Opinion: Rediscovering our lost sense of liberty

We are very fortunate to be apart of this nation. It’s traditions and values are, to an extent, admired across the world. From the birth of the Magna Carta 1215, De Montfort’s Parliament of 1265 and the Bill of Rights 1689, the concept of freedom and individual liberty has been a source of inspiration. As Prime Minister Lloyd George once said, “Liberty is not merely a privilege to be conferred; it is a habit to be acquired”.

But that liberty has been forsaken, forgotten, to a previous age. There is a reluctance to even consider the prospect of a government ever truly promoting liberty once again. Globalisation has significantly expanded economic liberalism, but the international institutions fail to protect the most common minority on Earth – the individual. Economic prosperity of free markets are fundamental to the human development, but I do suffer from prolonged ambivalence and scepticism towards globalisation.

Conservatives can articulate arguments against the European Union, which I do share on principle, but freedom from Europe would not necessarily guarantee prosperous individual sovereignty within our borders. The arbitrary supremacy of the state is the main inconvenience for the expansion and capacity of liberty in this country; too many people feel the state is a benevolent agent, when it is quite the opposite. Health and education is still dominated by state monopolies, denying the individual to any choice possible. Liberals have a duty to ensure people can make a decision-for themselves-without any form of coercion from the state or their fellow citizens. It is not the responsibility of the government to enforce whether or not that decision is correct; it is solely down to the person make the conscious choice.

It might sound basic, or redundant, but liberty is the right to live your life freely, as you please, without causing harm to others. However the risking of infringing on others has lead to the nanny state politics – banning practices, which someone finds offensive or immoral. Tyranny of the majority should be opposed; I believe fox hunting is wrong, but I choose to not participate in the activity; I would never seek to abolish it. When you grant a mandate to the state to define morality, we enter dangerous territory. Let us not forget, the previous Labour government restricted handguns and hunting with dogs (which were popular) but then proceed to curb civil liberties and fundamental rights against the wishes of the electorate. As liberals, we are anti-privilege and will not grant the state authority to provide solidarity to any association or individual. Whether its the media, corporations, unions, etc the state provides one law for all to abide by – it does not seek to choose sides. This switching of allegiance has lead to the corrosion of individualism in this country. Individual liberty, over the past 50 years, has discriminated against the many and been transferred to a few.

And this is the problem. We’d rather allow the state, not ourselves, to make the everyday mundane choices in life. Promoting individual liberty does not equate to despising government and advocating demolishing the state to its foundations – far from it. The Coalition’s decentralising scheme is admired and welcomed, but needs to define a far greater agenda. Britain needs to become a nation where the people, not the state, takes responsibility for their actions and consequences. As a US President once said, “We are a nation that has a government—not the other way around”.

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18 Comments

  • John D Salt 3rd Oct '11 - 4:16pm

    I agree with all the sentiments expressed. On a point of information, though, recall that it was Major’s Conservative government that banned most privately-owned handguns, having commissioned and then ignored the Cullen report.

    The anti-freedom instincts of the Conservatives can be just as strong as those of New Labour.

  • There is a little too much of the ‘good old days’ rhetoric in this for my taste. Are you really saying that there was a time sometime in the past where people had more liberty than we have now?

    I sincerely doubt it – at least not if you don’t merely think of grand principles, which would usually only apply to men of the very small top tear of society, but look at the actual application. If we think of liberty as a common good for a whole society, men, women, any social class, background, etc, I would guess that there hasn’t been more of it around at any point in history than we have now.

    All in all, the kind of liberty I want is well described by “a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”. From your rather nostalgic first paragraph (but from the rest of the article as well), I assume that your sense of what liberty means is a lot more concerned with the principle of liberty than with the idea that liberties should be extended to as many as possible (which is, on the whole, not possible if you don’t also seek to extend opportunities).

    Personally, I am always rather suspicious of any rhetoric which conjures up ‘good old days’ imagery, because it is almost always historically inaccurate because it simply forgets about the silent majority.

  • Malcolm Todd 4th Oct '11 - 12:09am

    Well said, Maria.

  • Tom Papworth 4th Oct '11 - 2:32am

    Good article, Daniel.

    @Matt B: I’m not sure I like the term “The right to liberty”. I can’t tell whether it’s a tautology or an oxymoron! On the one hand, it seems to be saying “the right to have the right to”, while on the other it conflates rights (which are granted) with liberties (which are inherent).

    “the right to take responsibility for yourself and to choose the kind of life you want to lead, … for everyone but the very rich this is a meaningless idyll”

    That’s a bit of an exaggeration, isn’t it? For everyone but the very rich? “Very rich” is a loose term, of course, say, for argument, you were referring to the top decile, you’d be suggesting that 90% of the population does not enjoy freedom. To put it mildly, I think you overstate the case.

