Study Notes

Freedom / Liberty (Liberalism)

A-Level, IB
AQA, Edexcel, IB

Last updated 2 Jun 2020

The essence of liberalism is the pursuit of individual freedom.

Naturally, this comes with an important caveat. Expressing our own personal liberty must be exercised with a degree of responsibility. We have a duty that our actions should not harm others or limit the freedom of others. The individual should therefore avoid those actions that are detrimental to others within that society. Thus, in a practical sense, it is permissible to hold illiberal thoughts provided they do not lead towards behaviour inconsistent with liberalism. Within a liberal society, we are free to post and upload what we like on social media provided we do not in any way violate another’s freedom.

The freedom of the individual lies at the fulcrum of liberal ideology. Liberalism is at heart an ideological movement that seeks to extend rights for all. Once again, this comes with a caveat to consider. Most importantly, individual rights should only apply to rational and responsible human beings. As such, children are not entitled to be in possession of full rights. Following on from this, the unborn foetus cannot be said to possess the right to life. The liberal position is therefore pro-choice rather than pro-life. Liberals also seek to empower the disadvantaged regardless of their circumstances of birth. This may take the form of anti-discrimination laws and positive discrimination.

Liberals also seek to provide the widest possible expression of thought, association and lifestyle available. Liberalism seeks to open people’s minds to new and exciting possibilities. It often challenges conventional wisdom and seeks the emancipation of the individual from outdated conventions. It asks us all to think differently and more deeply about the most appealing pathway in life. In doing so, we all benefit from the promotion of innovation, creativity and self-realisation. Significantly, a liberal society is no sense constrained by dull conformity or outdated notions of ‘proper’ behaviour.

Finally, all liberals believe that the capitalist system represents the fullest expression of individualism. This is because the marketplace is based on the fundamental liberal principle of free choice. In the words of the classical economist Milton Friedman we should possess the “freedom to use the resources we possess in accordance with our own values.” Liberals also favour capitalism as it enables economic agents to maximise their utility. Furthermore, the capitalist system is more efficient in terms of allocating scarce resources than any statist alternative. Social liberals such as John Maynard Keynes are however more favourable towards state intervention to correct market failure. That said, the original intention behind Keynesianism was to save capitalism from its seemingly imminent collapse.

It is important to note that freedom can be defined in two distinct ways. Isaiah Berlin (1969) proclaims that positive liberty is based upon the desire “on the part of the individual to be his own master” whereas negative liberty is “the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others.” Berlin’s typology was based partly upon earlier work during the early-nineteenth century from Benjamin Constant who distinguished between “the liberty of the ancients” and “the liberty of the moderns.” The liberty of the ancients meant direct participation in political life, whereas the liberty of the moderns refers to independence from government and the notion of private rights.

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