Isaiah Berlin developed the distinction in his 1958 inaugural address as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford University.
Negative liberty is the absence of constraints or interference with individual action, as in a person being free to vote, write a book, or study ballroom dancing. Positive liberty is the human capacity for self-development and determination of one’s destiny. For example, some people live in countries without negative liberties, which in turn hampers their positive liberty.
Others with positive liberties may not be able to fully exercise them due to economic or social limitations.
Berlin argued that, largely due to the Romantic and German idealist tradition, political theorists had been preoccupied with positive liberties as effects of particular forms of government. He believed that the idea of positive liberty was coopted by both German national socialism and communism. In the case of communism, the goal of liberty became identical to the goal of state control in the name of “collective rationality.” For the Nazis, it was the destiny of Germany and its “master race” that became an overriding value affecting individual lives.
Berlin was an advocate of negative liberty in the tradition of John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), which emphasized the importance of minimal government constraint. In other words, he did not think government was a viable source of values or projects for individual life plans because when government did assume that function it was likely to become totalitarian and repressive.