Brown's piece in the Guardian yesterday blurted out the truth about New Labour's attitude to freedom. He wrote:
What will bring out the best in Britain is advancing liberty not as selfish individualism but as empowerment.
This looks like an endorsement of what Isaiah Berlin, in his famous Essay "Two concepts of liberty", called positive freedom:
The 'positive' sense of the word 'liberty' derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master. I wish my life and decisions to depend on myself, not on external forces of whatever kind...I wish to be somebody, not nobody; a doer - deciding, not being decided for.
Berlin distinguished positive freedom sharply from negative freedom - the absence of interference. Two of the reasons he did so are implicit in Brown's thinking.
The first lies in the question: who exactly is it that should be empowered? As Berlin pointed out, advocates of positive freedom don't mean that it is people's "poor, ignorant, desire-ridden, passionate, empirical selves" that should be given control. Instead, they say, it is people's higher selves that should attain mastery.
I suspect Brown has something like this in mind. Certainly, he doesn't think people should be empowered to be lazy. When he launched the New Deal, he said:
From today there will be no option of simply staying at home on full benefit doing nothing.
Liberty, it seems, is something for our higher, hard-working selves - not our empirical selves.
Berlin was clear on the danger this thinking led to:
Enough manipulation with the definition of man, and freedom can be made to mean whatever the manipulator wishes.
Secondly, said Berlin, advocates of positive freedom see it as a means to some higher goal - it's meant to "lift men to a height to which they could never have risen without coercive - but creative violation of their lives."
We see this sort of teleological thinking in Brown's view that his conception of positive freedom will "bring out the best in Britain" - positive liberty is the servant of nationalist impulse.
Brown also, of course, grotesquely caricatures negative freedom. There's nothing selfish about it. In wanting negative liberty for myself, I want it for everyone else.
And I want it because I recognize that the ultimate values in life - the constituents of the good life - are incompatible, and that we should be, individually, free to choose among them. Here's Berlin:
Pluralism, with the measure of 'negative' liberty it entails, seems to me a truer and more humane ideal than than the goals of those who seek in the great, disciplined, authoritarian structures the ideal of 'positive' self-mastery by classes, or peoples, or the whole of mankind. It is truer because it does, at least, recognize the fact that human goals are many, not all of them commensurable, and in perpetual rivalry with one another.
But then, a defining feature of New Labour is that there are no such conflicts between ultimate goals, merely an insufficient knowledge of how to mange modernity to achieve them all.