in Understanding political ideas and movements

Most people have some idea of what the word 'freedom' means, and most approve of it. This chapter examines the term more closely, exploring such themes as freedom of opinion, freedom under the law and economic freedom. It presents brief summaries of the ideas of a number of political philosophers on the subject. The chapter analyses the views of John Stuart Mill and Isaiah Berlin on 'negative' and 'positive' freedom. It focuses on the central issue of freedom and the state, concentrating on three major areas of dispute: conscientious objection, state acquisition of private property, civil disobedience and terrorism. The chapter concludes with some observations on the cultural environment conducive to freedom and reflects on the problems of freedom in the modern world.


  • Why does the term ‘freedom’ have such a strong emotional appeal?
  • Is private property essential to human freedom?
  • To what extent are the writers cited in this chapter agreed as to the meaning of freedom?
  • Are the concepts of positive and negative freedom mutually exclusive?
  • What criteria would you suggest as useful in establishing whether a specific restraint on freedom was justifiable?
  • Does a truly free society demand impossible levels of moral restraint on the part of its citizens?

Forward, you sons of Hellas! Set your country free!
Set free your sons, your wives, tombs of your ancestors,
And temples of your gods. All is at stake: now fight!

(Aeschylus, The Persians, 472BC)

If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. (J. S. Mill, On Liberty, 1859)

Liberty does not carry out each of its undertakings with the same perfection as an intelligent despotism, but in the long run it produces more than the latter. It does not always and in all circumstances give the peoples a more skilful and faultless government; but it infuses throughout the body social an activity, a force and an energy which never exist without it, and which bring forth wonders. (Alexis de Tocquveille, Diary, 25th August 1831)

Everyone is against ‘sin’ and everyone is in favour of ‘freedom’, although neither can be defined so as to ensure agreement on their meaning. From its origins in the Ancient Greek city-states and their democracies, freedom has usually been considered a political ‘good’, good for individuals, organisations and society. ‘Liberty’ or ‘freedom’ has great advantages as a rallying call in politics arising from its opaqueness in popular usage. Freedom seems to mean whatever the speaker wants it to be and can be used to gloss over potential conflicts about a course of policy. Everyone can agree that ‘freedom’ is worth defending only because of its vagueness.

People may not know much about political theory, but they know what they mean by ‘liberty’. Usually, people are only aware of liberty when they are deprived of it in an illegal or unfair manner by the deliberate acts of other individuals. Thus, freedom concerns human relationships and is clearly related to power in its many forms: financial, physical and political. Some people in positions of power will attempt to constrain liberty, usually with appeals to the ‘common good’ or a ‘higher principle’ beneficial to the whole of society or mankind.

For the last two centuries or so freedom and equality, sometimes allied, often opposed, have been the two great horses that pull the carriage of modern politics along. Some critics, usually on the political left, argue that freedom without a greater degree of economic and social equality between people is largely meaningless, as the rich and the powerful can exploit their own freedom to restrict that of the many. Other critics, mainly among classical and neo-liberals and some members on the modern conservative right, argue that freedom is such an important value in society that it must always take priority over equality. One can have freedom, they argue, which might or might not involve greater equality in society as a consequence. However, if equality is pursued as a political goal over all else, then liberty is certain to be degraded and damaged (if not extinguished) as a political ‘good’. Western politics since the French Revolution has been essentially a discourse between these two fundamental concepts in which freedom has generally prevailed.

Freedom: a starting point

It is worth noting that some thinkers identify a difference between ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’. ‘Liberty’ is associated with the type of political system existing in a society, constitutional constraints on state power and guaranteed constitutional liberties. ‘Freedom’, on the other hand, is a looser term, describing both freedom in relation to the state and freedom for individuals in society. For the sake of simplicity we will use ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ as interchangeable terms.

There are many ways in which the concept of freedom is expressed in political discourse. A useful starting point in our exploration of the idea is to introduce a number of these elements:

  • individual freedom;
  • freedom of opinion and expression;
  • freedom under the law;
  • economic freedom;
  • property and freedom;
  • national freedom.

Individual freedom

Individual freedom is the central element in Western liberal political thought and has become part of the political discourse in most nations. This aspect of freedom includes freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to travel. It is linked with the other central element of liberalism (especially in its ‘classical’ form): the minimal state. The state is seen as a potential threat to freedom and its powers and involvement in society should be kept to the minimum levels possible, concomitant with the requirements of law, order and justice.

Freedom of opinion and expression

Most advocates of liberty believe that academic, religious and political opinions should be allowed to compete freely in order for society to solve its problems, to make progress and to function in a healthy way. Freedom of expression is a central tenet of liberal thought: without it no other freedom can exist. Freedom of opinion is associated with attempting to achieve many other ‘good’ political and social goals, such as the pursuit by individuals of a better and richer lifestyle, and attempts by governments to stimulate economic growth, reduce crime and eliminate poverty.

