Freedom From? Or Freedom to Do and Become?

Free birds in flight - by Ronny JansenThe dominant trend in international development today is to provide individuals with the means to climb out of poverty on their own terms.  The key theorist responsible for this trend is Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen.

In his 1999 book, Development as Freedom, Sen proposed a new definition for development. Rather than thinking of development as strictly making countries wealthier, meeting basic needs, or opening up new markets for foreign investment, Sen said that development is defined by freedom: the more free people are in a country, the more developed the country is.

Sen’s understanding of freedom is called “positive freedom,” (or the “capabilities approach”) as opposed to “negative freedom.”

Negative freedom defines freedom as the absence of restraint. A person who is concerned with negative freedom might advocate for limited government involvement in what people do, buy, or think, for example. Negative freedom, therefore, is freedom from something.

Positive freedom, however, is concerned not just with what government or society actively prevents people from doing, but also with expanding individuals’ capabilities. A person who embraces positive freedom would not just want to ensure that people are not held back by others, but also that they have a greater ability to do, or become, what they want. So positive freedom thinks of freedom as the ability to do or become.

Amartya Sen - public domainAs an example, consider the approach these two types of freedom might take to education:

Lets say the poorest people in a certain country don’t have the financial means to send their children to school. From a negative-freedom perspective, as long as the government or society isn’t somehow actively inhibiting the poor children from attending school more than it inhibits the wealthy children, the poor children are no less free than the wealthy children.

From a positive-freedom perspective, the poor children would be less free, because without an education, they will be less able to accomplish what they want for their lives.

Because development means expanding people’s ability to do and become more, Sen encourages developing countries not to think of health care or education as a luxury. Rather, he says education and healthcare are integral to development at all stages.

Sen also presents data demonstrating the importance of increasing people’s ability to participate in the free market and in political processes that make their government transparent and accountable; and he describes expanding protection from financial crises and physical threats (like violence or natural disasters) as important types of freedom.

Sen has helped shift the focus of international development efforts on empowering individuals. This has helped lessen some of the top-down focus and bureaucracy that has plagued development efforts in the past.


How do you think of freedom? And what role does the government play in promoting it?


One Response to “Freedom From? Or Freedom to Do and Become?”
  1. bjornhazel says:

    Reblogged this on speech that cannot be condemned and commented:
    Positive vs Negative Freedom

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