The pandemic is once again causing governments to pit incompatible ideas of freedom against each other
Now that the UK’s vaccination programme is beginning to offer an escape route out of lockdown restrictions, despite some hitches, attention is focusing on so-called domestic vaccine passports. Important details remain uncertain but the idea has already been criticised as potentially “divisive and discriminatory”, as well as going against “British instinct” – presumably because Covid passports are reminiscent of compulsory ID cards, the absence of which many regard as a hallmark of British liberty. The desire for freedom is, of course, pretty universal – but there are many, and incompatible, ideas of freedom.
The British philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously distinguished two from more than 200 senses of the word he claimed had been recorded by historians of ideas: “negative liberty”, or freedom from interference; and “positive liberty”, or freedom understood as self-mastery and self-determination. The former ensures that others don’t hinder your choices, while the latter aims to create conditions that give you options and make your choices truly yours and genuinely free.