Freedom under the law

One of the most important aspects of freedom in the Western political tradition is that there must be some limits if it is to have meaning. These limits may be the consequence of internal restraint and judgements, freeing oneself from, for example, irrational passions and cravings to gain freedom to pursue one’s ‘true’ goals in life. Some limits are what might be called ‘normative’ constraints. By this is meant the acceptance of social morals, values and customs constraining one’s behaviour. However, almost all discussions of freedom sooner or later have to analyse the concept of freedom under the law. Freedom under the law means that there are areas of social life that are not regulated by self-awareness or moral and customary values and thus require the introduction of law to set clearly defined limits on social behaviour with identifiable penalties for their infringement.

Economic freedom

Economic freedom is the right of individuals and businesses to pursue their economic objectives in competition without undue state regulation and interference in the workings both of businesses and the free market. Owners of businesses, in this light, need to be able to run their companies to maximise profits and growth, to employ staff on flexible terms in line with the requirements of the business. Workers must be able to negotiate contracts related to working conditions and pay, free of government regulations and impositions. Freedom is therefore a vital component in promoting economic efficiency and rationality for the benefit of all in society.

Work and employment form a very important part of most people’s conception of liberty. They play a significant role in creating a source of individual identity and self-image that is important if people are to act freely. A larger income and greater wealth tend to give people a greater sense of practical freedom, and more choices in their lives than the poor enjoy. Freedom without some form of economic dimension is likely to remain merely theoretical, and will not survive if its opponents offer better economic rewards. The hungry and starving will readily give up theoretical freedoms if they can instead be fed.

State intervention in economic relations may be necessary to rectify an imbalance between employer and employees, producers and consumers. For instance, employees may be ruthlessly exploited by their employers; unions may use their industrial muscle to force unreasonable concessions on wages and conditions out of employers; businesses sometimes work together to manipulate the market price for goods and exploit consumers. In practice, therefore, the free market may not work to the equal benefit of all and the enhancement of everyone’s economic freedom. The concept of the ‘greater good’ in society may require laws, rules, controls, regulations and taxes to ensure a greater degree of ‘freedom’ in the ‘market’.

Property and freedom

Property is a vital component in most theories of the meaning of freedom. Essentially ‘property’ can be identified as having two meanings: property in the sense of one’s person and property in the conventional sense of goods, wealth and land.

Individuals own property of their person in its body and capacities. This is the foundation on which persons can expand their potential and powers to maximise freedom. Hence, restrictions on freedom of speech are an abuse of a person’s ‘property’ rights to speak one’s own views. Similarly, imprisonment without trial is an abuse of freedom of property of one’s own body by wrongly restricting the use of it as a means of having freedom of movement. (In Stoic tradition, however, one could claim that a person who is wrongly imprisoned could still maintain his property of freedom of thought and ideas, especially if he has access to books.)

The conventional meaning of the term ‘property’ is of course tangible material goods and wealth. From a liberal viewpoint, if one’s wealth increases, then one’s freedom, in terms of exercising practical choices, also increases. Moreover, the ownership of property by groups, organisations and private individuals acts as a check on the power of the state, thus giving society a greater sense of security. Socialists might add a warning that an over-concentration of wealth in private hands is likely to enhance the freedom of the few at the expense of that of the many.

National freedom

National freedom is connected with the concepts of the ‘nation’ and the ‘state’. The doctrine of ‘national self-determination’, first enshrined in the Versailles Treaty (1919) as a fundamental principle of international society and international law, is the political manifestation of national freedom. According to this doctrine all nations have a right to govern themselves, and for national freedom to have a political reality a nation must be able to govern itself without being dominated or controlled by another nation. This concept of exclusive self-government is the key characteristic of ‘sovereignty’, the most important attribute of a state. Hence, the creation of its own state becomes a desirable goal for a nation seeking its freedom, since the state, once established, will exercise exclusive legal and political rights and powers within the national territory. National freedom, therefore, is expressed and given reality by the existence of the state.

Some major contributors

Freedom is the most popular political and social aspiration of the modern world. However, most political thinkers have tended to take the term ‘freedom’ for granted and have tended to discuss other political ideas such as order, duty, good government, sound political leadership, rather than liberty. It is worthwhile examining freedom as discussed by a number of major political thinkers. A brief survey will give a flavour of the debate.


