Thursday, December 02, 2004

Positive freedom and ID cards

In an article in the Guardian, Julian Baggini attributes opposition to the British government's plans to introduce ID cards to an Americanisation of the ideal of liberty. In his landmark essay Two Concepts of Liberty, Isaiah Berlin distinguished between a "negative" and a "positive" sense of liberty - freedom as "freedom from" and freedom as "freedom to". The former is about an absence of coercion or interference with one's activities, while the latter is about autonomy and self-direction, as well as enabling people to make their own choices or direct the course of their own lives. The distinction isn't nearly as clear cut as it would seem, but is still a useful insight, and there is one undeniable fact: the American ideal of freedom has traditionally been almost entirely negative (and limited to "freedom from" government to boot), while Europeans have valued both negative and positive liberty.

Baggini finds it strange then that Europeans would oppose ID cards - while agreeing that they are a significant infringement on freedom in a negative sense, he says that should not be enough for European (and specifically British) advocates of freedom;

The question we need to be asking is whether this increased state role would reap a big enough dividend in terms of increasing our positive freedom to go about our business safely.

There are two problems here. The first is that it is difficult to see how ID cards advance positive freedom, except in the toxic sense which overrides the individual's will with that of the state. Rather than enabling people's autonomy by removing a barrier to the practical exercise of their freedom, they instead impose barriers - and highly intrusive ones at that.

The second problem is that valuing both negative and positive freedoms does not necessarily mean that the two can be freely traded off; for example, you don't see people accepting limits on their freedom of religion or conscience in the name of stronger and more cohesive communities, and there is a great suspicion of restrictions on freedom of speech even when it is done to protect the right of minorities to be free from fear. This resistance is driven by the idea of a "core" of negative freedoms, without which life would become unbearably oppressive, and which should not therefore be traded away. Basic freedom of movement (conceived in a negative sense) falls squarely within this core. People should not have to convince an agent of the state of their need to pop round to the corner shops or drive somewhere to gawp at the scenery, any more than they should have to convince them of the necessity of following the Koran rather than the Bible - or drinking coffee rather than tea.

Restrictions on movement and a requirement to carry identity documents everywhere and present them when challenged are fundamentally at odds with a free society; "papers, please" is the catchcry of totalitarianism.