Negative freedom -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

Negative freedom

Pakistan Press Foundation

The case of a popular televangelist-cum-anchor who was recently banned by the national electronic media watchdog is merely a kernel of the deeper malaise afflicting the Pakistani society: negative freedom.

England in the 18th century was the cradle of liberalism: both economic and social. Laissez-faire, literally translated as ‘leave us alone’, was the economic doctrine, while utilitarianism – which identified goodness with happiness – was the social expression of liberalism. Common to both verities of liberalism was the belief that freedom meant the absence of legal restrictions.

For Jeremy Bentham, the principal exponent of liberalism, law and liberty were mutually incompatible. Every law raked up the power of the state at the expense of individual liberty. Freedom was maximum when a relationship was not regulated by law but left to a voluntary agreement between the parties. When applied to industry, the doctrine ushered in appalling working conditions, with the government keeping its hands off to ensure the freedom of contract.

Among those who attacked such crude liberalism was philosopher T H Green, for whom Bentham’s was a negative concept of freedom. Civil liberties, he argued, lay not in the absence of restrictions but in the ability to contribute to the social process. The law must not only allow freedom but also create conditions that are conducive to the exercise of liberties – positive freedom as he would call it. Choice is meaningful only when both alternatives are desirable. When a person has to choose between starvation and working in deplorable conditions, his choice is hollow.

The negative concept of freedom has gained currency in Pakistan. Anyone who has access to the pulpit or print or electronic media is free to bash, denigrate or abuse others – even stigmatise them as traitors or kafirs – as long they are not suspected of hitting back. It is obviously minorities or other vulnerable segments of society who, as a rule, find themselves in the line of fire.

Such an erroneous view of freedom is increasingly encouraging irresponsible behaviour. Every now and then, a band of self-styled guardians of the faith go berserk and take to arson or homicide to punish an allegedly blasphemous act. They, at once, assume the role of judge, jury and executioner. Some media persons, such as the aforementioned anchor, have cast themselves in the same role. While the clergy relish in pronouncing their targets as apostates, such opinion makers draw special fascination in branding the people they disagree with as traitors and thus writing them off with a stroke of the pen or a movement of the tongue. All this is done to promote the freedom of expression.

Such an approach clashes with the principle of rule of law, which is the lifeblood of the body politic. Only formal public institutions can prosecute, convict and punish an offender in accordance with the due process of law. The rest of the society has nothing to do with passing an edict on the patriotic or religious credentials of a person.

As the Supreme Court’s highly-acclaimed judegment, which upheld the conviction of Mumtaz Qadri – the man who gunned down former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer – noted: no one is justified in taking the law into their own hands and killing an alleged offender regardless of the nature of the offence. We must let the law take its course.

The misguided view of freedom has also cast its shadow on politics. The late prime minister Benazir Bhutto was frequently dubbed a security risk by her opponents, who were hesitant to face her politically. In a twist of fate, the current prime minister, who was one of her opponents, has also been awarded this obnoxious title. This brings us to the relationship between freedom and authority – which is a perennial political question. Members of a political society must have some freedom and the government must have some authority. But how much?

Different forms of government answer this question in different ways. An absolutist government concedes minimum freedom to the people, while arrogating to itself maximum authority. However, a democratic dispensation gives maximum freedom to the people while exercising minimum authority which is consistent with an orderly government. But freedom, which lies at the roots of democracy, is potentially constructive as well as destructive. The freedom of expression and assembly, for instance, can be used to keep the government on the right track. Alternatively, it can be abused to destabilise the system itself. Herein lies democracy’s most glaring contradiction.

If the government suppresses and represses the governed and relies solely on force to sort out political problems, it will cease to be democratic. But if the governed turn their freedom into a licence to do as they please and take the law into their own hands, the polity descends into chaos and anarchy and democracy is degraded into a mobocracy.

In the end, the difference between democracy and mobocracy is that the former is subject to rule of law and constitutionalism while the latter sets aside such ‘constraints’. To put it differently, democracy involves the exercise of freedom constructively. In a mobocracy, freedom is exercised in such an irresponsible and free-for-all manner that it becomes destructive for the foundations of democracy. To quote Plato, mobocracy is democracy perverted.

A mobocracy would nullify elections and parliament and all democratic institutions. If a government commanding an absolute majority in parliament can be sacked by a mob, it doesn’t matter the least whether a party fares good or bad on the electoral front – or even whether the elections were held in a transparent manner or rigged. Whenever it is found to be expedient, a mob would be put together to pull the government down.

The law has a paradoxical character when it comes to safeguarding freedom. In the absence of the law, civil and political liberties can’t be enjoyed. At the same time, every law represents a restriction on liberties. It may be another paradox, but freedom has to be curtailed to make its profession possible across the board.

By the same token, when one calls for regulating an activity or institution, it does not mean that it is being divested of its freedom. Regulation is the device to ensure that an activity is carried out in a socially responsible manner. In principle, all social activities need to be regulated. There is no question about that. The only question is how much regulation is desirable, by whom and in whose interest.

Let’s take a familiar example. Marriage is a personal act but being in and out of the wedlock cannot be left to the sweet will of marriage partners. Every society, whether backward or developed, has norms or rules governing the solemnisation and termination of marriage.

Freedom lies in the ability to contribute to social development. All other concepts of freedom are either anarchic or hollow. Pakistani society is currently entangled in negative freedom. It will take time before it moves towards embracing positive freedom.

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