    I would also note that you are arguing the positive liberty case, but even so you are confusing the language. Positive liberty isn’t about the right to take responsibility/choose, but the means to do so.

  • As has already been said,”the right to live your life freely, as you please, without causing harm to others” is not enough. This taken alone can be used to argue against taxation and indeed any sense of duty towards fellow human beings whatsoever. The truth is that we will only achieve a society in which most of us would want to live if we adopt the “no man [or woman] is an island” approach as well as arguing for individual liberty. The balance of this and the optimal role of the state and local authorities is a constant matter of debate and often is the essence of the lines drawn between political parties. As Liberal Democrats we must be for liberty and society – for freedom and fairness.

    Incidentally for all its faults and weaknesses I agree with Daniel that ” We are very fortunate to be a part of this nation.” Like the late (and great) Frank Sinatra I think “It’s very nice to go travelling but it’s oh so nice to come home” He meant the USA. I mean the good old UK.

  • What this article fails to recognise or acknowledge is that economic deprivation places far greater constraints on individual liberty than the British government has for centuries. True lack of liberty in this country is suffered by the poor, and is the result of lack of economic opportunity, not government repression. No-one wants an authoritarian government, but that doesn’t mean we ignore the single greatest factor contributing to the restriction of liberty.

  • Daniel Furr,

    The problem with your thesis is that you conflate the presence of as many possible options to choose from with actual liberty. The notional possibility of choosing from a variety of health care providers does not promote liberty at all. Freedom from illness promotes liberty. To claim that a state monopoly on the provision of health care works against liberty is simply false. It has at it foundation the concept that good health is a lifestyle choice rather than an essential pre-requisite to the living of a life with the maximum possible liberty for the individual. The state monopolisation of health care, as you call it, has provided liberty to more than any other previous or newly proposed system. The claim that it has restricted the choice of individuals is also false. There are and have always been private alternatives to the NHS, choosing them has simply not made sense for most people. The reason that it has not made sense is that the relevant reason for seeking or distributing health care is poor health, maximising choice assumes the relevant reason is something other than poor health, it is free choice. Few people would prioritise choosing health care providers over good health as a fundamental component of their liberty. Furthermore maximising choice and breaking of the ‘state monopoly’ is not about maximising the liberty of all it is about providing more options for those who would consider the circumstances of their health care to be representative of their lifestyle choices and therefore their fundamental freedom. This represents a direct restriction of liberty for most.

    Choice in education is not representative of extending liberty. As for the rest of your analysis you confuse the prevalence of choice with liberty. The error is twofold in terms of education as the choice pertains to individuals, i.e. parents, whose liberty is not subject to the choice being made, i.e. children, or more accurately the adult that the child will become. The premise of such a position is that an individual can not be free unless all options exist, whether or not the existing options are available to all, yet the individual who is the subject to that choice is not at any time able to choose. The liberty of the adult that a child will become will be in large part be determined by the choices that parents make in education. The wider the range of options that are available to parents the more likely it is that parents will make a bad choice for their child and thus the liberty of that future adult will be restricted, (I refer you to Philip Larkin on parents and suggest that offering more possible routes for parents to have such an effect might not be such a good thing). Those who happen to make good choices for their child will gain greater liberty for their child but at the expense of the fair share of liberty that those whose parents made bad choices have lost. The difference in the dichotomy between state education and non-state education is not between liberty and the nanny state, it is between those who wish to restrict their efforts on behalf of their child’s education only to their particular child and those who wish to have the progress they make extended to all. Liberty will not be truly promoted in the education of children unless the individual needs of the child to grow into an autonomous individual are met. Parental choice between individual schools is as likely to get in the way of this as it is to promote it.
    The solution to this is to change the nature of teaching not the system of schooling. That is, to make the teaching of individual children more responsive to the capabilities of the individual child, which would require the greatest possible diversity within each school, rather than the widest diversity of types of school being left to the prejudices and foibles of parents to choose between. You state that liberals have a duty to ensure that individuals can make decisions for themselves without any form of coercion from the state or other individuals, yet you argue that the state providing that possibility is a restriction of choice and therefore liberty. If such a duty can be fulfilled it is the duty of the state to ensure that the individual predilections of parents are not permitted to restrict the ability of children to grow into autonomous individuals fully capable of accessing their full range of liberties.