Plato’s Republic is an attempt to establish the meaning of the term ‘justice’ and identify the characteristics of the ‘good’ state. Plato believed that freedom was bound up with self-discipline and morality. He doubted that the law was able to establish meaningful moral conditions in society without there first being a moral impetus from within people themselves. Nevertheless, he had no objection to the principle of morality being enforced by the law. Without reason and self-discipline, individuals cannot attain freedom, Plato believed, while doubting whether most people possessed these requisite qualities. Freedom certainly did not require the existence of democracy. On the contrary, Plato was keenly aware that the emphasis placed on ‘freedom’, so called by the Athenian democracy, created an ill-disciplined people who, lacking self-control, generated factions, which degenerated into disorder that, in turn, inevitably gave birth to tyrants and dictators. Arbitrary and oppressive government, not freedom, is the defining characteristic of tyrants and dictators and the ultimate consequence of Athenian-style ‘democratic freedoms’.

The Stoics

The Roman Stoic philosophy stressed the possibility of freedom existing within a person’s mind, irrespective of external conditions. Self-discipline and contemplation of life allow even the slave or the prisoner to be free in a meaningful sense. The slave could cultivate habits of thought that enabled him to be free within his mind, whatever his legal status or the physical constraints placed upon him. In the last resort the slave has the choice between obedience and death: such a choice is a statement of freedom.

Niccolo Machiavelli

In the Discourses, Machiavelli argued for a republic as the embodiment of the positive value of freedom. Self-government was essentially the same thing as freedom, although the people enjoying such freedom would, as in the Roman Republic Machiavelli admired, be constrained in their political influence by a range of political and social factors that confined self-government to the wealthy, powerful and educated. Freedom in the sense of self-government did not mean direct democracy as it did in Ancient Athens. In his other major political work, The Prince (1513), Machiavelli glories in the exercise of freedom by the great man, the strong personality, the individual pushing his power and talents to the limit, constrained only by the actions of other men similarly engaged in exercising their freedom to the utmost.

Thomas Hobbes

Hobbes placed ‘order’ and ‘security’ as much higher political goals than ‘freedom’ in his Leviathan (1651). Men had ‘freedom’ in the state of nature, a condition in which government did not exist, but this only led to an appalling state of permanent war of all against all in which only the freedom of the strongest had any reality. Hobbes argued that the creation of the state was a rational response to the excess of freedom previously existing in the state of nature. Freedom was only possible within the order created by the powerful state. Once the state was established, freedom was to be found in the subsequent order and in those areas of life that were not proscribed by the law; this theory is described in modern political thought as ‘negative freedom’. To Hobbes the area of private life that should remain outside some state involvement is remarkably small and, in his view, should remain so. Hobbes was highly resistant to the idea that freedom was consequent on self-government and democracy: a democracy would swiftly slide into the violence and chaos of the state of nature and with such a disaster freedom would be extinguished.

John Locke

Locke, in Two Treatises on Government (1690), declared that the law is the means by which liberty is defended and enhanced. He believed that government should be regarded as the servant of the people and, as such, an instrument to preserve liberty. The best way to do this is to ensure that government is highly restricted in its functions (essentially to the maintenance of internal law and order, defence against external enemies and the raising of taxes to pay for these two). Freedom in this sense is defined in terms associated with ‘negative’ freedom: all that is not restricted by law is left over for individuals to enjoy. Locke argued that there should be as large an area of private life as possible over which the state has no right to trespass. Indeed, he declared that the right to the greatest possible degree of freedom was second only to the right to life.

Immanuel Kant

Running through Kant’s many works, most notably Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Critique of Practical Reason (1788), Critique of Judgement (1790), is the linking of freedom with making voluntary choices to do good. Kant argues that all men seek to do good and attempt a rational understanding of the universe to discover the goals of life associated with the pursuit of good. Men can call themselves truly free only when their actions are aimed at these goals.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Rousseau argues in The Social Contract (1762) that true freedom lies in obedience to the laws we have worked out for ourselves. This manifests itself in the social contract, which creates civil and political society, and the subsequent ‘General Will’ that creates unanimous agreement to obey the law. Laws are valid when they obey the General Will, and freedom consists in obeying these laws. Rousseau even advocated the use of the power of the state to ‘force people to be free’, if necessary. Rousseau’s concept of the General Will and its relationship to freedom has been the subject of considerable attention and controversy since its formulation. On the one hand, the idea of the General Will is condemned as a fundamental threat to freedom, providing the intellectual justification for totalitarian and authoritarian political regimes, as well as providing ready-made excuses for self-appointed guardians of public morals in the non-political and private sphere of life. On the other hand one might claim that the General Will is merely a complex and convoluted way of identifying a popular constraint on the actions of government and making it accountable to the people.

