All liberals agree that freedom, or liberty, is a central value that should inform our communal life, but they haven’t always agreed about what liberty is and about what its proper limits are. I will start by outlining the disagreement about what liberty is before explaining how liberals understand the limits of our freedom.
Isaiah Berlin (1909 – 1997) distinguishes between two concepts of liberty, negative liberty and positive liberty.
Negative liberty is the belief that individuals are free insofar as they are not constrained. It has often been described as ‘freedom from.’ A clear example is the case of a man who is handcuffed to a park bench. Prior to being handcuffed the man was free to move around, but his freedom of movement is now severely limited. All liberals would agree that this man’s liberty is being constrained, but some liberals argue that constraints like this are not the only impediment to our freedom.
Positive liberty is the belief that individuals are free insofar as they have the capacity to develop their potential. It has often been described as ‘freedom to.’ A clear example is the case of my desire to be a Premiership footballer. Nobody is constraining me from fulfilling my desire, but I am not free to fulfil this desire without the proper training, skills, and experience. I am free from constraint, but I do not have the capacity to fulfil this desire, therefore I am not free to be a Premiership footballer.
These two different ideas of liberty lead to radically different ideas of how society should be structured so as to maximise liberty. Classical liberals believe that liberty should only be understood in a negative sense. They therefore want to limit the constraints that society, and the state, impose on individuals. This leads them to believe that liberty is best maximised by limiting the size and scope of the state to providing the right to ‘life, liberty and property’ (Locke, 1689). They see the state as a ‘necessary evil’(Thomas Paine, 1776) and therefore want to limit its interference in the lives of individuals. This kind of state is often referred to as a minimal or ‘night-watchman state’ (Lassalle, 1862). It would typically provide a police force, a legal system and an army, although some minarchist thinkers believe that even these services can be provided by the private sector, thereby eliminating the need for a state altogether.
Modern liberals, by contrast, believe that negative liberty does not go far enough and that people cannot maximise their liberty without also having the capacity to develop their potential (positive liberty). They therefore endorse a much larger, more interventionist state that provides goods such as education, healthcare and a welfare system. Modern liberals believe that this state support is justified because only a healthy, well-educated individual with a safety-net to fall back on will have the capacity to develop their potential, and hence maximise their liberty. This kind of state was advocated by William Beveridge (1879 – 1963), who argued for the need to eliminate the five giants plaguing society; namely ‘Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.’ His view was that eliminating these evils was an essential step in creating a society where people could develop their potential.
Although they disagree about its definition, all liberals believe in liberty, but no liberal is in favour of absolute freedom of the individual. Giving everyone absolute freedom would risk allowing people to use their freedom to transgress or abuse the liberty of others. A simple case arises when I drive my car to work. If I were to disobey the law and drive on the opposite side of the road to everyone else I would cause chaos and disorder for hundreds of other road users. The exercise of my freedom of movement would result in everyone else’s liberty being curtailed. My freedom of movement is not absolute, because I must recognise that if everyone is to have the right to move freely, this entails that I have a duty not to hinder other people’s free movement. John Rawls (1921-2002) thinks that this is so important that he argues that a basic system of liberties needs to be guaranteed by the state as a first principle of justice. He argues that we should have liberty insofar as it is compatible with the liberty of others. As can be seen in the example, it is necessary to have laws governing road use in order that everyone can enjoy free movement. My freedom does not give me the right to infringe upon the freedom of others.
In order to protect our freedom it is necessary that a clear set of rules is laid down and that those who break the law are punished. This gives the state a vital role in protecting our liberties because it is the state that guarantees that the rule of law is upheld. To understand the importance of the state in protecting our freedom political philosophers have imagined what society would be like without a state. According to the 16th Century philosopher, Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), a stateless society would be plunged into a state of nature in which each man would pursue his naked self-interest. In such a condition men would have absolute freedom, but their liberty would be constantly in peril. Without the state to police things such as property rights men would resort to brute force in order to enforce their claims. Hobbes thought that this would lead to a permanent condition of ‘war of all, against all’ in which life would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’
In order to solve this problem it has been argued that people would band together and agree to the creation of a state by signing a social contract. Citizens would mutually agree give up some of their natural liberty in order that they are protected from the harm caused by others. The state would provide security and would guarantee basic liberties, and the citizens would be able to exercise their liberty without the interference of other individuals.
But the social contract creates another problem for liberals, because a powerful state is also a potential threat to our liberty. After all, for a state to function as it needs to it must have a ‘monopoly of legitimate physical violence in a territory’ (Weber, 1919). Thomas Hobbes argues that the state needs to possess absolute power in order to carry out its functions because it must have the power to do whatever is necessary to guarantee peace and security. He describes the state as being like a mighty leviathan, and he explicitly rules out any separation of powers or limits to the state’s authority. A liberal philosopher, John Locke (1632 – 1704) takes a different view. He agrees with Hobbes that the state of nature would result in a condition of war, but he argues that there is a danger that the creation of the state could pose an even graver threat to our liberties. As a result of this worry, he argues that the state’s power needs to be severely limited. The state should exist to guarantee the ‘life, liberty and property’ of citizens, but aside from this the state should be small, and its power should be limited.
This balance between security and liberty is at the heart of many debates within liberalism. For example, politicians in the West have been grappling in recent years with how best to tackle the threat of terrorism, without undermining the liberties upon which our liberal democracy rests. A helpful starting point to answering questions like this is provided by the Victorian thinker and statesman, John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873). In his classic work, On Liberty, Mill argues that individuals should be allowed to do whatever they want as long as their action doesn’t harm other people (the harm principle). His argument is supported by the idea that individuals know their own good better than other people, and by the thought that self-directed activity is more morally valuable by virtue of being autonomously chosen. He believes that a society characterised by liberty will lead to the betterment of society as a whole because a system predicated upon maximising individual liberty is in the ‘permanent interests of […] man as a progressive being.’ He foresees individuals engaging in ‘experiments in living’ in order that they can work out what it is they want to do with their own lives. For Mill, it is only be exploring our own individuality that we can achieve the higher pleasures and live a worthwhile life.
Mill also had important things to say about the freedom of thought and expression. It has often been thought that our freedom of speech needs to be policed in order to prevent offence that might be caused to others. For this reason, denying that the Holocaust happened is illegal in many countries, including Austria, Israel and Germany. Mill believed that freedom of thought and expression was important because it is only by error colliding with truth in debate that progress can be made, and he was therefore in favour of all speech that did not directly incite people to commit harm. The famous case is that of an angry mob outside of a corn dealer’s house. In this situation Mill would not allow people to yell ‘corn dealers are starvers of the poor’ because this is very likely to lead to direct harm to others. In all other instances he would favour absolute protection of free speech, even if the speech is grossly offensive. Mill worries that the absence of free debate leads to opinions being held as ‘dead dogma, not living truth.’ This is why liberal thinkers have ardently defended free speech, with Voltaire (1694 – 1778) even declaring that ‘I detest what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’*
*Voltaire didn’t actually say this. It was attributed to him by a biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall in 1903. Still, it sums up the prevailing view amongst liberals, like Voltaire, about the importance of free speech.