    Your assertion that the last 50 years have seen a discrimination against individual liberty in favour of the few is simply wrong. The choice of “50 years” is obviously intended to cover a time period that coincides mostly with the existence with the welfare state in support of your thesis that it is the ‘nanny state’ that is responsible for this serfdom we all suffer. The truth is somewhat different. The welfare state based on contributions was far different from the safety net version that 30 years of economic liberalism and social individualism have engendered. Individual liberty from the end of the second world war until 1979 was massively increased. The actions of governments since then have restricted individual liberty by removing the bases of achieving autonomy that were made available to the masses up until that point. The ending of the contributory principle of the welfare state and replacing it with the safety net approach has led to a dependency culture that was not seen before. Restricting the access to social housing to those most in need rather than the provision of an alternative choice for all has discriminated against the actual liberty of the individual in favour of the notional liberty that choice represents. The undermining of the individual right to join with others in order to fight for justice in the work place has restricted the liberty of the weak in favour of the strong. The theoretical removal of the state from picking sides is fantasy. In most cases the refusal to pick one side is actually the choosing of the other as has been the case with anti-union legislation.

    That the state should be prevented from restricting civil liberties is true but your choice of examples again show that you are more concerned with choice than liberty. The democratic decision to ban fox hunting was akin to the banning of bear baiting, hare coursing, badger baiting, bare-knuckle boxing, cock-fighting etc. The outlawing of this option for leisure is an infringement of liberty and represents governmental interference in morality only in the way that any law restricting the undesirable or harmful choices of the individual, (e.g. looting, assault and battery or any of the ‘sports’ previously mentioned), can be considered as infringing legitimate liberties. In the terms you argue it would seem that you think that liberty and therefore liberalism is not in fact compatible with democracy. It was on the news that marches were banned in five London boroughs for the whole of September in order to prevent the EDL from gathering, wouldn’t that have been a better example of the restriction of civil liberty than the choices an individual has to pursue in their leisure time?

    At the root of your thesis; that we have become overly dependent upon the state and are not willing to take responsibility for our actions, may have some basis in truth but your opinion that it is the nanny state that has encouraged this is wrong. The nanny state is not the leader in this course of events it is the follower. The state along with most institutions, organisations and companies have engaged in rule making in order to cope with the increasing levels of feelings of entitlement being promoted in our individualist atomised world. The schools must restrict the behaviour of children because any accident will be litigated; as do companies, hospitals, councils and any other organisation that takes responsibility for the safety of others. Individuals seek to blame others and individualism tells them that an other must be to blame and that compensation is to be sought. The less that the state provides in terms of health care, welfare provision and education the more that individuals will seek financial redress for their misfortunes and that will continue to result in rising levels of rules, regulations and restrictions of civil liberties in order to prevent the state, corporations, social organisations or any other group or body of people being held to have failed in their duty of care. The risk aversion of our society is a direct result of the removal of the communal protections provided by the state over the past 30 years forcing individuals and the state to cover their backs rather than be open to the claims of entitlement of individuals.

  • Tom Papworth,

    Rights are not granted, they are inherent. It is when our rights are infringed that our liberty is curtailed. This is why so many choose to describe their desires and choices as rights and why many choose to describe or characterise our rights as choices. So we end up in a situation where choice in where one wishes to receive education or health care is dressed up as a right and the actual receipt of it is redefined as something that we should take personal responsibility for and suffer the consequences of not having done so correctly, in other words as a lifestyle choice.

  • @Geoffrey Payne

    “My grandparents remember a time before we had the NHS, and they tell me that things are much better today.”

    One of the problems with such a comparison is the scale of medical advances that have been made since pre-NHS days. The creation NHS coincided with the era of affordable antibiotics, which have saved the lives of both my mother and myself. Pre-antibiotics, my father would have been widowed shortly after my birth and I would have died of acute appendicitis at 16, remembering a time before the NHS is also to remember things like this.

  • Prateek Buch,

    Just to clarify a point; it is the responsibility of the state to ensure that our rights are not infringed. So if positive liberty is accepted to be valid then it must be on equal terms with negative liberty. So just as it is the responsibility of the state to ensure that individuals are protected from others expressions of power it is also then responsible for ensuring that each individual equally has the capability of agency. This is not possible simply through pooling of resources it necessitates redistribution. Just as it is seen as uncontroversial to redistribute for the provision of protections of negative liberty i.e. through taxation to fund the legal system, armed forces, fire and police services, it should be uncontroversial to redistribute to fund positive freedoms through welfare, health, unemployment insurance, housing and job opportunities.

    If positive liberties are considered rights then there needs to be more than simply an enabling and empowering state (I’ll leave locally accountable aside if you don’t mind as it’s more of a party political point than a philosophical one), there needs to be mechanisms to ensure that positive liberties are not infringed by the actions of others or that if such occurs then there is a rebalancing to counter it.

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