Henri Benjamin Constant

In his many works Constant formulated his views on many aspects of politics as a French liberal. In his important lecture of 1819 Constant identified the considerable differences between what he called the ‘liberty of the ancients’ and the ‘liberty of the moderns’. The liberty of the ancients rested upon slavery and warfare, and was restricted to citizenship and taking part in the deliberations of the assembly. Constant claimed that this form of liberty did not guarantee the rights of the individual. Indeed, ancient liberty was essentially a form of privilege of the free man over the slave. In contrast, liberty of the moderns guaranteed individuals equality before the law and also their freedom to pursue their own interests. Constant used this theory to challenge Rousseau’s idea of the General Will. In his view the liberty of the moderns was the basis of representative government. The state existed to protect the private interests of the individual.

Karl Marx

Freedom, to Marx and his followers, is not possible under capitalism. The highly exploitative capitalist system reduces both the working class and their capitalist exploiters to a level of servitude to the system. Those who control the means of production may have somewhat greater freedom than those who merely sell their labour to scrape a living, but bourgeoisie and proletariat alike possess a freedom reduced to mere work and consumption. Some modern Marxists claim that capitalism is even more inimical to freedom than it was in the nineteenth century when Marx analysed its workings. Contemporary capitalism, so modern Marxists argue, enslaves workers by means of ideological indoctrination, making them compliant to a progressively more exploitative system. Contemporary workers in capitalist societies have been enslaved with ‘chains of gold’: the material trappings of consumer capitalism have hidden the raw nature of exploitation to some degree, but capitalism is still inimical to the development of human potential in a condition of true freedom.

John Rawls

Defending social democracy in A Theory of Justice (1971), John Rawls argued for liberty in an unequal society. He stated that every person has a right to the greatest possible liberty concomitant with the same degree of liberty allowed to others. Liberty is defined in rather narrow terms: freedom of speech and movement, and participation in the democratic system. Rawls also stressed the importance of each person having adequate material resources to enjoy their liberty. He did not argue for material equality, only the existence of sufficient material resources for all. To Rawls, freedom, not equality, is the paramount priority in politics. Freedom must not be sacrificed in order to achieve a higher degree of material equality. Nevertheless, Rawls argued for the existence of a welfare state to ensure that the poorest in society have the resources to attempt to achieve their greater freedom.

Mill and Berlin: two key thinkers on liberty

We propose here to discuss some of the issues of liberty in relation to the ideas of John Stuart Mill and Isaiah Berlin. We will offer just a few pointers to their contribution to the debate on the meaning of freedom.

John Stuart Mill

Mill’s On Liberty (1859) is quite rightly regarded as one of the classical studies of freedom and liberty in society. His ideas are particularly associated with concepts of ‘negative freedom’. Mill claimed freedom was the basis for moral improvement of individuals and society, for truth to be discovered and for originality and genius to develop to the full. Freedom of choice allowed men and women to judge what would make them happy, and only individuals, not the state (however enlightened), could know what makes them happy.

Mill, like most nineteenth-century liberals, perceived a considerable threat to freedom from the growth of a mass democracy. Individuals were entitled to a private sphere in which they were able to act and think as they saw fit, one which would serve as a great buttress against public opinion and the much-feared ‘tyranny of the majority’. Mill made a distinction between actions that affect only oneself, which do not justify restrictions on them, and actions that affect others, which may need to be restrained by other individuals and/or the state:

the sole end for which mankind are warranted individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do so or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right.There are good reasons for remonstrating with him,or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to defer him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own mind and body, the individual is sovereign.1

This may seem a very clear-cut distinction. But it is extremely rare that one’s actions do not have an effect on others. For example, suicide may be thought the ultimate act of individual freedom; whatever other constraints exist on one’s freedom one retains the power of deciding to take one’s own life; no other individual will be injured. However, family, friends and the social networks in which the individual exists will be deeply affected by a person’s suicide. Smoking, to give another example, may damage only one’s own health, but does drain health service resources that might be used elsewhere, so smoking cannot be considered in isolation from the social consequences of one’s actions.

To Mill, constraints on individuals are only justifiable if they are needed to protect others from harm. What is immediately apparent is the problem of defining the nature of ‘harm’. Sometimes the definition of harm is so wide that it can be used to excuse any constraint. Most pornography, blasphemy and film violence for entertainment may not involve harming others directly, but one might claim that long-term harm to individuals and society arises from lack of restraint in these areas. Freedom must, to Mill, involve not infringing the rights and freedoms of other people. Indeed, all Western democracies are founded on this principle, although the problems of its practical application are the stuff of modern political debate.

Although Mill’s concept of liberty has been very influential throughout the English-speaking world in particular, and Western democratic societies in general, its universal validity is open to doubt. Severely disciplined societies can also nurture love of truth, integrity and individualism, as witness Ancient Sparta, Medieval Islam and Calvinist Switzerland during the sixteenth century. One must point out that the concept of individual freedom is a rather modern one. Few people before the nineteenth century would have defined freedom in terms used by Mill or modern liberals.

