Oy Bay!

"My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west." — Yehudah Ha-Levi

Isaiah Berlin, Questioning Democracy

Posted by minsky on July 18, 2007


It has been a few months since the ideas of Isaiah Berlin resurfaced in public life. Thanks to an exhausting three hour documentary, the name of this great Jewish intellectual is once again on the menu, and here’s a soupcon for Oy-Bay readers.

A Russian émigré, UK national, polyglot, polymath, and noted genius, Berlin made waves in the fifties by introducing two different concepts of liberty into political conversation, that of positive, and negative liberty.

Positive liberty is a case of liberating, and being liberated; negative liberty of not being constrained, of having freedom, not needing to be liberated. The first is practiced by those who envision democracy as a good that can be exported, sold, or imposed. The second is found in mature democracies which attempt to restrain citizens from infringing on the basic human rights of other citizens.

This distinction between two kinds of liberties earned Berlin considerable weight in academia. Adam Curtis’ new documentary, The Trap (see here), attempts to bring this weight fully to bear on our present understanding of what we are doing with democracy at home, abroad, and in the future.

I don’t think I’d exaggerate if I said that many take the concepts of freedom and liberty for granted. Our presidents and journalists speak of freedom, and deem it imperative to share it with the rest of the world; newspapers, magazines, TV shows and websites, amplify the message to the point of inevitability. Freedom, Democracy, liberty = holy, sanctified, and worthy of sacrifice and worship. Duh! You don’t question it.



there was once a nice “*.*” who did ask a few questions…

see Adam Curtis for a summary.

Berlin didn’t take liberty for granted; he questioned its possibilities and limits, to the point that latter in his life he made a startling conclusion about present day pluralism. In as much as pluralism assumes equality among differing customs and values, it does so with disregard to their compatibility with one another, producing conflicts “where ultimate values are irreconcilable,” and “clear-cut solutions cannot, in principle, be found.” This is enormously relevant to the dilemmas currently facing our society and democracy. How, why? Let’s take a simple quandary, the illiberal values of minorities (minority rights) vs. liberal values of western majorities.

Like it or not, protecting the rights of Muslims to drape in burkhas and practice polygamy in San Jose, may be fundamentally incompatible with womens’ rights here. Broadly speaking democratic law may indeed conflict with divinely ordained Sharia. According to Berlin, you have no solutions here, other than to choose between positive or negative liberty. The first entails bombs and invasion, the latter, keeping to yourself. At one stage, Tony Blair couldn’t grasp the difference, and so wrote a letter to Berlin asking for political guidance. The implications of Berlin’s response are dumbfounding. See the Trap, to see what I mean.liberty_1925_12_26_a.jpg


6 Responses to “Isaiah Berlin, Questioning Democracy”

  1. Oyster said

    In addition to being a polyglot and polymath, the word on the street is that Isaiah Berlin was also a polyamorist. j/k

    I’ve watched ‘The Trap’, and I have to say that Curtis is exploiting
    most people’s infamiliarity with mathematical modelling to try to
    depict Game Theory as this satanic ideology that is guiding the
    powers-that-be in our society to view individuals as suspicious and
    greedy creatures.

    You can have models in game theory where altruistic or cooperative
    interactions are permitted, but such considerations didn’t make it
    into the most popular models, because, as the film emphasizes, the
    initial popularity in game theory developed as a result of the Cold
    War, and such assumptions weren’t applicable.

    I really think that Curtis is stretching the truth, to make the
    average viewer view game theory as some scary, sinister world-view
    trying to infect the minds of our leaders.

    It’s a straw-man argument, for example, trying to apply the Nash
    Equilibrium to individuals. It won’t work. It only works with entities
    for which the assumptions of the model hold true. In this case, entire
    societies or political entities.

    Of all the intellectual forces in Western Civilization, I find it
    disingenuous of Curtis to pin all the blame of this cynical view of
    human behavior on “Cold War scientisits”. I’d blame Hobbes and
    existentialist philosophy as having just as much influence on the
    post-modern cynicism that people have of other’s true motivations. In
    fact, they are far better known and referred to than John Nash and
    game theory.

  2. minsky said

    I agree with your final observation. Hobbes, and Burke, and Locke. One wonders why Curtis chose to make the distinction between their takes of self-centered freedom, and Nashes. Why Curtis needs Isaiah Berlin and his positives and Negatives, when he can quote the Federalist papers.

    But, I think your post doesn’t do the film nor its director justice.

    First of all, it is a very difficult documentary. Those who want to watch it, shouldn’t expect to understand it in one screening, irrespective of your IQ or education, because the film is oftimes clumsy and ineloquent, ( which in no way, detracts from its importance.) Second of all, the subject matter is too complex. We are talking game-theory here.

    That’s why I think Oyster’s comment doesn’t do The Trap justice. Curtis isn’t exploiting anyones’ ignorance. The suggestion strikes me as off-hand, a fallacy of agency.

    Ignorance about the subject exists because game theory, public choice theory, and rational choice theories, are for all practical purposes out of laymans reach, and rarely figure in their discussions.

    If anything, Curtis is courageous to communicate game theory to the “public” (althogh lets be honest, his public is miniscule)

    When game theory is discussed among those who apply it, its assumptions are taken for granted, and were considered as given until recently. As the film shows, thats precisely what Nash did until the late nineties, and what Buchanon and his ilk maintain till this day.

    So my feeling here is, that Oyster didn’t watch the entire documentary, or underestimates the validity of the perpective it offers. By which I mean, the fact that someone is taking a critical look at the thinking guiding the most influential academics in Americas Ivory Towers. \

    We are talking here about a unique, and completely unexpected documentary, which offers you a fresh new look.

    I guess neither freshness nor critical perspectives, are in demand. Critical is good as long is it is acceptable, and rolls along the same old tracks.

    I am sorry, but what other impression should I be left with?

  3. 1 link said


  4. Oyster said

    Oh, I most definitely spent an hour of my life watching “The Trap”. Perhaps that’s just the first episode of a longer series? It wasn’t clear from YouTube. How many episodes are in the series, if so?

    A more thoughtful response later, my dear Minsky.

  5. minsky said

    Oh, now it makes sense. You didn’t get to watch it all. It is three hours, three episodes each one hour.

  6. minsky said

    The letter of Tony Blair to Isaiah Berlin.


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