A Word Or Two About Liberty…
Liberty is one of those words that was rather exotic for me when I was younger- apart from the famous statute I wasn’t really aware of its importance, nor did I give it much thought. If anything, I used the word freedom (but not much!). I suspect plenty of people are the same, and may wonder why it’s such a big deal, so I thought in the early days of this blog, some thoughts on liberty and why it matters to a liberal would be useful, as preclude to more specific thoughts in future. I am, by the way, taking freedom and liberty as synonyms, though no doubt someone may want to tell me that’s taking liberties in itself (see what I did there?)
Liberals and Liberty…
It’s pretty clear that liberty is something important to liberals. The preamble to the UK Liberal Democrat’s constitution mentions it, and the Wikipedia definition of liberalism says this:
“Liberalism is a political philosophy or worldview founded on ideas of liberty and equality.”(1) (Wikipedia, accessed 7th January 2017)
Or try this from Edmund Fawcett’s ‘Liberalism’
‘Liberals, it is said, believe in liberty. Indeed they do’ (p1)(2)
John Stuart Mill, a very famous thinker and writer of the 19th century in his defining work ‘On Liberty’ felt liberty was a cornerstone of society:
“John Stuart Mill opens his essay by discussing the historical “struggle between authority and liberty,”describing the tyranny of government, which, in his view, needs to be controlled by the liberty of the citizens.” ((3) Wikipedia- On Liberty- Accessed 7th January 2017)
So far, so obvious. But why the big focus on liberty and freedom?
Freedom and Liberty Matter…
Recall in my second blog (We Need a New Age I Tell You!) I said that there were various stages of liberalism. And as someone rightly pointed out, I neglected to mention the role of struggle and conflict in securing these freedoms. And the early liberal focus on liberty came from the view that much of government/rulers/religion since time began had been a tyranny, an active impediment to the freedom of the individual, a negative force. So much has been written on the importance of liberty but it comes down to this.
A liberal fundamentally believes that each person is of equal value and has a right to determine their own life path, so long as that path does not ruin the rights of others to pursue their own aims. This came from the struggle to free minds, actions and lives from the (perceived) suffocating grip of churches/religions/social status/cultural norms/nationalisms and various other forms of societal control.
A liberal believes that freedom is fundamental and that you cannot coerce someone into leading a life of maximum value, and that choices made by individuals are theirs to make. That does of course lead to all sorts of complications, when people make self-defeating, stupid, selfish, irrational or just plain wrong decisions and life choices. It does mean that people could turn out less happy and fulfilled than if the state or religion just maintained control. It presents all kinds of dilemmas for well-being fellow citizens and governments. But, fundamentally, if you don’t believe in personal liberty and the right of an individual to chose their own path,within reason, then you are not a liberal.
What Are These Freedoms?
There are lots of places that define what some of these freedoms are. Many are so-called negative freedoms, as defined by Isaiah Berlin ((4) Wikipedia, Two Concepts of Liberty, accessed 7th January 2017) – that is the freedom from obstruction or coercion, the right to do something without being blocked. The corollary of that is positive freedom, the positive ability to act in order to deliver a positive outcome in accordance with your life plan. It is more than just absence of coercion, but is the ability to take a full and active part in society, to exercise your freedoms so as to be able to do what you want, act on your desires, and have a reasonable chance of delivering your aims. This is hugely contentious and contested territory of course, and I will come back to it in time. But for the moment, I think these distinctions are useful.
To be more specific, liberty involves (now) a series of well recognised civil and political rights, which include things such as freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom from bodily coercion and sexual assault, absence of torture, freedom of religion, right to life itself, freedom of conscience, to hold personal property, to vote and participate in political processes, freedom from racism/sexism/homophobia, right to privacy and so on.
So, as you can hopefully see, liberalism places a huge premium on liberty, and for good reason.
But That’s Not All!
This post is already too long, but I have barely scratched the surface of this issue and will return to it in time. But a few things remain to be said.
Liberalism with its focus on personal liberty is not the only political philosophy to do so of course. But I hope to show over time why liberalism is distinctive.
Liberalism and liberals tend to (should!) be automatically more distrusting of the absolute power both of corporations and private power, but also crucially of state power, and for reasons that should now be fairly obvious. It is why in practice liberal democrats often disagree with left-leaning and Labour thinkers, that we think reach too quickly for state power in their desire to achieve positive outcomes.
Liberalism is decisively NOT libertarianism, a tempting siren-like and superficially attractive doctrine, that turns out to be completely false, selfish and falls apart under the gentlest of analytical scrutiny.
Over time, some formidable thinkers have applied their minds to the positive element of liberty, and see it as imposing substantial duties on governments and societies to help people achieve their life plans. Others will know more than me, but if you are interested then the work of Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum and of course John Rawls, are instructive. See for example the capabilities approach.
Finally…What About Equality?
Many people labour under the (false) impression that liberals and liberalism is all about an obsession with personal freedom- the right to take drugs, or engage in protest or be free from invasion of civil liberties like governments secretly reading your emails. It is of course those things, but it is more much. Being liberal does not mean being libertarian, and it definitely does not mean placing the individual above all else, in a sad, floating, atomised existence divorced from society. Liberals place important on community.
But the most important thing to say is that modern liberalism (or at least the most convincing version of it for me) treats equality as equally important. it does not only have an interest in equality, it defines it as a central element of its thinking- to the surprise of many. So it is to equality and why it matters that I must turn in the next edition of this blog.
(1) Wikipedia- ‘Liberalism’ Accessed 7th January 2017
(2) Edmund Fawcett ‘Liberalism- The Life of An Idea’ Princeton University Press 2014 ISBN 978-0-691-15689-7
(3) Wikipedia- ‘On Liberty’ Accessed 7th January 2017
(4) Wikipedia- Two Concepts of Liberty 7th January 2017