Isaiah Berlin

In Two Concepts of Liberty (1958) Isaiah Berlin took up the long-standing ideas of ‘positive freedom’ (or ‘freedom to’ act) and ‘negative freedom’ (or ‘freedom from’ external restraint).

Positive freedom

This entails people having a choice about their actions. Usually what we choose to do is what we want to do, but this is not always the case as choices may be determined by internalised attitudes to social duties, what is the right thing to do, linked with freedom of conscience. Hence, a very strong component of positive freedom is the idea of humans being able to strive to reach their full potential. Positive freedom implies individuals’ capacity to assert their individuality by means of reason. To enhance their opportunities, education is vital; the state may give poor people financial and other aid towards this end, as late nineteenth-century New Liberals, and modern liberals and socialists have advocated.

Positive freedom reflects the desire of the individual to use his/her own power and reason to assert themselves against the mass of other people, to stand out, to strive to achieve their full potential. Self-discipline is a key element in this view of freedom, involving the suppression of aspects of one’s character that might interfere with the achievement of the higher self. Positive freedom involves testing one’s own limits and the constraints society places upon one. Successful people in all walks of life see freedom in such terms and not in the rather uninspiring negative form of being simply left alone.

However, positive freedom does have its detractors. Those individuals who are able to achieve their higher self by assertion of positive freedom are often unsympathetic to others who, for whatever reason, are unable or unwilling to pursue a life devoted to self-discovery. All too often positive freedom enables the few to develop iconic status and dominate others. History is littered with oppression and coercion inflicted by people who claimed to have achieved their ‘higher self’ above those they deemed to be ‘inferior’. The positive freedom of the few may involve the extinction of the freedom of the many as the history of nationalism, communism, fascism and religion demonstrates.

One might argue that the libertarian pursuit of power and success, associated with the concept of positive liberty, is fundamentally immoral as it inevitably involves the assertion of the power of some people over others. One might, however, counter that positive freedom does not involve such crude forms of self-assertion. Positive freedom when exercised with reason can liberate people from the pursuit of tawdry baubles to pursue a ‘higher self’ and goals that do not involve mere pomp and display.

Negative freedom

This is a view of freedom particularly strong among English philosophers. Liberty cannot be unlimited; law and custom set limits to freedom and give it shape and meaning. Negative freedom is usually defined as the absence of restrictions, usually legal, on one’s freedom to act. Restrictions on freedom must, in this view, be human restrictions and not the consequence of some natural incapacity or inability to achieve a goal. Under ideas of negative freedom people are free to do whatever they desire so long as there is no law or widely accepted standard of public behaviour forbidding them, but laws and customs must exist to provide some framework within which liberty might be enjoyed. Liberty should be for all and not just for a few.

Negative freedom is not in itself a ‘negative’ concept in that it is ‘bad’; it entails the absence of legal or other restraints on choices of action. Law, for example, enhances the liberty of individuals by protecting them from infringements of their liberties by others. The ‘minimal’ or ‘caretaker’ state exists as the main means by which negative freedom is upheld. The state, according to this view, has no business in laying down frameworks of state education and welfare benefits, as they undermine the freedom which all individuals have to decide their own destiny and to make their own choices. Reduction of social disadvantages, as under positive freedom, does not enhance freedom but may undermine it by giving too much potential and actual power to the state.

People, under negative freedom, have the right to choose options. They must have as large an area of private life, free of state control or influence, as is concomitant with public order and this should include freedom of religious views and opinion, freedom of expression and freedom over property. These areas should be as free from state interference as possible, as they constitute what humans cannot give up without offending against the essence of human nature.

Some have argued that negative liberty is rather unsatisfactory as an ideal of freedom. ‘Freedom from restraint’ lacks the inspiration that positive freedom can offer to the poor and oppressed to expand their human potential. One could argue that even some kinds of tyranny might be compatible with negative liberty: a liberal-minded despot may allow his oppressed people to have large areas of freedom within the private sphere, so long as they obey the state.

The ideas of positive and negative freedom are not mutually exclusive. Their practical application to the affairs of society should ensure that freedom becomes more than a theoretical construct.

Freedom in relation to the state

Freedom is related to the concept of the state. Liberals regard the state as an institution that represents and defends its members. There should not be any essential conflict between a state and its individual members, but liberals are particularly suspicious of state power and its potential threat to the freedom of the individual. They perceive a fundamental tension and possible conflict between the individual and the state.

