• Toby Irwin

The Importance of Liberty

Updated: Dec 21, 2018

The terms ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ are often seen as synonymous, with many being unable to discern the two. Generally, I see the former as something that can be limited, which therefore allows the latter to be degraded. As such, your ‘freedom’ can be controlled by a government that thus will then inhibit your individual capacity to be ‘at Liberty’. This is an important distinction and is inherent in everybody’s fundamental rights as an individual human being. The concepts of Classical Liberalism are universally beneficial, though are often misconstrued and incorrectly portrayed as selfish. This is because your personal Liberty is all-encompassing; stretching across the social, political and economic spheres of life.


The Statue of Liberty: New York

The general concept is one fairly understood by everyone in Western societies. Your Liberty is personal. As a result, you can take your own life, but not somebody else’s. You have the right to generate capital, but not if it means seizing it forcefully from somebody else. The sources of this doctrine can be found with the thinking of Thomas Hobbes, who basically defined Liberty as an absence of constraints. This theoretical exploration would suggest that when humans exist together in an environment void of justice, government and authority then every man is equal. Consequently, the weakest man has the capacity to kill the strongest, for all men are equal under anarchy. Put simply, without a government, man can exercise the ‘Natural Right’ of Liberty. Such a system has been impossible since humans group together into societies. The question though that is posed is where does that ‘Natural Right’ go when a government is formed?


It should go without saying that with governance comes the legal institutions to invoke justice and uphold the Rule of Law. Individual Liberty is traded for security within the society one exists within. This ‘Social Contract’ belongs to the works of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau who, though defining authority differently (Constitutional Monarchy and Republicanism, respectively), agree that personal Liberty must be diluted to greater enhance the Freedom of the wider society. For example, in the ‘Social Contract’, one loses the natural right to assault another, but in doing so gains the security of not being assaulted themselves. Crucially then, power is diffused upwards from the natural rights of man, not imposed downwards from a government. As Eamonn Butler explains:


“People give up some of their freedoms to the government in order to maximise their freedom in general. So government has no legitimate powers beyond the powers that individuals have themselves; and the whole purpose of government is to expand freedom, not to restrict it.”


Indeed, Rousseau notes that submission to authority – whether this is in the state of nature or a society – is never wilful and is always out of necessity. In nature, where natural rights dominate, one submits to the strongest because they desire not to bring harm upon oneself. In a governed society, one submits out of fear of incarceration. This arouses the fundamental questions of what role the government must play towards its citizens.


Socially, no government can know what best benefits any of its citizens. Knowledge is, after all, intersubjective and thus so too are the preferences, desires and ambitions of individuals. Individuality must always trump the will of the collective. This is not selfishness, it is an aversion to chaos. Sacrificing private property rights to transfer ownership to the majority only serves to alienate the minority, and consequently sets a new precedent of persecution. One needs only look to history to see how certain governments, believing that they represent the wills of the majority, have abused the powers willingly contracted to them from their citizens. Examples even of recent times conjure images of Hitler’s genocide, Stalin’s purges and Pol Pot’s schemes of mass murder. Classical Liberalism maintains that power will always find a way to be abused. Imagine if today in the United Kingdom an electorate votes to give mass, sweeping powers to the government. This might seem fine, for we live in a liberal democracy and both main parties are moderate. But what is to stop a future administration adopting these powers, and thus abusing them accordingly? Institutions such as private property, free speech, free administration, freedom from censorship and toleration thus provide the means with which a government can be contained.


Economically, this philosophy puts forward that a government has a limited role in wealth creation. A government must have little-to-no intervention in the economy to ensure it remains free. This free-market economy is the best way to create wealth. It relies on the voluntary exchange of capital and property between individuals. This is because the self-interest of person A (say, a farmer needing money) can only be satisfied by the self-interest of Person B (a consumer needing bread). This ‘invisible hand’ concept, as developed by Scottish economist Adam Smith, therefore states that prosperity and wealth are generated without any formal institutions. Invasive state bureaucracies, epitomised with communism, will inevitably fail for they attempt to artificially replace the ‘invisible hand’. As Roger Scruton puts it:


“… those who plan the production and distribution of goods in a great society are trying to achieve the impossible. The plan is bound to interfere with the free relations between people, and thereby destroy the normal and unintended effects of human freedom, economic coordination being one of them”


Edinburgh's Statue of Adam Smith

That all said, where does Liberty find itself today? I believe there is a dichotomy. On the one hand is British and American liberty, and on the other is continental European. In France, and later codified with the EU, there exists a top-down form of Liberty. This is a result of civil law, where the rights of the individual are expressly imposed from above. Edmund Burke recognised this in the French Revolution and rejected it. Liberty, instead, should follow the model in England (and later America) where the rights of each citizen are infused at the lowest possible level; the individual. In England, and later Britain, Magna Carta and the creation of parliament (1215), the assertiveness of parliament over monarch (1642) and primacy of parliament (1688) all placed the rights of the people over that of the government. In France, and later the EU, rights were enshrined in codified documents by literate elites. This geographic split is also evident if we analyse the difference between negative and positive liberty. Negative liberty is about being free from coercion and intimidation to pursue your own objectives. Positive Liberty is the provision of the means to which one can become free. For example, Negative Liberty suggests you have the right to buy a new car, whereas Positive Liberty says that the conditions must be provided for you to do so, as you cannot be truly free if you cannot afford the new car. This is a concept developed by Isaiah Berlin. As has been discussed throughout this article, Negative Liberty comes to be seen as morally superior for it does not rely on provision and intervention from others; or as Butler states:


“positive liberty puts too much trust in the rationality and objectivity of the human authorities. [provision by the government] is patronising to the public, who generally have a much better grasp of their interests than any remote official”


Interventionism by a government, whether this is tariffs or high taxes for its citizens, only ever serves to stifle innovation, entrepreneurism and wealth generation due to its simple constriction of capital exchange. Internationally, free trade must also not be sacrificed to protectionism, for it will shrink the size of the world market. Doing so restricts the specialisation of production, as well as limit the modes of competition which promotes innovation. Declining poverty rates have almost exactly aligned with the expansion of free trade and the removal of trade barriers. Since the early 1980s, the percentage of the world population living on less than $1.50 a day has decreased from 52% to 25%.

This article concludes on a remark from the Adam Smith Institute:


“It is perhaps only when liberty dies that we really grasp its importance. Without liberty we are not free human beings pursuing our own goals and choosing our own lifestyles; we are little more than slaves of the state.”


- Jean-Jacques Rousseau's The Social Contract

- Roger Scruton's Conservatism: Ideas in Profile

- Eamonn Butler's Classical Liberalism: A Primer

- The Adam Smith Institute: A Beginner's Guide to Liberty


At the time of writing, Toby Irwin is a second year student at the University of St Andrews. He is studying Modern History and International Relations. Areas that interest him the most are UK defence strategy and foreign policy.

The student project covering international relations and foreign affairs

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