‘Liberal democracy’ contains two words that correspond to two related, but distinct concepts of liberalism. Both have deep roots. One concept is freedom of the individual under the law. This form of freedom – personal autonomy – represents what the late Isaiah Berlin, in his clasic essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, called ‘negative freedom’. The other concept is not quite that of ‘positive freedom’, as Berlin defined it, though it bears some relation to that concept. It is rather of the individual as citizen.

As the late Albert Hirschmann argued, ‘voice’ – the ability to have a say in collective decisions that affect one – is just as important as ‘exit’ – the ability of the individual to choose alternatives, not just as a consumer and producer, but as a citizen. Whereas the first concept of liberty is quintessentially English, the second goes back to the ancient world. For Athenians, the separated individual who took no place in public life was an idiōtēs – the word from which our word ‘idiot’ is derived. Such a person was an inadequate human being because he (for the greeks, it was always ‘he’) focused only on his private concerns rather than on those of his polis, or city state, the collective that succored him and to which he owed not just his loyalty, but also his energy.

The ideal of a liberal democracy derives from the marriage of these two ideas – freedom and citizenship. It is based on the belief that we are not only individuals with rights to choose for ourselves, subject to the law; we are also, as Aristotle put it, ‘political animals’. As such, we have both a need and a right to participate in public life. Citizenship translates the idea of individual self-worth to the political level. As citizens, we can and should do things together. Many of these things are, in turn, the foundation stones of Berlin’s ‘positive liberty’, or individual agency.

Obvious examples of socially provided public and semi-public goods, beyond the classic public goods of defence and justice, are environmental protection, funding of basic scientific research, support for technical innovation and provision of medical care, education and a social safety net. Making choices, together, about the provision of such goods does not represent a violation of freedom, but is rather both an expression and a facilitator of that fundamental value.

The Shifts and the Shocks, by Martin Wolf
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