British liberal Herbert Spencer, in Man Versus the State (1884), doubted that there was a universal conflict between the individual and the state. Spencer believed that one can identify particular conflicts and that the intensity of conflicts between individuals and the state may vary over time and from country to country. Freedom is associated with the development of a democratic state. The more democratic a state the more opportunities exist for individuals to influence its policy outcomes and, consequently, the greater the freedom existing within society. Democratic states should thus seek to reduce the sources of grievance or hostility within society to ensure good government, while providing the maximum degree of freedom in society. Ultimately, however, the state has coercive power over all other sources of power in society and is in the supreme position to dominate its members and to infringe their liberty.

There will always be points of conflict between the state and the individual which raise issues of freedom. Citizens have recourse to law and the courts to defend freedom in relation to the state and the rule of law. However, political struggle determines the effectiveness of the rule of law in society. Politics creates the kind of political culture in a society, the effectiveness of the rule of law, and the commitment to freedom among its citizens. Anarchists, for example, argue that the state has no right to interfere with individual liberty, while fascists, on the other hand, claim that individuals can only know true freedom when they identify their individual interests with the state. These are two extremes in the debate on individual liberty. Most political debate on this issue falls between these two positions. The greater good of the community may require that some individuals make sacrifices, sacrifices that are imposed by the state. Some such issues associated with freedom and the state can be addressed in the following examples:

  • conscription and conscientious objection;
  • state acquisition of private property;
  • civil disobedience and terrorism.

Conscription and conscientious objection

In wars of national survival the state claims the right to conscript its citizens into the armed forces, train them and expect them to fight and kill for the greater good of the citizens of the state. Many states claim that citizens should be expected to serve some time in the armed forces as a natural obligation of their citizenship. After all, so the argument goes, the liberty of the individual depends on the effective functioning of the state as the defender of its citizens against their external enemies. It is reasonable, therefore, for citizens to be prepared to participate in the defence of the state and undergo military training to do so.

Western states are steadily giving up conscription. Most allow non-participation in the armed forces on conscientious and religious grounds. Citizens who object on principle to training to fight and kill are usually accommodated in some manner, but it does not exempt them from some form of non-military national service. Conscription is in one sense a clear infringement of the principle of individual freedom. It can be argued, however, that freedom involves responsibilities and recognition of obligations to one’s society, the society that instils ideas of freedom within us and provides the means by which freedom can be expressed.

State acquisition of private property

Private property, especially among Western liberals, is considered a vital element in advancing and protecting freedom against dangers from state power. However, property is not entirely free from state control or state takeover. The principle of private property does not preclude the state from acquiring private property, by compulsion if necessary. Advocates of freedom argue that four fundamental requirements need to be met for such state action to be acceptable: first, that the property is essential for the achievement of common goals for the good of the whole community, such as the acquisition of land in wartime for air bases and training camps or the state control of vital industries; next, that the desirable goals are achievable only by acquisition of this property; thirdly, that the property acquisition process is clearly enshrined in law for all to see and, if necessary, challenge; finally, that the owner of the property will be compensated for its loss and will have first chance to retrieve the property when it is no longer needed by the state. Nevertheless, there is the fundamental assumption in most ideas of liberty that, all other things being equal, the vast bulk of private property will remain in the hands of private individuals and companies.

Civil disobedience and terrorism

Generally speaking, most theorists on freedom accept that there will be circumstances in which individuals might be justified in challenging the state by recourse to methods that are outside the usual structures of the political process. Civil disobedience and terrorism are usually seen as being appropriate only in societies that are not democracies and lack peaceful and deliberative means of changing law and policies.

Even democracies, however, act at times in some way that suppresses the interests of minorities. Civil disobedience is an assertion of the freedom to protest about issues that are being neglected or rights that are being abused. Civil disobedience can involve the refusal to pay taxes, deliberate flouting of the law and other acts designed to demonstrate opposition to a particular policy. As a political strategy, civil disobedience is intended to raise the public profile of an issue of concern by seeking publicity and highlighting where, in the view of the protesters, the government has gone wrong. Those involved in civil disobedience are aware that they are likely to be breaking the law by their campaign. Indeed, a trial is often sought by campaigners as a platform to gain further publicity. However, governments may choose to ignore the activities of those involved in civil disobedience as of little import, unless the campaigners move towards more violent tactics.

Where civil disobedience has had most impact as a defence of liberty is when it has been attuned to the aims and objectives of large numbers of people. Perhaps the most effective example of campaigning civil disobedience in pursuit of freedom is that organised by Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian Congress Party for national freedom during the 1930s and 1940s. However, one might doubt the effectiveness of such campaigning if civil disobedience had been directed against a regime other than the British Raj. Civil disobedience campaigners in Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia were somewhat ineffectual in defending freedom against these monstrous regimes. The antinuclear campaign in Western Europe during the late 1970s and early 1980s had civil disobedience elements to it. While it failed to stop the deployment of Pershing and Cruise missiles it did contribute to getting governments to explain their nuclear strategy when they would rather have kept it a matter of state secrecy. The Solidarity Movement in Poland used civil disobedience which eventually helped bring down the corrupt and incompetent communist regime and began the unravelling of Soviet and communist domination in Eastern Europe.

