarians believe that victims of bad brute luck, those born with a severe congenital or genetic handicap or who become so due to factors outside their control, such as child neglect or accidents, cannot be held responsible and deserve welfare aid due to their lack of recognition and supposed ‘value’ in the labor market. Here, the egalitarian system “guarantees not actual levels of function, but effective access to those levels”. Therefore, the point of equality in this instance would be to ensure the functioning of all as equal citizens. However, this then also creates social oppression as it directs disrespect towards the social group that the state interference is being focused on when they are seen as being in need of help.

On the other hand, some scholars posit that having the goal of achieving equality is pointless. This is because “no two people are really equal: the diversity of individuals in their talents, aims, social identities, and circumstances ensures that in achieving equality in some domain, one will inevitably create inequalities in others”. Moreover, some critics argue that there is no point inequality, as for the most part, it involves getting rid of goods that cannot be equally distributed rather than letting some individuals have more of them than others. In addition to this, luck egalitarians propose a perspective of ‘equality of opportunity’ rather than ‘equality of justice’. Here, they propose that individuals start with equal access to welfare and resources but are made to deal with inequalities caused by choices they have made in their adult lives. While this allows all members of a population to begin the supposed race at the same starting line, this equality is still pointless – as it does not account for inequalities that stem from choices later in life. However, it is important to note that, as long the same opportunity to commence was awarded, regardless of class, gender, ethnicity, and age, but the individual themselves chose a different outcome, it is not a priority of the state to provide care for that individual as he was in search of his own pursuit of well-being and the state interfering would be interfering in his private sphere, so long as he does not limit the liberty and wellbeing of others. 

In conclusion, the purpose of equality is to offer a stepping stool of opportunity for those who lack core functionalities as a result of innate or accidental complications outside of their control, however, it is also important to recognize the limitations of giving equality of equality of opportunity as it does not take into account the inequalities which stem from choice later in life.


  1. Anderson, E.S., 1999. What is the Point of Equality?. Ethics, 109(2), pp.287-337.
  2. Berlin, I., 1969, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, in I. Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty, London: Oxford University Press. New ed. in Berlin 2002.
  3. Carter, I., ‘Liberty’ in R. Bellamy and A. Mason (eds.), Political Concepts (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003).
  4. Gewirth, A., 2001. Are all rights positive?. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 30(3), pp.321-333.
  5. Lippert-Rasmussen, K., 2005. Justice and bad luck.
  6. Michelmore, M.C., 2011. Tax and Spend: The Welfare State, Tax Politics, and the Limits of American Liberalism. University of Pennsylvania Press.
  7. Rawls, John ‘Justice as Fairness’ in Farrely, Colin, (ed.) Contemporary Political Theory: A Reader. (Thousand Oaks, London and New Delhi: SAGE Publications, 2004) pp. 13-21.
  8. Roemer, J.E., 1993. A pragmatic theory of responsibility for the egalitarian planner. Philosophy & Public Affairs, pp.146-166.
  9. Wildavsky, A., 1992. Amartya Sen, Equality Reexamined, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992. Journal of Public Policy, 12(4), pp.405-406.

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