Terrorism is a much more controversial political tactic for achieving freedom. Most people would deny it as a valid means of defending and advancing the cause of freedom, especially in democracies. Terrorism uses violence to influence public opinion and state policy in favour of the interests and goals of the terrorist group. Violence might be directed against the forces of state power, such as the police, the armed forces or civil officials, or it might involve attacking civilian targets in order to create public pressure on the government to change policy to the advantage of the terrorist group concerned. Even when terrorism achieves some or all of its political goals, it severely damages ideas of liberty and taints the democratic process by demonstrating that freedom can be achieved by violent means. After all, if one can bomb and shoot one’s way to the negotiating table with government why should one pursue electoral politics and attempt to persuade voters of the rightness of one’s cause?

Paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland have had an enormous influence on the politics of the Province over the last three decades, arguably more so than democratic political parties. Some, such as Sinn Fein/PIRA and some Loyalist paramilitary organisations, have adopted a ‘bullet and ballot box’ strategy that has paid considerable political dividends in recent years. Both Loyalist and Republican paramilitary organisations claim they are defending the sectarian freedom of ‘their’ people against oppression. Some violent organisations, such as those on the fringes of the animal rights movement, see no need to be involved in any democratic action to pursue their aims and use violence as a principal means of political action.

Political theorists have rightly concentrated on threats to freedom from the state. State oppression, because of its potential to be all-embracing, is the major threat that defenders of liberty have concentrated on challenging. State oppression has sometimes led to revolution that overthrows the oppressive state, proclaims freedom, struggles with chaos and, eventually, establishes an even more oppressive system of dominance. One can interpret the progress of the French and Russian revolutions as a warning that liberty does not always follow the end of a particular form of state oppression. Both sought to liberate people and create freedom for the oppressed majority, and both involved terror, violence and dictatorship and the extinction of liberty (as Plato and Hobbes would have predicted).

Freedom and society

Liberty is associated with being ‘ourselves’, whatever that might be. Ideas of liberty and self-help by citizens derive from their society and from the political culture they have assimilated. If a sense of the importance of freedom is not part of a society’s culture, or is not deeply ingrained in the political mores of citizens and leaders alike, then no amount of talk of liberty and the freedom enshrined in a well-balanced constitution will protect it from the enemies of freedom. One can observe this in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Pol Pot’s Cambodia and a host of tyrannies, large and small, that litter the pages of twentieth-century history.

Defenders of liberty are usually aware that the state is not the only, or necessarily the most important, threat to freedom. Contrary to the strongly held beliefs of liberals, one might identify elements within most of us in favour of compulsion and against liberty. Psychologists often identify the desire to dominate and the oppressive exercise of power as part of human nature; they note the ease with which some people will identify with a group or a leader, abandoning their own judgement. Men in Nazi extermination squads were often family men and good neighbours, loving fathers and kind to small animals, but they committed appalling crimes with little sense of their immorality or their abuse of the lives and freedom of their victims. The cause of National Socialism was their political god. As Max Stirner, writing in the 1840s, rather chillingly stated: ‘Most people are not looking for freedom at all, but for a cause to enslave themselves to.’

Community values and morals may influence the formulation of law, but are not entirely enshrined in law. Normative values such as unpopularity, ostracism and disapproval do have considerable influence over individuals, in some cases a coercive influence. To a considerable degree, such values may be considered important elements in underpinning individual freedom: they establish constraints on individual behaviour that allow other individuals to enjoy their freedom, without recourse to law. However, they can become a source of oppression, imposing restrictions on individual liberty that cannot be challenged in courts of law but are none the less keenly felt. This may be seen in school bullying, the shunning of individuals believed to be somehow ‘odd’ or ‘eccentric’ by their ‘normal’ neighbours, or ‘group-think’ and pressures to conform to the crowd: all are examples of the fundamental fragility of liberty in social groups.

Restrictions on liberty are needed to avoid licence. Constraints are always required in society to ensure the existence of freedom for all. Licence is not the same thing as liberty. Licence is a lack of restraint, an abuse of freedom, a lack of control and proportion in one’s actions. It is a failure to be aware of the ways in which one’s actions affect others (however much they may appear initially only to affect oneself), the consequence of which is the erosion of real liberty. For example, there are desirable social restrictions on displays of emotions such as anger, irritation and love – emotions which do not attract legal sanctions themselves but which can infringe the freedom of others by creating fear or embarrassment. While one might question the motives of campaigners for censorship in the arts and information, one might also question the benefits to society of pornography, violence in film and television, or the idea that swearing is some fundamental expression of free speech. In themselves such actions might be regarded as harmless, but they may corrode standards of behaviour and damage the sense of living in a free and balanced society, where respect for others is an important element in social relations.

Moral and political principles directly determine a person’s attitudes to liberty. One should not confuse liberty of thinking with liberty of talking. The latter can be legally restrained; the former cannot. As we have seen in relation to the Stoics, the development of a strong set of internal moral values can be the basis of freedom. One might be able to be free in one’s own mind even in the most oppressive state and society. However, state and society have many ways in which the private world of the mind can be colonised and ultimately controlled by the values of the oppressor. The neat distinction between the private world of the mind and the public world of society is not today as clear as was once believed. Modern psychology identified the roots of personality, modern totalitarian regimes have demonstrated the political means of control that can be established, and modern advertising techniques mould and manipulate people’s thoughts in favour of values that support capitalist businesses.

A future for freedom

One could easily lapse into despair when one contemplates the crimes and disasters committed in the name of political programmes claiming to be defending or advancing the freedom of this or that group, whether they are individuals, the nation, a religion or a race. Nevertheless, freedom has a way of bubbling up through the cracks of even the most oppressive monolith, with the most ruthless systems of terror and mind control. Luckily for the cause of human freedom its enemies fail because of the very strengths of free societies, the ability to question, criticise, challenge and seek out the best options for social change and experiment, the willingness to change when the facts change. The triumph of Western liberal democracy towards the end of the twentieth century has not ended the need to maintain eternal vigilance to defend the cause of freedom. Perhaps the post-Cold War world has made it even more important that freedom survives in our own societies with the trivialisation of politics and the manipulations of the advertising industry, the impact of business interests on government policy and the political ‘spin doctors’.


Freedom is a popular cause, and, at first glance, an easy concept to grasp. However, as soon as we begin to think of whose ‘freedom’, to do what, matters become more complex. What limits, for example, should there be to freedom of expression? Does personal freedom imply economic freedom? Is private property a precondition of political freedom? A number of political philosophers have been concerned with freedom, among the most important being John Stuart Mill and Isaiah Berlin. Mill propounded a theory of what has become known as ‘negative freedom’, or freedom from external constraints, centred on the principle of the ‘sovereign individual’. In his view the citizen should be completely free to do whatever they want, unrestrained by state or law, with the key proviso that what they do does not harm others. Berlin pointed out that for many people freedom was a mere abstraction, of no relevance to their actual lives. To correct this deficiency, positive freedom has been proposed – that is, the provision by public authorities of the material requirements such as healthcare and education that would enable all citizens to enjoy genuine freedom. Generally speaking, the attitude in the English-speaking world has been to regard the state as the main potential threat to freedom, a viewpoint reinforced by the experience of twentieth-century dictatorships. Left-wing thinkers have usually argued that the state has a more positive role to play in the promotion of freedom.

Freedom remains an issue of contemporary relevance. Areas of controversy include the degree to which the state can legitimately curtail its citizens’ rights; how far the citizen can justifiably resist the commands of the state; and to what degree a free society depends not on constitutional arrangements but on widely shared cultural values and moral principles. For some, the twenty-first century has already witnessed the decisive victory of freedom. Others are less sanguine. They question whether in Western culture liberty is confused with licence. They point to the essential triviality of so many of our so-called ‘choices’. Others aver that multi-national corporations operate virtually without restraint in a worldwide free-trade environment; it is these corporations, not the state, that now most gravely threaten freedom. Finally, modern techniques of propaganda have become so skilled and subtle that a real tyranny of the mind can exist within a superficially liberal democratic society.


1 J.S Mill, On Liberty (1859).

Barker, E. Principles of Social and Political Theory (Oxford University Press, 1961).

Berlin, I. ‘Two concepts of liberty’, in Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford University Press, 1958).

Cranston, M. Freedom: A New Analysis (Longmans, 1954).

Friedman, D. The Machinery of Freedom (Harper and Row, 1973).

Gray, T. Freedom (Macmillan, 1984).

Heywood, A. Political Ideas and Concepts: An Introduction (Macmillan, 1994), pp. 195–224.

Raphael, D. D. Problems of Political Philosophy (Macmillan, 1990).

Ryan, A. (ed.) The Idea of Freedom (Oxford University Press, 1979).


1 Which is the most important in modern societies, freedom, equality or democracy?

2 To what extent is the freedom of individuals in conflict with the freedom of groups?

3 Is freedom only really possible within a free-market capitalist economic system?

4 Is liberty unattainable?

5 ‘Far from inhibiting freedom, state intervention can in fact enhance it.’ Discuss.

6 Which is the best guarantee of freedom, a liberal constitution or a liberal culture?

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Understanding political ideas and movements

A guide for A2 politics students




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